Neon hues or simple black. “Tags” or “bombs.” A portrait of a fictional creature on the wall of a factory in Albany, or a name etched on the glass of a BART station. The definition of graffiti varies: federal law of California describes it as “any unauthorized inscription, word, figure, mark or design, that is written, marked, etched, scratched, drawn, or painted on real or personal property.” But to graffiti artists and those who appreciate it, graffiti represents more than a spraypainted character. It is a snapshot of culture, a colorful representation of the community. Artists and art professors alike have argued that this illicit art portrays the lives and lifestyle of the artists and communities. However, the graffiti artists war with the Department of Public Works to allow their art to remain public. Artists and city workers quietly battle for their ideals every day: the graffitists fight to have their art stay exposed, while the city officials fight to take it down.
The Department of Public Works of San Francisco puts forth a convincing argument to eradicate the art. According to their website, they spend over $20 million in taxpayer money every year to paint over graffiti. The city has instituted several programs to prevent graffiti, including youth education programs on vandalism, volunteer graffiti-removal days, and rewards for citizens who report graffiti. Penal code 594 states that anyone who defaces, damages or destroys “any real property not his/her own” is subject to up to a $10,000 fine and/or one year in prison in minor cases, when damage is $400.00 or less. Damage over $400.00 can be punished as a felony, and vandals can be fined up to $50,000 and/or three years in federal prison.
Rather than completely eradicate street art, the city of San Francisco has created a program to supervise and limit legal graffiti while harnessing the creative power of Bay Area artists. Called StreetSmARTS and initiated in 2010, this program connects artists with private property owners to negotiate creating murals and pieces. There are flaws with the program, though; the San Francisco Arts Commission must select only a few artists to be eligible for the program.
The Bay Area hosts a plethora of small graffiti-artists, as well as full time artists, including famous names such as Pemex, GATS (Graffiti Against the System), PTV (Punks, Thugs and Vandals), Swampy, and Oracle. Some of these artists’ work has roots in environmental activism and expressions of their culture. Some create graffiti to advocate for legalization of their art. Others simply graffiti because they want to share their art in public spaces, rather than a gallery. Throughout San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, these artists scribble their name and signature. Many of these different artists have distinct styles and signature characters, and occasionally they will even collaborate on pieces. These pieces can be found on bridges, rooftops, alley walls, and more. Many consider them to be beautiful snapshots of the cultures that define the bay’s one-of-a-kind culture.
Greg Niemeyer, a professor of new media at UC Berkeley, supports this form of art. In a pro-graffiti video, he states, “Graffiti is a life force in a city that says to every citizen ‘I’m alive; the city’s alive’ and a city without graffiti is like a field without flowers.”
Some of the graffiti artists have become so world-renowned that their pieces are worth more off the walls, despite the sale of the art discouraged by the artist. For example, the British graffiti artist Banksy does most of his work in public spaces, but will occasionally sell his work in private auctions. Some have even argued that his public works need security guards to protect the pieces from being torn off the walls. In 2008, his piece “Keep It Spotless” sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York for $1,870,000, despite only being valued at 250,000-300,000 USD. Several of his pieces have sold for seven and six figures, and it is estimated that Banksy is worth roughly 20 million dollars. But despite his fame and monetary value, Banksy responded to the auctions by posting a picture to his website depicting an auction, with the piece being sold containing only the words “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU MORONS ACTUALLY BUY THIS S***.” Meanwhile, Walmart recently discontinued their sale of knock-off Banksy “Destroy Capitalism” t-shirts.
But the illicitness of graffiti is part of what defines it. As artist Swampy put it in a 2011 interview with the New York Times, “Graffiti is great, it’s mysterious, it’s real, it’s against the law, it’s acting upon a world that acts upon you.” It’s because the art is in public spaces, for everyone to enjoy, and on someone else’s property.
Art is not always the purpose of graffiti; sometimes vandals will throw hasty, looping words or symbols up on the public spaces. Many of these people will scratch out their own names, gang symbols and profanity. Unlike the often beautiful and aesthetic paintings of graffiti artists, many regard these tags as extremely unappealing, and clear examples of overt defacement of public property. Graffiti artists and the Department of Public Works find common ground on this type of vandalism; they both agree that it lacks any sort of contribution to the community. The city focuses on the financial impact of cleaning it up. As Oakland-based artist Pemex angrily stated when referencing GATS’ work in an interview with “i am OTHER”: “It’s not like a f***ing throw up that some jackass from f***ing… the suburbs learned how to do graffiti and starts writing on everyone’s s**t. And starts doing throw ups that have no f***ing meaning.”
During the four-day strike of October 2013, vandals broke into nine BART stations across the Bay area, defacing advertisements, station maps, floors, benches, even the electrified third rails. No artist or organization took responsibility for the vandalism, and it lacked the artistic value seen in the illegal but tasteful murals by Oakland graffiti artists. However, in the eyes of Oakland’s and San Francisco’s art commissions, all graffiti is one and the same.