City Attorney City Government Gangs

Luis Rodriguez on Tagging and Trutanich


Novelist, poet, memoirist, teacher, advocate Luis Rodriguez
writes about City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s ill-considered tagger injunction idea in Friday’s LA Times.

Luis is the author of the classic Always Running and something of an icon in many circles. Although he’s a friend, I can honestly say that most anything he writes is worth reading, but this piece is particularly on point for the public discussion of the moment.

Here’s the opening:

Forty years ago, I was a gang member and a tagger, an aerosol graffiti artist. No doubt this was vandalism — my canvases were the walls of businesses, homes, schools, any public place.

I was just the sort of kid City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is targeting with his proposed civil injunction against taggers, a court order that would allow taggers to be arrested for merely hanging out together, an act that for most of us would be legal.

Now I am a homeowner, co-founder of a thriving cultural center and bookstore, a writer/poet with 14 published books and a gang intervention expert. I am a father, grandfather and law-abiding citizen. I invite you to listen to my story and judge whether the city attorney’s injunction is right for Los Angeles.

At age 16, in 1970, I was a high school dropout and drug user. I had met a youth worker at the community center that served my East L.A.-area neighborhood. He saw something in me I couldn’t see: an artist, a leader, a contributing member of the community. He offered me a deal — if I returned to school, he’d help me get training and work as a muralist.

Who knows why I finally agreed — for two years, I had told this guy to drop dead. But he never gave up on me. I learned mural painting at the old Goez Art Gallery on 1st Street. I had a mentor in Alicia Venegas. The youth worker persuaded the principal of the high school to let me come back, even though I had been kicked out for fighting when I was 15. I graduated. Then, from 1972 to 1973, I painted murals at the youth center, a local library branch and several businesses, the latter with 13 other gang members…

It gets even better….so read the rest here.

PS: Mr. City Attorney, I hope you’re reading this.
Luis is the real deal. I promise.

PPS: Okay, just in case, here are a few more clips from Luis’ essay-–for those of you who aren’t going to click through.

We have so many ways to send young people to prison, and very few to keep them out. And we still have a terrible gang problem.

Like most Angelenos, I don’t want any more vandalism, violence or drug wars. But I know this: In hard times, we need more imagination, more healing, more innovation, more grace. Another injunction is simply the wrong way to go.


All the research tells us that getting troubled kids involved in the arts is far less expensive and has longer-lasting positive results than punishing the art out of them. “Tough on crime” doesn’t impress me — I know it’s tougher to care. Even LAPD Police Chief William Bratton has said we can’t arrest our way out of this crisis.

We have so many ways to send our young people to prison, and few to keep them out……..”Tough on crime” doesn’t impress me—I know it’s tougher to care.

I want those words on bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets…or maybe tattooed on our collective wrists, as reminders. Better yet, written in indelible ink on our on our hearts.


  • Let me add my voice to the chorus. Luis Rodriguez is a remarkable human being. And he is emblematic of the youth that we “leave behind” surrounded by injunctions, probation camps or prison walls. We don’t need more barriers — we need more opportunities.

  • Only in East L.A can a former cholo become an idol in the future. There is nothing wrong with redemption but we don’t need to use former criminals as role models. There are plenty of poor hard working people who never became involved in criminal activities who should be role models.

    If the cholos were not idolized and admired by the perverse cultural in the first place so many youths would not want to be cholos. Only after the East L.A. residents change their acceptance and admiration of criminals can the problem be solved. Imagine if child molesters were accepted as are cholos, how many more Tio’s (uncles) would be molesting their nieces

  • Going back to the Times’ archives to see what they ever found to recommend this guy in the first place, the Op Ed wrote that he’d balance prosecuting real criminals with “real-world recognition that gang crime must be answered by alternatives for youth.”

    Just shows that being able to talk a good game is not the same as “real-world recognition” when your life has been spent doing the opposite. Considering he’d spent his career as a criminal defense attorney specializing in companies afoul of municipal environmental laws (like that infamous seal-shooting sea captain who he claims he turned into “a born-again animal activist” by virtue of community service), for Pete Carroll’s “win at any cost” jocks accused of violence and so on, there always seemed a total disconnect. Just a case of picking anyone but the incumbent or a Democrat associated with City Hall and this mayor. NOT defending either City Hall or the mayor in general for sure, but this particular candidate was just plain not qualified for the job and is either dissembling or just not bright enough to realize it.

    (By the way, what about his interpretation of the state’s marijuana law as invalidating all L A’s marijuana shops, making them all illegal? Just as I read, if I’m correct, the Obama administration announced in Feb. that they’d no longer consider federal law to trump state law? Especially as he was endorsed by the medical marijuana groups because he promised to uphold state law over federal law — even then, when federal law still legally trumped state law. These groups had felt Rocky didn’t defend them strongly enough, and didn’t know how Weiss stood on the matter. Now there’s another class action lawsuit from marijuana shops who feel they’d opened legally, and expected their requests for hardship extensions to be evaluated individually on the merits, and anger that they were betrayed after making significant investments. I certainly am all for cracking down on fraudulent shops but this seems like another case of say one thing, do something else?)

