December 12, 2003

The City Chases Taggers, A Teacher Embraces Them

By Raymond R. Beltrán

San Diego City Mayor Dick Murphy held a press conference Wednesday, December 10, in Paradise Hills with District 4 Councilman Charles Lewis and Police Chief Bill Lansdowne to discuss the activity of the city’s new Graffiti Strike Force.

“[Graffiti] infuriates people in neighborhoods,” said the mayor. “It damages and destroys neighborhoods. There’s an appearance of lawlessness associated with it, and it’s an entry-level crime for young taggers and potential gangsters. The crime of tagging itself often leads to more serious criminal activity.”

Mayor Dick Murphy holds press conference in Paradise Hills to address the Graffiti Strike Force and their recent activity.

In April 2003, the mayor included into his State of the City Address the execution of a Graffiti Strike Force comprising of eleven San Diego officers, which focus on “cracking down” on neighborhood taggers. He says their responsibilities include “aggressive investigations, aggressive arrests, and aggressive punishments.” The Strike Force is part of Goal #8 of a plan to make San Diego America’s finest city.

Heading the eleven-officer Strike Force is Police Chief Bill Lansdowne, and City Councilman Charles Lewis has been the mayor’s sidekick in their endeavors. Lewis is responsible for District 4 of San Diego, which includes neighborhoods such as Emerald Hills, Encanto, Lomita Village, Paradise Hills, amongst other predominantly Mexican and African American communities.

Since it’s operation began in April this year, the Strike Force has made 316 arrests, which they say is six times the amount of arrests speculated in 2002. 140 arrests were prosecuted as felony offences, and 176 were misdemeanors. Taggers who are caught can serve up to six months in jail, depending on the monetary amount of property damage. $400 or more can lead to a felony offense prosecution. Lewis says that offenders will pay restitution when found guilty of a graffiti-related crime, and that a recent offender is currently serving 222 days in jail, with a $3,500 fine and three years probation. It was also said at the conference that it is not unusual for a tagger to be fined up to $7,000 for property damage pertaining to a series of incidents.

“The taggers start out thinking they own the property, and start tagging and crossing over [other tags], and it leads to gang fights,” said Lewis. “And [we’re] letting the taggers know this is not art work, by no means is this art work. We are going to take this serious. Now, that they’re doing the crime, they’re going to do the time … we’re not just going to let these go as a petty crime. It costs too much money to eradicate graffiti.”

Chicano Park muralist, Victor Ochoa, is a Southeast San Diego resident, curator of Ojos de Dios Art Gallery in Chula Vista, instructor of Chicano Art at Grossmont College, Art and Cultural Consultant for the Jacob’s Family Foundation, and co-founder of Writer’s Block, a store front on Euclid Avenue and Market Street that embraces the talent of young taggers in San Diego’s urban neighborhoods. As an urban artist, Victor knows that what the city is defining as a crime, he is labeling as only a symptom of a much more serious epidemic in the local and nationwide government’s infrastructure.

Chicano Arts instructor, Victor Ochoa, stands with students in front of a mural project.

As an arts instructor, Victor has felt the impact of the recent $31 million budget cuts in arts programs in California. He says that during his days in school, Art Class used to be as significant as subjects like Math, Science, and English. He highlights the fact that there are hardly, if any, places in urban neighborhoods that nurture the creative rebelliousness of the youth today. Starting a graffiti youth group, Graff Creek, four years ago, Victor used to gather young artists every Wednesday to do “pieces” on abandoned, dilapidated buildings. The gatherings were organized with permission from Councilman Leon Williams, and were supervised by security officers at all times.

“I think this is an [issue] that people don’t want to look at the bigger picture,” says Victor. “I’m an educator, so, I work with kids on all levels, and I keep abreast of what’s going on with them. My response is that the arts are being oppressed in the schools. In the junior highs, arts classes became dumping grounds for students that teachers didn’t know what to do with, and it’s not important to the students anymore. It’s either recreational or a passed time, or a place where students go when their teachers can’t control them.”

For urban muralists and artists, graffiti is somewhat of a spiritual endeavor. They work out their inhibitions to discover their individuality on walls, not having the resources to create in a regulated, authorized area. Much as people might see a ghetto’s drug dealer as a potential economists, mathematician, chemist, or botanist, so might one see a tagger as a potential professional muralist and painter, like ones that have gained worldwide acceptance in Barrio Logan’s historic Chicano Park that have gone on to paint murals in other Latin American countries.

As one of those renowned artists, Victor has worked with author James Prigoff (California Walls), and has studied the history of graffiti art. Originating in New York City, graffiti art has been around for approximately twenty to twenty-five years, not including ancient cultures’ art of hieroglyphics, but as a hip-hop style, which includes clothing attire for youth, such as baggy pants and long t-shirts that are used by police officers to profile “potential gangsters.” According to Victor, there are different levels of tagging that the average person won’t know about unless they are experts on the subject. A tagger is the lowest level of the totem poll in the culture. They have to complete 10,000 tags before they become an official “piecer.” When they’ve reached that status within their peers, they have the choice to begin professional productions with other graffiti artists, possibly two or three. This is where definitions begin to draw lines between what is a “gang,” and what is a suppressed group of “artists.”

“If you have two or three people, they call it a gang,” says Victor. “The cops push the gang mentality on people. Just because they’re homeboys from Logan, they generalize them ... If you could take $4 million, you could create schools that have many visual arts included. [Students] could be doing things from producing art to directing films. Don’t you think that would make a difference? [City officials] have to look at the bigger picture. [The taggers] need to have a place where they feel empowered to express themselves.”

Last Wednesday, December 6, executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council, Terry LeMoncheck, has estimated that the local arts have contributed $98 million per year to Pasadena’s economy. The California Arts Council’s Report to the Governor November 2003 indicated that California’s arts and culture make up $16.75 billion in economic activity, and the industry creates jobs for approximately 400,000 people, “by comparison, more than legal and accounting, police and sheriff’s officers, and construction workers.”

Media Relations Representative of District 4, Racquel Morrison, provided a statement, which states that the City of San Diego spends “$1.5 million dollars used to combat the graffiti” issue. With the Strike Force arresting taggers by the hundreds, Councilman Lewis says in the memo that the city is trying to divert the monies into funds for 6-to-6 programs, libraries, and prevention programs.

This monetary estimation defines the cost of tools since the Strike Force was created in April this year. But with taggers multiplying with every generation born into a dominant hip-hop culture, which is televised and marketed across the airwaves around the world, it seems highly unlikely that incarcerating urban youth in local neighborhoods will put a cap on graffiti altogether. And as millions of dollars are cut on arts and education, San Diego youth are spending time in jail, and learning nothing other than how to be real authentic criminals.

“People need to start seeing art as a tool for the solution and not as a reason to put people in jail,” says Victor. “As a muralist, thousands of people see what I’m thinking on the wall. Some don’t like me painting skeletons and say its evil. Some like it, but art develops the individual to work as a stronger and prouder individual. They learn about who they are, and what their culture and history are about, and corporations don’t like it, because when they do it, they become harder to control.”

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