The Thin Bright Line Between Art and Vandalism

By STEVE SALDIVAR

The law says graffiti promises fines and jail time. The criminals—or self-described artists—argue that their paint offers aesthetic pleasure. No matter where one stands on the issue: The colorful writing is on the wall. Increasingly so.

Forty graffiti arrests have been made this year, according to police. In late March, two men were arrested and charged with misdemeanors for allegedly using their cans on Valencia Street. With summer approaching, more men and women with cans of  paint are likely to be out.

“There is no difference between art and vandalism if there is no permission,” said Fred Alvarado, an instructor for Urban Youth Arts, a class from Precita Eyes Mural Arts that allows youth to come and learn street art.

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He explains, “Vandalism could be art. And vice versa.”

This would drive some in the city, well, mad. Graffiti costs the city plenty—$20 million a year cleaning it up, as Michael Krasny reported on today’s Forum. And many in that group will meet tonight at the Anti-Graffiti Super Huddle at the Grand Ballroom in the Hilton on Kearny Street. There, residents will be advised on how to eliminate graffiti. Attendees are asked to register on their website.

Gerald, who asked that his full name not be used, is from the North West Bernal Alliance and he has spent every day of the week removing graffiti in four neighborhoods, including the Mission District. He signed up for the super huddle meeting quickly.

“I’m a great believer in the broken window theory,” said the Bernal Heights resident. “If you let that go, the whole neighborhood goes.”

Alvarado, the art teacher at Precita Murals, concedes that graffiti vandalism is not the best way to express oneself artistically. But to some, there’s something aesthetically pleasing about those quick, illegal scribbles. “It is reminiscent of Chinese brush strokes. It’s very fluid. A master tagger can have a moniker that took years of practice. It’s like the girls when they practice their signature over and over again.”

The teacher etches out bubble letters in a blank portfolio notebook as he waits for students on a recent Tuesday evening.

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Alvarado had a fascination with street art by age 12. Although he’s no stranger to spraypaint and walls, he says his days of street art are over. “I still have a passion for it,” said Alvarado. “It’s my hobby.”

That hobby—when practiced illegally—comes at a steep price.

Anyone arrested with graffiti vandalism in San Francisco is automatically sentenced with a minimum penalty of 96 hours of graffiti clean up.

If these artistic ventures cause $400 or less in damages, the artist can expect a misdemeanor on their record and jail time of one year or less. More than $10,000 in damage and it’s considered a felony, and the criminal is looking at jail time and a hefty fine of $50,000. An expensive hobby.

This is something youth taking courses are informed about during their class.

“We have a space where they can create,” says Alvarado. “It’s safe for them. And we can talk about [the law]. I give them the straight-up truth. You give them a breakdown and they listen.”

But the anti-graffiti movement fights against—even if untrue—a sort of romantic notion of the poor beautifying urban decay. “Aerosol art culture started in poor neighborhoods and disenfranchised places where a lot of the buildings themselves were already rundown and nobody cared,” said Alvarado. “It was a way to empower youth and give them an ownership of the space they lived in.”

If classes like Urban Youth Arts aren’t offered, Alvarado fears what the Mission District might become.

“Are we really making a difference?” Alvarado asks himself. “We paint on the same block where many kids were killed. What if we weren’t there? How much more killing would there be?

Instead of having colorful walls, how gray would it be? How much more depressing would it be?”

For Gerald, the resident from Bernal Heights, it may be the same spraycan but the results are vastly different.

“There’s no thin line,” said Gerald, on street art and graffiti. “We look for inscription or a phone number. We never touch works that received permission.”

For Joe Morse, a Mission District resident, the distinction between art and graffiti is a criminal one.

“It has to do with gangs,” said Morse, who has lived in the Mission District for five years and is planning on attending the super huddle tomorrow.

“I don’t want that crap spreading around on the street. It’s not the artists. It’s kids tagging because they are in a gang.”

He questioned the whole idea of artistic merit in graffiti.

“Just because you can write a street name on the wall doesn’t make it art,” he said.

This is a sentiment shared by Alvarado. “People don’t want to see just anyone putting up their opinion on a wall.”

Filed under: Trouble

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4 Comments

  1. chuck

    “The criminals—or self-described artists—argue that their paint offers aesthetic pleasure.”

    Thank you, but no thank you. Please do not pleasure me. Go pleasure yourselves instead.

  2. el californio

    1. Most graffiti is not gang related. It is just dudes wanting to make a name for themselves.

    2. I do not even think this is a discussion with merit. Graffiti vandals are just trying to justify their actions under art. While I agree that some graffiti is artistic, there is a certain art form to graffiti, it is nonetheless illegal.

    3.If a property owner does not want graffiti on their property, their wish should be respected. I think the punishment for graffiti is too lenient.

    I hate graffiti.

  3. A possible exception: Banksy. Pointed political and cultural commentary dramatically delivered with wit and aesthetic refinement.

  4. art_enthusiast

    While it’s a difficult line to draw legally, there should be a distinction drawn between art and vandalism. Street art gives tremendous energy and life to the neighborhood, while vandalism certainly does in many cases disrupt the aesthetic beauty of the area.

    For example, the city could create a program to give certified artists permission to create sidewalk stencils in certain approved areas, or to create art on construction sites and utility boxes. Furthermore, enforcement and clean-up should be focused on tagging, rather than on clever street art, stencils, and the like.

    Not distinguishing between art and vandalism is akin to not distinguishing between extremely harmful, and relatively harmless drugs. It ends up casting a net that ends up wasting the energy and resources of police, while delegitimizing their efforts. Ultimately, it’s also not successful and akin to sweeping leaves on a windy day. Very similar to the failure of the war on drugs.

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