I have not yet vandalized.
I made wheat-paste posters. They’re not wheat-pasted anywhere, yet, but I made them. The pieces of paper sit in my kitchen, tightly rolled and taped. Beside them sits a bucket and a small paint roller. I haven’t made the wheat paste, but when I do it will go in the bucket, the bucket and posters will go in a bag, and I’ll go around town in a jacket and hat and paste up my posters.
The posters were easy to make. I started by purchasing a large tablet of newsprint and another tablet of stiffer paper from the art store in Little Italy. Newsprint is mostly recycled, grayish and very thin, easy to tear, and cheap. The stiffer paper is like the craft paper you used for art projects in second grade.
After I came up with a design, I cut the outline from the stiffer paper, a stencil. Then I made stencils for each of the colors in the design. My design is of a rocket pop. You know those missile-shaped, patriotic (red, white, and blue!) frozen sugar snacks? My posters bear spray-painted stencil images of those childhood treats.
The image, for me, evokes buoyant summers and whimsy. That is why I’m going to paste them around my neighborhood.
In the last year, an economic downturn rolled through my neighborhood. A lot of shops vacated, and now their spaces stand bare and cold, empty, with the lights off and For Lease signs in the windows. Bundles of rags filled with sick and coughing human flesh often occupy the abandoned doorways of the erstwhile shops. Drug deals are made in the voids of darkness.
Kids in hoodie sweatshirts and schizophrenic bums scurry from the alleyways to the sidewalks and behind the electrical panels and bus stops. In daylight, the street swells with landscapers’ pickup trucks, personal trainers in SUVs, and single-mom waitresses, riding the bus to jobs they hate.
My neighborhood is ugly and my neighbors hate it.
I want to give them all a rocket pop. I am a privately funded, single-person neighborhood-beautification program. I want the people who parade past my rocket pop to remember, for a second of their day, running through a sprinkler.
But right now, I’m afraid. What I consider the embellishment of an abandoned and derelict building, the police consider illegal. I haven’t pasted anything yet, and I’m scared to do it. My stomach pit wells with queasy anticipation, because tonight or tomorrow night I’m going to do it. And I don’t want to be arrested.
From San Diego’s official city website, its graffiti section states that “The City of San Diego spends more than $1 million each year on graffiti abatement education and enforcement. This amount does not include the millions more spent by other public agencies, utility companies, and private property owners to remove graffiti from their properties.” Reading on, we find posted to the same website a warning that the punishment for graffiti can be as stringent as “six months in a correctional facility, [and the convicted may] be required to perform community service, pay as much as $1000 in fines, and make restitution to the victimized property owner for the amount of the damage.” Yikes.
That’s a stiff penalty for interacting in this way with the city I love and in which I live.
There are a lot of reasons people graffiti. Even the city’s website acknowledges, “Children and young adults become involved in graffiti vandalism for a number of reasons: gang association, peer recognition, lack of artistic and recreational alternatives, the element of danger, and lack of appropriate parental supervision and discipline.”
I could give you a lot of good reasons for graffiti; I’ve heard, read, and imagined any number of motives. The look of the city is out of the hands of its inhabitants. Billboards, signs, the jumble of walls, electrical panels, poles and wiring — all are erected, strung, hung, and zig-zag around us on the authority of old men with money and officials whose dealings we could never verify as legitimate and which could hardly qualify as being within the interest of the public. Like mice in the urban maze we dart right then left, from residential zone to business zone, stopped by brick and metal, guided by symbols painted on aluminum, to our final reward and back again.
I feel entitled to contribute to the aesthetic, and I think I’m being generous in my offer. Free art from me. To you.
That’s the foundation of my vandalism philosophy: collaborating visually with the city. The thrill of violating the law without consequence is only a perk. A perk I’ve not yet encountered.
For now, the bucket, tubes of paper posters, and paint roller sit inside a durable shopping bag on my kitchen floor; I have not vandalized, yet.
