Image: Dartagnan Curiel
Damian Dovarganes
Artist Dartagnan Curiel, 31, said he used to scrawl graffiti in his Los Angeles neighborhood, but grew sick of the violence associated with the activity. He now paints murals with positive messages to encourage graffiti vandals and gang members to lay down their arms. "Why would you want to put spray paint on a kid's face?" he says. "We live in the same community. We are all in this hellhole together."
updated 8/1/2008 2:38:59 PM ET 2008-08-01T18:38:59

One man got stabbed. Another got shot in the chest. A 6-year-old boy was temporarily blinded when he was spray-painted in the face.

And they were the lucky ones among those who have had run-ins with graffiti "crews," or gangs.

Over the past 2 1/2 years in Southern California, three people have been killed after trying to stop graffiti vandals in the act. A fourth died after being shot while watching a confrontation between crews in a park.

"We have seen a marked increase in these graffiti-tagging gangs taking to weapons and fighting to protect their walls, their territory, their name," said Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. Robert Rifkin.

Los Angeles County has battled graffiti for decades, spending $30 million a year to paint over or clean up the emblems, names and images spray-painted on stores, concrete-lined riverbeds, rail lines, phone booths, buses, even police cars. On Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring convicted graffiti vandals to remove their scrawl.

Taggers 'target' people who call police
For some taggers, protecting their work is akin to defending their names and their honor.

"If we see someone calling the police, then we target them," said Mario Garcia, 20, who describes himself as a former tagger trying to become a professional artist. "You are trying to stop me from what I live, what I believe in and what I breathe? We are not going to let no one get in the way."

Workers who remove the graffiti say they take caution if they find a crew at work. They wait until the taggers leave before cleaning up.

"We won't say anything to them," said Rogelio Flores, whose company Graffiti Busters contracts with Los Angeles to blast away the markings with high-pressure hoses. "We don't know what kind of weapons they have."

Police tell residents to resist the urge to confront graffiti crews.

"It's not worth the risk," Rifkin said. "Take a deep breath, back off and call law enforcement."

Some of the violence has been between rival crews, which are increasingly acting like street gangs. And some of the bloodshed has involved real street gangs that mark their turf with their names or emblems. But some of the victims have been innocents.

In an attack last month, two youths spray-painted the face and body of the 6-year-old boy who spotted them scribbling gang signs on a wall near Compton. The boy recovered from chemical burns to his eyes.

On the same day, a 51-year-old auto mechanic was shot in the chest in Los Angeles when he confronted two suspected gang members painting the wall of his shop.

'Write on your own wall'
Another man, Michael Lartundo, 26, was stabbed in the hand and arm after yelling at a group of graffiti vandals scrawling on a wall in March behind his brother's house in suburban Whittier.

"I just told them it ain't right," Lartundo recalled. "I said, 'If you are going to write on the wall, write on your own wall.'"

The most recent attack occurred July 15, when a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed after rival graffiti crews converged on a Los Angeles park for a fight. The victim was in a crowd of onlookers.

Last August, Maria Hicks, 58, was shot in the head and died after flashing her headlights and honking at a teenager spray-painting a wall near her home in Pico Rivera, a blue-collar suburb east of Los Angeles. Four people have been charged with murder.

Ten days after Hicks died, Seutatia Tausili, 65, was fatally shot and her grandson wounded when he told taggers to stop vandalizing a trash can outside their home in Hesperia in San Bernardino County. Three men were charged with murder.

Robert Whitehead was shot to death in 2006 in the Los Angeles County area of Valinda when he tried to keep taggers from marking a neighbor's garage. Investigators arrested one man with alleged ties to the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang.

Artist Dartagnan Curiel, 31, said he used to scrawl graffiti and grew sick of the violence. He now paints murals with positive messages as a way to speak out against the bloodshed in his Los Angeles neighborhood and to encourage graffiti vandals and gang members to lay down their arms.

"Why would you want to put spray paint on a kid's face?" he says. "We live in the same community. We are all in this hellhole together."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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