A few weekends ago I was involved in a well-attended street art photowalk in the Mission District. Megan Wilson of the Clarion Alley Mural Project spoke at the walk and mentioned that, despite their best efforts, the murals had done little to beat back gentrification in the area. Standing in the center of a huge crowd of snapping photographers, some with very expensive gear, I felt the event wasn’t helping the aforementioned gentrification situation.

greed1, who spoke later, talked about how street art is a way of communicating with hundreds of people at a time without having to say a word. His optimistic take on the issue was that cities grow and change, and that public art is a vehicle for expression. Artists may start out with work as coarse as tagging, then move on to find their real medium for expression, such as painting or wheatpasting. What drives them is not caring about how long their work lasts or gaining recognition, but just “putting it out there.”

The day after the photowalk, I found myself wandering the Mission again and stumbled across a hive of activity in Clarion Alley. The day before, probably hundreds of photos were taken of the murals; now, a day later, many were already gone, painted over by groups of artists. Near the alley’s center, one piece grabbed my attention — a huge cat’s face that was being painstakingly rendered by one individual. I walked over for a chat.

“Hey, how’s it going? Looks like a great piece … have you been doing this for long?”

“Since ’83, man. You might have seen some of my stuff around — I’m Twick ICP.”

“No way — all those colorful animal and Mayan murals around town?”

“That’s me!”

At that point I realized I’d run into a San Francisco art identity — Francisco “Twick” Aquino, of the Inner City Phame crew. Twick has been involved in graffiti in San Francisco for as long as almost anyone, and has participated in the evolution of graffiti as a form of expression. Today he was by himself, doing what he loves.

“So can you tell me a bit about this piece? What does it mean to you?”

“Well, you ever heard of Grandmaster Flash and the Message? ‘It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.’ Well, we live in a concrete jungle, and that’s what this is about. It’s got a different texture to a real jungle, but it’s still a jungle.”

“Yeah — life can get a bit intense. So can you tell me a bit more about how you got started?”

“I started out growing up in a gang environment in the ’80s, and I had influences like XIV and SFM. I got exposed to the Cholo/Chicano style of writing, and I wanted to imitate the gang hieroglyph. One day hip-hop found me, gave me direction, and I never looked back.”

“Can you say a bit more about how your work evolved?”

“It doesn’t just have to be tagging, writing your name. Art can be about writing a message, and it’s a powerful tool.”

Twick stepped back to regard the last few strokes of paint, and told me about the spirituality of his work.

“I have Mayan and Aztec ancestors, and they speak to me through my blood. I think of myself as a modern-day Mayan, and the streets and their walls are my temple.”

“Very cool.”

Twick works with the city and community to use graffiti art as a way to bring people together and beautify the area. He has worked with the San Francisco Arts Commission in the Streetsmarts program, which connects owners of frequently vandalized properties with urban artists who paint murals on their walls to ward off further vandalism. The program has worked, lowering rates of graffiti and vandalism on properties with commissioned murals. By encouraging younger artists to work on legal walls, the goal is to support legitimate work and to move graffiti forward as an art form in its own right.

“I’d like to let the kids know, you can do anything if you believe in yourself,” Twick said earnestly. “Stay in school, stay away from gangs. And all the time, life is learning — I’m still learning my craft, even as I’m doing this. I’m learning new aspects of it all the time.”

A young artist approached from a nearby crew working on another wall. He handed Twick a marker and asked for an autograph. Twick signed his art journal in his flowing, characteristic script. Not wanting to get in the way, I prepared to leave.

“Thanks so much for your time, Twick. Do you mind if I snap a few pictures before I go?”

“Go ahead, man.”

“Thanks! I’m looking forward to seeing the finished mural!”

These photos and text originally appeared on Bhautik Joshi’s Flickr page. He added them to Mission Loc@l’s, and we asked permission to publish the photos and text.