The Art of the Buff in San Francisco

The art of clearing taggers' work in San Francisco

Monday, February 21, 2011

Nobody knows more about graffiti than Joe Padilla. The paint-shop supervisor for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, Padilla oversees graffiti removal for all of the city's 220 parks.

A San Francisco native, Padilla, 50, was baptized at Mission Dolores and grew up at 15th and Noe streets. He lives in Richmond with his wife of 24 years, Silvana, and has three children and three granddaughters.

This shop spends $280,000 a year on graffiti abatement alone. People tag retaining walls, benches, sidewalks, pathways, curbs, signs, light poles, picnic tables, pump houses, irrigation boxes. Trees get tagged. Yes, we faux-finish a lot of trees.

We're damn good at graffiti removal. Mayor Newsom made an executive order about four, five years ago, saying all departments must deal with graffiti within 48 hours of it being reported. I have eight guys on my crew, and we average about 80 percent for removing graffiti within two days.

It's not just Golden Gate Park, but every park in the city. Places like Coit Tower, Candlestick Park. Twelve to 20 percent of what we do goes toward graffiti. The rest is just general maintenance. Painting benches, ID signs, play structures, striping basketball courts, parking lots.

I think 5 percent of the graffiti in this city is gang related. Most of it is just taggers, tagger crews. They have their own culture, their own gauge on what they call style or "toy." I can't read half of the stuff. But I do know the gang tags.

Someone said in a blog that I'm "a walking Jackson Pollock painting." I'm wearing a new pair of white pants today, but usually I'm a lot dirtier. And this reflective yellow vest - it's our new uniform. The gardeners wear them, too.

Our paint shop is in the Structural Maintenance Yard at Golden Gate Park. I'm in my office - what I call my "penalty box" - every day by 5:30. I do the time sheets and purchasing. Write up estimates, orders. Get work orders ready for my crew.

I get anywhere from 260 to 400 work orders a month for graffiti alone. Golden Gate Park is split up into six sections. We have gardeners and area supervisors everywhere, so when they spot graffiti they report it through a work-order system. That happens about 75 percent of the time.

We also go "hunting." If we're out at the western end of Golden Gate Park and see a tag on a pole by the Conservatory, say, we stop and paint it out. We also get a lot of 311s: The public can call the 311 center, and that filters to us.

When I started in 1990, I was painting out graffiti for the Department of Public Works. I'd drive from First and Mission all the way out to the Daly City border, and then work my way back. That was the whole graffiti program at the time.

This city is a whole lot cleaner than it was back then, let me tell ya. It doesn't mean the tagging has slowed down. It just means the city departments are doing a lot better job taking care of it.

Yeah, I get angry about graffiti. But it's not just that. We have people who maliciously beat up parks in general. If everyone used the parks in a respectful way, I could do things like expand my color palette. I could add more color to the parks and the hardscapes.