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Public artists vie for space in Oakland

on November 25, 2019

Every Tuesday, after regular classes end for the day, Desi Mundo arrives at Unity High School in Oakland to teach kids how to write and sketch graffiti script. Today is a slower day. A few kids filter in and out of the classroom, looking for a snack. One girl sits at the table for a while and sketches a word using colorful markers she pulls from a large plastic bin. At the end of every year, the kids participating in the group will work together to create a mural that will go up somewhere on the charter school’s campus.

Mundo is a muralist and an aerosol writer (an artist who works with spray paint cans and creates pieces of text or script) who has been living and working in Oakland for several years. He recently completed a mural at the Eastmont branch of the Oakland Public Library to honor his wife, who passed away earlier this year from a rare form of pancreatic cancer, and to raise awareness about the disease. He is also the founder of the Community Rejuvenation Project, an Oakland-based public arts and murals organization. According to the organization’s website, since its founding in 2005 the group has produced more than 200 murals in the Bay Area.

“Oakland has always had that gritty, politically intelligent, culturally relevant, culturally astute, socially and politically astute, in-the-moment type of art-work,” says Mundo.

A recently completed mural by Desi Mundo to honor his wife, who passed away earlier this year from a rare form of pancreatic cancer

Oakland has a public art culture with a long and rich history; according to the Visit Oakland website, which is run by a group that tries to encourage local tourism, the city has over 1,000 murals. But there is also an element of competition. Street artists, graffiti writers, and muralists can occasionally butt heads over how to share the city’s blank surfaces, and will sometimes even tag or paint over each other’s work. Meanwhile, city employees are left with the difficult job of determining what has enough artistic value for them to leave up, and what should be considered graffiti and taken down. It’s created an artistic ecosystem in which people have to hustle for space and longevity.

Mundo describes three kinds of artists at work, and explains that many people overlap. “Writers” work in script and text, and operate by painting anywhere their work can be seen, most often without permission. When a writer paints their tag—their name or signature—on as many surfaces as possible in a given area, that’s called “bombing.” They will sometimes even bomb over the work of others, such as muralists or street artists. Most Oaklanders know this work by its most common name: graffiti. It’s illegal. Under the Oakland municipal code, graffiti is considered vandalism and defacement of property. Fines are issued to the violator depending on how much covering up the graffiti costs and how many times the violator has previously been caught.

Street artists are similar to writers, in that they often do work without permission and on a variety of surfaces, but they focus more on imagery instead of script. Some of them, like England’s famous street artist Banksy, work with stencils. “The way I see it, the street art sprung up from us, from writers,” says Mundo. “Writers were always putting images into their pieces, but the focus was always letters. If you didn’t have letters, you generally didn’t get that much respect.”

“And over time, [it] became more and more elaborate,” says Mundo. “You can see people really doing elaborate imagery. And some people just started doing imagery instead of even doing lettering.”

As for murals, Mundo says that they are an altogether different, older tradition, on the level of artists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, although it’s a tradition that writers respect and draw from. “I’ve learned a lot from muralists,” says Mundo.

Muralists typically use brushes and paints, instead of aerosol cans, and do large-scale, complex pieces made to last a long time. “Their stuff will last 50 years, while our stuff will be fading in the next three,” Mundo says with a laugh.

Another fundamental difference is that while graffiti is illegal, murals are usually permitted by private property owners, or by the city, if they’re on public property. Mural work also typically involves community engagement, Mundo says. (With writers, it’s anything goes—as long as you can get away with it, you can write whatever you want, says Mundo.)

Mundo says the lines are blurrier for street art, which can be legal or illegal, depending on who is doing the work and how. But some street artists are writers, and some writers delve into street art—Mundo says that you often can’t really pigeonhole someone.

But, he says, because street art is mainly images, the artists aren’t as targeted by law enforcement as the writers are. “Writing is still criminalized, while street art is sanctified,” he says. “The pictures are more palatable, and therefore they get much more lenient treatment.”

Mundo says that to him “graffiti” is a derogatory term, because it equates the elaborate letters designed by artists—sometimes over years—with scribbling on a bathroom stall. “It’s a way that they try to delegitimize what we’ve done because of something stupid, like whether or not we have permission,” says Mundo.

