Artists still puzzling over destruction of international exchange mural

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A spate of graffiti ruined the Alabama and 17th Street mural created by US and Indonesian artists.
PHOTO COLLAGE BY KEVIN MONTGOMERY VIA UPTOWN ALMANAC

In 2003, artists from a San Francisco-Indonesia cultural exchange painted murals on one of the outer walls of Project Artaud, a non-profit art collective in the Mission that provide live-work studios and exhibition space for artists. Within nine years, the expansive mural became a part of the street’s geography — adorning the street like colorful flowers or trees — and was loved by neighbors and passersby alike. But starting last month, tags started to appear on top of the paintings, and within a 24-hour span, the mural faced its tragic and final destruction.

“It feels like a death,” said Jonah Roll, one of the mural’s artists, during a Guardian interview at his home in Project Artaud. During their interview with the Guardian, Roll and Alejandra Rassvetaieff (another artist whose mural was ruined) attempted, to no avail, to understand the reasoning behind the tagger’s recent actions. With so many other empty street walls, why did somebody choose to tag here? Could it have been a personal attack? And is there ever a worthy excuse that justifies destroying someone else’s artwork? 

“If you consider yourself an artist, I don’t think you can just paint on top of another artist’s work,” commented Rassvetaieff. “It’s sad because the murals in the Mission have been here for years, and it’s something that people should respect.”

Scenes from the mural's 2003 creation. Photos via Project Artaud

The mural was created in 2003 as part of a collaboration between San Franciscan artists from the Clarion Alley Mural Project and artists from a public art collective in Indonesia (the project also gave birth to murals at Rainbow Grocery, Clarion Alley, and Le Beau Market in Nob Hill. Entitled "Sama-sama/You're Welcome," the wall was completed after a cultural exchange that sent CAMP artists to Indonesia, and Indonesian artists here to San Francisco. The wall recieved a Best of the Bay award from the Guardian in 2004 for Best Transnational Art Undertaking.

Although there are rumors as to who may have done the taggings — Rassvetaieff noticed the same signature sprayed on her friend’s mural on Market Street — the artists preferred not to disclose names during the interview. “It coincide[d] with a big tagging of work in Clarion Alley that got destroyed around the same time,” said Roll, “they’re doing it for publicity, to spread their name.”

Graffiti is increasingly becoming accepted as a respected art form — and for many good reasons. It serves as an expressive channel for underrepresented people, especially  youth, and is a kind of satisfying slap in the face of corporate advertising that often mars our streetscapes. But tagging on community murals is not a stance against big business. Individual people dedicated hours towards creating these panels of art. 

“I respect the art form of graffiti — there’s a lot of amazing work out there— but it’s sad when something that has value to our community is destroyed,” said Roll. 

The mural in question was a community project that was self-funded by the seven artists. Roll’s section of the mural was a painting dedicated to the passing of his mother and the birth of his new family. Rassvetaieff’s mural, titled “Happiness,” showed a couple embracing under a starry night sky. She said it was meant to celebrate the soul of the human being. 

But Roll's love for her work was no match for the endurance of the taggers, who returned again and again to re-tag the wall. “I couldn’t even go out there in the end for the last tags,” concluded Roll. “I was completely exhausted.” 

Perhaps the most regrettable loss of all was Federico “Pico” Sanchez’s colorful watermelons. The esteemed muralist and art community leader recently passed away in November 2011. 

Street art and graffiti should be working alongside each other — challenging traditional notions of art and working together to promote a sense of expressive cohesiveness in the community. Competition is great, if it fuels growth and demands progress. But artists, hone your craft and create an attention-worthy piece. Real talent tends to get noticed — especially on the streets. 

Weary of covering up tags, Project Artaud members eventually painted the wall a solid shade of green. Bummer.

Guardian photo by Marke B.

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