Break in the Action
The week dragged by. My work schedule was switched around, so I couldn’t hang my paper posters on Tuesday. That was the night I’d scheduled. I usually don’t work on Tuesdays; I usually have Wednesdays off too. Which would leave me with enough time, if I were to be caught, to get out of jail without losing my job. When management switched my day off to Friday, I had to postpone the night of papering to Thursday.
While waiting for enough clear time to begin my art project, everywhere I look becomes a potential target. Just as to a man whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, a man with rolled-up posters of rocket pops sees every flat surface as unadorned, unsightly canvas on which he can express himself. Around the back of a fast-food restaurant’s drive-thru, I stop to survey an expanse of bare green metal that spans one wall and hides the electrical equipment responsible for the production of fried lard and starch. Several rocket pop posters could hang there nicely. Coffee-shop front windows seem lifeless and lacking good rocket-poppery. Electrical boxes, Dumpsters, bus stops, could all, in my estimation, use a little dressing up.
On a walk to the gym, I pause to count how many police pass a specific abandoned storefront in ten minutes’ time.
Five police officers in three cars, in case you were wondering.
The next day, duties associated with my job require me to drive to Point Loma. Off North Harbor Drive a detour delivers me to Cancer Survivors Park. This is the ugliest park in San Diego, without contest. After parking my laughable Korean car, I approach the north end of the park and enter the concrete pad, encircled by 12-foot-high, or maybe taller, stucco sculptures. They jut from the sidewalk in the shape of lipstick tubes, mimicking the slant at the tip, and the giant stucco lipsticks display a color of purple so repulsive as to be a near emetic.
A short distance away from the giant purple lipsticks, statues of bronze and an oddly squared vortex of bronze-colored plaster depict a literal, sentimental scene in which the bronze people step through the vortex. Into one side of the vortex-of-cancer-treatment hobble the sickly, the old, the frail, the too-young. Out the other side of the vortex-of-cancer-treatment spring spryly the light loafers, lifting aloft a young, healthy man. Apparently, the forces of the oddly square vortex-of-cancer-treatment invigorate your health, make you male, and add a certain soft quality and angle to your wrists.
Don’t cancer survivors deserve better? After all that chemotherapy, after rebuilding a life struck down by disease, to come here and be faced with this as your celebration: to all cancer survivors, I would like to apologize for San Diego’s Cancer Survivors Park. Boy, is it ugly.
I’m sure that the artists, architects, donors, and contractors of the project would argue that it is a perfectly beautiful offering to San Diego’s artscape and public parks program. Please, don’t notice the literal message, or that at 5’9’’ in work boots I tower over every figure depicted. I’m not tall by any means, but the statues are a head shorter than me, and yet not quite miniaturized either. Disregard the shaky construction of the vortex, please. And while we’re playing peek-a-boo with the obvious flaws of this public space, I’m sure all involved with its erection would prefer you ignore the misspellings, incorrect punctuation, and poor grammar of the surrounding plaques that explain cancer’s best hope: a healthy spirit and treatment options.
If you ever get the chance, please go to the eastern end of Spanish Landing to see this monstrosity, Cancer Survivors Park. And while you’re there, notice that the group of statues near the vortex-of-cancer-treatment is marred and incomplete. Vandals have torn down one of the statues, broken it off at the ankle, leaving only the empty capsule of a dainty bronze shoe that looks to have belonged to a young girl. I’m not normally into such violent public destruction, but in this case, I agree with the vandal.
The Area of Opportunity
Choosing targets. How you choose your targets for vandalism speaks to what kind of person you are. Kids who run and scribble their names scattershot across the face of the city have their reasons for doing so. They indiscriminately deface street signs, freeway overpasses, private homes, and small businesses just to seize an opportunity. A Magic Marker in their pocket, or a can of spray paint in a backpack, needs no more justification to spring out and mar a public surface than the void of a couple of seconds in which no people, traffic, or police are present. Headlights die down, a quick check around corners, and zang! the tagger strikes.
I’m not a tagger. There’s nothing in my rocket-pop artwork that denotes identity, no signature at all.
I’m doing this as an experiment in public art, interacting with the city, so I choose my spots with care.