“Society and the laws don’t always keep up with defining what’s legitimate, especially within the art context,” says Mundo.

“There’s always this kind of dialogue, depending on who you talk with, of graffiti versus street art versus yada-yada-yada,” says Sage Loring, executive director of the Dragon School, based in Oakland’s Chinatown, a nonprofit that aims to make art more accessible to community members, especially teens and young adults. Working with local artists, Dragon School staff have helped residents create murals in Chinatown and downtown Oakland.

“Really, it doesn’t matter,” says Loring. “It’s all borne from the same thing. Graffiti has its roots, as a hip-hop cultural movement, in the 70s on the East Coast in New York. And graffiti is just one part of that.”

“Street art, graffiti—it’s just paint,” he continued. “It’s just expressing images different ways.”

Few are more familiar with the graffiti and street art scene in Oakland than the person known as Erase, or The Eraser. Some, such as Loring, know him as “Mr. Erase.”

But Erase is not an artist or a tagger. For the last 30 years, he’s been employed by Oakland’s Graffiti Abatement program as a “buffer,” or someone tasked with removing or painting over graffiti.

According to the city of Oakland’s website, graffiti can be reported by calling a number, sending an email, filing a report online, or downloading a mobile application from Oakland’s Public Works department. According to an internal memo from the Department of Facilities and Environment’s Keep Oakland Clean & Beautiful division, abatement is supposed to occur within seven calendar days of reporting. Any graffiti containing explicit language or references to gang affiliation is given priority and removed within 24 hours of reporting. According to data provided by Public Works, the city received more than 4,500 service calls about graffiti in 2018.

Erase says he works eight hours a day, five days a week, cleaning up graffiti. Erase is his “street name.” He didn’t know people were calling him that until he came upon a group of artists working on a mural in 2012.  He observed their progress for a while, and one of them noticed him watching and started laughing. “Don’t you know?” the artist asked. “We call you Erase.”

The name stuck. From that day on, Erase started introducing himself to people that way. (Oakland North will refer to him only by this nickname, because his job gives him unique privacy concerns.)

Erase works with three other people who do graffiti abatement, but of the team, he has been doing it the longest. On average, he says, he deals with 15 to 20 tags a day throughout the city. He says that the majority of complaints are now made online, and that technology has made it much easier for people to take a picture of something and report it.

Erase admits that he’s a little obsessed with his work. He’s created his own criteria for what he paints over or cleans up. “If it’s cool, I leave it up. But if it’s stupid, it’s got to come down,” he says.

Erase is particularly protective of schools, churches, the area around Lake Merritt, and murals. People who target those places bother him, because “there’s a million things to tag,” says Erase. “But you have to choose those?” And he doesn’t like the idea of kids seeing tags up on the walls at their schools.

One of the murals created by students at Unity High School titled, “Love Your Flaws.”

If someone hits these areas frequently, the team puts them on a “hit list,” and they focus on just that one person’s activities. They feel like focusing on an individual is a more effective strategy for wiping that person out rather than eliminating them as they go about dealing with the everyday deluge of graffiti.Being the guy who cleans up proof of illegal activity can lead to some risks. Erase often takes photos of graffiti as a way to document that he is doing his job, that he’s actually covering up a tag. A few years ago, he says, he was subpoenaed to go to court to testify that he took a picture of a tag. Erase says he refused to appear, because doing so would make him a “snitch.”

“I’m on the street. I’m a target, I can’t snitch on anybody,” he says. (He was later excused from having to appear.)

During his tenure as a buffer, Erase has grown to respect the scene. “Slowly, I start appreciating it, even though I’m battling it,” he says. “I don’t want graffiti, but I understand it. And I’m always promoting murals.”

He especially admires the murals; he doesn’t touch them. He thinks that murals make the city feel alive. And he likes that when a mural goes up, most of the time, graffiti won’t appear on that wall anymore. “I no longer have to wipe that out. Actually, murals help me abate graffiti,” he says.

“He comes off as a fan,” says Mundo, recalling that once Erase came to a symposium where he spoke up for murals and for artists, saying it should be easier for them to paint. “So, I got to give him credit on that level.”But Erase isn’t the only one who erases street art. At times, there is a tension between writers and muralists over space to do their work. For a mural to last without getting tagged, it helps if the piece expresses a message that relates to local history and culture, if it’s something that locals will like, and if it’s by an artist who’s already cultivated some respect in the community. If it’s done by a newcomer who seems “random,” or if the piece is a cheesy or abstract project, like putting a bunch of handprints on the wall, it could become a target for tagging.

