Street Art vs. Gang Injunctions

This is the third in a three part series by the Community Rejuvenation Project on the perpetual criminalization of aerosol culture, the abatement industry and the politics of incarceration. In the last two articles, we address the inflated penalties and intense criminalization of the aerosol movement. This is further demonstrated in the article below. MTA crew has been targeted with the first ever gang injunction against a writing crew, apparently in response to a huge “blockbuster” painted on the walls of the LA River. What’s important to remember is that a group of LA aerosol writers attempted to legally adopt the walls at the LA River. They formed the Friends of the LA River and held an international event where huge portions of the walls were painted by the top aerosol writers from around the world. This project was legally permitted and did not cost the city or county a penny. The writers received some sponsorship from spray paint companies but also brought hundreds of their own cans of paint.

According to the LA Weekly, “on December 18 [2008] the County Board of Supervisors, led by [Gloria] Molina, passed an “emergency measure” ordering FoLAR to whitewash the mural, or pay the bill if the Department of Public Works has to paint it over for them. Molina spokeswoman Roxane Márquez went so far as to call the mural “a public nuisance and a safety hazard,” justifying the board’s invocation of an “emergency.” No serious dialogue was held about the county’s issues with the mural and the artists were not consulted. Early the following year, the massive mural was destroyed by county public works agents.

It is hard to imagine why LA county is pouring its vast resources into a location that a community group had offered to adopt. The LA river walls are located in industrial LA and is far from a public thoroughfare, so the need for such heavy scrutiny appears to be based on the abatement industry’s perpetual need for locations to maintain its relevance. MTA crew’s threatened penalty for their “blockbuster” was $3.7 million. That is enough to  fill the pockets of a lot of abatement workers.

However, the next strange phenomenon in this twisted scenario is the roll of “street art.” Despite its roots in NYC’s early subway movement, street art has moved away from letters and focuses on images. It utilizes stencils and wheat paste. And for some reason, it is not threatening to public officials. The youtube movie below documents the conflict between London based writer, Robbo, and renowned street artist, Banksy. The film may be too long for all readers to watch, but inside it there is documentation of the massive discrepancy between the city’s response to aerosol writing and street art. Two London public workers overtly state that they are instructed to paint out letters but leave the drawings (street art). In the scene, they are painting out letters directly below illegal painted street art, which will remain. Banksy’s work, which has evolved into a million dollar industry in itself, is restored by city workers when it is vandalized, despite being painted illegally. For those who think this is simply a British phenomenon, aerosol writers in Oakland and other US cities have reported having their signatures painted out, while illegal drawings remain. 

It is clear that that city officials harbor a prejudice related to the writing on the wall. MTA’s injunction is demonstrable proof that writers are implicitly associated with gangs, while street artists are not. Remember that gangs have been loosely defined as groups of three or more people, and gang laws are primarily enforced in low income black and brown communities. And its no secret that gangs do write on walls. However, this belief that all writing on the wall is gang related has lead to an inherent prejudice against all works that are spray painted. Just two years ago, Richmond’s abatement mandate was to erase anything labelled “graffiti,” regardless of whether or not the work was permitted or even commissioned by the property owner. Richmond abatement officials ordered the removal a commissioned spray paint mural on San Pablo Ave in 2009. In 2011, they painted over a mural by Gompers High School students, after being informed by their art teacher that it was a school project, which led to a major controversy and calls for reform.

The hysterical demonizing of aerosol writing has been a regular tool for politicians attempting to be tough on crime. Recently elected Barbara Parker proposed a massive increase in penalties as part of her successful campaign for Oakland city attorney. Aerosol writers are an easy target. They don’t vote in a block and may have already been completely removed from voting if they have already been convicted of  a felony through the inflation of removal costs (See part 1 of this series.

The focus on the criminalizing aerosol writers hinders the government’s ability to recognize the important role that they can play in the community. In the 1980s, Philadelphia started a program to redirect young vandals into mural painting. It became the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the city became one of the worlds leaders in mural arts. Groups like the Friends of the LA River can get city-wide involvement and massive volunteers to transform blighted and ignored areas into community spaces and local attractions. LA should know this. It’s aerosol retrospective show at MOCA attracted more attention to the museum than it has had in decades. 

