"They are very accommodating." In addition to hosting Streetstyles, Root Division provides San Francisco youth with free art classes and after-school programs, hosts events, and has adult programs designed to make art more accessible to the community at large.
Streetstyles was rounded out by the addition of San Francisco graffiti legend and Root Division resident artist Carlos Castillo. Castillo, under the alias Cast, is a first-generation West Coast graffiti artist who started writing on the streets of San Francisco around 1983. Now a professional artist, sculptor, California College of the Arts graduate, and occasional graffiti art teacher for his son, Castillo edifies students about old-school styles and the history of the movement. "We balance each other out," Warnke says.
The core curriculum doesn't stray far from that of a conventional art class. Every session starts with a stealthy lesson plan in which Warnke and his staff attempt to sneak in a little formal education. There is study of color, composition, and form. The students study typography, entertain guest speakers, and examine street art from around the world. At Streetstyles purpose, placement, and permission replace reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Warnke is aware of the criminal aspect of his passion and understands how some, particularly opponents of street art at large, might think his work empowers vandalism. There are students in his class who have been arrested, suspended from school, and even jumped for their love of graffiti. Many are doing community service for vandalism, and some have prior records for crimes unrelated to street art. Warnke counters, "I'm not a cop, and no, I'm not going to snitch. I understand [these kids'] passion, and when you compare writing graffiti to what's going on in the schools these days and in the streets with the violence and drugs, I just want to give them even more markers. Some of these kids don't know about anything much past 23rd Street. I provide these kids with a place that's safe. And yeah, I let them get up. For four hours a week, they are not getting in trouble, getting in fights, doing drugs, or whatever. While they are in my class, they will all be safe, creative, and respectful."
Many of the students' parents are supportive of the class. Warnke boasts, "I got my first ever real fruit basket from a parent, and it was a damn nice one too." He adds, "I want these kids to do something they can be proud of. Something they can take home to mom."
"You can have street art hanging at the [Yerba Buena Center for the Arts], but if you go outside and start writing on a wall, you'll be arrested," he says. It's an interesting paradox in his class, just as it is in the larger world of street art.
As for Warnke's own urban artwork, these days he focuses mainly on trading homemade stickers his and his students' with other street artists from around the world. "What I like about it is that it's a different form of getting up. Some people claim all-city well, we're trying to claim all-world," he says. "I'm up more in Brazil and Portugal than I am here in the States."
But is Warnke still writing on walls?
"I'm semiretired," he says, smiling shyly. "I used to be invisible. Now it's too easy to find me." *
For information on Streetstyles, visit www.rootdivision.org. Check out Dave Warnke's professional art and design work at www.davewarnke.com.
Don't miss "New Growth: An Exhibition of Artwork from the Root Division," part of Root Division's Second Saturday series, which will feature work by students from Buena Vista Elementary, Fairmont Elementary, and Hoover Middle School and youth from the Streetstyles class.