Painting With A Purpose


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.”

anthonylibrarianMiyashiro 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.”

Artwork by the Gospel Graffiti Crew

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.

Originally posted in Xpress Magazine. Creative Commons Licensed images not original photos from the article, are courtesy of Flickr users yaraaa, anthonylibrarian and orbz, respectively.

Starting a Buzz

urkJoani Blank is a 67-year-old with three grandchildren. She’s the type of grandma that brings her neighbors pie and sings in church choir. She is also the kind of grandparent who writes “A Kids First Book About Sex,” targeted at children ages four to six and labels herself a socialist. Blank, The founder of Good Vibrations, San Francisco’s first female-oriented sex store on the West Coast –arguably the whole country, says she has a hard time finding partners because her life’s accomplishments have mounted a stigma to her sex life.

“The reputation is that I must be some kind of a sexual athlete or have huge expectations that they’re not gonna be able to meet up with,” Blank says.

While she may be a sweet little granny, Joani Blank’s not a typical retiree. Although she no longer owns the shop, Good Vibrations remains adored by sex toy lovers in the Bay Area and beyond. The shop grants patrons a sexual vivacity their lives might otherwise lack.

Without the shop, “I’d have a really terrible sex life,” says Jake Dillon, a 21 year-old, SFSU psychology major, who shops at Good Vibrations. Dillon, a transsexual, says he would never feel comfortable even entering typical, classless male-oriented sex stores. He is not alone.

“Everywhere else seems sleazy -a bunch of nasty, greasy men hanging around making snide comments. Good Vibes is such a safe space to browse, check out and buy things that are private and personal,” says Christina Guerra, 22.

By March 1977, the sexual revolution had essentially come and gone. Blank –then a 40 year-old sex counselor- decides to penetrate the world of adult stores by opening one with a feminist approach. She is appalled by the lack of clean places for women to buy sex toys –the only other option in the Bay Area are male sexuality stores and mail-order companies. And the only similar company in the country is Eve’s Garden in New York, which displays vibrators from their mail-order catalogue in a showroom hidden in a Manhattan office building.

diluvienneBlank opens Good Vibrations, in a 10 by 20 feet space on Valencia Street, in the Mission district. The merchandise consists of plug-in “massagers” –often sold in department stores, along with battery-operated vibrators –typically found in sex stores. Prices are around $20 less than their modern day equivalents.

At first, the shop has only about a dozen items for sale. To fill up the rest of the store, Blank exhibits her collection of “antique” vibrators. “One of the reasons I started the shop was to have a place to put them, not in a suitcase under our bed,” she says.

For a while, the shop hardly creates a buzz. “It took people a long time to find out about it. And some people who wanted to be customers were too nervous to come in,” says Blank, who remains unfazed by slow startup sales.

As a child, Blank’s daughter, Amika Sergejev feels awkward about being the daughter of an adult store owner. Now 27, she is glad to have had such a sex-positive mother who puts happiness above financial gain. “My mom really started a business that was about helping the community not making money,” she says proudly.

When Blank starts hiring employees, she gives them a voice by letting them create their own salaries. In the late eighties, she begins spending enough time at home that employees begin calling her house “the founders office.” In 1990, Blank decides to make the company a worker co-op, where every person on staff owns an equal part of the thriving company. In 1992, she leaves altogether and sells Good Vibrations to the staff. Blank agrees to have it paid monthly over 20 years, so the company does not have to pay her all at once.

“That’s essentially my retirement, what I live on now. I’m 67 now. I’m a grandmother three times,” Blank smiles proudly. She stops rubbing Bopper, the small, black dog perched on her lap, and points to the photos on the living wall, where her family is displayed. The co-housing unit where she lives is a group of condos with a number of shared community areas. Residents maintain and manage the place and eat dinner together three nights a week. All decisions, even those involving dinner menus, are made through consensus.

Blank considers herself a socialist and runs her home life just as she ran Good Vibrations, with heavy reliance on collective decision making. She blames many problems in American society on over-attention on individuality, caused by greed.

Everyone is affected by this lust for more. “Even if you’re a poor student, the chances are that you could do without a few more tee-shirts than you have. Or fewer pairs of jeans. I mean you really could do just fine,” Blank argues.

In her post retirement days, Blank has worked with a great number of people to put out four books and three films. Of the books, one is a collection of different photographer’s pictures of vulvas, the rest are collections of other people’s first-person sexual narratives. In 2000, she released her most recent book, “Still Doing It: Men and Women Over Sixty Write About Their Sexuality.”

Of her three films, two are shoulder-up camera shots of people climaxing. She was passionate enough about making the first film, “Faces of Ecstasy,” to make a second version called, “Orgasm! Faces of Ecstasy,” in 2004.

Currently, she is groping with the idea to piece together another book of narratives about polyamorous couples – lovers that openly date outside of their primary relationships.

Some friends push her to keep with this type of work. “I personally encourage her to do a lot with sexuality, because she really has a gift for it,” says David Steinberg, a friend of Blank for over 25 years.

Other friends support Blank in focusing her post-retirement time on co-housing projects and church activities. “The fact that she does the sex thing and a lot of these community things really helps normalize sex. I think that’s so profoundly important,” says Jack Hafferkamp, who directed “Ograsm!” for Blank.

In addition to her sexuality work, Blank volunteers on the board of the Co-housing Association of the United States and is leaving at the end of this year after eight years service.

She has also donated a lot of her post-retirement time to her church. While some may find it strange for someone who has made a living selling sex toys to be an avid church go-er, Blank’s faith is based on a common set of ideals instead of a deity.

“[Unitarianism] has very strong principles around social justice and democracy, inherent worth and dignity in every person and a lot of good stuff that most everybody can agree on. But without the trinity and without the divinity of Jesus Christ,” says Blank.

The sex store proprietor can easily find acceptance with Unitarianism, which has taught a program called “About Your Sexuality” for decades. Even without her church, Blank would live by the same code, which her parents instilled in her from the beginning.

When thinking about her parents, Blank leans back and looks up as her mind is pumped full of childhood memories. “They had a lot to do with my comfort with sexual stuff because they were comfortable talking about it,” Blank says.

Perhaps because of her upbringing, Blank fully supports open discussion of sex. She feels the true key to safe sex is communication, and praises shows like Sex in the City for making it okay for Americans to discuss their bodies. “The worst sexual dysfunction we have, is our inability to talk about sex,” she says.

Creative Commons Licensed shop photo courtesy of Flickr user diluvienne.