  • Celeste, there’s a right wing, tea bag type of movement in LA to end any kind of funding toward gang intervention. I’m sure this falls under the radar. You’re familiar with that weasel Tony Rafael.

  • Gust, I’d like to know more about it. Any more you can tell me—either here, or email me privately. Meetings? Websites?

    WBC, I haven’t been tracking the med marijuana thing this summer. Arrrrgghhh. I’ll check into it. I hope it’s not as bad as you’re saying.

  • And Rodriguez hit the nail on the head regarding prisons and prop 13 (even though he didn’t mention it by name). I’ve read a couple of his books. Always Running and Republic of East LA. I’d highly recommend the latter to anyone who liked the former. It’s a collection of short stories portraying every walk of life east of the river.

  • Celeste, all I know about Rafael is from his blog,, where he blogs under the name “Wally”. Don’t ask me what that’s all about. Anyhow, he’s the author of the book, “The Mexican Mafia” (one star, if even that. Incredibly boring book..). His current blog entry takes a shot at funding for gang intervention, as do many of his blog entries since he started the blog a few years back.

  • Celeste, I first became aware of the city attorney office’s about-face on the marijuana sales issue reading the Aug. 4th report in L A CityWatch by Ken Draper, “Jane Usher: The Sale of Marijuana is Illegal in Los Angeles.” Based on a presentation she’d made to the monthly meeting of Neighbohood Council leaders. (CityWatch is their blog, and as I’m sure you’re aware, a good source of grassroots info. Did you know they reprinted YOUR earlier article on Trutanich, the “Trutanich, Taggers and the Madness of Really Bad Injunctions” just last Friday — but NOW when I checked on this marijuana piece, note it has TOTALLY DISAPPEARED from their blog, while all others from last week and far older ones ARE still there, as customary. But it still comes up on their site search. VERY peculiar: guess someone from Trutanich’s camp made a big fuss and got it removed?)

    Also there’s a Tony Castro article in Daily News 8/28 with some general background (a little more detailed than their usual Readers Digest-level stories) and they even have an editorial asking reader feed-back from the last week or two. Plus I’ve seen disappointed reaction from groups like the Medical Marijuana Caregivers Assn. (can’t remember exact name now – but there are numerous groups/ newsletters along the same lines).

  • Thanks, WBC. That’s actually very helpful. I normally keep the med marijuana thing on my radar, but it has fallen off a bit, clearly.

    And thanks, Gust. I do know Tony as we have cooperated on some issues. (Plus, years ago, he used to occasionally use my articles to rant and rail against people he saw as soft-headed on gangs.) But I haven’t been to In the Hat in quite some time. I’ll cruise over.

  • We all need to be made aware of the tea bag movement in LA to end all funding of gang intervention, Mary Cummins, Walter Moore, Tony Rafael are all invilved in this movement. They are working with the Minutemen of Kansas, be scared be very scared. I know I am so esssscared.

  • Does anyone remember the names of the prisoners killed during the last Chino prison riots?

    You don’t remember because it was another cover up, by the tea bag movement xenophobes who are growing in numbers here in Los Angeles, run, run the gavacho tea baggers are cummins.

  • Ms. Fremon,
    I dont want to put Mr. Luis Rodriguez’s down – his pieces are very inspirational and moving for young people trying to find a light in a black hole of sadness.
    But, I find that Mr. Rodriguez is putting too much salsa in his tacos and telling stories of cowboys to get his point heard.
    How in the hell can he say he was a tagger when tagging did not even exist in Los Angeles in that time frame. If he is talking about throwing up his neighborhood “placa” in the early 1970s – then that may have some credibility.
    The word “tag” and “tagging” were not even coined until years later in New York. There was no such vandalism in Los Angeles until the mid-1980s.
    Sounds like Luis Rodriguez is trying to change history….
    I like Luis Rodriguez – but I really believe he needs to stop lying and just be himself.
    The first taggers in Los Angeles were not even strictly Chicanos nor were they from East LA – they were from West Los Angeles .
    Look up “WIsk” and “Relax” from “WCA” – West Coast Artist. Even these guys did not really vandalize as what you see today.
    In the early to mid 1980s when graffiti first started in Los Angeles, most all graffiti artist were first classified as “piecers” – they were artist first. A “tag” was just your signature – like an artist signing his canvass. At one point there was a war among taggers and piecers over people tagging but not even being real artist. You can figure out who won. – a bunch of untalented idiots.
    I cool with Rodriguez supporting the idea that this tagging inconjunction wont work – but i’m not cool that he seems to invent shit to get his point heard. I talk to a lot of the older homies in Lynwood Paragon – where he said he was from – they have an entire different story about him.

