On a recent afternoon, I saw a group of teenagers marking up a sidewalk on Fourth Street. It was the first time I spotted vandalism in action in Alhambra — and it made me wonder why I had encountered so little graffiti in my city.
On appearances, Alhambra is a calm, mostly clean, suburban community. What I learned is that a graffiti scene exists locally, but it is kept quiet. While famous artists have grown up here, they tend to take their paints to other parts of Los Angeles because of a combination of a lack of exposure and quick clean-up.
“Anyone who wants to make a name for themselves in graffiti, they’re not going to tag in Alhambra — there’s no point. No one is going to see it,” said Alex Poli Jr, better known as Man One and arguably the most influential graffiti artist to emerge from Alhambra. Tagging is a form of graffiti where people paint their calling card on spots that would get attention. The name of the game is to have your name known.
"People have this stereotype that people who do graffiti come from bad homes, broken homes. For the most part, Alhambra is a nice community," Man One said. The fact that graffiti artists come from the city, he added, "dispels that myth."
Another man familiar with the scene affirmed that there were many people doing graffiti in Los Angeles who are from the area: “Alhambra is not L.A.; graffiti artists take their work towards the Los Angeles area,” said a former local business owner familiar witht the scene, who asked to remain anonymous.
Another possible reason for the relative lack of graffiti in Alhambra is that the city is doing a good job of covering it up. “There really is no point to do it here if it is going to be gone in 12 hours,” the source said. (He did share that one type of graffiti appears to be growing in popularity in Alhambra, as well as elsewhere in Los Angeles: "slap tags” — a tag on a sticker, many of them on U.S. Post Office label stickers. “They are trying to make it look less like graffiti,” he said.)
The city operates a graffiti hotline that residents use to report graffiti, and a system called “Graffiti Tracker” to keep track of all graffiti in public view, according to Sgt. Jerry Johnson of the Alhambra Police Department. Public Works claims they will then have someone out within 24 hours to cover it up. Public Works staff and police officers use cameras with GPS capabilities to upload photos of the graffitiup to Graffiti Tracker’s database. Analysts then review the graffiti. In February, about 25 percent of graffiti in Alhambra was believed to be gang related, according to Sgt. Johnson.
Alhambra’s website describes graffiti as “a physical blight to our neighborhoods that can increase residents’ fears about their safety, reduce property values, and cost the city thousands of dollars per year in removal and clean-up.” The city ordinance code states that it is “unlawful for any person to apply graffiti within the City of Alhambra." It also prohibits property owners from allowing any graffiti in public view to remain visible on their property for longer than seven days. Minors are "prohibited from possessing any graffiti implement on public property. All persons are prohibited from selling or supplying a minor with a graffiti implement.” These measures appear to be having an impact: According to city budget records, in 2008, the city invested in covering 552,976 square feet of graffiti. For 2012, the city has projected only 150,000 square feet in overpaint/ removal.
But not everyone thinks the lack of graffiti is good for Alhambra. For Man One, the illicit art form opened the door to a very successful career. "Alejandro is a world-renowned artist who has traveled everywhere representing Los Angeles as an international ambassador for the arts," Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry said last June, recognizing Man One's dedication to the HeArt Project, an art workshop for L.A. youth. He was also honored for the impact his Crewest Gallery, which was originally in Alhambra, had on Downtown.
Man One believes that graffiti is an artistic outlet that could help other Alhambra youth. "I’ve done I don’t know how many murals in Alhambra Unified School District, for K-8. For food and nutrition programs," he said. "But there isn’t any public art that’s graffiti related and more contemporary." He recalled that when he was growing up in Alhambra, there was an Alhambra Youth Boxing Center where they had painted a whole wall. But was torn down to build the Home Depot on Marengo Avenue. He said that that the City of Alhambra should set aside a sanctioned space for the art as they had once before.
"Alhambra doesn't have anything [graffiti related] that caters to young people," he said, noting that he had done similar projects in schools in Los Angeles. ”They could treat graffiti art like skateboarding and try and help some of the kids and try and create a graffiti park, an art park, where kids could paint legally."