Here Yesterday, Gone Today

A few weeks ago I snapped a photo of a stunning wall mural along the Market Street corridor. The image of a man dressed in flannel and jeans walking a menacing, snarling pit bull. The artwork was well crafted – rich in color and dimension – and viewed through the chainlink fence of the open parking lot that the graffiti mural faced, was appropos commentary on the artworks immediate setting.

I passed that same lot this morning, and looked up to find that the graffiti MURAL had been painted over – erased via housepaint, and the newly ‘blanked’ surface had already been tagged.

It stopped me in my tracks. As an advocate for public art, I rejoice at seeing artistic works across the otherwise blank canvases of our city. As an advocate for public ART, I am disheartened by the prolification of graffiti tags – the repeatative signature scrawl that serves the purpose of dog ‘marking’ urination – simply to mark a spot, to document one’s passing through.

Graffiti IS a problem – a $22 million problem, according to a Civil Grand Jury’s findings. Combined with litter and vandelism, graffiti is a contributor to the danger and degradation of many neighborhoods.

But some graffiti IS art. Undeniably. Who defines it as such, and what can be done to identify graffiti MURAL sites that add aesthetic VALUE to a streetscape are all political issues that have yet to be determined, but as a public citizen whose tax dollars go in part to the city’s mitigation measures to eradicate ALL graffiti, I see value in setting those parameters. The graffiti mural of the man and his pit bull had a positive impact on that stretch of Market Street it once graced – whereas the “clean” wall that it purportedly is now is MORE of a magnet to the type of graffiti that does NOT address it’s setting, does NOT provide a visual focal point, does NOT prompt a dialogue of what it depicts.

I stopped to ask two men who were sitting at the edge of the chainlink fence if they remembered the graffiti mural, and what they thought of the change. They told me that the SF police had given the property owner a notice and that the owner would be fined (the rumor was $50 per day) for the lenght of time that the graffiti mural remained. The owner had no choice but to paint over it.

The irony to ME is: Mayor Newsom is pushing hard to curb graffiti in the city. At the same time, he is also promoting “temporary public art” throughout the city.

My question is, what can be done to “officially” classify certain works of graffiti artwork as “art” and allow them to remain in situ for designated periods of time – 3 months? 6 months? – and to be documented for posterity as contributors to the rich artistic fabric of our city? Wouldn’t this possibly be an enticing incentive for street vandals artists to produce works that ARE art, and evolve into pseudo-sanctioned zones of the city where blank walls are transformed (at very little relative cost to the city, I’d like to point out) into PROPONENTS of the Mayor’s Temporary Public Art program, and become a ‘middle-ground’ between the low- and high-arts?

This is what I want to see. Less of the “clean” blank walls filled with tagger’s scrawl, and more celebrated, ‘organically grown’ graffiti mural art.

If this is something YOU want to see too, the Graffiti Advisory Board meets the second thursday of each month – tonight! – and is open for public commentary. I feel strongly enough about this issue to want to garner some support for this concept – granting temporary permits for graffiti determined to be of artistic value to the communities they reside in – so I want to prepare a developed point of discussion before I attend one of these meetings. If anyone else is interested in joining me and working to outline a proposal for such a plan, please contact me directly: nmcclure[at]

9 Comments so far

  1. mark (unregistered) on February 8th, 2007 @ 12:24 pm

    I had noticed that piece of art as well. I’m sorry it’s gone, but I think that’s part of the game for sub-legal muralists who don’t paint approved works on approved surfaces. They are aware their work will be painted over sooner or later.

    One could say that an artist with talent could go straight, get a gallery or non-profit to do the paperwork, and create approved murals on approved walls. There’s certainly plenty of that throughout the city.

    But in the next breath, you realize that some people will never go that route if it would mean risking being co-opted by the process. And perhaps they enjoy the illicit nature of their sub-legal process. The trade-off is that the work is ephemeral — and maybe that is also part of its charm.

    As a performance artist in the city in the 1980s and early 90s, I did work that was ephemeral as well. All I have to show from those days is a folder full of fliers and programs, and a few photographs. At least graffiti artists can take a picture of their work.

