Vandalism or Art? Part I in the SF Chronicle

The urge to express oneself by writing on a blank wall is as old and primal as cave painting. But one tagger's colorful imagery is another person's ugly scrawl. One thing is certain: Graffiti's not going away.

Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic

Monday, March 7, 2005

The boxy white truck chuffed up 18th Street and pulled over near the intersection at South Van Ness. Four Department of Public Works employees, clad in white jumpsuits and bright orange vests, got out, opened the back door and pulled out their supplies. With rollers and buckets of Mail Box Blue, Feather Gray and Navajo White, the crew set to work painting out a swarm of spray-can signatures, insignias, pictures and slogans. The first thing they covered was this waggish line on a stucco wall: "fresh out of college and I turn to a life of vandalism."

The graffiti, which on first glance seemed apparent only on the broad surfaces of buildings and mail boxes, was everywhere. It crawled up utility poles, snaked onto stop signs, over newspaper boxes and around a billboard frame. There were tiny letters scrawled on the sidewalk and the tile foundation of a corner store. The store's window guard had been adorned as well, leaving a ghostly double image, on both the metal mesh and dusty glass behind it.

This is the unscripted visual language -- the running, unmediated, often illegible subtext -- that city dwellers here and elsewhere both see and don't see every day. Whether it's a simple, hastily scrawled tag on a laundromat's exterior wall or an extravagant, "wild style" mural of cartoon figures and gigantic bubble letters sprawled across a factory facade near the freeway, spray-can and paint-stick imagery is a constant presence. At the low end of our attention meter, it teases, nettles and tingles. At the other, it blares out and demands to be consciously seen, whether in loathing, admiration, perplexity or some confounding amalgam of the three.

Like advertising, its only rival for breadth and brashness in the urban landscape, graffiti is the form of visual expression we see and share all the time. The exposure to public art pales by comparison. People can go days or weeks without noticing a piece of civic statuary or some polished abstract piece on its park or courtyard perch. And even the most devoted museum- or gallery-goer might spend more actual retina time with this ubiquitous aerosol output than with framed and labeled canvases on pristine walls.

It may or may not be art, depending on one's definitions and investment in that question. But graffiti is certainly, undeniably ever-present. It is, quite literally, in our faces wherever we turn. In San Francisco, which may be the most self-regarding, visually self-conscious city in the country, that seems strangely fitting. Movies, television commercials and public murals constantly show and tell us how we look and who we are. Graffiti, whatever we think of it, is layered into our mirror-view visual and social landscape.

Its subversiveness, its connections to hip-hop culture, its periodic forays into museums and other forms of establishment recognition and its paradoxical blend of pervasiveness and impermanence measure things in our society that nothing else quite does. Appetite, irreverence, defiance, sloth, insouciance, a determination to be seen, ego and elusiveness are blended together and spun out in works that gleam and bristle, skulk and snarl, desecrate and celebrate. Graffiti is the democratizing solvent of outsider expression -- done by often unschooled outsiders who work outdoors. Anyone with a spray can or a paint stick -- even a finger to create a sun-baked "duster" on a garage door -- is a member of the amorphous, underground club.

Some so-called street artists get adopted and endorsed by the art world establishment -- names like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, San Franciscan Barry McGee and Neck Face, whose spindly, violent paintings and metalwork were seen in a recent show at the Luggage Store Gallery on Market Street. Some are activists who go after specific targets (Bechtel, Starbucks, Tower Records) to make a political point. A few are gang members marking territory -- about 10 percent of the city's tags, according to the San Francisco Police Department's graffiti enforcement specialist Christopher Putz. Others are middle- or upper-class kids on a rebellious lark. Most people who paint on walls will remain, by preference or not, anonymous and unrecognized. It's the nature of what they do.

For those who create it and those who remove it, graffiti begins on a battleground, with recognition and supremacy at stake. Spray-can "artists" or "writers" (the terms are controversial for eradication and enforcement people) see their work as an expression of freedom and insurgency, an attempt to reclaim and energize a public space that is either soulless or cynically controlled by corporate advertisers. City officials and landlords treat it as a crime, an illegal defacement of public and private property.

"We want to flex our skills and make the community look better," says the 41-year-old painter known as Cuba, who has been working on walls, with and without permission, for more than 25 years. "It's our own form of urban renewal."

Sandy Cuadra, who supervises DPW's 18 workers on seven graffiti patrols, sees the issue in clear, cold numbers. Between February 2004 and February 2005, she says, the agency logged 7,687 calls to its 28-CLEAN hot line and buffed (painted out) 1.2 million square feet on 6,301 buildings. One liquor store wall, on Divisadero and Haight, was painted 19 times. DPW spent $2 million on graffiti removal last year. MUNI spent close to $3 million cleaning its vehicles and shelters. A total for private costs can only be guessed.

"About two years ago we thought it was getting better," says Cuadra. "Since then it's been overwhelming. And summer -- that's the worst season for graffiti -- is coming up."

SFPD's Putz likens his pursuit of offenders to a game of chess. He tracks their moves, follows where they're "throwing up" their tags and pieces and uses many of the same investigative techniques that a homicide detective would. His computer stores and catalogs thousands of digital images gleaned from tunnels, corrugated doors, bus shelters, back alleys and rooftops.