Unfortunately, the vested interests of law enforcement and the graffiti abatement industry, relying on outdated stereotypes and public fear of poor people of color, have put up barricades to real progress. These industries would prefer to perpetuate a society of splotchy blank walls, precisely because this is what allows them to not only stay in business, but actually expand their taxpayer-funded budgets annually. The fact that their approach is not a long-term solution is what allows them to keep working to maintain the status quo. And with all of the attention on young writers, the focus shifts away from departments like Oakland’s Building Services, the subject of a scathing grand jury report documenting corruption in the enforcement of abatement on local property owners.

City attorney Parker’s proposal is actually reinforcing the tainted policy that the grand jury was criticizing. Private property owners will still be responsible for graffiti removal or subject to city removal at their expense. The only difference in the policy is that anyone convicted of vandalism will face increase penalties, be responsible for the costs of the city attorney (an inherent conflict of interest), and that the parents of youth convicted for vandalism will be responsible for the massive fines. 

The L.A. City Attorney’s office has officially pioneered using a gang injunction against graffiti artists it says are tagging up public property.
This legal tool allows prosecutors to bust gangsters just for being gangsters, essentially. Now taggers who crew-up can also be collared just for hanging out together.

This week the office announced that a permanent injunction against a crew called MTA:

The move against Metro Transit Assassins was approved by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge yesterday.

The ruling means that targeted MTA members can’t be caught in public together. At least theoretically. (More on that below).

According to a City Attorney’s statement, the judgement will …

… prohibit the defendants from associating with other members of MTA in public, prohibit them from possessing graffiti tools, and require that the defendants obey an adult curfew. In addition, the members would be liable for substantial money damages and civil penalties.
However, enforcement of the injunction against eight vandals who settled with the city over their public work will be suspended as long as they stay clean, according to the office.

The MTA is behind what was claimed to be the largest tag ever ( — its logo painted on a concrete bank of the L.A. River.

Authorities alleged the crew caused $.3.7 million worth of damage but settled for thousands of dollars in restitution, 100 hours of community service and graffiti removal, and a vow from the defendants not to tag again.

Three of the eight MTA members have already done all of the above and are free and clear of charges if they stay away from the spray cans for five years, according to prosecutors.

In essence, the injunction is a non-issue since the City Attorney’s office won’t use it for now, but it’s a line in the sand for other tagging crews that authorities can now use statewide.

Here’s what Simone Wilson reported on this issue several weeks ago for LA Weekly:

Perhaps the most brazen cop taunt in the history of L.A. graffiti was staged by the crew MTA, or Metro Transit Assassins, in 2008.
Unidentified Metro Transit Assassin members used hundreds of gallons of paint to tag the huge, slanted side of a concrete Los Angeles River bank near the Fourth Street Bridge and 101 freeway with “MTA.” That name, of course, belonged to the wealthy transit authority they were mocking, an agency that has steadily cut the region’s heavily used bus service for poor minorities while pouring billions into far less utilized rail lines for white-collar commuters. The giant, 3-D block letters, thought to form America’s largest tag, were 30 feet tall and a half-mile wide.

No plane, train nor freeway commuter within eyeshot could avoid bearing witness.

The Metro Transit Assassins, even those who did not participate, were punished accordingly.

Because Baca’s underlings couldn’t prove who did it, they rounded up 11 taggers linked to MTA — including rising graffiti artist Smear, who had begun selling his works in galleries — and, supported by L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, built a backbreaking civil lawsuit against them.

Dangling a $3.7 million cleanup cost before them, Trutanich offered the defendants a deal: If they paid off their previous graffiti damage in L.A., did community service and promised to be good, Trutanich would forgive the alleged $3.7 million in damages.

But the young people were in fact agreeing to far more: a watershed settlement that, according to the city attorney’s office, creates the world’s first “tagger injunction.” It can be used much like a gang injunction and opens the door for more such “tagger injunctions” against other graffiti crews.

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