Fan Favorites: Street Artists the Ex-Vandals Are Still Tagging Buildings, But Now People Love It

They are veteran street artists who call themselves the "Ex-Vandals" — a name that suggests they once vandalized private property with tags and unsightly graffiti. Maybe they did. And maybe they were chased by police with guns. But that's all in the past. The Ex-Vandals are older now — some are middle-aged, some are parents with kids — and they're doing street art that is both cutting-edge and (gasp!) family friendly. Their most prolific San Francisco project, a mural that fronts the old Pagoda Theater across from Washington Square Park, is devoted to the Giants' 2012 World Series title. Every day, tourists snap their photos in front of the Ex-Vandals' creation, which has become one of North Beach's most notable artistic landmarks. "People call it 'the Giants mural in North Beach,' but I'd like them to call it 'the Ex-Vandals' Giants mural,'" says one of the Ex-Vandals, Nate Tan, who's known in street-art circles as Nate1.

Tan, who is 42, says the Ex-Vandals got the building owner's permission to paint the property's surrounding walls, which feature a kaleidoscope of Giants-themed images that Tan and his cohorts have reinterpreted: A grinning Lou Seal mascot wearing Hollywood shades; a super buff Pablo Sandoval; and stylized graffiti lettering, called "wildstyle," done in vivid Giants' colors. The mural — which appeared last fall — has reappeared in scoreboard montages during Giants home games, and even made a brief cameo on Showtime's 2011 Giants reality-TV series, The Franchise. The mural's intensity may soon be history, though. Starting in July, the old theater — at 1731 Powell St., near Columbus — is slated for demolition as part of Muni's Chinatown subway extension. And late this month, "preconstruction" and "mobilization" are planned for the site, meaning the mural could disappear sooner rather than later, says Paul Rose, a spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Whatever happens to the mural, people can still see the Ex-Vandals' other San Francisco street art, including its blue, jazz-themed panorama at McAllister and Divisadero (on the outside wall of a liquor store); its monsters, animals, and wide-spread lettering in Lilac Alley and Clarion Alley (just east of 24th and Mission streets); and its collection of compelling figures — among them a giant, smoking teddy bear — that cover the outside parking-lot wall of Zeitgeist SF (199 Valencia). Alex Douhovnikoff, the Ex-Vandal who painted many of those figures, says the group's pop-culture images are the most popular with passersby. Four years ago — influenced by his then-5-year-old son — Douhovnikoff painted Lego Star Wars figures onto a wall in Lilac Alley. It was Douhovnikoff who put Lou Seal onto the Pagoda Theater's exterior wall, which the Ex-Vandals have festooned with different themes over the past five years. After the Giants won the 2010 World Series, the wall featured pitcher Tim Lincecum in full pitching stride, though that image has since been painted over.

The Ex-Vandals' Giants mural is practically a pilgrimage site, but since the Pagoda Theater is slated to be demolished, Lou Seal's days may be numbered.
Photographs by Camila Bernal
The Ex-Vandals' Giants mural is practically a pilgrimage site, but since the Pagoda Theater is slated to be demolished, Lou Seal's days may be numbered.

Douhovnikoff, who's 35, and Tan are longtime Giants fans who bring decades of street art history to their work — though Douhovnikoff, whose street art name is Mace, took time off for 15 years before returning to the scene. "I'm trying to get back to my roots of my art — to just follow my passion and go for it," he says. He teaches aerosol arts at San Francisco's Lincoln High School.

People who know street art know that the "Ex-Vandals" name goes back to the 1970s, when a group of young New York street artists banded together and tagged the city's subways. Tan and Douhovnikoff say they're part of the West Coast version of the original Ex-Vandals. The group's North Beach work has brought them a new generation of fans. While painting the North Beach mural last fall, Tan celebrated with Giants fans who stumbled onto the scene.

"I never, ever, ever had strangers walk by me when I'm painting graffiti and high-five me and donate to the hat," says Tan, who teaches spray-painting classes at San Francisco's 1AM gallery. "They feel like we're on the same side. This typically controversial medium is something that is bringing us and the general public together."

 
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