I load up my canvas shopping bag of supplies into my car, pull out from the safety and comfort of my darkened residential street and onto the bright glitz and electric light of El Cajon Boulevard. This is only a dry run. I haven’t cooked the wheat paste, and I’ll do nothing illegal on this drive. I’m merely scouting with a load-out of equipment to find appropriate marks and to feel how I want to handle the bag of equipment.
I drive up El Cajon, west toward the center of the city, scanning empty lots and the foreboding, temporary plywood walls of a vacated gas station. Staring into a pit of impending economic recession, the darkened yards of empty shops may portend harsher times still. The renovation and renaissance that transformed Hillcrest and the west end of North Park will not reach City Heights this year, and El Cajon feels bleak and cold.
I take the 15 south to University and exit west. My headlights blare over dilapidated automotive garages and the hand-painted, misspelled business signs of tire shops and dulcerias, Mexican candy shops. Even though I consider these buildings repulsive, splashed in the most garish of yellows and purples, I would never paste paper to one of their walls. These are mom-and-pop operations that from day-to-day need more customers and fewer distractions and problems; a poster would only deflate their spirits as they arrived to face their day of work.
I pass a corporate fast-food sandwich shop. They too are hideous in my sight — this particular franchise has floated a yellow balloon, brashly emblazoned with a logo; it hovers in the skyline, lighted from beneath, the size of an inflated studio apartment — I won’t paper them either, because as much as I disagree with their business practices and nutritional philosophy, I can’t support vigilantism, even with poster art. Corporate coffee shops on the street get my pass too. I will not strike back with graffiti, even though I dislike a particular establishment. Besides, a shop manager beholden to a national chain will rip my art down within minutes of its discovery; I want my posters to stay up for a while to cheer weary passersby.
On the next block I spot a bus stop outfitted with an advertisement for a vacation-and-travel website. If ever there were a worthy space for a bright rocket pop poster, a brown aluminum-and-Plexiglas billboard at a taxpayer-funded bus stop in a poor neighborhood is it.
Behind the bus stop glows the bright fluorescent fixtures of a parking lot, and a sign, and also a marquee of a pharmacy and department store. At the next intersection, I crank the wheel to the right and circle the block, and on the east side of the parking lot, diagonal and down a sidewalk a bit from the bus stop, I park, pull my shopping bag from the passenger’s seat, and step out into the January chill.
It’s 9:48 of a Wednesday night.
University Avenue still teems with the halogen lights, revving engines, and sputtering tailpipes of passing cars and buses. Shoppers funnel into and out of the drugstore, trading parking spaces and swishing plastic shopping bags. I set my canvas bag on the ground in front of the bus stop bench, and I sit. The ad in which frolicking white people romp on a white sand beach seems oddly mundane and out of context for a community ten minutes’ drive time from the ocean. From the bench, I touch the smeary plastic and watch for police cars.
I gather the bag from between my legs, stand, and walk back to my car. Driving through the stream of University Avenue, I scan again for potential areas to hang my posters, swiveling my neck, propping up on the plastic interseat console to survey blighted buildings and the dead-weed fields surrounded by wood and chain-link fences.
I circle the inner city, uptown. I stay away from downtown and the beaches. Although I have to work in those areas, I don’t consider them my home. The territory of my house radiates out from the North Park Water Tower at its center, and the 8, College Avenue, University Avenue, and Park Boulevard circumscribe it.
Trash cans offer surfaces of opportunity, but street utility boxes, for me, are off limits. I hate those boxes. Let me tell you why. A North Park business association called North Park Main Street saw fit to adopt the locked metal bins, take submissions from artists, panel juries, choose designs, and provide art supplies for the painting and decorating of the normally bland metal cubes that protrude from the sidewalk. Let me rephrase that. A business association — so, if you don’t own a business in North Park, you don’t get a say — adopted the metal bins — even though they belong to us all — took submissions from (bad) artists, paneled juries — with people whose credentials are unknown to the rest of us (perhaps they are merely business associates, or friends, or the jury could be a retarded chimpanzee and a lukewarm pot of coffee, we don’t know) — and they decided how these municipal features should be decorated. Bully for them for taking charge of a beautification program, because that’s exactly what I’m doing and I’d love nothing more than to paper one of these ugly sons of bitches, but I won’t. The artists who painted them have already left their mark, and no matter how terrifically repugnant I find any one of these boxes (although, some of them are real nice; there’s a lovely one, painted with chairs and tables in a very van Gogh style, on 30th and El Cajon, in front of a furniture store), I would not go over someone else’s work.
