Graffiti Artists Help Rub Out Vandalism

INDIANAPOLIS - His nose just inches from the wall, Brad Warner cocks his head and presses the nozzle on a can of spray paint, taking aim at the wall in front of him. With each precise burst, the feathers of a giant bird emerge, covering jumbles of thick, black lines left by previous painters.

Like those leaving their tags, or calling cards, Warner is a graffitist. But in Broad Ripple, a trendy village on the north side of Indianapolis, Warner and his paint are welcome guests.

Warner has joined a new wave of graffiti writers who have taken their once-illegal work and put it to positive use, creating murals to deter unsightly assaults on buildings and along freeways.

Their efforts are turning up from California to Indiana as communities struggle to keep graffiti at bay without breaking the bank.

Graffiti Hurts, a national graffiti education program run by Keep America Beautiful, estimates the United States spends $12 billion a year to remove illegal graffiti. Los Angeles accounts for about $55 million of that, but smaller cities also feel the sting. Baltimore spends about $350,000 on graffiti cleanup each year, while the tab comes to nearly $250,000 in Madison, Wis.

Murals offer a solution that is both cost-effective and long-lasting, proponents say. Artists and businesses often donate talent and supplies, and graffiti writers tend to steer clear of newly painted murals.

"The graffiti writers, one of the main reasons they do it is for fame and recognition, and if someone's out there covering it up, it makes them mad," said Becky Lyons of Keep America Beautiful, based in Stamford, Conn.

Gary "Traz" Juarez likes the shift toward legal graffiti.

Juarez grew up in East Chicago, Ind., where, during the 1980s, he adopted the tag name "Traz" and began using walls and trains as his canvas.

He was never caught. But with age, Juarez's reputation as a tagger became less important than his reputation as an artist.

Now, what began as an illegal hobby has evolved into a successful business for Juarez, 33, and two friends, who in March took their two-year-old art studio public with the goal of promoting graffiti as a legitimate art.

"We have so much love and respect for the art, and we acknowledged that tagging was having a negative effect on our art form," Juarez said.

His CISA Studio, in Hammond, Ind., works on commission, creating primarily graffiti-influenced signs, art and advertising.

"We came up from street to corporate, I suppose," Juarez said.

Matthew Lawrence, 27, is following a similar path.

Lawrence was arrested in 1996 while painting an underpass in Indianapolis. Afterward, he decided that if he wanted to continue writing graffiti, he'd have to find a way to do it legitimately.

"You can only buck the system for so long," he said.

Lawrence founded the Transglobal Urban Art Project in 1999 in hopes of educating the public about graffiti. But once he recognized that he could make money writing graffiti, he and his partners renamed their group the Urban Artist Network and began seeking contract work.

Lawrence now works on commission. He also donates his time, designing murals like one that took shape over Labor Day weekend in Broad Ripple.

The mural is one of several Lawrence has helped create to help area nightclub, restaurant and shop owners frustrated with graffiti writers.

Lori Davis, whose family has owned the Alley Cat Lounge since 1977, says she has noticed an improvement since the first mural appeared in 2001.

"It beats painting the building," she said.

Laura Alvarado, director of outreach for the Indianapolis Art Center, said the new mural "shows the community that there's different forms of art out there."

But Cathy Nelson, graffiti detective for the Riverside Police Department in Southern California, doubts murals will solve the problem. She noted that murals painted along Los Angeles freeways to fend off taggers were later defaced.

"You're gonna find taggers that don't have any respect for that type of thing and don't care," Nelson said.

Associated Press
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