Erasing graffiti requires a persistent attitude (and lots of paint)

What appears to be ugly, indecipherable scribble to most of us is a language unto itself for Lisa Fox. After eight years on the job, Fox, the city employee responsible for painting or scrubbing away much of the graffiti scrawled on Downey's concrete walls and sidewalks, has learned to read the scribble.

Each tag is a calling card of sorts, plastered on block walls, bus benches, light posts and just about every nook and cranny accessible or imaginable.

"Taggers like to mark their territory," says Fox, 46. "Like dogs on their morning walk."

The city employs two full-time workers dedicated to graffiti removal, Fox and Gonzalo Garnica. A part-time employee works weekends and some holidays.

Fox's day begins at 6:30 a.m., when she reports to the public works yard located north of Independence Park. There, inside a tiny office just large enough for two computers and not much else, Fox checks the Graffiti Hotline, which is really just a black, multi-line phone with voicemail that takes reports of graffiti from residents.

Graffiti reports can also be made online using the city's website. Checking the online database on Wednesday morning, Fox sees that one dedicated resident has reported 27 different instances of graffiti along a quarter-mile stretch of sidewalk on Imperial Highway, from Columbia Way to Ardis Avenue.

After divvying up the case load with Garnica, Fox climbs into her paint-splattered Ford F-350 SuperDuty truck, homemade beef jerky at her side, and gets to work.

"I absolutely love my job, I feel like I'm helping people," says Fox as she drives south on Bellflower Boulevard, on her way to an office building whose parking lot had been sprayed with graffiti. "If I can make you feel better and put you at ease, that makes me feel good."

Fox doesn't just paint over graffiti; she also provides peace of mind to residents who are sometimes spooked to spot a fresh piece of graffiti on their property.

"The reality is that only a small percentage of graffiti in Downey is gang-related," Fox says. "I would put it at about 5 percent. The rest are just stupid taggers."

On Fox's truck are a multitude of paints and chemicals. Fox's tools of choice are a 20-ft. paint roller and hot-water pressure washer. (Garnica has a newer truck, purchased about three years ago from Roadline Products. It comes equipped with a paint-sprayer.) Twelve colors are on Fox's truck, but the most used are beige, beige-gray, cement gray and green for Dumpsters. If someone has tagged the wall of a uniquely-colored business, Fox will get a paint sample, purchase paint from the local Sherwin-Williams, and return later.

Fox takes photographs of every tagging she comes across. The photos are uploaded at the end of the day to a database maintained by the Downey Police Department. The photographs help police keep track of the destruction caused by taggers and, in some cases, recover restitution for the city.

When it comes to tagging, no wall is too high, no ledge too precarious. When Johnnie's Broiler was open, its 100-ft. tall "Fatboy" sign was regularly defaced, Fox says. Another popular target is the rooftop of Fallas Paredes, the clothing store on Firestone Boulevard, west of Lakewood Boulevard.

"These kids have taken some serious risks," says Fox, a mother herself.

Fox says she is most busy during the school year, when students will use markers and tubes of liquid acrylic to tag blank walls, sidewalks and mailboxes on their way to and from school. Parks are also regularly hit, as is the parking structure behind the Krikorian Theater.

One maintenance person is in charge of the parking structure, but he can be easily overwhelmed. On Wednesday, the man called Fox for help after the top floor had been decimated by graffiti.

The structure's top floor had been hit hard - graffiti was on the walls, on the floors, on the elevator's walls, on the awning over the elevator and on the staircase. Graffiti was everywhere, though it was apparent that not all of it was new.

"I could be here for a week," said Fox, surveying the damage.

Although Fox wouldn't say it exactly, the downtown parking structure has a not-so-stellar reputation for scandalous dealings, particularly on the top floor. It begs the question: at what point does a property owner become responsible for cleaning up their own building?

In this case, with so much graffiti, Fox could only cover the most egregious of taggings. The hand-written graffiti on the trash can and stairwell would have to wait. "I'm not a painter," she says.

By 10 a.m., Fox had already spent about three hours at only two locations. As she painted over graffiti on one wall, she would spot more graffiti on the sidewalk. It's a never-ending cat and mouse game between Fox and the taggers causing the destruction.

"I get a lot of satisfaction painting over a piece of graffiti that some kid has sprayed in the morning, and by the time he walks home from school it's gone. It sends a message that he can't do that in Downey. "It's like a game for me. I think it's a sickness."

********** Published: February 5, 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 42