‘If at first you don’t succeed — call an airstrike’ (Banksy, stenciled graffiti, San Francisco, 2013);
‘A desperate disease requires a desperate remedy’ (Guy Fawkes, London, November 6, 1605).
On the streets of San Francisco there’s a tit-for-tat battle in progress between graffitists and the proprietors of the buildings that they’ve illustrated. The rules of engagement are as follows: one adversary tags a surface using an aerosol spray; the other brushes over the marks with paint pulled from a can. The tagger returns to restate their message, which is once more suppressed by the owner with the zeal of a Protestant iconoclast whitewashing over images of God and saints. And so the exchange goes on, with no one rival getting the upper hand.
It’s a conflict in which both sides are compelled to participate: the graffitists, by a rebellious spirit; the proprietors (setting aside their instinct for retaliation), by the San Francisco Public Works Code, Article 23, Section 1303. This states that: ‘It shall be unlawful for the owner of any real property within the City and County bearing graffiti to allow the graffiti to remain’.
The upshot of this succession of iterations is an unwitting collaboration that results in an arresting (and, for a visitor to the city, a rather perplexing) visual phenomenon. It looks like some outdoor muralist manifestation of late-modernist, colour-field painting that never was; or else a hybridized fudge, flavoured with elements derived from the works of Brice Marden, Mark Rothko, and Robert Rauschenberg, and details from Paul Klee’s abstractions writ-large. As an example of an unself-conscious and un-coordinated mode of painting, these redactions engage the attention. They can be seen on street corners and the pine-ends of buildings, at ground and roof level, and in alleys and cul-de-sacs. The works are sometimes intimate in execution and scale (they see you before you see them); most times, they’re large, assertive, and confident.
Rarely does the colour used to obliterate the offence correspond to that of either the sullied surface or previous attempts at concealment. This is in flagrant disregard for advice issued by the San Francisco Police Department: ‘Be sure to match the color or the tagger will get a “thrill” out of the poor painting job to cover his vandalism’. On that score, graffiti crews on the streets must experience something close to religious rapture on a daily basis.
The degree of colour disparity ranges from moderately subtle to extreme: as obvious, at one end of the scale, as a pink ‘flesh-tone’ (s0-called) sticking plaster on white skin and, at the other end, the same sticking plaster on black skin. One colour (in various shades and finishes, arbitrarily overlaid and juxtaposed) predominates. It’s the city’s symbolic hue – International Orange, which is used to endlessly paint the Golden Gate Bridge. The colour is reminiscent of Venetian Red (a derivative of ferric oxide), which artists sometimes paint over gesso to undertone their canvases. Thus, ironically, the walls of the city are ideally prepared by the redactor for the graffitist to ‘try, try again’.