Monday, May 7, 2018

May 2018 Newsletter

Graffiti: Vandalism, Street Art or Murals
Megan Wilson, public mural, 
Clarion Alley Mural Project, San Francisco, CA, 2013
From Clarion Alley website
I dislike graffiti. Sorry folks. A lot of people love it. In fact, a friend recently went down to San Francisco to see the graffiti in the Mission District. I was surprised. Why would anyone spend money to go see graffiti? I mentioned this to my son who lives in the Bay Area and he annoyingly said, “That’s not graffiti, that’s mural art,” and he proceeded to show me some stunning pieces.

Well, that set me back.  So what is it? Graffiti, street art, murals?

Grafitti written on security roll-up doors in Barcelona
While on a trip to Spain and Italy, I saw all sorts of graffiti—from tags and blockbuster lettering to amazing “murals.”  Specifically, in Barcelona, most of the "tagging" was on the large roll-up security doors on shops. A passerby on any weekday may not see the markings, but on a Sunday or holiday when the shops are closed and the big steel doors are shut, the streets seemed to be lined with black scrawled gibberish done in spray paint. Conversely, while on the freeway, you see these magnificent pictures painted cement blocks.

I returned even more curious. Thus, I started reading about graffiti and have subsequently learned a lot. Surprisingly, it’s a complicated subject with all sorts of twists and turns as well as opinions. 
The scribbled graffiti we see today, also known as tagging, gained prominence in the 60s and 70s in the New York City subways.  Considered vandalism, the movement spread across the country and into Europe. Most American cities eventually created strict laws, including outlawing the purchase of spray paint by minors. Graffiti continues today, but with a twist. It’s becoming an art form, and when you get permission to paint the wall or surface, it’s legal.

That’s what has happened in the Mission District. First, let’s discuss what’s considered legal and illegal in San Francisco. According to KQED News, there are three forms of “street art,” one of which is legal for an obvious reason.

There is the graffiti writer who illegally inscribes letters and symbols to express him/herself on mailboxes or walls. The most famous grafitti writer is Darryl Mc Cray or Cornbread (his moniker). History says that he was the first non-gang tagger. It all started with a crush on a girl, where he wrote, “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” all over north Philadelphia. In time, he simply used Cornbread. The writing spread  to New York City. 

Darryl Mc Cray or Cornbread/Pinterest

Street artists, who may be working legally or illegally(depending on if they received permission to use the surface), use more illustrations, wheat paste, stencils and stickers to create their pieces. Here’s a tutorial on wheat paste production and use:

A wheat paste graffiti by unknown street artist in Chicago
Photo by CHELCIE S. PORTER 2011
The third type is the muralist who usually is working legally and even sometimes encouraged by neighborhoods or businesses to use their walls for art. This is what is happening in the Mission District.

Clarion Alley
One such place is Clarion Alley in San Francisco that’s considered the center of the muralist community.  Begun in 1992, they received permission from all the residents in the alley (accept for two) to use the buildings as a “canvas.” Since they have permission, there is no vandalism involved (except that which is created on some of the murals). Many other streets and alleys have created the same forum for public art. See Guide to San Francisco’s Mission District Murals

Clarion alley in 1992 (from website)

Clarion alley in 2011 (from website)
The key here is permission. However, what happens to the art when the owner  of the building or surface wants to make a change? There’s an interesting case in New York where the property owner had to pay artists when he toredown his building.  Back in the 1990s Jerry Wolkoff, a developer, bought an old factory building on 45-46 Davis Street in Long Island City. He had plans to develop it but in the meantime he allowed artists to use the exterior as graffiti canvas. From the start, the art was taken very seriously and curated to ensure it was done properly.

By Youngking11 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Ezmosis - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 
Over the years, the old factory was transformed with  hundreds of works and was even dubbed 5Pointz. The location, just like the Mission District, became famous. People from all over the planet came to see the open-air graffiti museum (as it’s been called).

Then in 2013 things changed. Wolkoff wanted to tear down the factory and build condos. In his haste, instead of giving notice to the artists so that they could preserve their artwork, he had everything white-washed one night in one fell swoop under the veil of darkness. As an artist myself, I can only imagine what it must have felt like to have one’s work painted over.

Years passed. Then four years later the artists sued Wolkoff under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which grants “moral rights” to artists. Although the artists did not own the property, their moral rights had  been infringed when the owner white-washed the art. The award was $6.7 million, representing $150,000 per work destroyed.  Of course this case is being appealed, and it will be interesting to see how it all falls into place. However, it does send a message to property owners and artists alike. 

Personally, I am in total agreement with allowing artists to express themselves on buildings and/or walls where permission has been given, but at the same time are the owners locked in forever? Can there be a way to preserve what has been created? It’s a very stimulating topic for discussion.

Interestingly, graffiti dates back to Egyptian times. Some even say that the cave drawings of pre-history are graffiti. While in Pompeii, I learned and saw ancient writings carved (scratched) into stone and/or pained on walls. The word graffiti is actually the plural word for graffito, meaning mark, image, writing scratched or engraved into a surface. In Roman days these marks would appear in houses, pubs, on pottery, walls--public and private.

By Plaàtarte - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The messages in Pompeii are often rude, erotic, phallic as well as poetic, simple greetings, political, etc. To date they have found 11,000 graffiti examples in Pompeii, with the oldest "Gaius was here." To read some of the bawdy ones you can visit

From what I have read, there are three types of graffti: tagging with a single line with perhaps the artist's name; throw ups with two cartoon figures; blockbuster which is large piece, including block-style letters and the wild side with indecipherable words.

Creating graffiti requires speed because it is still considered vandalism. Materials used are spray paint, markers, stencils and stickers. Some graffiti have become quite elaborate including silhouette paintings and representational pieces.

And while I see the beauty in many of these pieces, using someone's property without their permission is like going into an art store and stealing the canvases. Instead, I like the idea of having safe places where artists have spaces that are specifically dedicated to graffiti that the community can enjoy at large. Otherwise, in my opinion, it is defacement.

What's coming up for Summer?

Classes and Workshops

Glastonbury Studios Classes
Five-Week Session 
Begins Week of June 4
Seats available in most classes

Pencil to Brush*
Drawing and painting
Every Tuesday morning
10 am to 12:30 pm

The Morning Draw
The Seaside--various media
Every Wednesday morning
10 am to 12:30 pm
$80 Full

The Drawing Studio 
Colored Pencils
Every Thursday evening
6:30 pm to 9:00 pm
To register email:

*Must have experience with three-color method in acrylics

2018 Studio Workshops
All studio workshops are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Includes most supplies and lunch. Class size is limited to ten students. Pre-registration is required. Only payment reserves your seat. Cost is $85. 

Saturday, June 23
Keeping a nature journal

Friday, September 7
Watercolor painting with Brusho®

Saturday, November 10
Beginning acrylic painting