LA's Ragtag Army Of Graffiti Busters Fight A Perpetual Battle

Mar 22, 2015
Originally published on March 26, 2015 4:50 pm

Not many people walk here in Los Angeles, but if you do, you see a lot of graffiti. But it's possible that if you came back to that same place the next day, that graffiti would be gone.

The City of Los Angeles has an office of community beautification that targets graffiti — not the artistic graffiti or wall murals, but gang tags.

Larry Bender is one of many so-called graffiti busters contracted by the city. His adventures were recently documented on the web series, Tom Explores Los Angeles.

"I started this just about 20 years ago," Larry Bender says. "A lot of people say 20 years too long, but I love the job."

He drives a loud, beat-up utility truck covered with splotches of paint. Inside, there's paint everywhere — plastered on his steering wheel, patterned on his seats. Bender himself is covered in it.

His truck is equipped with a high-pressure washer and an airless paint sprayer. Here in Highland Park, north of downtown, he's ready for anything.

"We're out before people see us or even know we're around quite often. Either they're on their way to work or are asleep or whatever," he says. "There's a whole army of people like me out there doing this. Hundreds and hundreds of people all over the city. A ragtag army of graffiti busters out here."

Bender gets an early start at 4:30 in the morning to beat the traffic. The first wall he passes looks like he's painted over it a million times. Now, there's another tag.

"I just painted that same thing out yesterday," he says.

Bender hops out of his truck and gets to work. The bed of his truck is his painting palette — five-gallon paint buckets, all city colors to match the walls, piled up around traffic cones, paint brushes and rollers. With one pass over the wall, the graffiti disappears.

But Bender knows he'll probably be back here tomorrow painting over the same thing.

"Right there? There's our tag, I can get it right here," he says. Just down the block, another sighting. "I've painted this wall several times so I know what it is. [I can] sleepwalk it."

This week, Bender says he's inundated with requests from residents. There's a lot of graffiti going up in this neighborhood lately.

"A gang member died two days ago and you'll see gang tags go up all over the place," he says. "Yesterday, it was plastered."

When your job is to paint over gang signs, Bender says there are some risks.

"I saw four guys right up on me going full-speed," he says. "First reaction: pull the trigger on the airless [sprayer]."

A cloud of paint is his only defense, but he rarely needs it these days.

"Things have gotten a lot better out here," Bender says. "A lot calmer."

He doesn't see most taggers, or know who they are, but these walls provide some kind of contact. Bender remembers one person he knew — in a way — through a yellow traffic sign.

"This kid would take a Sharpie and tag it," he says. "Every day. Every single day for a couple years, I would come by and wipe it out. The next day, there it would be again."

Then, one day, Bender came back to the sign and the tag wasn't there.

"What happened, I don't know. Maybe he moved away, maybe he just got tired of it," he says. "I kinda missed it, you know? I looked forward to getting this tag everyday. It was like losing an old friend or something."

But in this line of work, there's no time to get nostalgic. Bender spots another tag. His utility truck roars, and he's back on the hunt.

Updated March 26, 2015:

This story was updated to include information about Tom Explores Los Angeles, which was the inspiration for the piece.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Not many people walk here in Los Angeles, but if you do, you see a lot of graffiti. But it's possible that if you came back to the same place the next day that graffiti would be gone. Turns out the city of LA has an office of community beautification that targets graffiti, not artistic graffiti or wall murals, but gang tags. Larry Bender works with this office. His job - hunt down graffiti and make it go away.

LARRY BENDER: I started this just about 20 years ago. A lot of people say 20 years too long. But I love the job.

MCEVERS: He drives a loud, beat-up utility truck. Inside paint is everywhere - on the steering wheel, on his seats. Bender himself is covered in paint. In the bed of his truck is his painting palette - five gallon paint buckets, all city colors to match the walls. One pass over this wall with a paint roller, the gang tag disappears.

BENDER: There's a whole army of people like me out there doing this, hundreds and hundreds of people all over the city - the ragtag army of graffiti busters out here. Right here is a little tag. And I just painted that same thing out yesterday. Right there - and there's our tag. I can get it right here. Got a little tag here on the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT NOISE)

BENDER: I painted this wall several times, so I know what it is sleepwalking.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRAY PAINT)

BENDER: Right now currently, we are just bombed with requests. A gang member died two days ago. And you'll see gang tags go up all over the place. Yesterday, it was plastered. This job is not without risk. I saw four guys ride up on me going full speed. First reaction - pull the trigger on the airless. And it worked. It worked lucky for me.

But I will say this - things have gotten a lot better out here, a lot calmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANS RATTLING AROUND)

BENDER: They know who I am. They see me. But, you know, I don't know who they are. You know, it's part of the game. There was one of these yellow traffic reflectors - a sign. And this kid would take a sharpie and tag it every day. Every single day for a couple of years I would come by and wipe it out. The next day, there it would be again. And suddenly, it just stopped. What happened I don't know. Maybe he moved away. Maybe he just got tired of it. I kind of missed it, you know? I looked forward to getting this tag every day. It was like losing an old friend or something. Got one right here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Los Angeles graffiti buster Larry Bender.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.