Tonight, I motor my clown car past the North Park Water Tower. It rises above Howard Street and Idaho Street, sentry and epicenter of the cracked sidewalk, asphalt grit, and green-grass playgrounds of uptown. Tomorrow night will be the real thing, and my guts tingle with anticipation.
Informative How-To Section
Here’s what you need for making multicolor stenciled posters:
An X-Acto knife or sharp razor-blade tool
An ink pen (a black Sharpie worked best for me);
A tablet of newsprint paper (this paper will bear the design and be pasted);
A tablet of thick paper. I chose watercolor paper that proved to be too thin. Next time I’ll use sturdy craft paper (this paper is for the stencil; ideally, it should be the same size as the newsprint);
Paint (spray paint, good old Krylon worked well for me).
Begin by designing your poster. With your Sharpie, lay out on the large pad of newsprint an approximation of how you’d like your poster to appear. A quick sketch will do.
Lay a sheet of the sturdy paper over the sketch on the newsprint. With your Sharpie, solidify the outline of the design. If you can’t see your design well, taping the two sheets of paper to a window will help. Trace along and clean up your design as you go.
For alignment with subsequent sheets of paper, ink in two dots somewhere outside the design. (Trust me, two dots smaller than a thumbprint but larger than a pen tip will do, doesn’t much matter where you put them, as long as the dots aren’t close together.)
Now. You should have a newsprint layer on bottom and on top, a craft-paper outline of your design, featuring two dots on either side.
Lay another clean sheet of craft paper down on the outline. Tape it in place if needed. Start with the dots. Recreate them on the top paper. Then outline the areas of one color. In my rocket pop example, the bottom of the pop is dark blue, just an oblong square that will be spray-painted blue through the stencil.
Remove that sheet and lay a clean one down. Repeat the last steps until you have outlines of all your colored shapes.
Now lie on your belly in your bedroom or kitchen and cut out each block of color from its sheet of paper, using the X-Acto knife or razor-blade tool. Cut out the little dots on each sheet too.
Bear in mind that this is the stencil. Let that guide your decisions as to what part of the paper to leave and what bits to excise. Remember that your outline needs a portion of paper to block out the center as well as the area outside the design, so you have to leave bridges of paper in place. (Your outline stencil will have spaces that span the lines, like the stenciled numbers and letters on Army vehicles.)
Now you have all of your colors cut into stencils, as well as an outline stencil. Go somewhere ventilated; outdoors works well.
Lay a clean sheet of newsprint down to accept the design. Lay the stencil atop the clean newsprint, tape it if you like. Spray the two dots onto the clean newsprint. These will be your guide dots, and the stencils to follow will line up to those. Spray your outline.
Remove your outline stencil. Notice the dots. See how lovely the outline looks on the newsprint, but don’t linger too long. A neighbor could see your design and recognize it at a bus stop later on and turn you in.
Line up each color stencil using the dot system. Spray those colors. The colors farthest back in the design get sprayed first. (In my rocket pop example, the dark blue goes down before the light blue accent. Dark red goes before the pink accent, etc.) After all your colors are sprayed and dried, you can cut out the design or leave it on the square sheet of paper. Other than that, you’re done. You can make as few or as many as you like.
I made five.
Wheat paste offers challenges beyond the efforts required to trace and cut out stencils.
Wheat-paste recipes vary wildly. I found a few on the Web. Choose any three wheat-paste recipes, and you’ll see that all they share is a requirement that wheat flour and water be boiled together. Some state that you should add sugar, others don’t. Some state that you should boil the wheat flour for an hour, others say that two minutes will suffice. One lists the measurement of wheat flour as a cup, another as a mere three teaspoons.
