Vandalism or Art? Part II in the SF Chronicle

The public space belongs to everyone and no one. Caught in the middle are those who treasure public art and those who would paint over it.

Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

When she first appeared, on a wall in San Francisco's Mission District, the woman smiled in sunny contentment as she patted a fresh tortilla in her hands. A large, skillfully shaded water pitcher stood nearby and beyond, an airy Mexican mountainscape stretched down the block. Today her smile looks pale and wan. Graffiti taggers have had their way with this mural at the corner of 24th and Florida streets. They've inscribed the white tortilla with their signatures and marched over the landscape with their spray cans. The mural itself, meanwhile, has faded, as if it were sinking back into the surface under the pressure of these multiple assaults.

Most viewers would likely agree that this is a sorry and degraded sight. Vandalism perpetrated on a work of art touches some deep button of dismay in us. It strikes not only at the mural, painting or sculpture that's targeted, but at the implied bond of trust, the communion of witnesses an artist hopes to invoke. Writing about the history of attacks on works by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Rubens, Poussin, Van Gogh and others, David Freedberg argues that such acts are attempts to declare supremacy and "deprive the image of its power." Vandalism, he writes in "Iconoclasts and Their Motives," is "one of the most striking and dramatic forms of response" to art.

Audacious and appalling when it's aimed at a museum masterpiece, the vandalizing of freely accessible, open-air artworks carries its own set of meanings and effects. Community murals, public sculpture and other forms of outdoor art are clearly more vulnerable than a museum's protected holdings. But public pieces also tap notions of shared ownership and mutual interest (or mutual distaste) to raise an ongoing, open-ended mingling of reactions, feelings and reconsiderations.

The public space belongs to everyone and no one. Art that is placed there engages and enacts that idea. It invites comment, participation, unity and division. When works connect with the public strongly, as, for example, the Picasso and Oldenburg sculptures in downtown Chicago do, there's a powerful sense of the citizenry completing and enlarging the art. And if something unsettles or angers people, as Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" did when it was installed at a federal building plaza in New York in the early 1980s, an equal strong chemistry takes over. The widely loathed (and avidly defended) "Arc" was eventually removed and destroyed.

San Francisco's murals may not have the same art-world stature and high- visibility impact of a huge metal piece by Picasso or Serra. But as a widespread and widely cherished component of the city's visual environment, they form an important part of our collective self-image. Much of the city's identity -- its history and politics, quirkiness and cultural panoply, gender wars, Aquarian Age buzz, funkiness, spirituality and melancholy -- can be found there. Defacement, mutilation and other embellishments leave an especially vivid imprint. Like bubbles or blemishes in a mirror, they alter what we can see of ourselves and our past.

Some of the results have been dramatic, leading to the destruction and/or removal of wall paintings around town. According to Christopher Putz, the San Francisco Police Department officer in charge of graffiti control, tagging of murals has increased in the past several years. One mural at 17th and Connecticut streets has been repeatedly damaged. Another, which ran along a retaining wall where Castro and Divisadero merge, was removed after numerous tags and paint-overs garbled the original intent.

Sometimes the alterations are less emphatic and register as a kind of ghostly glaze on what was there before. On Clarion Alley, an enchanted, fanciful stretch of murals and other wall art between Valencia and Mission near 17th Street, two small red birds appear stifled by a graffiti scrawl across their throats. It's a haunting image, sad and oddly touching. The birds, who have started to fade, take on a new poignance, a new urgency under the tagger's hasty scribble. Their seeming struggle to be heard gives them a fresh sense of presence and life.

Cities undergo this sort of process all the time. The new gets layered over the old, remaking and redefining the public space. It happens with architecture and billboards, lamp posts and awnings, freeway ramps and bus shelters, new stucco and the graffiti it inevitably invites. Vandalism can certainly be seen as a social blight, a disruptive and costly invasion. But urban planners and critics have long acknowledged and mulled its function in the overall ecology of city life. "The environment has to used by its inhabitants -- all of them, including the vandals," writes Colin Ward in a collection of essays on "Vandalism," "and it must be strong enough, and flexible enough, to contain the vandalism it is certainly going to receive."

