Alhambra's hidden graffiti story

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.

Tagging along the railroad tracks on Mission Road | Photo by Albert Lu

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.

Collaborated graffiti art by Man One and Hozoi | Photo courtesy of Man One"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.

Slap tags in Alhambra | Photos by Albert Lu

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.)

Photo by Albert Lu 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.

Photo by Albert Lu

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.

 L.A. Councilwomen Jan Perry recognizes Man One at a June 2012 LA Council meeting | Photo by Eriberto OriolBut 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.

Photo by Albert Lu 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 Photo by Albert Lu 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."

10 thoughts on “Alhambra's hidden graffiti story”

  1. Great article that hits the mark on many different levels about graffiti as art vs. graffiti as vandalism. As always, your work impresses me Albert. Looking forward to more comments from the Alhambra community!

  2. The idea of having a legal, city-sanctioned graffiti park is an intriguing one. This could go hand in hand with the current practice of covering graffiti in places where it is not allowed (e.g. private property without the owner’s permission, public property); the two can work in tandem. In fact, a legal, curated graffiti gallery with regularly changing exhibits would give graffiti artists (1) prominence and exposure, encouraging artistic quality, and (2) no excuse to deface private and public property, since they would then have a legitimate alternative. Expanding such a gallery to include other visual arts for the purposes of artistic cross-pollination would be even more interesting.

    Minor point, but wasn’t the Alhambra Boxing Center torn down to build the Wondries Collision Center next to Home Depot? It’s been so many years at this point, I can’t say for sure.

    1. I probably should have stated in my previous comment that I too would support the concept of a graffiti park.

  3. I like graffiti but it just comes with so much baggage that very few cities should want.

    The thing I don’t like about illegally tagging something is that everyone is forced to see it. If you make music, nobody is forced to listen to your music. It’s a little unfair that someone can work so hard to paint a wall then someone can come in and “take over” the wall with just a $4 can of spray paint.

  4. The graffiti “artists” are generally of certain specific socio-economic-linguistic-ethnic population groups. Thusly, there is an impetus on them to “showcase” their “art” in the public realm, although it, in most cases, is unwanted and unneeded. Furthermore, they are usually popularized as being “oppressed” and thus are not recognized by mainstream societal forces and influences.

    Alhambra, being a suburban community, is not the proper place to disply such an “urban” type of “art”. And that’s why although many of these “graffiti artists” are originally from the Alhambra area, they migrate to Los Angeles to display their “art”. These “artists” usually, though not always, follow in their choice of domicile to LA as well. Perhaps the governing authorities in Alhambra can find a way to identify such “artists” such as by finding a location for these “artists” to gather and then “encourage” them to vacate the city limits so they can further “develop” their “art” in an environment that is more tolerant of their socio-economic-linguistic-ethnic population groups.

    1. Are you sure Alhambra is still a suburban community?

      1. Linda Trevillian

        I believe that the commonly-accepted definition of a suburb is a town/city whose population is between 50,000 and 100,000 and adjacent to a city. By this definition, Alhambra qualifies.

  5. Sorry, but most of the graffiti I see is more akin to a dog marking its territory than artistic expression. If you are painting something (anything) without the owner’s permission you are committing a property crime. I don’t doubt that there are people with genuine talent who have started with street graffiti – but I think it is a mistake to propose that they would not have developed as artists if they hadn’t begun on the street. I commend the City for its vigorous enforcement. Alhambra should continue to cover graffiti as quickly as we can. I wish we could do more when it comes to the vandals scratching their marks on storefront glass.

    1. Linda Trevillian

      I couldn’t agree more. Whenever I walk my dog (which is just about every day), I have my iPhone with me. I take pictures of the graffiti (mostly on sidewalks, but sometimes on curbs) and email information to the city. If someone wants to study art (and usually, these so-called artists, who really are wannabees), that’s what schools are for. Maybe they actually could channel their talent (if there is talent) into something that more people would enjoy.

      I noticed that this article doesn’t make a distinction between graffiti and tagging. The latter, to me, is the worst offense and definitely is NOT art. No way.

    2. Linda Trevillian

      Totally agree. Why can’t these wannabe “artists” take an art class? Most schools offer them, and with some actual direction, maybe some of them with talent would actually have a chance at a career in art. Who knows? And the article didn’t seem to distinguish between graffiti (calling it art is absurd) and tagging (100 times more absurd). I agree, too, about scratching on class.

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