THREE years ago, most of the walls and signs in the Maryvale area of Phoenix were smeared with graffiti. ''It was everywhere,'' says Joe Manzo, turning a corner in his red pickup truck. ''Right here,'' he says, stopping near a long, cement block wall on 67th Street, ''was one of the worst places.''
Today, not a tagger's mark or scrawled epitaph breaks the sweep of the wall's tan face. While much of central Phoenix and most American cities fight against the graffiti onslaught, this 40 block, low-income area of modest homes and businesses has virtually ended graffiti's scourge.
Taggers' symbols and markings are only a pesky maintenance problem here now. But victory has required no small effort in a neighborhood where drive-by shootings still occur.
Every day for the last three years, three volunteers from the Heatherbrae Neighborhood Association (HNA) - Gerald Abmont and Joe Manzo and his wife, Claudette - have trucked up and down the streets with paints and brushes. Armed with permits from the city and from business owners, the trio has painted out all the taggers' marks, working six and seven hours a day in the early months of their project. A log is kept of the locations and the markings. Since beginning their efforts, they have painted 15,875 wall sections and logged some 10,000 miles each year.
''Gas money still comes out of our own pockets,'' Mrs. Manzo says, ''but the city provides us with four kinds of paint: tan, white, gray, and Navajo white.''
Graffiti removal, and prosecution of taggers, has halted the perception of neighborhood decay here and contributed to reducing crime and fear in an ethnically mixed area. Several small shopping centers once only half-occupied and covered with graffiti now have fewer vacancies and clean walls.
Police say crime is down in the area, but that attributing the decrease solely to graffiti removal overlooks increased police presence in neighborhoods and the impact of youth programs and block watches.
But they acknowledge that graffiti removal has triggered an improved quality of life in Maryvale. ''If graffiti is left on the walls,'' says Lt. Jerry Mulleneaux of the Maryvale Precinct of the Phoenix Police Department, ''it certainly promotes more decay and decreases the quality of life. If it is removed immediately, there is no benefit for the effort that the tagger put out, and the community is saying we won't put up with it. We are totally behind the Heatherbrae effort.''
According to the police, the word is out now among youths that leaving a tag in Maryvale is a losing effort. All markings are recorded and removed within hours. ''Taggers are anonymous to the rest of the world,'' Lieutenant Mulleneaux says. ''We eliminate this and make arrests.''
Mr. Manzo explains: ''If you are over 18 and get caught doing a tag, you go to jail. You are fingerprinted and photographed.''
Taggers can also be fined $25 for a panel and mandated to perform dozens of hours of community service.
Explaining how their removal effort was launched, Mrs. Manzo says, ''We noticed graffiti was increasing in the neighborhood. Property was getting a little shabbier, and more houses were being rented.'' The Manzos, retired teachers, have lived in the area for 26 years.
In l992, the city surveyed citizens about neighborhood problems, and graffiti topped their concerns. ''We attended a city meeting,'' says Mrs. Manzo, ''and there was lots of talk about a revitalization effort with city help. So we formed the Heatherbrae Neighborhood Association, named after the local school.''
In their first year, they sometimes painted over 75 panels a day. ''When we first started,'' says Mr. Abmont, who heads the graffiti team, ''I told the 19 people who volunteered that graffiti removal was not a project for a weekend or a month, but that this would go on for years. We went down from 19 to three people almost immediately.''
Now Abmont and the Manzos go out on alternate days, spending an hour or two each time checking for scrawls. During one morning tour of the neighborhood in his pickup, Mr. Manzo sees a stop sign with a tagger's mark. ''If you say you don't mind,'' he says stopping and painting over it, ''then you are a victim. Today they write on your wall. Tomorrow they go over the wall and into your house.''
The success of the graffiti-removal project has had a direct impact on the neighborhood association, which now has 209 dues-paying members involved in protecting and improving the neighborhood.
''People could see we were making a difference,'' Mrs. Manzo says.
Twenty-seven block watches and patrols have been established, along with other cooperative efforts with the police and city agencies. HNA hands out scholarships, Christmas food baskets, and police awards. It launched a junior patrol, maintains a hot line, and every six months it paints the local jail's holding cell. HNA also paints the houses of elderly residents without charge.
''We have a resource pool now,'' says Mrs. Manzo, who writes a monthly neighborhood newsletter that carries ads from local businesses. ''We can call on the skills of many neighbors to help. This reduces burnout from some people being involved all the time.''
Their tenacity persuaded a local car dealer, Pioneer Ford, to launch a similar anti-graffiti effort in early 1994 with three trucks and several full-time painters traveling all over Phoenix.
''Now we cover a 90-square-mile area,'' says Xavier Brizar, community relations director for Pioneer. ''We take care of the big jobs now. When a call comes in from the police or someone, we can dispatch a truck with a power washer in minutes.''
Mr. Brizar recalls that less than a year ago, more than 80 tags had been sprayed on surfaces along a five-mile stretch of a main street. ''Today maybe there's three or four, and that's high for us,'' he says. ''In two years we have used 42,000 gallons of paint.''
When the Phoenix City Council considered mandating businesses to keep spray cans off shelves, Abmont worked for two years to support the effort. Paint companies opposed the ordinance, but on the day of the crucial vote, Abmont and HNA were instrumental in packing the council chambers with 400 people. The ordinance passed.
''When I left California to live here,'' says Abmont, who will retire at the end of the year, ''there was no end to graffiti there. And I said, this is my home now. Enough is enough. If it's war they want, it's war they've got. We've made them quit, and chased them away.''