Are your friends criminals?

Things get weird at the Zero Graffiti International Conference

The Zero Graffiti International Conference program, complete with ads for anti-spraycan spy technology.

STREET SEEN Nearing the climax of her presentation at last week's Zero Graffiti International Conference, Vancouver PD's graffiti-fighting specialist Valerie Spicer despaired over graffiti's affects on its perpetrators.

"He didn't die because of graffiti," she said sadly, a deceased Canadian graffiti artist's childhood photo on the PowerPoint screen behind her. "But I'm quite sure that the behaviors he learned in the subculture didn't help him confront the man who stabbed and killed him."

It wasn't the only conflation between societal decay and graffiti made at the conference (, held Jan. 16-18 in the soaring white St. Mary's Cathedral on Geary and Gough — the one designed so that God sees a cross when he looks down at it.

Organized by the SF Graffiti Advisory Board, anti-graffiti nonprofit Stop Urban Blight, and citizen's group SF Beautiful, the conference gave law enforcement and city officials the chance to attend lectures on prevention and investigation of graffiti, tours of Mission and Tenderloin murals on Academy of Art buses — the school was one of the event's sponsors, in addition to the SF Arts Commission — and a play put on by a Sacramento anti-gang and graffiti group. This last, "performed in the colloquial dialect of youth and street culture," as the program delicately put it.

As Spicer wrapped up her tragic tale, the lights came back on in the St. Mary's basement. I fumbled with my things I was targeted by one of the graffiti fighters present.

"Are your friends into crime?" said Monty Perrera, professional buffer for the City of Oakland. "I assume you're probably in the subculture," he continued (my pink-and-purple hair made for poor camouflage, I guessed.) He was wearing a T-shirt screen printed with one of Oakland street artist Gats' enigmatic visages.

"I've met many of the main [graffiti artists] in Oakland," Perrera continued, after apologizing for "promoting graffiti" with the shirt. "They don't really trust me or like me, but..." The admission hung between us in the air.

Perrera has a healthy interest in street art — so much so, he told me, that he buffs selectively, paying special attention to "bubble taggers" ("we call them the ego artists") and new artists ("if someone's new I get you because you're new. Maybe you'll go away.") Despite having attended East Bay street art blog Endless Canvas' "Special Delivery" mural exhibit in an empty Berkeley warehouse twice, Perrera was adamant that the work he does removing graffiti is vital to his community. "The ego taggers just have no mercy," he told me.

Between public and private enterprise, as the police chief asserted from the Zero Graffiti podium, San Francisco spends $20 to $30 million dollars a year combating graffiti. The Department of Public Works, which takes responsibility for quickly removing graffiti deemed motivated by gang activity, drops a cool $3.6 million alone.

But to be fair, no one has ever asked me for cash to buy a spray can. That dollar figure is what graffiti removal costs us. And behind the rows of folding chairs at the conference, the rows of sponsoring vendor booths gave hints as to what that money could go towards. Graffiti Safe Wipes, suitable for removing paint from stone walls with a swipe. This Stuff Works! brand anti-graffiti wall coating.



With respect, how did 'things get weird'? To be honest I don't know how you perceived the conference as a whole. Aside from Perrera's assumption about you and his statement, you never stated what it is that rubbed you wrong about the conference. If you were simply offering an overview of the event, then I think you may have shared more details. Presentation topics also included: Restorative (Justice) Programs for youth, community building programs, preservation of historical buildings (and significant historical graffiti) and methods of conducting graffiti surveys to name a few.

I also think you missed a great journalistic opportunity - the entire point of Dr. Spicer's 60 minute keynote speech. It was a well researched account of the dangers and crime that are indicative of being part of the Hip Hop graffiti sub-culture. This is more than a personal opinion. Her presentation is based on: more than a decade of experience as a Police Officer (now a Sergeant), her Masters Thesis; an aggregate study of 536 graffiti vandals and years as an expert in the field of graffiti investigation. Dr. Spicer supports her findings and claims with research by several world renowned experts such as psychologist Graham Martin (2006) and David Shannon (2001).

As a journalist you have an opportunity to educate the masses, tell them something NEW and promote critical thinking. This is much for than relaying the conference agenda, or presenting an 'art vs crime' or 'permissive vs. authoritarian approach' debate. That's been done to death and I'm glad you didn't go that route.

However, Dr. Spicer presented an argument for addressing the act of graffiti vandalism (non-consensual graffiti of any style or quality) as a red-flag indicating; underlying issues in the individual, their involvement in criminal activities and risk-taking that is inherent in the Hip Hop graffiti sub-culture. For parents especially, this is incredibly valuable information. Governments, youth, parents and caregivers need to hear this perspective if we want to change the status quo.

I believe that Dr. Spicer's point is that here has been a change in the perception that the motivation behind graffiti is to do art. Research and experience now tell us that graffiti is a youth at risk behaviour and the motivation is vandalism. We must see 'graffiti' for all that it is and address it accordingly. This involves law enforcement, policy makers, parents, and community resource providers.

I appreciate that you attended the conference and gave an account of your experience. Perhaps you'll continue to attend events such as graffiti conferences, art shows, court proceedings and City debates and bring your variety of experiences and the perspectives shared at these events to your readers.


Posted by Guest Kristina C on Feb. 01, 2013 @ 11:01 am

Hey Kristina,

It would have been awesome to attend more of the conference. Unfortunately, I was told as a member of the press I was only welcome to attend the two talks and press conference on Thursday morning that I wrote about, which leads me to believe that Zero Graffiti's primary mission wasn't really to teach the public about graffiti.

Duh to this:

"Research and experience now tell us that graffiti is a youth at risk behaviour and the motivation is vandalism."

The war on graffiti is largely a war on young urban men of color. Instead of criminalizing their behavior and priding ourselves on assembling vast databases of *suspect* gang members and graffiti writers, we should fix the social inequalities that leave people voiceless, resourceless, and eager to make their mark on their city in some way, anyway.

You know what's dangerous? Being born poor in the United States. Keep on funneling our government's money towards racist, ignorant conferences like these. Maybe someday someone will come up with an EZ-Wipe that eradicates devil capitalists who making money off of keeping walls blank and vast swaths of our population in the prison industrial complex.

And keep calling it "hip-hop graffiti subculture" -- that's how we know you don't. Get. It.

Posted by caitlin on Feb. 13, 2013 @ 11:14 am


Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Feb. 13, 2013 @ 11:57 am

The conference messed up by putting those ugly posters on the bus stops and billboards. The message was our ugly signs are good while anything the subculture does is bad. Graffiti is bad because it is visual pollution, but so was are the signs advertising the conference and the excessive number of illegal billboards and shop signs that are just fine with Ed Lee and friends.

Posted by EdRun on Feb. 28, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

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