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.

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