Tag, Judge Judy--You're It
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Features column: Billboard advertisements all over town depict the TV personality nabbing a graffiti writer. Is this a direct provocation or clever marketing? You be the judge.
Judge Judy Sheindlin is everywhere.

There she is on 3rd and La Brea.

There she is on Sunset and Argyle.

There she is on Vermont and Santa Monica.

It goes on and on. The image of the ex-New York City justice and current star of a syndicated television program is postered on billboards across the city. On them, she wears a black robe with a white lace collar. Her eyes are egg-white. A gem sparkles in her ear.

The billboard judge grips an oddly dressed androgynous graffiti writer between her thumb and forefinger. She holds the tagger as if he/she were a dead rat or dirty diaper. The tagger is costumed in what looks like grunge wear from a mall outlet store, circa 1992--a knit cap, baggy blue jeans, a rugby shirt with horizontal stripes and a white, long-sleeved T-shirt underneath, long hair bunched up at the back of the neck.

The ad's conceit is that Judge Judy has apprehended a graffiti writer, and apparently so abruptly that the writer's can of red spray paint has flailed wildly out of control. The spastic result resembles what a toddler with a new crayon might do to a rec room wall.

Near Judy's mouth is the billboard's tagline. No irony in that word. It reads, "Gotcha!"

The billboards are a direct challenge to graffiti writers and taggers. They are a provocation, consciously or not, from the creators and sponsors who, incidentally, aren't talking--but more on that later.

Go ahead, tag us, is one way to interpret the board. We want the attention. You tag this sign, you'll get nabbed, is another more law-and-order-influenced way.

"That Judge Judy stuff, I truly do feel that's probably a bit of a trap. I wouldn't be messing with those right now," a man called MEAR1 says. MEAR1 is the handle of a longtime Los Angeleno graffiti artist. He's 30 years old now, been in the game more than half his life. "I'm sure those are good targets. I'm sure all the police in Los Angeles are watching those. I'm sure everyone is keeping their eyes on those billboards because they represent, basically, a war path to them. They're looking at confronting something to demonize, you know."

Bob Bryan produced and directed the well-regarded 1995 documentary, "Graffiti VeritE9." He runs the web site,

"I 've seen these billboards up all over town for at least the last two weeks," Bryan says. "The first time I saw it, I mean, it really made me laugh, because I thought, I've been observing this love/hate relationship that the industry and society have with what is commonly known as these vandals, these graffiti writers.

"On the one hand," Bryan continues, "they say how they hate them and they wish they didn't exist and they don't understand why the graffiti writers are doing this kind of activity. At the same time, I see these companies and organizations exploiting them to sensationalize or sell their products, be it Nike or these television shows or alcohol. They use the graffiti writers and their existence as a way to commercially benefit."

MEAR1 agrees. His own range of experience includes everything from long stints painting over tags as part of court-assigned community service to exhibiting his pieces in fine art venues and creating album covers for bands as well known as Limp Bizkit.

"Many of us make our living showing art in galleries around the world and doing TV commercials and doing movies and all kinds of artwork for Hollywood," MEAR1 says. "And for Hollywood to turn around and act as if this is the enemy, it's a real cop-out. I think Hollywood is the real enemy. They make enemies and make monsters out of people and demonize everyone. And then you know, when it benefits their TV show, they'll hire you and put a little artwork in the background. It just seems people up top don't know what is going on down below."
* * *

Climbing to the roof of the three-storied cream-colored apartment building located in Echo Park at the corner of Glendale Avenue and Reservoir Street doesn't seem like it would be too difficult for experienced graffiti writers. A pair of fire escapes descend to within 10 or 15 feet from the sidewalk. Rooms inside the building have access to those same external stairs, and presumably there's internal access too.

That's all of interest because mounted on that rooftop is a massive billboard. Signage identifies this as Infinity Billboard #0185, though Infinity is now a part of Viacom Outdoor. Viacom owns CBS, among other properties. Locally, a CBS affiliate airs Judge Judy's show. It's a small world.

Billboard #0185 has been papered with the Judge Judy ad. In fact, it has been re-papered. Viacom Outdoor prints extra copies of ad campaigns to keep in reserve. They also use acetone and a product a company spokesman compares to baby wipes to clean signs when possible.

As of this writing, the new Judge Judy board is graffiti-free. A past version, though, was full of text that wasn't there when the board first went up. In big white bubble letters with black outlines it read, "Envy." Next to that was an equally large set of letters resembling some sort of initials written in green and burnt red.

Smaller, less labor-intensive tags dotted the board, too: "Cloud." "Yano." "Sur." Probably all signatures of individual taggers. The latter may be an abbreviation of "sureF1o," as in Southlander, in Spanish. The board also read "Rip Robove," perhaps a memorial. And "OTC"--that's shorthand for "On The Run," an L.A. graffiti crew active since the mid-'80s.

When I inform MEAR1 via telephone that some graffiti writer has painted "Catch a Real Criminal" up on the sign, he replies, "Right on!"

I tell MEAR1 about some obscenities painted on the board that are directed at the TV personality. "Right on!" he says again. "I mean, basically that's real. Graffiti art has nothing to do with Judge Judy. 'Judge Judy' is some stupid TV program for a bunch of sheep to hang out and watch. The real story is going on in the streets. TVs are an illusion box."
* * *

Craig Gilmore is the point man for the Silver Lake Improvement Association's graffiti removal effort. That's one neighborhood west of Echo Park. Gilmore used to paint over graffiti himself. Now he serves as an area liaison of sorts for the Hollywood Beautification Team. Gilmore sends the team a fax every week with all of the addresses of tags in his area, and the HBT comes by and paints over them. Over the past three years, Gilmore estimates he's sent in 2,000 location requests; some walls have been painted over 50 or 60 times, he says. He also claims that gang activity is up in his neighborhood, which he blames, in part, on fallout from the LAPD/Rampart scandal.

If anyone should be down with the Judge Judy billboards, it ought to be Gilmore.

"I know I took a second look when I saw it the first time," Gilmore replies via e-mail. "But having seen her show once what I really was thinking was, 'Wow, is she someone's mother?'"

"She's pretty harsh and sensationalist," the activist says. "At least if they tag that particular billboard it will just look like part of the campaign, and I guess in a city that gets its billboards tagged so often that's a pretty brilliant solution. How many times can you use it though? And I don't think that Judge Judy's humiliating slaps on the hand are going to solve the bigger problem."

By this point, it would be appropriate to explain what Judge Judy herself, or at least her show's producers, or the ad agency, or anyone from Paramount television, or their Big Ticket Television unit, or even the show's independent publicist, Gary Rosen of Gary Rosen Communications, have to say about any of this.

They all declined to comment.

One of the questions I had asked, even submitted via e-mail, for the "Judge Judy" people to address was this: "If tagging is considered an urban aesthetic blight, are billboards?"

They could have demurred. Could have rejected the premise. They said nothing. In response to the same question, however, Bob Bryan and MEAR1 have plenty to say.

"People put billboards up in front of us all over town and block our view of the sky and the mountains and everything," MEAR1 says. "And one kid goes up and paints on it and suddenly he goes to jail."

"Exactly," Bryan says. "Reputedly, they can do that because they have money and they buy this space. The average citizen is not asking for it, but under the sake of capitalism and commercialism, that kind of visual graffiti, that kind of blight is OK. It's OK if you can pay for it, if you have money. But if you do not have money, you have no right to communicate to people in this way."