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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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"We have too many people in jail, and they're using their skills to do something creative," he says. But he admits that only time will tell if the project will actually keep graffiti off the wall. Certainly, the young artists aren't severing ties to their past completely. While admiring the work of the artists, McNeil points out one figure that the teens sneaked onto the wall: an orange stickman aiming a spray can.


The uncomfortable truth about the relationship between graffiti and more accepted forms of art is that many artists pass through one to reach the other. As a pioneer of the street art community in San Francisco, Francisco Aquino, a muralist commissioned by Street SmARTs, has been on both sides of the law over the last 30 years.

When Aquino was 12 years old, a friend showed him pictures of graffiti in New York. He loved it. "Graffiti art is one of the last uncensored tools that we have in this community," says Aquino, now 43. "You can take your tag and write whatever it is you want to write about." He got into tagging, but started painting murals in 1983. He wanted to explore different art forms, but also to incorporate the community he had been putting his name on for years.

Aquino has been in the graffiti scene for decades, and has earned the respect of other taggers as well as the larger community — even though he started out writing his graffiti monker, Twick, on buses and other public places. After painting murals for nearly 20 years and by showing his portfolios to different store owners, Aquino received a commission to paint his first mural in 2001. Soon he was painting murals throughout the city, becoming one of the first to bring street art to the mainstream in San Francisco. His works, which hearken to his graffiti past with bright color and bold linework, can be found throughout the Mission and Chinatown.

Aquino became involved in Street SmARTs when it started in 2009. His first assignment was to paint a mural on a building at 23rd and Capp streets — at that time, the most vandalized building in the Mission. It was an ongoing battle between the graffiti artists and the property owner who couldn't compete with the perpetual defacement of his building. Aquino intended the piece to honor the local street merchants. As a lifelong resident of the Mission, Aquino was inspired by the beauty and everyday struggles of people in the neighborhood, and reflected them in vibrant paintings that depicted elements of the wide variety of local cultures, including Aztec and Chinese.

Although San Francisco and Oakland are embracing street art to deter graffiti, Aquino says that young graffiti writers have been destroying murals in the city by tagging them over the past six months, which he feels is a huge cultural loss for the community. When Aquino sees young taggers on the street, he often warns them of the risks of tagging illegally on buildings.

"Yes, you get a rush from writing your name, tagging and destroying property, but at the same time, if you get caught you're going to end up going to jail," he says. He tries to encourage young artists to use the abilities they've harnessed through graffiti as a springboard for other activities, like graphic design or printing T-shirts. But Aquino maintains a respect for graffiti; it's how he began his career.

Which is only natural. The weird tension between graffiti and street art is that they're still mostly inseparable. Artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Aquino leave their designs on well-trafficked walls, T-shirts, or even presidential campaign posters. But an embrace of the art means a grudging acceptance of the tagging culture from which it came. Many of the artists have crossed a threshold into respectability, but they had to start somewhere — and that means that once upon a time there was a blank wall and a can of spray paint.

After five years of tagging, Davalos is in a transitional stage. He recently stopped to avoid getting into legal trouble. Although he no longer writes his name on public places, tagging opened Davalos up to other art forms, like political cartoons, brushwork, and watercolor. "Graffiti is a gateway art," says Davalos. Now, cities, tired of struggling to maintain their blank canvases, are starting to agree.

About The Author

Melissa Hellmann

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