  2. Nancy (unregistered) on February 8th, 2007 @ 12:42 pm

    Mark, excellent points, and I agree with all of them. I wish that more blank walls WERE “approved” surfaces, but that’s yet another issue. What I’m proposing is a measure that doesn’t interfere with HOW illicit murals are created, but allows a ‘stay of execution’ in regards to the city’s current policy of noticing and fining property owners unless they immediately paint over them. This provides some time for a ‘valuable’ mural to have some effect on a neighborhood, for it to be documented, and some official ‘appreciation’ would hopefully promote the type of graffiti that IS more artistic, perhaps to even pave a path for street artists who desire to transition towards a legal avenue for their art to do so, while still perserving their street cred.

  3. Chester (unregistered) on February 8th, 2007 @ 1:08 pm

    Personally, I look at it from the angle of property rights. Just as a property owner has the right to paint over any graffiti — even if it’s a “beautiful mural” — if he so chooses, he should have the right to leave graffiti intact, even if an “ugly tag”.

    To me, the matter of prevention of graffiti is a governmental matter. As is graffiti removal. If graffiti is, overall, a harm to the general environment of a city, then it is the general city’s responsibility to either prevent it or remove it. Which means city agencies doing the removal via funds that come from the city’s populace-at-large.

    Which means, in my mind, it’s bullshit to force property owners to spend their personal funds to remove graffiti, much less graffiti with “real artistic merit”.

  4. Nancy (unregistered) on February 8th, 2007 @ 1:40 pm

    Chester, I believe every property owner would side with you on that perspective! And similarly to Mark’s comments, I lean in agreement with you.

    The policy to require property owners to pay for graffiti removal is, I believe, a measure to financially dissuade ‘absent owners’ from allowing their buildings to fall into a derelict state. Requiring owners to pay out-of-pocket is motivation for them to secure their grounds, increase private surveillance of their property, and otherwise ease the burden off of city government to do the same.

  5. dln (unregistered) on February 8th, 2007 @ 8:42 pm

    @mark: you’re pretty much right on, but also, most talented graffers do in fact earn by selling and showing canvases. It’s just another side to the art and artists.

    The organic nature of a piece and how it changes over time (or gets buffed the next day) is part of the art and the artform.

    As is choice of location. And the legality. And the cops. And the buffers. And the complainers, the fans, and the enemies. The culture is the entirety, and graffers cherish it all.

    It’s an important part of american cities, and san francisco is blessed with an abundance of subsurface talent.

    Re: the property owner has to clean policy, you’d think that unless its gang tags, the property owner would be free to decide wether to keep it or not as well. Seems like a strange law, and a gray area at best.

  6. twick (unregistered) on February 14th, 2007 @ 2:50 pm

    i had permission to paint the mural…but the police still threatened to arrest me if i continued painting the wall..
    so i stopped…officer cris putz of the san francisco graffiti task force came down and said anyone painting this property was going to be sent to jail…it was a slap to the art world then…
    now they have covered up the last remaing part of a colorful mural..calling it graffiti?????? it’s a bigger slap now….
    the city spends thousands of dollars trying to eliminate the problem of defacing public property….now they are low budget so they have to threaten business owners of a fine….the mayor should give graffiti artist a place that they can showcase their art..a legal wall sort of speak…if kids had places they can go and paint it would eliminate some of the street tagging…new york has several walls of fame….why not have some here in san francisco…
    and they should not destroy wonderful murals..thinking that its graffiti tags…
    theres a big difference between graffiti tagging and graffiti art…
    its a part of san francisco really and it will never go away but theres ways you can control it…
    the city is doing the wrong thing…..

  7. Nancy (unregistered) on February 14th, 2007 @ 3:27 pm

    Twick, thanks for you comment! Glad to hear the perspective of the artist. SF used to have an area where graffiti artists could concentrate their work – it was somewhere in the Civic/Tenderloin area, but that was back in the 70’s-80’s, and it had been shut down. I only learned about it from seeing a documentary that traced graffiti groups in NYC, SF and LA that showed at the Red Vic last year… I’ll search for it and see if I can post up a link…

  8. anna (unregistered) on February 14th, 2007 @ 5:42 pm

    Wow Twick that’s soo cool you wrote in! I think an email to the graffiti task force is in order- about the diff. between graffiti art& tagging. I wonder if a community acknoweldgement & appreciation of the art would hel the police “decide” what is tagging vs. art. Because that mural is just ten times better then the tag, I have to say. In North Beach we have a beautiful graffiti mural alon an old theater and it never gets tagged. It’s like tje law of good art- people just tend to respect it :0

  9. Nancy (unregistered) on February 16th, 2007 @ 3:38 pm

    The documentary is Piece By Piece which is available on both Netflix and Greencine.

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