As part of our series, Bay Curious, we’re answering questions from KQED listeners and readers. This question comes from Mission District resident Rebecca Busch, who wanted to know:
I think it’s interesting that murals don’t get covered in graffiti. Why do some murals stay up for a really long time, even in communities where there’s lots of graffiti on random walls and buildings?
San Francisco’s Clarion Alley is considered by many to be the heart of the mural scene in the Bay Area. The street is lined with massive, vibrant murals that tackle subjects like gentrification, corporate greed and the environment.
“Tags happen to some degree every week,” says Megan Wilson, director of the Clarion Alley Mural Project, the group that curates the alleyway. “It’s generally younger artists who are just starting out and don’t grasp the idea of respect.”
Though graffiti often marks up the perimeter of the murals, it’s rare to find a tag cutting directly across the detailed center of the artwork, says Wilson.
At play is an unspoken set of rules that artists follow. To understand those rules you first need to know that there are three groups: graffiti writers, street artists and muralists.
Graffiti writers work illegally, and primarily paint letters and symbols. Their creations can range from a small signature on a mailbox to a large, multicolored word on the side of a building.
Street artists are also working illegally, but their work tends to look more like an illustration or graphic. Things like wheatpaste, stencils or stickers are classified as street art.
Muralists almost always do legal paintings. In San Francisco, they need permission from the property owner. They use paintbrushes or spray paint to create their large-scale works.
Each group follows different etiquette, and if you break that etiquette, there can be consequences.
The Case of the Honey Bear
In January, street artist fnnch began creating stencils of honey bears within a four-block radius around the Mission District.
“We all take this image for granted as being totally acceptable,” says fnnch. “But really it’s a surreal idea that you would put honey into a container that’s shaped like a bear.”
On the first night he painted five honey bears, some of them directly on top of tags that graffiti writers had left on mailboxes. Within a week, someone had taken a blue spray-paint can and made a mark right through the center of the bears — the ultimate sign of disrespect.
“When I posted [photos of my work] on Instagram, people started to comment and say that I shouldn’t paint on top of tags for my own safety,” says fnnch.
He had upset the graffiti hierarchy.
Playing By The Rules
Of the three groups, graffiti writers have the most structured hierarchy about what is OK and what is not OK to cover with new art.
“Certain things can go over certain things, and writers understand that because it’s pretty much basics in graffiti,” says a San Francisco tagger who goes by the name Sinatra.
- Tag: At the bottom of the totem pole, tags are usually single-color signatures.
- Throw-up: A quickly drawn name in big bubble letters.
- Piece: Not as quick to execute as a throw-up. A piece will have cleaner lines and more detailed fill within the letters.
- Burner: The most respected type of work among graffiti writers. This art is a display of the best work a graffiti writer can do.
Generally, as long as what goes on top is bigger and more intricate, the community hums along.
But when someone upsets that hierarchy — by putting a tag over a throw-up, or even a tag on top of another tag — it’s a sign of disrespect that could end in a fight, or ongoing efforts to destroy someone’s work.
So what about fnnch’s honey bears? Where do they fit into the hierarchy?
“I thought taggers would be fine with me painting over their tags because I thought what I was doing would be considered a piece,” fnnch says. “But what I came to learn is graffiti people don’t view the street art people as being anywhere on the hierarchy.”
I asked Sinatra what he thinks when a street artist puts his or her work on top of his tag.
“That’s beef. That’s bad,” Sinatra says. “Every time I see that stencil, I’m going to put my name over it.”
Alhough street artists and graffiti writers use similar materials and are competing for the same space, they aren’t playing the same game. The rules are different.
Above Them All? Murals
So if each group is abiding by its own etiquette, why are murals often left alone by graffiti writers and street artists?
To put it simply, muralists are the most respected within the larger community. Many of them came out of graffiti writing or street art and now command the respect of their peers.
Still, murals are certainly not immune to being painted on. Work done by outside artists, or those who have done a lot of corporate work, are often targeted by taggers.
And because Clarion Alley attracts so many visitors, it’s become a high-profile location for taggers to make their mark.
Sinatra points to the background of one mural, where taggers have squeezed their tags into the negative space between the detailed brushwork.
“It’s not exactly on the mural. But it’s just off to the side. It’s just like free space. They can paint over that easily,” he says.
To Sinatra, a tag on the artwork itself would be an affront, but a tag on the solid-colored background or side of the mural? Fair game.
“If I go over a mural, it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s not because I’m trying to disrespect you,” Sinatra says. “It’s because I like that spot. I want my name on that spot. You just happen to be in the way.”
Remember Megan Wilson, who leads the group that oversees the murals on Clarion Alley? She doesn’t quite see it that way. When artists from any of the three groups paint without permission, it’s not cool to her.
“It’s like, ‘Why are you doing this to other artists? You think you’re badass? Go out and do this on a bank. Go do this on some really lame corporation,’ ” she says.
To her, the etiquette is dead simple.
“It’s not a matter of, oh there’s some sort of code we go by. The code is just respect,” she says. “You respect the artist. You respect the work. You respect one another.”
To keep the alley looking its best, Wilson and other volunteers are out there every week repairing the murals.
That may be why so many visitors — like Rebecca, who asked this week’s Bay Curious question — can enjoy the art unobscured.
Got a question you want KQED’s Bay Curious team to investigate? Ask!
Jeremy Raff contributed to this report. Thanks, Jeremy!