  • I think Luis’ story is inspirational and first-person stories are often the most relevant to any situation, the real “real-world” experience this city attorney clearly doesn’t have as claimed. BUT he admits to having been an actual tagger, and my issue is with the fact that the injunction as written criminalizes BY ASSOCIATION even kids who are just hanging on their street with neighbor kids, walking from school or at the park, etc., with kids who MAY BE taggers. That this law as written gives the cops authority to treat anyone they “suspect” based on appearance (e.g. baggy pants) as the real thing. THAT is where profiling lawsuits are guaranteed, and other constitutional violations.

    This is parallel to the way in which Trutanich’s “Transition Team member” David Berger, Walter Moore’s running mate (this job is reward for Berger’s staying on the campaign trail to attack Jack Weiss) and their supporters want to replace SO40 with a law authorizing the cops to question and run a check on anyone “suspected of being illegal.” A civil rights nightmare.

  • I agree with WBC, Poplockerone, (obviously) about the relevance of Luis Rodriguez’s impassioned essay.

    However, I always enjoy your cultural/historical comments, as they are informative in their own right.

  • Poplockerone, nice way to make a mountain out of a mole hill. I knew when first reading the article that Rodriguez meant mere graffiti when he said tagging, and I’m sure you did too. But when you have an agenda to discredit someone, it’s time to exaggerate their position then go for the jugular, isn’t it?

    To accuse Rodriguez of exaggerating his gang past, subtle as you may have, is baseless. His stories about growing up in Watts and San Gabriel are nuanced and consistent, and I’ve read, and heard, all of them. Your older homies in Lynwoood dispute his past? Ha ha. Well, you know what they say, ese. Gotta kill a king with one shot, and hearsay just isn’t going to cut it. You’re obviously a bitter, angry person.

  • WBC – I don’t see the connection with the graffiti injunction and Special Order 40? So far as I can tell, the new City Attorney hasn’t said anything about SO 40, neither has anyone else.
    I also applaud Luis Rodriguez for turning his life around and for what he does to help others. The point that Luis make is that it took a lot of time, and a fair amount of downward spiraling criminality, before he saw the light and changed his ways.
    Luis does not think an injunction will do what he does to stop graffiti, and he’s right. The problem is that while Luis and other intervention programs work in the long term, something has to be done in the short term. We need a way of identifying the kids who are at risk of falling deeper into the gang culture, and an injunction will put those at risk kids into the spotlight, make it harder for them to hang with their hommies, and perhaps encourage them to become more productive members of society by giving the courts the power to direct them towards intervention programs. I say give the injunction a chance, it’s not like anyone else has a sensible alternative, is it?

  • Try not to laugh, guys. Kelvin thinks the forces behind gang injunctions have any intention whatsoever of helping those who are served.

  • Thanks, Sisco, for making my point, your sensible alternative is….?
    Exactly, nothing. You just want to wait until the taggers get tired of the La Vida Loca and eventually see the light and become poets. Don’t laugh guys, anyone who thinks taggers don’t become worse before they get better needs a reality check.

  • Kelvin, there’s no point in arguing with someone so incredibly naive as to believe that gang injunctions were designed to help those served with injunctions get out of gangs.

  • Kelvin Says:
    September 7th, 2009 at 1:03 am

    “your sensible alternative is….?”


    My sensible alternative is: To enforce the laws as they were written by our elected representatives, and to honor the United States Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. Civil lawsuits that infringe on anyone’s constitutional rights undermines the foundation of our free republic, and therefore is a threat to the republic, no matter how sensible the action may seem to certain district attorneys and law enforcement officials with ambitious political agendas. If that’s not sensible enough for you, Kelvin, you’re living in the wrong country.

  • Graffiti has been around in LA and SF since the twenties – verified by my abuelita.

    And Kelvin – Civil lawsuits are not the issue. There is nothing wrong with dealing with this issue in civil court. The issue is: Since when does having possession of a spray can constitute criminal action and JAIL TIME? Criminal vs. Civil

  • 5 of the candidates for CD5 councilperson were on rightwinger Kevin James’ show tonight. (He’s the “home” of his homie Trutanich, Zine, Cooley, the conservative Republicans.) James specifically aksed them about this issue, whether they agree with Trutanich OR think those who believe he just may be violating some constitutional issues may have a point: you get where he was going with this as a litmus test.

    Every ONE of them including Tamar Galatzan, said they agreed with and supported Trutanich. BUT they all talked about the issue of tagging as a gateway crime, NOT about the fact that this particular injunction was written as it is, to declare it a crime by assocition even if someone is NOT a tagger. As kelvin argues, to instill the fear of associating with someone who just MIGHT be.

    SO EXASPERATING since you and I both go out of our way to emphasize that we are NOT talking about actual taggers. A crime for which there ARE remedies long proposed by “law and order” Democrats, like making them and/or parents pay for removal and restoring of property, using RICO laws as our liberal commenter Woody has proposed, etc.: none of which would violate the constitution and be lawsuit magnets, which Trutanich’s current proposed injunction defintely is. HOW SAD for “democracy” in L A.

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