"This one is by the Snail," Putz said, pointing out a puffy, bubble- letter inscription on his screen and referring to the image of a snail that's cropped up in different parts of town. "I can't tell you how I know that. It's a secret."

Viewed in blunt, us-vs.-them terms, graffiti does seem to be a fairly straightforward game of evasion and pursuit, thrill crime and possible punishment. Some taggers leave taunting messages addressed by name to Cuadra, Putz or Mayor Gavin Newsom. One especially prolific writer is fond of following DPW crews on their rounds and retagging freshly buffed walls. Many work in crews, with several members serving as lookouts while the others paint. "Heaven," for a graffiti writer, is a wall high above street level with maximum visibility. Neck Face, the subject of a recent New Yorker Talk of the Town story, is especially proficient at placing his pieces in lofty locations.

For business owners who've been hit and hit again, graffiti lands not only as a visual invasion but an assault on their livelihood. "I've got to look aesthetic, I've got to look clean, I've got to look professional," fumes David Heller, who owns a beauty supply shop on Geary Boulevard. "My business got tagged. My windows got etched. It costs $1,200 to clean and paint it. The windows were $1,400 apiece." Heller, a citizen member of the DPW Graffiti Task Force, is bent on finding and prosecuting perpetrators. "We have a slogan of our own," he says, " 'If you tag you will pay.' "

A contempt for crude taggers is shared by many spray-can practitioners themselves. "The taggers give the rest of us a bad name," offers Cuba. "That's just kids." Like many older writers, Cuba started out that way himself and now prides himself on a developed skill, style and nuanced appreciation of his colleagues.

Look at that 'E,' " he said, pointing to a mandala-like inscription of shaded, interlocked letters on the back of the Mission Cultural Center. "It looks like it's break dancing." Later on, during an impromptu tour of street art he admires, Cuba got up close to the spray-canned teeth and beads of a tribute to Mac Dre, done with the building owner's permission, on an alley near 7th and Harrison streets. "That's some very fine technique there," Cuba said.

Cuba recently painted the interior of Elleston Intriguing World of Reggae on Third Street. The walls of the Bayview District store bloom with flowing colors and figures, including a portrait of the late musician Peter Tosh. "There's definitely a better vibe," says owner Phillip Elleston. Cuba still hones his craft on junkyard walls and other "underused places" and dreams of painting the long sea wall at Ocean Beach with friends.

Dino Romano, 27, began spray painting at 12 or 13. "I was like any knucklehead," he says, "running around throwing up my tag." He's been arrested and admits to a certain "excitement" about working illegally. "I definitely thought it was a fame game." Now, as the father of a 5-year-old girl, and a 9- to-5 employee, he'd rather work where he's wanted, or where he's not likely to be noticed (he's fond of abandoned tunnels). The mural Romano and a friend, Nate 1, did with permission at Fortune Cleaners in the Mission District is a tribute to his daughter's love of the Disney "Little Mermaid" characters.

Shortly after the mural went up, in 2002, another graffiti writer struck and painted over Romano's flaring "DZYER" signature in the center of the mural. Romano quickly restored his own marker and staked out the mural at night for two weeks to see if anyone returned. Except for a small tag that turned up recently, the Fortune mural has remained untouched. Romano proved what the police tell business and home owners all the time: Remove graffiti within 24 hours and it's much less liable to return. Graffiti writers love to visit and photograph their work. They are their own sidewalk curators and critics.

Graffiti (Italian for "little scratching") has an ancient heritage. Everything from cave paintings to Egyptian hieroglyphics to graphic depictions of sex on the walls at Pompeii confirm a primary human desire to write and draw on walls. It's been studied by art historians, catalogued by anthropologists and scrutinized by psychologists for its meanings and motives. In "The Handwriting on the Wall: Toward a Sociology and Psychology of Graffiti, " Ernest L. Abel and Barbara E. Buckley argue for graffiti's importance as "a form of communication that is both personal and free of the everyday social restraints that normally prevent people from giving uninhibited reign to their thoughts."

Graffiti had its critical heyday in the 1970s, when Norman Mailer and other writers celebrated the color-saturated swirls and tags that adorned New York subway trains. Taki, Hondo, Phase-Too et al. became media meteorites, a flaring urban folk art phenomenon. Graffiti's air of radical chic has dissipated for the most, although it does have its occasional afterburns. Ex- San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez created a minor flap, late last year, when he allowed Barry McGee to spray-paint "SMASH THE STATE" in bright orange letters on his City Hall office.

Now, by and large, a kind of oppositional aesthetic prevails. Paul Lanier, a muralist and ceramic artist-in-residence at a San Francisco elementary school, states the case directly: "Art inspires. Art beautifies. Graffiti is the opposite. It tears things down and makes places uglier."

Besieged, resilient and curiously resistant to stylistic changes, graffiti is an urban fixture, as solid and integral to the street scene, in some ways, as the utility poles, retaining walls and street signs it adorns. The battle to wipe it out is built on the vision of a city sublimely free of the snaky scrawl and pieces flung up on improbably high walls, a web that spans the city from border to border. That's hard to imagine, in San Francisco. Without graffiti, we might not recognize the place. .

Tuesday: How graffiti shapes the public space.