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The Writing on the Wall: It's Graffiti Versus Murals in San Francisco and Oakland. Either Way, Street Artists Win. 

Wednesday, Feb 26 2014
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In San Francisco, city crews and a volunteer program called Graffiti Watch cover up graffiti on public property. The San Francisco Police Department also has a pretrial aversion strategy for juvenile offenders to paint over public property that they defaced in lieu of paying a fine. Similar to Oakland, San Francisco property owners are required to paint over the tags themselves within 30 days or else receive a fine for blight.

Stringer considers graffiti a major problem, and so do many others. According to 311 statistics, calls complaining about graffiti are second next to inquiries about Muni and bus times. He says that the city is adopting the programs of other cities and brainstorming new ways to tackle the problem. Last winter, S.F. initiated the first Zero Graffiti International Conference, which explored different cities' problems with graffiti and the strategies used to deal with it.

Five years ago, the city's Graffiti Advisory Board decided on a bold approach: using murals for graffiti abatement. The strategy had already been adopted in cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia. During the first graffiti panel summit, city officials realized that "some murals were a deterrent for graffiti and could be an enhancement for the community," says Stringer. Many of the murals honored the heritage of the city and elicited a deeper sense of pride in the community.

Created in conjunction with SFDPW and the San Francisco Arts Commission, Street SmARTs commissions professional artists to paint murals on private property in areas prone to blight. The property owner and Arts Commission split the cost of the mural. Property owners are able to select from a pool of artists and coordinate with one to design a mural. Unlike i do it 4 Oakland, which commissions young graffiti taggers, all of the artists in Street SmARTs are established muralists who go through a competitive application process. But both programs operate on the principle that a painted wall is considered claimed, and that most taggers are looking for the blank canvases of the city.

Tyra Fennell, arts education manager at Street SmARTs, says that only two in 10 murals get tagged over. In general, the community generally receives the murals well. But she admits that residents of some neighborhoods, like lower Nob Hill, don't agree with the strategy of using street art to combat graffiti. These are areas that don't have a graffiti problem and so don't tend to express an interest in having street art.

Using murals to fight graffiti rankles those who consider all street art a nuisance, and creates conflict with those more accepting of the alternative. During the Saturday afternoon paintings in Oakland, Holohan says that while most passersby seem supportive, some have come by to threaten the teens.

Fennell says the line between street art and graffiti is dictated by permission. "Someone can paint a version of the Mona Lisa on a wall, but if the property owner doesn't want it there, it's vandalism," she says.

The ubiquity of murals shows the city's evolving acceptance of street art as creative expression and a reflection of a place's past. The corridor of murals in the Mission's Clarion Alley is a nod to the area's history as a creative hub for artists and musicians. Now it's a tourist attraction, the latter-day version of one of San Francisco's more traditional landmarks — a Lombard Street with spray paint rather than flowers. Balmy Alley in the Inner Mission, meanwhile, is the city's most concentrated collection of murals. Its ode to Chicano art is a way for indigenous communities to celebrate their culture and to reclaim an area where they have felt disenfranchised.


During four weeks in June, a group of volunteers from Keep Oakland Beautiful brushed several coats of gray paint over the tags that were devouring Wayne McNeil's Pressure Cast Products building like urban ivy. This had to be done before the young taggers would begin work on the mural — and it was a strangely formal acknowledgment of graffiti etiquette. The teens painting the mural wouldn't start working on the building until it was completely clear of tags, so as not to offend other graffiti writers. The taggers view their work as a territorial line that, if breached, could be considered a sign of disrespect. "It becomes a tagging war," says Elliott.

McNeil had been caught in the middle of that war. His property is an ideal target for surreptitious night tagging because it's visible from the Fruitvale BART station — prime real estate for a graffiti artist who wants his tags to be seen by as many people as possible. "The streets are free art galleries," Davalos says. "You don't have to pay to get in."

So when McNeil's building started to get bombarded by graffiti a few years ago, he wasn't able to buff the tags out at the rate that they appeared. Soon they wrapped around all sides of the building. McNeil wasn't perturbed about the graffiti because he was too busy with his business, but when Gallo's office contacted him asking if his building could serve in the graffiti abatement pilot program, he agreed. While Keep Oakland Beautiful painted over the tags during the summer, McNeil had to keep a can of gray paint in the garage to combat the fresh tags, which would often appear within 48 hours.

The mural taking shape on McNeil's building is an amalgam of pictographs, ranging from tribal drawings of buffalo to abstract symbols. Set against a bright orange and red background, the painting represents the inside of a cave. To honor the history of the region, McNeil wanted a mural that looked more like a Native American painting than a traditional mural. On the side of the building the mural hasn't yet reached, the palimpsests of tags faintly peek through layers of gray paint. McNeil brings the painters tacos from a nearby food truck during their lunch break. He thinks that the restorative justice program is a good idea.

About The Author

Melissa Hellmann

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