Adrian Turner holds a can of black spray paint with one hand and uses the other to carefully pin a stencil cut from an old record sleeve against the front wall of a downtown youth hostel. A man in his mid-twenties approaches him from behind and says, “Don’t do that on this building, man.” He glares at Turner, who has already painted a dancing girl on the other side of the entrance, and adds, “I work here.”
Irritated by the interruption, Turner argues with the man to let him finish. Realizing the man will not let him continue, he walks away mumbling, “Nobody cares when you do it on the sidewalk.” He stops at the corner and paints a red American flag on the sidewalk, over which he sprays a cut-out of Saddam Hussein in black.
Turner, 24, who chooses to withhold his real name, is a Dean’s List political science major at SF State. He prefers Frank Zappa to hip-hop and tags for art, beauty and politics, not for adrenaline, territory or fame. Like many graffitists today, he has never been associated with a gang, nor is he an economically disadvantaged minority looking for a voice in a world that ignores him.
Many graffiti artists are in their mid-twenties. Many are art majors. Some are even professionals in their 30s. These outlaw Warhols spread messages that might never be portrayed otherwise by coloring our world with thought-provoking and self-expressive images and words. Many have sworn off illegal painting altogether, though they still they struggle with authority and conformity. Their work is up one day and down the next. Every day they risk freedom for the art.
“It’s something I do because I like to stimulate some kind of discourse,” says Turner, who focuses most of his artwork on politics by using images of AK-47s, the American flag, Saddam Hussein and other easy-to-recognize symbols that epitomize modern-day America.
Turner believes his pieces allow people to avoid awkward social situations by almost encouraging them “to avoid uncomfortable eye contact” by staring at artwork on the ground.
The illegal paintings also sometimes give other artists a sense of comfort. Estria Miyashiro, 36, has been a graffiti artist for over 20 years.
“Whenever I go to a city and see graffiti, I feel reassured,” he says, “I feel like there’s people like me in this place, and there’s not 100 percent control by the authorities.”
Miyashiro was caught tagging messages about the corruption of local government in the Sunset District over ten years ago. Since then, he has stuck with legal aerosol murals, where landowners request him to paint on their property.
Even today, he remains distrustful of the city –particularly its graffiti laws, which define the art as “blight” and allow the Department of Public Works to remove tagging without landlord permission.
“San Francisco will straight remove legal murals,” he says, claiming a number of his pieces were painted over. He says one, illustrating police brutality, was removed overnight before it was even completed.
Now teaching graffiti art to high school students at the East Side Arts Alliance, Miyashiro mixes “political education” in with his painting and concept lessons. Because students are likely to use what they learn to break the law, he believes they should know their rights and how to deal with aggressive police.
“I’ll tell them what cops are trained to do, how they’re trained to treat people that get arrested,” Miyashiro says. “We also give them political education as to how the system works in this country, and how it’s not set up for people of color. All my kids are people of color, so it’s very specific to our struggles in a white dominant culture.”
Despite being often portrayed by police, politicians and media as “gang bangers”, a large number of today’s graffiti artists paint for positive effects. Often times the art keeps youth out of gangs. While many of the city’s anti-graffiti policies are attempts to restrict the visual power of gangs, Miyashiro says graffiti can be a cure to gang activity, not a symptom. He believes tagging requires too much time and energy for people to do other illegal activities on the side.
“People who are doing graffiti, they’re too busy doing graffiti to be selling drugs,” he explains, “They’re gonna be climbing a roof [to paint]. They’re climbing on a train or whatever.”
A friend of Miyashiro’s, who uses the tag-name Bash, left gang life in L.A. to pursue art in Berkeley. Miyashiro claims the medium gave him a reason to look forward to the next day and his next painting, whereas the gang left him thinking everyday might be his last.
“He was like, ‘This is it for me. Whatever medium it is, I’m gonna do something creative,’ and he left the gang,” Miyashiro says, “It saved his life.”
Other graffiti artists hope their art will save people like Bash. Cameron Moberg, a member of the wide-spread Gospel Graffiti Crew, teaches aerosol art at Crossroads Youth Recreation Center in San Francisco’s SOMA district. Here, he offers free legal painting surfaces for teens interested in graffiti.
“I’d rather them do it here than get arrested and have that on their record for life,” Moberg says.
Once the kids aren’t running the risk of getting arrested, Moberg sees graffiti as a deterrent from gang affiliations. Through teaching, he has met a few kids involved with gangs in the mission. He encourages them to use their artistic skills, hoping painting will become another option. He explains to them that some members of his graffiti crew actually make their livings doing aerosol murals.
“I could totally see graffiti art being a way out for them.” he says.