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The Writing on the Wall: It's Graffiti Versus Murals in San Francisco and Oakland. Either Way, Street Artists Win. 

Wednesday, Feb 26 2014
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Oscar Davalos began tagging when he was 12 years old. He and his friends would sneak out at night armed with cans of spray paint, scrawling their names on walls throughout East Oakland. The attraction was twofold: It was illegal, and it was art. Growing up in Fruitvale, Davalos dealt with the hardships of a poor community and the rule of gangs in the neighborhood. For him and his friends, graffiti was a way to express themselves, to force an often uncaring environment to pay attention. Tagging was also one of the four elements of hip-hop culture that Davalos admired: DJing, MCing, beat-boxing, and graffiti writing. Leaving tags on the blank canvas of a building was a way to mark territory in a city where he often felt marginalized.

On a recent Sunday, Davalos, now a well-spoken, lanky 17-year-old with red Chucks and black-rimmed glasses, paints on a wall in the middle of the day. He's joined on this and every other weekend by a rotating crew of 10 other 14- to 25-year-old former and current taggers. As they paint over the gray facade of Pressure Cast Products Corporation on 42nd Avenue and East 12th Street, no one calls the cops and no one driving by complains. Though Davalos no longer tags, he and the others are painting a mural on the wall that they are, in a way, still claiming: filling up a blank canvas in the city so that taggers won't.

The lure of blank walls persists, despite the fact that, in 2012, a new graffiti ordinance increased charges from an infraction to a misdemeanor. First-time offenders can be fined up to $1000 and face a year of jail time, while repeat offenders can pay as much as $5,000. Efforts to cover up graffiti are usually in vain, though, as the spray-painted designs can reappear in just a day.

But today, Davalos and the others are working as part of what's called a "restorative justice program," which allows property owners and taggers to handle the graffiti problem outside of punitive measures. The program, i do it 4 Oakland, invites young taggers to paint murals on defaced private property as part of a graffiti abatement initiative that doesn't involve fines or jail time. Oakland has also proposed implementing a $400,000 citywide mural project as a way to counter graffiti this spring. And in San Francisco over the past five years, a program called Street SmARTs has commissioned artists to paint murals in areas prone to vandalism.

These new efforts are part of a larger shift in city officials' and law enforcement's view of street art. Once considered a nuisance, now street art is used as a deterrent against the very graffiti culture that spawned it. The hope is that the murals will be seen as public art by the community — and, importantly, that they'll be less inviting to vandalism than a blank wall. After spending millions of dollars annually on graffiti abatement and criminalization, San Francisco and Oakland are now trying to work with street art, instead of against it — which is expanding the art form's acceptability.

In a sense, then, graffiti has won — and that's not always such a bad thing.


Shortly after taking office, Oakland Councilmember Noel Gallo set out to reduce blight in the Fruitvale District, where he grew up and has seen an increase in graffiti over the past few years. Gallo says graffiti is a low priority for Oakland Police Department officers who are concerned about more serious crimes. Many of the taggers in the community are middle school or high school students who are identified by merchants or their friends. "Our goal is not to put you in jail," says Gallo, who prefers to settle the problem outside the criminal justice system by speaking to the offenders' parents and teaching graffiti-prevention in schools. He proposed the mural project to Cynthia Elliott, who sits on the board of directors of Keep Oakland Beautiful, a nonprofit that addresses urban blight. The hope was to finally halt the tagging of Pressure Cast Products Corp. in Fruitvale, one of the most vandalized buildings in the area.

Elliott began collaborating with Kristi Holohan, the youth community director at the arts nonprofit Rock Paper Scissors Collective, who knew young taggers throughout Oakland. Elliott and Holohan raised $5,000 through a Kickstarter campaign late last year to fund art supplies and stipends for the young graffiti artists painting the mural.

The taggers involved in the project join for various reasons. Some are volunteering, others are fulfilling community-service hours; still others have been called to court and are painting so that Holohan can write them a character reference letter. Davalos, who is volunteering in the project, thinks that the program is a fair alternative to punitive measures. "It's way more fun and better than picking up trash by the side of the freeway," he says.

Elliott, the project manager, points out that many of the taggers turn to graffiti to establish their territory in a community where they often feel overlooked. Holohan, who says that she is a "proponent of expression," thinks the project is an effective way of empowering them through art. She views the project as a creative outlet for teens who have felt marginalized.

"If there aren't open venues where people feel incorporated, they still need to express themselves, especially in areas that are not very well taken care of or are institutionally neglected," she says. Also an art instructor at MetWest High School (where she previously taught Davalos), Holohan guides the students in the project while still allowing them free creative rein — within the parameters of the design chosen by the property owner. She believes that the restorative justice program gives the students' perspective on their actions and involves them in a project that's reshaping their community. "Once you start criminalizing people," she says, "you create otherness that's unnecessary."


San Francisco, meanwhile, has been struggling against graffiti for decades. According to the San Francisco Department of Public Works, the city annually spends $20 million on graffiti cleanup. Larry Stringer, the deputy director for operations at SFDPW, says that that money could be used for other city needs. "Twenty million is a lot of money going to solve a problem," he says.

About The Author

Melissa Hellmann

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