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A couple dozen of San Francisco's best young graffiti artists, many dressed in black hooded sweatshirts and baseball hats, huddle around long tables littered with markers, blank books, pens, and stickers. The artists crowded around the white paperdraped tables do a little talking and joking, but mainly they're drawing and writing, some at a fever pitch. Bright colors and stylish lettering abound. There is a sense of concentrated creativity in this large studio space something rare in classrooms these days. But this not your run-of-the-mill art class. This is Streetstyles, a free course that focuses on the misunderstood medium of graffiti and street art. Its aim is multifaceted, concentrating on the production and repercussions of urban art. The class attempts, as instructor Dave Warnke explains, "to separate the art from the act." He is interested in what motivates these artists: Why are they writing graffiti? What do they want people to see? What do they want people to feel?
Some kids, Warnke admits, "get into [graffiti] for the criminal mystique." But inclusion has been a key principle for Warnke and his art lessons. Although Streetstyles does not turn away any young artists, new students to the course are always pulled aside for a little one-on-one. "I ask them, 'Do you do it for the crime? Or do you do it for the art?' " he says. "If you don't want to do art, then you might as well go piss on the sidewalk." The number one rule in Warnke's class is respect. Respect for the art. Respect for one another. And respect for oneself.
"I try to give them the respect that I don't think they get other places," he says. "I engage them, let them know that this is art. I've had some of these kids for years. I can help them by exposing them to different styles and by challenging them. I push them, and I'm not sure how many other people in their lives are doing that."
Originally from New Jersey, Warnke has two art degrees from Dún Laoghaire College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland, but he says his early experiences in art education were a bit rough, as he bounced around art schools before finally settling in the Bay Area. "I had no skills except drawing silly faces," says Warnke, who's been an active street artist for more than 10 years. "My art didn't have a place. It's kind of like propaganda."
He figured he'd become an art teacher, then quickly realized that schools in the area were firing not hiring art teachers. He finally applied for a position at James Lick Middle School in Noe Valley, carefully leaving his street art out of his portfolio, which was composed of mainstream art and design work.
"I wanted to get the job," Warnke admits. "I thought I was going to teach watercolors or something. You know, bowls of fruit and stuff." But faculty members had already heard about Warnke's back-alley and rooftop endeavors, and they were not offended. As a matter of fact, they were impressed. They offered him an opportunity to teach a class on his kind of art, street art. Thus, the first Streetstyles program was born.
After a stint at City Arts and Tech High School, Warnke decided to take Streetstyles out on its own. Starting last October thanks to financial backing from Youth Speaks and Mark Dwight, CEO of Timbuk2 Warnke started teaching his independent class twice a week at Root Division, a 7,200 square foot building founded in 2002 where resident artists receive subsidized studio space in exchange for their service as art instructors.
"Root Division is a great place to do it," Warnke says. "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. The event will feature free interactive art projects and musical performances by Paul Green's School of Rock (including tributes to the Grateful Dead, Southern rock, and Frank Zappa).
May 12, 48 p.m., $5 suggested donation. Root Division, Gallery 3175, 3175 17th St., SF. (415) 863-7668, www.rootdivision.org