By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Let Us Spray
The owner of GEEZ Clothing in Santa Ana says the city painted him into a corner
When George Pichardo got on the phone with a Santa Ana police officer who was asking for his business license on Feb. 26, he knew he had reason to worry. After all, the owner of the property where Pichardo had operated GEEZ Clothing since 2006 hadn't yet remedied the building's code violations, which had prohibited Pichardo from getting his license.
Even more troubling, the man minding the store while Pichardo was out in Anaheim dropping off his taxes was a well-known graffiti artist currently on probation.
Still, Pichardo thought he could work it out with the officers—if they'd just wait for him to arrive.
"I said, 'I'll be there in 25 minutes,'" he says. "I said, 'He doesn't represent me; just wait for me and issue the ticket to me.'"
When Pichardo arrived, he found his store locked and a misdemeanor citation sitting on the counter. The store's surveillance videos showed that Jesse "Melk" Hernandez had been taken into custody by Santa Ana Police. According to a written response from the city to a public-records request by the Weekly, Hernandez was "arrested as an employee in a business without a valid city of Santa Ana business license. His probation officer requested his arrest . . . as the arrestee had been previously advised he was not to be working at that location."
Pichardo says this was the last straw. He's considering closing the shop because of what he says have been months of increased attention from police—all because he sells graffiti art supplies at his shop.
"Selling paint to kids over 18 is legal," he says. "I can't control what they do after they leave the store—the same way Home Depot can't control what happens when kids buy paint cans there."
The officer who issued the recent citation is a member of the Graffiti Task Force. In an effort to prevent the kind of graffiti blight that hounds Los Angeles, the Santa Ana Police Department created the task force in 1992; today, the city spends $1.7 million a year to clean up graffiti.
Santa Ana police did not respond to the Weekly's requests for comment on Pichardo's assertion that the agency was targeting his business and customers.
At least one of his neighbors, though, says she has called the police herself. Ana Verduzco, who has operated Anita's Barber Shop in the building next door to GEEZ for 23 years, began calling the police on a regular basis because the walls of her building were repeatedly tagged, she says.
"I have nothing against the store owner or the people who work there," Verduzco says. "He's a nice guy, he works hard. But a lot of my clients are women, and they became scared, and I've lost a lot of business."
Pichardo opened the first GEEZ in 2002 on Fourth Street. He was there for four years and moved to his current location, on South Main Street, when he could no longer afford the rent. "We didn't have any problems on Fourth Street," he says.
Pichardo himself has mixed feelings about graffiti: "I think it sucks that people do it in the streets, but there are real artists out there. They need to be encouraged, too, somehow."
To that end, Pichardo donated supplies for a recent controversial graffiti art exhibit hosted by Santa Ana College between February and March; he created a "chill out" space in the back of the store with couches, a big-screen TV and a half-dozen graffiti sketch books for "writers" to draw in. And since the day he opened, he's given over the large exterior back wall of his store to graffiti muralists, inviting them every few months for a live painting session in front of local fans.
"That's when all of the problems began," says neighbor Verduzco.
The cobbler next door to Anita's Barber Shop, Raul Sanchez, has rented his space for 24 years. He says he began shutting himself in and reduced his hours because the scene at GEEZ Clothing made him nervous. "One time I was in the bathroom and I could hear the spraying right above my head outside the window."
He has not wanted to bother with the police. "Some of the paintings were nice," he says of the outdoor murals. When the mural paintings took place, dozens of people would gather, he says, but it wasn't a problem. Afterward, however, "All the kids would then write names you can't even read all over our buildings, everywhere. It was too bad," he says.
Last October, a building inspector came to survey the space Pichardo rents from building owner Don Muir. Although Pichardo had paid his business license fees, failing the inspection would negate the issuing of an actual, physical document (which the city requires be posted somewhere visible within an establishment). The building failed the inspection three times between October 2007 and March 2008, according to the Business Tax Office in Santa Ana. On at least one of these visits, says Pichardo, the inspector was accompanied by a member of the Graffiti Task Force, which Pichardo says confused him. "What did he have to do with building inspection?"
Pichardo says he fixed a few minor violations, but the most glaring problem—the construction of two back closets without proper permits—is the building owner's responsibility. The closets were built by a previous tenant before Pichardo moved into the space, Muir says. Because the building was not up to code by the March visit, the city gave Pichardo and Muir until April 17 to fix the permit violations, or be fined daily. In March, Muir also requested that Pichardo halt the back-wall mural paintings, and repainted the buildings—with help from Verduzco and Sanchez, who say things have calmed down since the mural gatherings ended.
Pichardo says he's lost business because of the economy, but also because police now regularly patrol the area around the store. "Now they're harassing my customers," he says.
A stout, soft-spoken regular customer named Alex Morales says he was stopped last month after leaving the store. "[The officer] asked me what I was doing leaving the store so late," he says. He asked him if he had any "illegal or graffiti-related paraphernalia," searched him cursorily and let him go. "I asked him why he stopped me, and he said, just 'cause 'you were leaving GEEZ Clothing this late. We thought you purchased something a minor couldn't have.'" Morales told the officer he was 19 and left.
Muir says he has plans to knock down the closet walls in the coming days, but had not done so as of press time. Pichardo says he's tired of waiting and tired of what he sees as an overbearing police presence. He plans to close the store this month and is considering relocating in one year—possibly to a loft in the Santa Ana arts district.
"I'm pretty sure if we were downtown everyone would just come down and look at the [mural] wall," he says. "There, it would be considered art."