The intersection of 17th and Capp is no pretty sight. It’s littered with empty Cheetos bags, Red Bull cans, Trojan condoms and the occasional heroin needle.
“It’s a bad neighborhood,” says Max Marttila, an instructor and muralist at Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center. “There’s prostitutes walking around all night long.”
And there’s graffiti too — lots of it. Businesses located at the intersection bear the cost of cleanup. Now, a mural going up on the walls of the art space Engine Works might help deter the graffiti — but it’s not winning the approval of the artists who occupy the space.
Graffiti for Days
“We are people who have to cover [the graffiti] — with our money and time,” says Jennifer Bromme, owner of Werk Statt, a motorcycle repair shop.
Graffiti, says Bromme’s co-worker Ed, is “exactly what the Mission doesn’t need.” He calls tags “visual garbage — there’s no art to it.”
He compares tagging to peeing on the street.
Nearby business Twin Brothers Auto Glass, an auto service shop, deals with the same issue. “The owner has to paint [the graffitied wall] today and tomorrow,” says Hector Galarza, sweeping leaves on the ground.
The walls of Engine Works are hit the hardest in the intersection. Graffiti has become so common that it leaves the artists inside no choice but to cover the tags. “It’s just something that has to get done,” says Engine Works artist Sam Ferguson. “I’ve embraced it as part of the culture.”
But his culture is about to change. The owner of his building decided it was time to bring an end to the graffiti on his walls. He approached Precita Eyes with the idea of creating a mural along Engine Works’ walls. He wanted one done by youth, with a multicultural theme.
Precita Eyes agreed. The organization turned to its Urban Youth Arts Program. The program is “for kids who don’t have an outlet for the energy and potential talent they have,” says Eli Lippert, the program’s coordinator and muralist.
For this project, the youth took that energy and talent and put it to use. “We researched different types of patterns, like Indian, Arabian and Hawaiian ones,” says Jose, 17, a participant who also goes by the name Sonie. They also integrated cultural motifs and symbols.
“They become conscious, awake and creative,” says Fred Alvarado, an instructor and muralist with the youth program. “They’ll ask, ‘What’s a Ganesh, where’s India?’”
From there, a final design blossomed. Mexican mariachis, Hawaiian hibiscus flowers, ancient Aztec heads and Palestinian checkered kafias blend together, representing unity. Incorporated within are urban patterns, including brick walls, barbed wire and broken windows, indicating an end to barriers.
The youth made sure to give their design a spin. Within the mural, a man pans for gold — but with a 49ers hat. “It gives it San Francisco relevance,” says Marttila.
Not to Their Liking
The young people have been painting for a few weeks now on the walls at Engine Works, which are 130 feet wide and 10 feet tall. But a few Engine Works artists wish things had worked out differently. “We could have very well painted this mural,” says Engine Works artist Sam Ferguson.
He’s also displeased with what the mural represents. “The Mission Mural Association or whoever is in charge of these murals needs to stop illustrating multiculturalism on every single mural,” he says. “It’s getting monotonous.” He says he would expect San Francisco, a creative place, to break out of the box. “There’s more room for creativity.”
Some, like Bromme, don’t even like the idea of having to use art to deter graffiti. Although she likes murals in general and is happy to see one across the street, she doesn’t see the mural as a solution to tagging. “I shouldn’t have to paint a mural to stop graffiti,” she says. “I just want a clean wall.” She adds, “Are we gonna have murals all over the city?”
But some people, like Victor Perez, owner of Twin Brother Auto Glass, believe the mural might help stop the graffiti. In fact, Perez says that if he notices less tagging, he’ll consider a mural on his garage.
That’s not to say that the mural won’t get tagged.
Ferguson believes it’s a possibility, but he says, “It won’t be nearly as much, which is cool.” Marttila agrees: “We have a pretty cool rep with most graffiti artists. We’re still young and in to find out who the taggers are,” he says, only half joking. “Yeah, we’ll call their moms,” adds Sean Vranizan, a local artist and volunteer on this project.
But some have hope. “If the mural is well done, it won’t get tagged,” says Ed. “But if it’s not, then it’ll get tagged.”
That’s not to say it will solve all the intersections’ problems. “If there’s a mural over there,” Bromme says, pointing across the street, “then they’ll tag us instead.”
For now, nearby neighbors are glad to see anything but tags.
Pamela G., who lives around the corner, says she could stop by the mural every day. “It’s nice to see the work and talk to the artists,” she says, a huge smile on her face.
Others do what Pamela wishes she could. A couple in their mid-20s veer over to the mural and spend a few minutes in silence, holding hands and observing the artists. Another man sips orange Gatorade until it’s almost done, watching each stroke the muralists make. A man in his 20s even gets down on the ground near Lippert and gives a two-thumbs-up sign while his friend snaps a picture.
Tourists do the same as the locals. “We just popped out of BART,” says Michele Leblonc, a former Mission resident with a camera around her neck. “This is awesome,” she says, staring in amazement. “This is what I miss about the city.”
Doing Bigger Things with Art
Leblonc’s excitement is shared by the artists. “I’ve always wanted to paint a mural,” says Cathi Picconi, a middle-aged Mission resident. “But I always talk myself out of it.” Not this time. “Here’s my chance,” she says, looking down at a bucket of paintbrushes.
“What can I do?” asks Picconi. Alvarado hands her a grid and some charcoal. She’s quick to situate herself on the ground and start imitating what she sees on the grid. “I’m going so slow,” she says. “No, you’re doing great,” Alvarado assures her.
Experienced artists want in on the project, too. “I was super down to help out,” says Vranizan, who cruised to the scene on a skateboard and is wearing a brown beanie. “I’m stoked that it’s youth-related and art-related.”
Jose, a youth participant, says that if he weren’t painting today he’d be at home playing video games. “It feels good to meet new people — older people — and get to know them well,” he says from atop a ladder, brush in one hand and paint in another.
Other youth face some motivational challenges, however. “Is your buddy gonna come through?” Alvarado asks Jose. “Yeah, he’ll come later,” Jose nods his head.
When young people don’t show up, teachers don’t mind coming to the rescue. “When nobody comes, you still work,” says Alvarado, blending his charcoal lines with his index finger. “It’s not all give-give. I take a little, too,” he says with a slight smile.
Alvarado and other instructors push the project forward. “Some people own it more than others,” he says. Like Jose, who was the first youth participant to arrive on the scene.
And Jose’s behavior is what this program aims for: teaching youth to set goals and achieve them, in both art and life. “They get out of that block mentality,” says Alvarado, meaning that they leave their neighborhood and begin to see more to life.
Jose was once on probation, but when his officer noticed improvement, she helped him land a job with City Youth Now, an organization with programs and services that encourage personal growth. That program led Jose to Precita Eyes. “I realized I could do bigger things with art,” he says, bundled up in a gray hoodie. “Like clothing designs and doing it big with graffiti.”
His future goal? “To have a class of my own, to teach other youngsters and to have my own store.” It helps that he’s gotten his feet wet on previous murals — one on Balmy and 24th, and another on Potrero and 17th.
Most recently, he applied for the Gateway to College program, to catch up with high school credits. “Yesterday they called me for an interview,” he says, trying to hide his smile. He credits part of his success to art.
“Art changed my life,” he says, taking a step back and realizing its impact. And perhaps his assistance on this project will help bring new life to the intersection of 17th and Capp.