Volunteers leap into action after a tagger defaces the long-neglected Vietnam POW/MIA mural in Venice, but is it too little too late?

By Joe Piasecki
Outrage over the desecration of Venice’s Vietnam POW/MIA mural just before Memorial Day weekend prompted dozens of volunteers to spend last Sunday scrubbing away graffiti tagged over the names of American servicemen lost to war.

But as the offending spray paint came off, much of the original paint went with it. Graffiti removal erased dozens — possibly hundreds — of the 2,273 names of American military service members still unaccounted for when Peter Stewart, a Vietnam veteran who was living in a van at the time and is now deceased, painted the mural 24 years ago.

Now partially shrouded by a black tarp bolted into the wall, the mural at Pacific Avenue and Sunset Court is so badly damaged — not just by vandals, but by years of public neglect — that it would be very difficult to restore.

While the sudden appearance of new graffiti and an impassioned Marine Corps veteran’s efforts to remove it made national headlines, the memorial on a concrete wall behind the former Metro bus yard had long ago fallen into disrepair with little public outcry.

Peeling paint, cracked concrete and graffiti obscuring part of the mural’s message had been the status quo for years, with a handful of community organizers seeking funding to restore or repaint the mural failing to find widespread support.

Jon Scudder, the retired Marine Corps sergeant and longtime home remodeling contractor who led the volunteer graffiti removal effort on Sunday, lives in downtown Los Angeles and didn’t even know the mural existed until seeing a TV news report about the vandalism that same morning.

“Because I’m a veteran, it hurt me. It tore me up,” Scudder said. “I went straight to Home Depot and bought what supplies I could with the money in my pocket.”

Scudder put out a call for help, and soon after TV news crews arrived, a handful of volunteers using lacquer thinner to scrub away the graffiti ballooned into a crowd of more than 150. Others stopped by to drop off food. Law enforcement secured parking for work trucks and even made a run for more supplies donated by Home Depot.

“It was an amazing thing,” Scudder said. “Everybody was in it for one common goal. People were working shoulder-to-shoulder across that wall. The community was coming together to make this right for Memorial Day.”

Then things got complicated.

As representatives for Metro, the Venice Chamber of Commerce and the office of City Councilman Mike Bonin got involved, so did restoration experts with the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC).

Scudder and SPARC Director Judy Baca butted heads over restoration of the mural, with Baca later telling The Argonaut that she fears untrained volunteers and the harsh chemical solvents they used may have done more harm than good to the mural’s original content.

“Everyone was so anxious to get this bubble of graffiti off the wall that in the process they took the names right off, and now we’re going to need to find official documentation [of the mural’s original state] before we can put the names back on it,” Baca said.

SPARC should have taken an interest sooner, countered Scudder.  He also took offense at prior grant applications before the Venice Neighborhood Council that pondered replacing the mural with an entirely new image rather than restoring it.

“I am a Marine Corps veteran and went out to do the noble thing,” said Scudder. “The good part is it’s going to get fixed now.”

What happens next, however, is largely up to Metro, which controls the property, and other public officials.

Bonin, who praised the heartfelt efforts of Scudder and other volunteers while also consulting with SPARC, has pledged to bring the vandals to justice and to restore the mural.

He’s asking the city to approve a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator and has asked county officials to contribute another $10,000.

“Now that Memorial Day has passed, I do not want to let the mural and what it represents to be forgotten,” Bonin said. “The best way we can respond to this horrible insult to those who paid the sacrifice for their nation is to continue rallying as a community to restore the mural.”

Staff writer Gary Walker contributed to this report.