Painting the Town: Street Artists Struggle to Share their Work in the Face of Detractors

Mats Stromberg stands atop a ladder as he works on his mural at Clarion Alley in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. The mural's working title is "Ant Wars" and will replace his previous piece that was there for 18 years. Photo by Philip Houston / Xpress
Mats Stromberg stands atop a ladder as he works on his mural at Clarion Alley in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. The mural’s working title is “Ant Wars” and will replace his previous piece that was there for 18 years. Photo by Philip Houston / Xpress

Written by Dani Hutton
Photos by Philip Houston

Brushes of all sizes, aerosol cans, and permanent markers are the tools of choice; brick walls, fences and stickers the canvas. Studios and alleys are their stomping grounds, working both at high noon and under the cover of darkness. From mural projects to hastily scribbled tags on a Muni seat, San Francisco’s street art culture is a thriving beast—an exercise in self-expression, political statement, and attempts to leave a mark on the world.

Ranging from taggers defacing public property to murals blooming over the course of days or weeks, street art invokes different ideas and opinions. Some pieces, such as the murals in Coit Tower, commissioned by the Works Progress Administration during The Great Depression, date back to the 1930s, while others are significantly more recent, such as works in progress within Clarion Alley today.

The Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) was established in October 1992 by a volunteer collection of Mission residents. The project, which has produced more than seven hundred murals in Clarion Alley, works with artists of all ethnicities, ages and levels of experience, emphasizing emerging artists and new styles.

Megan Wilson, a core organizer for CAMP, describes the project as “one of the last remaining truly punk venues in San Francisco.”  The project was inspired by Balmy Alley, one of a number of alleys in the city dedicated to murals.

Mural creation isn’t the only goal of CAMP.  Artists with permission work to restore murals in the alley that have been damaged by weather and taggers throughout the years.

Mike Reger, another core organizer of CAMP, has found himself doing touch-ups on murals as of late, in preparation for the annual Clarion Alley Block Party.

Mike Reger adds paint to a mural at Clarion Alley in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. Mike was restoring Kyle Ranson's "Dying Warrior" mural in preporation for the Clarion Alley Block Party. Photo by Philip Houston / Xpress
Mike Reger adds paint to a mural at Clarion Alley in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. Mike was restoring Kyle Ranson’s “Dying Warrior” mural in preporation for the Clarion Alley Block Party. Photo by Philip Houston / Xpress

Kyle Ranson’s “Dying Warrior” is just one of the pieces Reger is restoring in preparation for the event, with permission from the artist himself.  Reger is no stranger to mural restoration, having done just that to other murals within the alley, including the Kirsten Brydum Memorial Wall, the Print Collective wall, and an iconic mural done by Chuy Campusano, which has been running for twenty years.

According to Reger, that particular piece gets restored about twice a week, because taggers leave their mark on the fence, which features a lot of white space. Reger has also been collaborating with the DOPE Project, a harm-reduction program working to decrease the number of overdoses caused by heroin and other opiate drugs. Reger teams with local artists like Erin Ruch, who support the program, to develop comic-style murals within the city.

Clarion Alley is one of many mural-heavy alleys in the city. Balmy Alley’s first mural was painted in 1971, with the oldest surviving mural dating back to 1972, one of forty individual murals within the alley itself. Lucky, Lilac, and Cypress Alleys are just a few of the other alleys in the city that have also become host to a number of murals.

Graffiti artists have left their mark all over the city as well, ranging from tagging vehicles and etching their tagging names into the windows of Muni buses, to more well-known pieces such as Banksy’s stenciled pieces from 2010. According to San Francisco’s Department of Public Works, the city spends more than twenty million dollars annually on graffiti clean up.

Taggers don’t just leave their marks on blank surfaces. The murals become victims of defacement on a regular basis. For artists involved in CAMP, the continual defacing can be frustrating. However, there’s a solution to the problem.

“We fight aerosol with aerosol,” Reger says, in regards to tags springing up in the alley. Aerosol artists work alongside brush muralists to create pieces, aimed at detering taggers from ruining work similar to their own.

Despite the best efforts of both the DPW and various mural groups, taggers have a foothold all over the city. Precita Eyes Muralists Association, located in the Mission, has worked in tandem with the city to reduce tagging with their effort to create small murals on six utility boxes in the city, five of which were designed by youth assigned to do them. Patricia Rose, one of the artists and tour leaders for the center, notes that the project has had moderate success, detracting taggers from leaving their mark on the boxes found on street corners within the city.

Mats Stromberg is one such artist who has had to deal with having his art tagged. Stromberg is currently working on a new mural in the alley, which will replace his own that has been in place for eighteen years. That particular mural, which had been featured on the cover of Mission Muralismo, was erased in a coat of white paint when Stromberg decided it was time for a change. With the assistance of Jeff Roysdon, a comic artist with a piece of his own in the alley, Stromberg is moving forward on a new mural, working weekends.

“Just because it had been there for so long, I had no qualms at all,” Stromberg says of starting over.  His mural, “Ant Wars,” he describes as a comment on social media, which is by its nature, narcissistic.

“Art vies for attention,” he continues. “I do want people to see this mural. I want it to have an impression on them, good or bad, doesn’t matter,” Stromberg says, adding that he hopes it can be interpreted in a variety of ways and situations.

Street artists within the city face the additional burden of people trying to monetize their work. According to Reger, tour guides will run paid tours, with misinformation about the pieces, exploiting both the art and the artists.

“It’s gotten to the point that we can no longer ignore the fact that people are trying to make money,” Reger says, not only of the tours, but also of the recent controversy surrounding Absolut Vodka that used video filmed in the alley in a promotional ad, without CAMP’s permission.

The Absolut Vodka advertisement hasn’t been the only issue with people profiting from art within the area. According to Reger, two books—Clarion Alley:2011-2013 by Jerry Sierra and Mission Muralismo, put out by the Precita Eyes Muralist Association—have featured artists work without crediting them. The cover photograph of Mission Muralismo contains a photo of a mural by Stromberg, who says he never received compensation for the use of his work.

As such, CAMP and artists involved with the project are working together to obtain copyrights for their murals, in order to prohibit the exploitation of their work.

For the artists, working in the alley can be a double-edged sword. The open atmosphere allows them to connect with fellow artists and fans, but that same open space can become a nuisance. According to Wilson, developers and real estate agents use CAMP as a selling point for the “cool, hip Mission experience,” creating a flocking point for furthering gentrification in the neighborhood. An average weekend afternoon sees tourists and locals alike pouring through the alley, posing in front of murals, snapping Instagram shots, and occasionally photographing artists at work—both with and without permission.

“It can be distracting, with people coming in,” Reger says, acknowledging the presence of the observers passing through the alley. Stromberg, on the other hand, enjoys working in public, as it’s a change from his usual work, which he describes as a “solitary discipline.”

For the hundreds of individuals who pick up a brush or a spray paint can, their art is a form of expression, but not without issues.  Despite contending with taggers, people trying to profit from their work, and struggles within their own community, San Francisco’s street art scene is filled with hundreds of pieces. Ranging from small tags to murals stretching along the faces of buildings, they are rendered by public artists wanting to express themselves in the best way they know how.