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

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. [page]

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.

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.

McNeil had been caught in the middle of that war. His property is an ideal target for surreptitious night tagging because it's visible from the Fruitvale BART station — prime real estate for a graffiti artist who wants his tags to be seen by as many people as possible. “The streets are free art galleries,” Davalos says. “You don't have to pay to get in.”

So when McNeil's building started to get bombarded by graffiti a few years ago, he wasn't able to buff the tags out at the rate that they appeared. Soon they wrapped around all sides of the building. McNeil wasn't perturbed about the graffiti because he was too busy with his business, but when Gallo's office contacted him asking if his building could serve in the graffiti abatement pilot program, he agreed. While Keep Oakland Beautiful painted over the tags during the summer, McNeil had to keep a can of gray paint in the garage to combat the fresh tags, which would often appear within 48 hours.

The mural taking shape on McNeil's building is an amalgam of pictographs, ranging from tribal drawings of buffalo to abstract symbols. Set against a bright orange and red background, the painting represents the inside of a cave. To honor the history of the region, McNeil wanted a mural that looked more like a Native American painting than a traditional mural. On the side of the building the mural hasn't yet reached, the palimpsests of tags faintly peek through layers of gray paint. McNeil brings the painters tacos from a nearby food truck during their lunch break. He thinks that the restorative justice program is a good idea.


“We have too many people in jail, and they're using their skills to do something creative,” he says. But he admits that only time will tell if the project will actually keep graffiti off the wall. Certainly, the young artists aren't severing ties to their past completely. While admiring the work of the artists, McNeil points out one figure that the teens sneaked onto the wall: an orange stickman aiming a spray can.

The uncomfortable truth about the relationship between graffiti and more accepted forms of art is that many artists pass through one to reach the other. As a pioneer of the street art community in San Francisco, Francisco Aquino, a muralist commissioned by Street SmARTs, has been on both sides of the law over the last 30 years.

When Aquino was 12 years old, a friend showed him pictures of graffiti in New York. He loved it. “Graffiti art is one of the last uncensored tools that we have in this community,” says Aquino, now 43. “You can take your tag and write whatever it is you want to write about.” He got into tagging, but started painting murals in 1983. He wanted to explore different art forms, but also to incorporate the community he had been putting his name on for years.

Aquino has been in the graffiti scene for decades, and has earned the respect of other taggers as well as the larger community — even though he started out writing his graffiti monker, Twick, on buses and other public places. After painting murals for nearly 20 years and by showing his portfolios to different store owners, Aquino received a commission to paint his first mural in 2001. Soon he was painting murals throughout the city, becoming one of the first to bring street art to the mainstream in San Francisco. His works, which hearken to his graffiti past with bright color and bold linework, can be found throughout the Mission and Chinatown.

Aquino became involved in Street SmARTs when it started in 2009. His first assignment was to paint a mural on a building at 23rd and Capp streets — at that time, the most vandalized building in the Mission. It was an ongoing battle between the graffiti artists and the property owner who couldn't compete with the perpetual defacement of his building. Aquino intended the piece to honor the local street merchants. As a lifelong resident of the Mission, Aquino was inspired by the beauty and everyday struggles of people in the neighborhood, and reflected them in vibrant paintings that depicted elements of the wide variety of local cultures, including Aztec and Chinese.

Although San Francisco and Oakland are embracing street art to deter graffiti, Aquino says that young graffiti writers have been destroying murals in the city by tagging them over the past six months, which he feels is a huge cultural loss for the community. When Aquino sees young taggers on the street, he often warns them of the risks of tagging illegally on buildings.

“Yes, you get a rush from writing your name, tagging and destroying property, but at the same time, if you get caught you're going to end up going to jail,” he says. He tries to encourage young artists to use the abilities they've harnessed through graffiti as a springboard for other activities, like graphic design or printing T-shirts. But Aquino maintains a respect for graffiti; it's how he began his career.

Which is only natural. The weird tension between graffiti and street art is that they're still mostly inseparable. Artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Aquino leave their designs on well-trafficked walls, T-shirts, or even presidential campaign posters. But an embrace of the art means a grudging acceptance of the tagging culture from which it came. Many of the artists have crossed a threshold into respectability, but they had to start somewhere — and that means that once upon a time there was a blank wall and a can of spray paint.

After five years of tagging, Davalos is in a transitional stage. He recently stopped to avoid getting into legal trouble. Although he no longer writes his name on public places, tagging opened Davalos up to other art forms, like political cartoons, brushwork, and watercolor. “Graffiti is a gateway art,” says Davalos. Now, cities, tired of struggling to maintain their blank canvases, are starting to agree.

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