© 2023 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

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."

Larry Bender's truck is equipped with an airless paint sprayer and high-pressure washer. The bed of his truck is like his paint palette, piled with five-gallon paint buckets, paint brushes and rollers.
Daniel Hajek / NPR
Larry Bender's truck is equipped with an airless paint sprayer and high-pressure washer. The bed of his truck is like his paint palette, piled with five-gallon paint buckets, paint brushes and rollers.

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Hajek