Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Larry, a 20-year crew member of L.A.'s graffiti removal team, will never be out of a job.
The famed street artist Steve Powers (best known as "ESPO") has written eloquently on the symbiosis of graffiti "writers" and the "buffers" who paint over them. "[A]t the end of the day," he writes, "if everyone has done his job, one person has created a mark and another has covered it."
It's two kinds of graffiti, cancelling each other out, he says. It's a cycle that is almost entirely pointless.
But it's also not. Graffiti can offer social capital to the person who makes it. If done right, it can beautify a community. And the same is true of the act of removing graffiti: It's a purpose-giving job for somebody, and it's a service to the city.
A new video in the YouTube series Tom Explores Los Angeles documents a day in the life of one such graffiti buster, and the particular perspective on the city that such a vocation offers.
Larry works for the city of Los Angeles' Office of Community Beautification. In a splattered yellow pick-up full of paint cans and rollers, he's been following the city's endless trail of tags and markings—carefully buffing over each one—for some 20 years.
"There's always a new problem to solve," Larry says in the film (which doesn't provide his last name). "I'm always moving, always seeing different things."
On the streets by 4:15 AM, he responds to countless graffiti reports in the space of one working day, slapping paint on each spot and moving on quickly.
In purple, early-morning light, Larry cruises neighborhood after neighborhood, admiring the qualities that make each community beautiful: the residents, the friendly dogs, the architecture. His respect for the city—and even for those who tag it—comes across as remarkably sincere.
"We don't take sides with one gang or another or a group or another," Larry says. "We do our job. We see graffiti, no matter what type it is, or who does it. We get rid of it, we move onto the next one."
Day after day, year after year. Sisyphean? Yes. Pointless? Depends on who you ask.