The Department of Public Works will double its spending on a program to end the temptation of a blank wall.

“Having a mural in many of the hot spots really helps to reduce vandalism,” said Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of operations for the department.

Nuru’s assessment comes after spending $75,000 on a year-long pilot project, StreetSmARTS, that matched graffiti artists with the owners of troubled buildings.

The $150,000 DPW will allocate to the SF Arts Commission for the next year will mean as many as 24 new murals, he said. So far this year, the pilot project has funded 10 murals, including three in the Mission District. The money also pays for a mural program in the schools.

The city will celebrate StreetSmARTS’ success at a 6 p.m.-to-2 a.m. party Saturday night at the African American Art and Culture Complex at 762 Fulton.

Although muralists around the Mission felt even more could be spent — the city spends $20 million on graffiti removal — they agreed with the strategy.  For their part, the owners interviewed sounded relieved to put away their own buckets of paint.

“If we can get just five to eight years” of a graffiti-free wall it will be worth it, said Nicholas Scarabosio, the owner of the building at 3247 23rd Street, where Francisco “Twick” Aquino painted a mural of Latino street vendors.

Like other owners, Scarabosio paid for supplies. The city in turn gave each muralist $1,500 to $2,000 for a 6-by-10 mural. Larger walls meant a bigger, owner-paid fee. Still, owners said it was worth it.

Scarabosio, for example, spent $800 in supplies and gave Aquino an additional $1,000. He spent $6,000 over five years getting rid of graffiti, he said.

Sara Gabriel, the owner of 925 Larkin Street, where she runs the European Book Company, said she had painted over so much graffiti in the more than 25 years she’s owned the building that she  “finally wrote them [the city] a letter saying that I just can’t do this any more.”

When the city asked her to participate in the pilot program, she selected Jet Martinez from the Arts Commission’s list. “He came over to interview me to be sure he wanted to work on it,” she said, laughing at their first encounter. They hit it off, and the mural now wraps around the building — a decision that cost her an extra $5,000 in fees plus paint and materials.

“The good thing is that as far as I’m concerned, it definitely brings some happiness to this area,” she said. “It’s been a happening to watch people come by, and it’s a relief not to have this stupid graffiti all the time.”

Owners and muralists were hopeful about the prospect of that relief enduring.

“If they [taggers] can recognize a community effort or an artist’s effort and appreciate it, they usually don’t tag over it,” said Susan Kelk Cervantes, who founded Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center in 1977.

“It comes in waves,” she said, referring to tagging and graffiti, but added that 95 to 99 percent of Precita’s murals have been left alone recently.

In the pilot year of StreetSmARTS, the Arts Commission selected 20 artists from about 50 applicants. The city invited the owners of problem buildings to participate.

Some muralists warned that graffiti would continue, in part because of its roots and unresolved social problems.

Unlike painted murals, which in the Mission District have a history that began in places like Balmy Alley to improve the community, the graffiti style, spray-can tagging comes from a rebel culture.

“You’ve got to understand that this started in New York City, where kids were utterly marginalized, so they had to devise their own means” for participating, said Cuba, who has been working in San Francisco since the early 1980s.

Cervantes added that tagging is a social problem and that those who do it “want to be seen, want to be part of it in some way, and you just can’t” stop it all.

“I don’t make any judgments,” she added. “It’s a risk you take as a public artist.”

Eric Norberg taking a break in front of Dance Mission.

Increasingly, however, paid artists with roots in tagging incorporate large, graffiti-style letters in their murals. Cameron Moberg, a graffiti artist who worked on a mural at 65 Oak Grove Street, talked in an Arts Commission film about adding the letters as a sort of security to put taggers on notice.

Eric “Spie” Norberg, who recently sprayed a mural at the entry to Dance Mission on 24th Street, was ambivalent about StreetSmART. On the one hand, he likes that it offers artists work; on the other, “it’s like the next wave of gentrification” in which spray-can graffiti was first outlawed, then accepted and now sanctioned.

Norberg added that inevitably “some kid will look at a mural and say, that corner right there would look good with my name on it.”

The lead slideshow was produced by Kate Reardon with photos provided by the San Francisco Arts Commission.

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I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

One reply on “Taking Away the Temptation of a Blank Wall”

  1. It does seem more than twice as offensive when a mural is heavily tagged with ugly graffiti. It happened recently to the side of the bookstore on Valencia between 19th and 20th, by the little park. If there is a taggers subculture, I hope within them they look down on those that tag murals..

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