Street art: evolving enigma

American Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?
Street art: evolving enigma

Splashes of vibrant color burst off of the buildings and depictions of multi-cultural icons gaze down on the busy commuter corner of 24th and Mission.

For more than three decades, the walls that line the vital community of San Francisco's Mission district have been visual feasts for those who see the versions of surreal, pop, Chicano, urban, graffiti, and cartoon artwork.

Such artists as Las Mujeres Muralistas, Gronk, Barry McGee (Twist), R. Crumb, Swoon, Sam Flores, Juana Alicia and Andrew Schoultz have made the Mission their eternal community gallery, often referred to as Mission Muralismo.

But as the Mission increases its artistic profile, with constant additions and brush-ups, public officials, residents and business owners throughout the city have gotten louder about the unwanted art that pops up on their property and costs them more each year to cover up.

The debate of what is art and what vandalism is has many artists and graffiti aficionados throwing their hands up and wondering who can be the judge.

"It is hard to draw a definite line between street art and graffiti," said author and photographer of "San Francisco Street Art," Steve Rotman. "Street art is usually more focused around stickers and stencils and is more message driven. Graffiti is more of a subculture and focused around spray paint and marking your name. But both can be compelling art."

One graffiti writer, 21 year-old San Franciscan, called SAVZ was inspired to start during his junior year of high school by another writer because, "how many people can say they risk their lives, their freedom, and their well being for their art? All graffiti writters can."

These compelling markings are what the city, specifically the Department of Public Works, have focused their new plan called "Zero Graffiti for a Beautiful City," which was launched April 23.

In 2004 the city passed a law that made the owner of a defaced property responsible for the removal of graffiti. The law allows the city to cite the owner and request that the vandalism is cleaned off in 30 days or the city could remove it and bill the owner for the cleaning costs.

The new city graffiti plan includes voluntary commitments from property owners to remove markings within 48 hours, education to students grades 4-6, public art projects and a program specific to Chinatown to cut down on the cost to individuals as well as the city.

"The key to effective graffiti prevention strategies will be in innovative partnerships with residents, businesses and community leaders," said Edward Reiskin, director of the Department of Public Works.

According to the DPW, the U.S. spends about $12 billion a year cleaning up graffiti and the city of San Francisco spends an estimated $20-22 million a year. The DPW averages 19,000 complaints a year related to tagging and has seen a 40 percent increase in reported graffiti in the last 12 months.

One of the concerns that some business owners and graffiti writers have is that anyone can call 311 and report a tag. While some people don't care if their property is marked, they are still responsible for spending money to remove it, despite their feelings.

Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the City and County of San Francisco, Christine Favley, said that businesses could make a case to the DPW that the tagging on their building is art or a mural. Still she doubts that most petitions would end without a citation.

"Most likely the DPW will still request the removal in the usual 30 days because the defacing business owners need to fulfill their duty and not allow graffiti to deface their stores," she said.

The city's stance is that allowing one graffiti writer to mark a spot will encourage others to throw up their own pieces, yet there is an argument to be made for not being as vigilant as the city has been and plans on upping.

"The consequences of them cleaning up like this is that the stuff that is done now is put up quickly and with less effort," said Rotman.

Usually, cleaning up the graffiti doesn't discourage taggers - instead, it lowers the quality. When graffiti writers think that their pieces will be buffed out the next day or two, they spend less time on them and mark up quick outlines with no color.

Most agree, however, that if you put up murals where graffiti is common then almost no one will go over another artist's or writer's work.

"At least 60-75 percent of graffiti writers respect that you don't tag over someone's piece," said Rotman.

And creating these murals in the community is something that the San Francisco Arts Commission wants to help the DPW jump start.

"We want to find ways for legitimate expression of street art, so that we capture San Francisco's artistic energy in legal, respectful, and attractive ways," said Reiskin.

Some residents of the Mission are concerned that the new graffiti initiative is allocating money to a issue that is only a concern to the few places that are vandalized.

"I think that there are so many beautiful pieces that I have seen around here that it seems like a waste of our tax dollars to do all of this for the few little scribbles that I see once and a while," said Ronnie Luis, a 26th Street resident of five years.

Rotman has spent everyday for the last five years documenting graffiti and thinks that the public officials are making graffiti into a bigger issue than it really is.

"Right now it is sparkling clean compared to a few years ago. You have to go out in search of graffiti now," he said, recalling rooftops and vacants covered in graffiti. He thinks the project is "all politics."

While some graffiti writers notice the new swing in popularity that this creative expression has garnered.

"It seems like all of the sudden it's the cool thing to do. In 2006 the movie 'Piece by Piece' came out (graffiti documentary) it really kick started alot of kids and inspired people to go out. Now it seems a lot of kids and people in general who would never have gone out and painted are painting," said SAVZ.

But as graffiti becomes harder to spot for those in search, street murals continue to grow in spots like Lilac, Clarion and Balmy Alleys with the help of community art projects like Precita Eyes.

The community is waiting to see if the "Zero Graffiti" project will reduce the number of tags seen on building windows and MUNI backseats. The high concentration of murals in the Mission might be thought of as a model for the rest of the city in this "Zero Graffiti" project but some people think no amount of efforts to clean the streets will wipe out this urban expression.

"People will always do what they want no mater what. Most graffiti writters like that extra risk anyway," said SAVZ.