Source: San Francisco Chronicle – 9.1.2010
By C.W. Nevius
San Francisco has its graffiti abatement program down cold. It doesn’t work, of course, but everyone knows the drill.
It goes like this: A tagger spray-paints his name on a wall. Then a property owner, facing a possible fine from the city, paints over the tag. The tagger returns and paints his name back on the wall. And so it goes – over and over.
Clearly, something needs to change.
“The city has a $22 million graffiti problem (that’s what annual cleanup costs are, according to the Department of Public Works) and nobody has done anything constructive,” said Jill Monton, director of programs for the city Arts Commission.
In response, Monton and Ed Reiskin, director of DPW, launched StreetSmARTS, an outside-the-box idea to attack the problem. It is innovative, bold and hip.
Frankly, I’m just not sure it will work, but it is certainly worth a try.
The idea is to pay urban artists to create large-scale, full-wall murals. Property owners and potential artists met this week and Monton says DPW has contributed $50,000 to fund the program.
The hope is that once the wall is painted – with cutting-edge urban designs that graffiti artists respect – taggers will leave it alone.
“It seems there is a kind of understanding that the taggers don’t tag murals,” said Reiskin. “Once the art goes up, the tagging stops.”
Tenderloin merchants have been doing this for the last few years. They contact some of the established artists and pay them to cover a wall on their store. If you pick the right guy, and if the mural measures up, it is considered bad form to tag it.
At least that’s the theory. Gia Grant, executive director of San Francisco Clean City, has been struggling with a mural in the Excelsior district for two months. The mural is a product of cooperation among community groups and young, local artists, yet it’s been hit five or six times by Grant’s count.
“In the past it seems murals were considered sacred,” Grant said.
No one follows the local wall art scene more closely than police Officer Christopher Putz, a graffiti abatement officer. Putz can identify artists from their style, knows all the players, and is respected in the graffiti community.
“We’ve had stuff I thought would never be tagged and it was. I just hope we are not left with any more damaged murals. I am sick of looking at them,” he said.
There’s also the sticky question of who is being hired to do murals – at a fee of up to $1,000. Isn’t it possible that some of the people painting murals were running from the police previously?
“I told (StreetSmARTS organizers) before … that these artists should include a criminal background check when they apply,” said Putz. “It would be embarrassing if we were hiring someone who has been damaging property.”
Grant, a realist, says that’s possible.
“If that is the case, I would like to think that we are redirecting artistic energy in a positive direction,” she said.
StreetSmARTS is an ambitious program. Besides hiring artists to create murals there is a program in the public schools, targeting teens to stress what is appropriate public art. Monton says there will also be a “free wall,” which will be turned over to urban artists without restriction.
“If they don’t have to hide,” Monton said, “maybe it will discourage them from climbing up on a freeway overpass.”
Maybe. And maybe the new murals will be respected and left alone.
But, if you ask Putz what keeps taggers from defacing wall murals, he has a short answer.
“There are murals that are up, by well-respected crew, that aren’t touched,” Putz said. “Because if you did, they’d kick your ass.”