"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.

In San Francisco, city crews and a volunteer program called Graffiti Watch cover up graffiti on public property. The San Francisco Police Department also has a pretrial aversion strategy for juvenile offenders to paint over public property that they defaced in lieu of paying a fine. Similar to Oakland, San Francisco property owners are required to paint over the tags themselves within 30 days or else receive a fine for blight.

Stringer considers graffiti a major problem, and so do many others. According to 311 statistics, calls complaining about graffiti are second next to inquiries about Muni and bus times. He says that the city is adopting the programs of other cities and brainstorming new ways to tackle the problem. Last winter, S.F. initiated the first Zero Graffiti International Conference, which explored different cities' problems with graffiti and the strategies used to deal with it.

Kristi Holohan and Cynthia Elliott are the lead organizers for the i do it 4 Oakland mural project.
Mike Hendrickson
Kristi Holohan and Cynthia Elliott are the lead organizers for the i do it 4 Oakland mural project.
Wayne McNeil, the owner of Pressure Cast Products Corp., says that graffiti started covering his building a few years ago and he didn't have the time to paint over the tags. His building was selected by Oakland city council member Noel Gallo to have a mural painted over it.
Courtesy of Wayne McNeil
Wayne McNeil, the owner of Pressure Cast Products Corp., says that graffiti started covering his building a few years ago and he didn't have the time to paint over the tags. His building was selected by Oakland city council member Noel Gallo to have a mural painted over it.

Five years ago, the city's Graffiti Advisory Board decided on a bold approach: using murals for graffiti abatement. The strategy had already been adopted in cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia. During the first graffiti panel summit, city officials realized that "some murals were a deterrent for graffiti and could be an enhancement for the community," says Stringer. Many of the murals honored the heritage of the city and elicited a deeper sense of pride in the community.

Created in conjunction with SFDPW and the San Francisco Arts Commission, Street SmARTs commissions professional artists to paint murals on private property in areas prone to blight. The property owner and Arts Commission split the cost of the mural. Property owners are able to select from a pool of artists and coordinate with one to design a mural. Unlike i do it 4 Oakland, which commissions young graffiti taggers, all of the artists in Street SmARTs are established muralists who go through a competitive application process. But both programs operate on the principle that a painted wall is considered claimed, and that most taggers are looking for the blank canvases of the city.

Tyra Fennell, arts education manager at Street SmARTs, says that only two in 10 murals get tagged over. In general, the community generally receives the murals well. But she admits that residents of some neighborhoods, like lower Nob Hill, don't agree with the strategy of using street art to combat graffiti. These are areas that don't have a graffiti problem and so don't tend to express an interest in having street art.

Using murals to fight graffiti rankles those who consider all street art a nuisance, and creates conflict with those more accepting of the alternative. During the Saturday afternoon paintings in Oakland, Holohan says that while most passersby seem supportive, some have come by to threaten the teens.

Fennell says the line between street art and graffiti is dictated by permission. "Someone can paint a version of the Mona Lisa on a wall, but if the property owner doesn't want it there, it's vandalism," she says.

The ubiquity of murals shows the city's evolving acceptance of street art as creative expression and a reflection of a place's past. The corridor of murals in the Mission's Clarion Alley is a nod to the area's history as a creative hub for artists and musicians. Now it's a tourist attraction, the latter-day version of one of San Francisco's more traditional landmarks — a Lombard Street with spray paint rather than flowers. Balmy Alley in the Inner Mission, meanwhile, is the city's most concentrated collection of murals. Its ode to Chicano art is a way for indigenous communities to celebrate their culture and to reclaim an area where they have felt disenfranchised.


During four weeks in June, a group of volunteers from Keep Oakland Beautiful brushed several coats of gray paint over the tags that were devouring Wayne McNeil's Pressure Cast Products building like urban ivy. This had to be done before the young taggers would begin work on the mural — and it was a strangely formal acknowledgment of graffiti etiquette. The teens painting the mural wouldn't start working on the building until it was completely clear of tags, so as not to offend other graffiti writers. The taggers view their work as a territorial line that, if breached, could be considered a sign of disrespect. "It becomes a tagging war," says Elliott.
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3 comments
Anita Posey
Anita Posey

Our building just got MAJOR graffiti’d. It really really sucks that other people’s property isn’t respected. Now we are responsible for hundreds of dollars to clean it up or the city will fine us. Thanks jerks!

james
james

As a homeless tent dweller who recently had his tent tagged by a spray can idiot, I do not view tagging as a valid art form. It is vandalism without any artistic merit and those who engage in such activities should be punished rather than praised.

 
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