For graffiti-heads, the walls sandwiching the parking lot at Market and 12th streets possess a near-mystical significance. For roughly a decade, starting in the early 1980s, the spot was the locus of aerosol activity in San Francisco, a legal, visible place for spray paint devotees to practice their craft. The buildings — one home to Local 38 of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, the other a residential hotel owned by the plumbers' pension fund — were drenched in paint. “This place was the mecca for graffiti on the West Coast,” says filmmaker Nic Hill, who produced and directed Piece By Piece, a documentary history of S.F. graffiti. “People would paint here every day.” When one vandal/artist dubbed the locale “Psycho City,” the name stuck.
Then the art died. Sometime — nobody can agree when — in the first half of the '90s the walls were whitewashed, the artists told to leave. Rumor has it neighbors were unhappy with the spread of tags and pieces from Psycho City onto nearby businesses.
But in the past six weeks or so, the color has returned, with spray can artists again saturating the two buildings during daylight hours with massive, ornately tangled 3-D letters, and a huge rendering of a b-boy restraining a froth-mouthed blue pit bull. Sources in the graffiti scene say one person secured permission from the plumbers to blanket the walls. “It's a pretty monumental thing to get this classic spot back,” says Jor, a graffiti writer who last month painted at Psycho City.
It looks like the open-air gallery might disappear again, however: Jor's piece has already been buffed out, and there's some confusion about whether the artists really had the green light. At the plumbers' union, business manager Larry Mazzola Sr. says nobody gave the spray can crew permission. “We don't know who did [the painting],” he explains. “It all happened over one weekend.” At this point, Mazzola isn't sure what to do about the new art, although he's considering covering it with a thick layer of maroon paint, or possibly hiring someone to do a labor-themed mural.
Even Nic Hill, normally a fount of info about the graffiti world, is confused. “No one's told me exactly what's going on,” he admits, adding that he can't get ahold of the guy who organized the new wave of painting. The filmmaker is disappointed. “It was such an opportunity to make it sparkle.”