The graffiti removal ninjas who keep the city streets clean

While the moon is setting and the nightly pack of spray can carriers sneak home, Daniel Faustinos gets up.

He arrives at work at 6 a.m. and searches the city streets, checking in with his email, voicemail, and sources to see what has popped up overnight: is there any wild graffiti on a company’s website? Gang tags down on the beach? Clap posters on power boxes?

He makes a checklist, grabs his tool kit – pressure washer, solvent, graffiti cloth, scraper, paint, roller – and hits the sidewalk.

He and work partner Rick are Santa Monica’s graffiti fighting ninjas, officially known as graffiti removal technicians, and together they keep the city’s walls, benches, and fences as clean as possible.

They do their job best when residents barely realize they are needed because they believe Santa Monica is a place where graffiti is not part of urban culture. This assumption is wrong, of course, as the two technicians remove around 100 instances of graffiti per week, but the speed and efficiency with which they do this add to the touch of graffiti invisibility.

Since March 2021, the couple have received 1,334 community calls to remove graffiti and responded to each request with a maximum of two days’ notice. Residents can report graffiti through System 311 or the city’s graffiti hotline at 310-458-2231.

“We see the city as a reflection of the workers, so we want to keep it clean and give people a nice impression of Santa Monica,” said Faustinos.

In addition to creating a positive perception, graffiti removal can also contribute to public safety.

Police broken windows theory assumes that any visible signs of crime or disorder, such as graffiti or vandalism, create an environment that promotes crime in the area. While over time it has been debated how far this theory should fuel police efforts – with critics arguing that it unfairly criminalizes poor neighborhoods – the concept that the physical appearance of an area affects the likelihood of crime there remains a mainstay of the police force.

“Graffiti in the form of vandalism is a feast for the eyes and harms the image of a community or city,” said Rudy Flores, Public Information Officer for the Santa Monica Police Department. “It gives the impression that there are quality of life problems or crime in the area. In some cases it creates some form of fear and can therefore drive visitors and businesses away. “

Gang tags are a type of graffiti that SMPD keeps a close eye on. It’s far less common today than it was in previous years, according to Flores, and it’s typically used to instill intimidation between rival gangs.

“Our Crime Impact Team takes photos (of gang tags) and tracks trends or exchanges information,” said Flores. “Sometimes it gives us information or a direction to look for when it comes to a crime that has been committed in this immediate area.”

Flores also said that when a graffiti shows up, it encourages others to show up in the area. For this reason, the speed of the moving team is crucial.

Faustinos has practice turned into a science and can erase a five-foot by five-foot spray paint label in just fifteen minutes.

When he arrives at the crime scene, he examines the destroyed surface and puts together his deletion strategy. While a brick wall or concrete surface is the perfect candidate for its piping hot pressure washer, a more modern finish on a wall, such as Venetian plaster, often requires gentler handling of solvents and graffiti soap.

The graffiti technicians are responsible for removing graffiti on all public land in the city and, if requested by the owner, also perform removal services on private land. They even bring splinters of paint from stained surfaces to a hardware store, color-match them, and then repaint people’s walls for free.

Faustinos’ job is to get up at 5 a.m., be on your feet most of the day, and not come home until 5 p.m. While the work may seem like a strenuous or ungrateful task, Faustinos draws great satisfaction from his service.

“I enjoy being outside, keeping the city clean, interacting with the public and most importantly helping the small business owners who have been through so much with the pandemic,” said Faustinos. “Many of their windows have tags on them, and their walls have tags on them, so it’s great to help them.”

Graffiti can have a powerful impact on local businesses by discouraging pedestrian traffic in the area and making store fronts less attractive to customers.

A prime example of this is Lincoln Boulevard, which was a neglected and ugly corridor nicknamed “Stinkin ‘Lincoln” for decades before experiencing an artistic renaissance that helped clear the area of ​​graffiti and covered the walls with murals. The man who catalyzed this shift is Evan Meyer, and he believes that the flourishing of art on Lincoln correlates directly with the flourishing of restaurants, shops and personal services on the street.

Meyer is the CEO and founder of Beautify Earth, an organization that brings business owners, landlords, and city councils together with wall painters who can turn bare walls into public works of art. Since its inception in 2012, Beautify has completed over 130 murals in Santa Monica, with the organization’s original focus on transforming Lincoln.

“Before we started there wasn’t a single mural (on Lincoln), the experience was more tramps, more graffiti and more vandalism,” Meyer said. “It just felt unobserved, it felt neglected and neglected.”

Meyer reported that beautification murals companies on Lincoln saw graffiti decreased by 95 percent. Graffiti taggers rarely, if ever, spray paint over existing street art.

“In an artistic neighborhood the results are different; You have a neat street, more neat, the people take care of each other, that is expressed in how the people in the neighborhood feel, ”said Meyer. “It’s the opposite of broken windows.”

The artwork on Lincoln also has the added benefit of grabbing people’s attention and attracting new customers. When the Beautify team ran a report to analyze the economic impact, they found that mural companies using an average of $ 100,000 in annual sales on a Lincoln company’s annual revenue was an additional $ 20,000 year over year Sales achieved.

Meyer admits that this analysis could contain confusing variables, but said that his anecdotal conversations with business owners all confirm his conclusion that the murals led to increased foot traffic and sales. Following the success on Lincoln, similar efforts were made on Pico Boulevard and around the city.

The combined efforts of the graffiti removal team and wall painters from Beautify Earth create community benefits that residents experience on a daily basis, even if they are not aware of it.

“It increases safety, it increases cleanliness and it is a more welcoming atmosphere for visitors and tourists and residents, and it is a nicer, safer look for the city,” says Faustinos, describing the results of his work.

“If I could only give people one piece of advice, art comes first, not second,” said Meyer. “Think of art as a tool to create an experience, it’s not just art for art’s sake, and when you do that it helps everything: wellbeing, less graffiti, more pedestrian traffic.”

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