One night last week, I found myself in a bookstore in a nice Los Angeles neighborhood.
It was one of those neighborhoods whose residents probably “don’t get” the San Gabriel Valley — or Whittier for that matter.
Anyway, I was perusing the magazines looking for something to take and read. There were no copies of MAD and my second choice, Pro Football Weekly, was also suspiciously missing in action.
Then I noticed a magazine that stood out among the art and fashion magazines on another rack. I can’t remember the name, but it was devoted entirely to the “art” of graffiti and tagging.
I had to look.
The usual suspects stood out among the photos: New York subway scenes, Amsterdam murals, boxcars on the nation’s rails. I turned to the index and found “Drive-by Shootings.” (I’m sure you get the double entendre). The story devoted itself to decoding the gang graffiti of Los Angeles; marvelling along the way about the artistry of the whole endeavor.
In recent days there’s been tales in the news about these virtuosos.
Like the story of a tagger who uses the moniker “Buket. Police busted “Bucket”, a San Jose State art school grad and Las Vegas convention planner, after several videos cropped up on YouTube featuring the “artist” at work on freeway overpasses and in concrete riverbeds.
One of the most viewed stories on the newspaper’s Web site last week told the story of a man and a teen arrested in Covina on suspicion of taking part in a spree that tagged 22 locations along Azusa Avenue.
A few weeks ago we ran a story about a Baldwin Park tagging crew suspected of involvement in the November slayings of a teen-ager and his father in front of their Downing Avenue home.
Where’s the romanticism in these stories?
Long before I worked in the newspaper business, I sold patio covers and awnings for my then father-in-law. He had (and has) an office on Mission Boulevard in Pomona. I can remember getting mad at the taggers who would occasionally graffiti the building. I thought about ways to intervene, but never really did anything — and never thought of the indecipherable scribbling as art.
That wasn’t the case with Robert Whitehead, of Bassett, or Maria Hicks, of Pico Rivera. They intervened and got dead for the trouble. I’m sure there’s countless similar stories. I know a guy who paints over graffiti for a living and he’s told me that he’s been intimidated by taggers –and even shot at — trying to make one San Gabriel Valley neighborhood a little better.
In Whitehead’s case, he was killed March 6, 2006 trying to stop two gang members from tagging up a neighbor’s wall. During the investigation into the slaying, detectives with the Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide bureau uncovered a suspected connection between the Mexican Mafia prison gang, La Eme, and Whitehead’s alleged killers.
As for Hicks, a 58-year-old grandmother, she was shot to death on a warm Friday night last August after confronting a group of taggers in the neighborhood where she lived her entire life.
That was going through my mind as I flipped through pages deciphering the clever, angular strokes of some guy named “Sneaky” or “Sapo” or “Spooky” or “Snoopy” or “Lil Shooter.” It occurred to me that this might as well be some ivory tower sociologist’s look at a foreign country or the take of a preening self-important East Coast artiste.
Then I got it.
They don’t live here.