In San Francisco, many of the spray-can murals that adorn store walls around town arise from just such an accommodation. Weary of the graffiti tags that repeatedly mar their exteriors, merchants and landlords give permission to graffiti crews or solo aerosol artists to create wall-spanning murals. Many of the finished products feature prominent, flaring insignias of the artists themselves in gaudy, cunningly interwoven letters. What once may have been hastily scrawled tags become major visual elements, afloat like brilliantly colored clouds beside a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. or Mac Dre.

A city is always a work in progress, bent on streaming forward even as it carries the sediment of the past along. Look closely at the mural that fronts the Mission Cultural Center, and the name of the furniture store that once occupied the building now shows faintly through the sun-faded images of Latino life and culture. On the rear of the building, a repeatedly buffed wall bears several expertly painted graffiti works along with a tangle of crude tags and a farewell message for someone, unnamed, to "Rest in Peace." From front to back, the building's skin bristles with life past and life present.

Much of what gets painted on walls, whether as carefully planned murals or furtive tags, is both assertive and fragile. "I love that murals are outside and that they're larger than I am," says longtime Precita Eyes muralist Patricia Rose. "But I also know they have a shorter life span than other kinds of art."

Graffiti dramatizes an inexorable fact of contemporary life. Whether with a tag on a blank wall, a Day-Glo permission mural or an "altered" billboard, graffiti writers play out a continual battle for attention, acceptance and dominance in the marketplace of images and ideas. Context becomes content over time; yesterday's unruly outsider is today's fondly embraced icon.

Figures by onetime subway prankster Keith Haring became T-shirt commonplaces and shiny civic mascots, one of which is installed outside the Moscone Convention Center. Those enormous faux-highway signs by the artist Rigo that went up in the 1990s ("One Tree," "Inner City Home") are now as familiar as the signs they once playfully undercut. Projects by the conceptual artists Christo and Jeanne Claude -- "Running Fence" here in the 1970s, their recent installation of "The Gates" in New York's Central Park -- can be seen as a kind of benign vandalism, a willed and somewhat arbitrary alteration of a public space that can inflect a viewer's perceptions of that space years after the artwork itself has vanished.

The notion of what constitutes public space and who owns it is forever changing, a stimulating, unstable improvisation. Laurie Lazer, co-director of the Luggage Store Gallery on Market Street, recalls two different occasions when outdoor graffiti art projects commissioned by one city agency were removed by another without advance notice. Graffiti writers are fond of comparing their own bids for attention to those of advertisers, who can command acres of billboard space or swallow up entire buses with their pitches. Tim Drescher, author of "San Francisco Bay Area Murals: Communities Create Their Muses, 1904-1997," puts it this way: "Whether they see it in these terms or not, graffiti writers are claiming control of the visual space. I'm not saying they're right; there's a large chunk of hypocrisy on both sides. The difference is that ads on Muni buses bring in money. And in the contest between money and quality of life, money always wins."

Increasingly, in the 21st century, the battle for attention has expanded from the streets to every conceivable arena of visual space. Commercials crowd onto movie screens. Spam and pop-up ads greet every visitor to the Internet. NASCAR drivers and their cars are mobile kiosks. Tiger Woods' forehead is a permanent Nike commercial.

"VANDALS," a recent exhibit at the University of San Francisco's Thatcher Gallery, addressed the relationship of vandalism to art, censorship and First Amendment rights. At a panel discussion, Alex Killough of described Web-based stunts ("re-pricing" Kellogg's cereals with downloadable bar codes) that fuse vandalism to conceptual art. Activist Antonia Juhasz, who has demonstrated against Bechtel and other corporations, spoke on "the role of property destruction in anticorporate policy work." Lawyer David Greene offered this maxim: "Artistic expression is speech. Therefore, it is protected by the First Amendment."

Downstairs, at the gallery opening, artist Judy Auda sat beside her piece in the show. Titled "The Buck Stops Here," it consisted of a large inflated balloon with 50 one-dollar bills inside. A large needle hung from a string beside the balloon, in teasing invitation to commit an act of vandalism and reap a reward for doing it. Asked if she hoped someone would destroy her piece, Auda paused.

"I'm not sure," she said. "It's a very perplexing question."