“The writers know that their work is now being not just being targeted by [Graffiti] Abatement, but also by the permission of other artists to do it,” Mundo says. “They’ll let it go if it’s somebody they’re cool with. But if it’s just something that’s really corny, or something like that—we’ll see how long it lasts.”

Erase has seen writers retaliate after a street artist or muralist hogged up too much space. He says some artists will take over a big area—like a billboard or the green fences around construction sites—that are major sites for taggers. When one artist takes the space all for themselves, this can make the others angry.

“You covered them up. They don’t care if you’re doing art,” Erase says. “You should always clean the wall at least a month before you do your piece,” which means painting over the tags so the artist has a blank canvas to work on. “That way, you just kind of watch it so you don’t offend any taggers. You got to communicate,” he says.

But even well-meaning art projects, created by people who have a connection to the community, can get hit with tags and defacement. Amana Harris, the creative originator of the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project, in which staff and teachers work with students on self-portraits and turn them into large murals, says the people who have defaced her projects “floored” her.

“Our murals are totally and truly come out of youth in our community—and, more recently, elders in our community,” says Harris.

According to Harris, the city’s Public Art Advisory Committee approved six of her group’s murals to go under the 580 freeway. Four have been completed, with a fifth currently in progress in collaboration with the West Oakland Legacy Project, an arts and environmental program for middle and high schoolers.

Harris says that their staff has dealt with tagging and defacement on their murals a few times. In one instance, they had created a mural along with elders at St. Mary’s Center, a nonprofit shelter for homeless seniors in Oakland. Harris said about two weeks after it was finished, people in the community witnessed “some hooded dude” blacking out the face of one the mural’s characters, Radiance Man. When confronted by people, the guy ran away, says Harris.

Loring says that Dragon School murals have occasionally been defaced as well. Small tags don’t bother Loring as much as when a person will “smash” a piece, which is when someone throws a bunch of paint up to ruin it. “There’s a lot of work that goes into putting a piece together for a community or a project,” Loring says. “There’s money and time spent on that, and when someone comes along and just destroys it, that’s so disrespectful.”

But when Dragon School murals get hit, the staff just takes it as an opportunity to create something new. “Our work is not necessarily meant to be permanent,” says Loring. “And, quite frankly, we’re so prolific that we run out of wall space—we do so much work.”

It’s different for Harris. Because her project’s murals involve teaching young students, and because they also need time and energy to design the wall, to raise funding, and to get all the necessary permissions, completing the murals can take up to two years. Although she’s not a graffiti artist, she says that her understanding is that when you paint a mural, it should get left alone—even more so if it has a connection to the community. “Somewhere down the line—and I don’t know what’s happened around the code—the code’s been dropped,” says Harris. “The real graffiti artists need to check these fools.”

She believes that the people who have defaced her group’s projects are generally not from Oakland. Where does she think they’re from? “Pleasanton,” she says. “They’re from, you know, L.A. A lot of these taggers, they’re flying through neighborhoods and leaving their tags.”

Erase says he’s not a fan of the “out of towners,” either, the folks whose tag only pops up once a month. He says he often sees a massive uptick during the first Fridays of every month, when thousands of people visit downtown Oakland for the First Friday arts celebration on Telegraph Avenue. He says they tend to do “stupid” tags, and to hit murals if they don’t like a particular artist. “It’s a hometown thing,” he says.

Mundo says that it makes sense that out of towners might hit up a mural if they want to see their work last a bit longer, especially if they just “drop in for a weekend.”

“If you’re from that community, you won’t touch that mural, because you know how it got put together,” says Mundo. Plus, he adds, “The people from that community would be able to track you down and hold you accountable.”

For the moment, Erase isn’t the one painting out these wayward tags. He has been out of commission for more than a month due to a knee injury, so he most likely won’t be back at work until the new year.

But he’s still keeping an eye out, checking to see what’s new.

“There’s probably a lot of graffiti staying up right now because I’m not there,” he says.

He’s looking forward to getting back to covering things up.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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