Armed with paint and rollers, Salinas volunteers clean up city walls.
Thursday, June 2, 2005
The 10-foot-high, slump-stone wall on Las Casitas Street in North Salinas is mostly a muted mustard color. In a few spots, however, it’s shades lighter. Still, it’s quite an improvement over what the wall used to look like.
Like lots of buildings and walls in and around Salinas, the Las Casitas wall had been tagged.
In June 2004, with the city in a fiscal shuffle to axe millions of dollars from the budget, graffiti abatement was one of the first programs to be cut. It wasn’t long before tagging seemed to take on a life of its own and cropped up virtually everywhere: sound walls along Highway 101, the sides of buildings, phone booths, houses and schools.
That was then.
Nowadays, graffiti is a whole lot harder to find. And Salinas residents have themselves to thank.
Last month, Neighbors United, a Salinas nonprofit outreach program, decided to rally residents against graffiti. The group called a community meeting, put the word out to residents and waited.
“That very next day, the phone was ringing off the hook,” says Aurelio Salazar, one of the meeting’s organizers. “People were telling us they were tired of seeing their community look like it was being taken over. They didn’t want Highway 101’s graffiti to be the welcome sign of Salinas.”
The enthusiasm was more than any of the organizers expected. At that first meeting, on April 11, residents dug into their pockets and donated money and supplies.
“At the end of the night,” Salazar says, “we had $900 in cash from just the people who came that night.”
By Paint Day the following Saturday, it was apparent that more than just a handful of residents were tired of the graffiti.
“It was amazing,” Salazar says. “We thought maybe we’d get 50 people for that first day. That’s what we had prepared for with food and drinks and supplies. Then we panicked because all of the sudden, we had paint coming in on trucks and people coming in huge packs—church groups, Boy Scouts, families with their kids. Somewhere around 200 people showed up that day. And they just said, ‘Okay, where do we start?’”
The list of places to paint was lengthy. Neighbors United sent volunteers out in groups, beginning at 8:30am. “We figured it would take them all day,” Salazar says. “By 10, they were reporting back because they couldn’t find anywhere else that needed to be painted.”
One of those volunteers was Salinas resident Sean Cooper.
“I was just sick of looking at all the graffiti,” Cooper says. “I felt like people weren’t taking pride in their ownership of their own town.”
Neighbors United co-chair Rose Colón says the effort was exhaustive and became a test of stamina for volunteers.
“We painted the sound wall on 101,” Colón says. “And almost immediately after we painted it, it was tagged again. So we repainted it again. And again, it was tagged right away. It was like this game of who’s going to get tired first. And we knew it wasn’t going to be us. We aren’t going anywhere.”
In that one day, Colón says the sound barrier wall was tagged and repainted six different times. “But we had the last word: The last time we painted it, it wasn’t tagged again.”
Still, the effort to keep Salinas graffiti-free is an ongoing operation. Since the group’s first day of painting, donations have poured in to keep it going. To date, the group has raised more than $3,000 in monetary and in-kind donations.
Within days of the original meeting, Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority jumped on the bandwagon, providing painting materials at no charge to keep graffiti under control. Soon after, Salinas’ Home Depot was also on the list of donors.
“We heard about the project and decided to give them a call,” says Salinas Home Depot operations manager Victor Chavez. “We give them any paint that we mis-mix. And we throw in white, too, because they always need white.”
Colón keeps a garage full of supplies. Cooper keeps paint and a roller right in the back of his car.
“If I see it, I stop and get rid of it,” he says.
The efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, even by the taggers themselves. Cooper says the last time Davis Road was tagged, it was a message from taggers to painters.
“It said something like, ‘Clean up the violence first before you clean up the walls,’” Cooper says.
But, he says, he and others don’t intend to back off.
“This is an entire community who’s making a difference,” he says. “And no one intends to stop.”
Adds Salazar: “Last time we had a meeting, we sat around talking about how there’s nothing to paint. We’ve unofficially become known as Graffiti Busters.”
While the graffiti seems manageable for now—Salazar says the new mission may be about paint-matching already-painted-over spots—volunteers aren’t calling it quits just yet. At 6pm, June 6, at Madonna del Sasso Church, 320 E. Laurel Dr. in Salinas, the group will meet again to discuss what comes next.
“It’s like this never-ending battle,” Cooper says. “It’s irritating. But guess what? I’ve got paint.”
To volunteer, or for more information, call 753-5150.