By G.W. Schulz
If top-promoted San Francisco Examiner columnist Ken Garcia was a graffiti artist, his moniker might be “Myopia,” or perhaps, “Screed.”
He often serves as a bullhorn for the city’s conservative and wealthy elite. I should state for the record that there are times when I feel he’s genuinely insightful and informative. He can occasionally present a complex issue in a way that’s relatively easy to digest; a challenge every reporter struggles with.
But when he becomes rhetorical and stretches a theme or idea in order to attack the city’s “wacky” Board of Supervisors, I grow uncomfortable. In a July 25 piece, he managed to connect the phrase “social crusade” to the board amid a disjointed analysis of a settlement the city had arranged with a particularly aggressive 20-year-old graffiti artist named Carlos Romero.
Garcia portrays the pioneering settlement city attorney Dennis Herrera worked out with Romero as a first in the nation; part of City Hall’s ongoing attempts to regulate “quality-of-life” issues. The young graff bomber would pay $20,000 in restitution, stay away from spots he’d nailed with a marker or paint can in the past, and even agree to a curfew. The deal probably sounds reasonable to quite a few people, but when someone like Garcia takes on youth counterculture, I can't help but become even more unsettled.
Graffiti understandably annoys a lot of people in this town. Bombers don’t tend to distinguish between a bare-budget mom ‘n’ pop and a chain-box storefront that’s begging for some acrylic commentary. Not to mention, every property owner in the city gets an initial pass by a Department of Public Works team that will come and paint over graffiti before the owner is then forced to get rid of it themselves or face a city-imposed fine.
What’s dangerous are the creative ways in which authorities attempt to go after graffiti artists and what such campaigns mean in a larger cultural context. A few years ago, several law-enforcement agencies in the region, from the SFPD to the BART police, mounted a massive investigation into an alleged graffiti crew, described by some as Kill Until Killed or Kiss Until Kissed (paint until painted over, in other words).
Then district attorney Terence Hallinan pursued a handful of felony charges, ranging from conspiracy to gang membership ("gang membership" being an actual violation of the law; a deputy district attorney ended up spending months trying to figure out how to define "gang membership" in an attempt to ratchet up their sentences.) The Guardian described it at the time as a “probe usually reserved for Mafia families and hard-core drug rings.”
Graffiti busts, presumably, are popular with voters, but it’s arguable how much good they do when graffiti as a style of art continues to penetrate popular culture. During the same time KUK was weaving its way through San Francisco Superior Court, a marketing firm for Altoids mints was hiring young graffiti artists to design billboards that the company ended up placing throughout the Mission, in one case just a few blocks from where some of the alleged felony offenses of KUK were located. Now even, as Gawker noted last week, the New York Times is trying to be all hip with graff heads.
So who will win out? If I know the marketing industry at all in this country, and the lengths it generally seems willingly to go in order to inundate every inch of our existence with advertisements, I suspect they’ll win. I bet they’d even advertise products directly on individual eggs in a carton. Oh wait.