The first recipe I try is chosen because the website it comes from is littered with info about graffiti, spray cans, wheat paste, street art of every kind. The site offers grit and street authenticity.
I should’ve known the recipe wouldn’t work. The site’s proprietors are probably ill-educated children.
Following the recipe, I mix one cup of wheat flour with one and a half cups of water, boil the whole mess for half an hour, and am left with a lumpy gruel the consistency of still-wet concrete on everything. It dots my stove. Spoons engulfed with the viscous, brown glop lounge around my sink, and clumps threaten to clog the drain. My house smells as if a delirious grandmother boozed up on sweet liquor and made dinner rolls with a secret ingredient, sadness.
Everything associated with that batch of paste — now crusted with a dried porridge I couldn’t remove with a stone-grinder — has to be thrown in the trash. I have to start over. The irony of the situation is that I could’ve bought wallpaper adhesive but instead opted for the “inexpensive” alternative of a sack of flour and tap water.
A different paste recipe yields far better results. The ingredients are the same, wheat flour and water, but instead of a cup of wheat flour, the recipe calls for three tablespoons. Instead of a half-hour of boiling, this time I give it ten minutes and let it cool.
After the concoction stops steaming, I check its consistency. It seems redundant to say that it’s “paste-like,” but I can’t think of another term. It’s almost exactly like the white paste that weird kid in your second-grade class used to eat — only my batch is brown and gritty, with specks of wheat grain.
Because of its sloppy thickness, I’m not sure how well it will spread on a wall or window, but I spoon the mix into a plastic tub, lock a lid on it, and place the package on the passenger seat.
So. The papers are made and rolled and stand at muster in a canvas bag, along with a blue-handled, six-inch-wide paint roller. The clumpy paste waits in the car.
Preparations are over.
My headlights feel along the darkened empty shops, paper-lined windows, and temporary plywood walls that line El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue.
On a back street, I park the car in a darkened space, out of the line of sight of cameras perched along the rooftop and vigilantly recording the goings-on about a nearby gas station.
I peel off the rubber lid of my plastic container, and heat-scented steam rises to fog the window and the cold plastic dash.
The paint roller wallows in the goop; it doesn’t spin well. I coat the paint roller by hand-spinning it in the paste. Wheat-y glue clings to my fingertips, and I brush the slime off on my jeans.
I pop the door. I remind myself it’s not unusual for a man to walk the street with a shopping bag and rolled-up paper. Only in my mind have I committed the crime. I’m not yet a criminal.
Buses glide down the street, their headlights blaring onto my jacket, and I hide my face. At the bus stop I sit and wait for a moment in which traffic desists.
I return to the car and drive to the next area of opportunity.
A man walks his dog through a nearby park, and I wait patiently for the mutt to sniff and piss on every available surface from the playground to the trash can along the sidewalk, on the edge of the park, where I’m standing. My mind repeats, “Come on, buddy. It’s freezing out here. Get your damn dog inside so I can do this.”
I breathe into my clasped palms to warm them.
I return to the car and drive to the next area of opportunity.
In the quiet cold of the car, I sit and wait out a line of other cars let go by a traffic signal. I startle, jerking at the sight of red-and-blue lights and the wail of a siren. The announcement of police presence lights up the interior of my hysterical car, reflects in my mirrors, and causes me to panic.
The cop car passes, and I reach for the door handle. On the cross street ahead of me another police car appears, flashing and wailing for the moment it takes for him to cross the intersection a hundred yards ahead of where I’m parked.
I wait another minute and then reach for the door handle. I grab the bag with the wheat paste–slimed roller and a poster.
A cross street in my rearview mirror glares with the lights of a third cop car.
I open the door.
I close the door. A fourth cop car jolts into and out of view.
I pull away from that cursed spot.
I drive home.
I won’t say what I did at those three areas or where they are.
I will say this: I have vandalized.
My apartment smells like sad muffins, but it’s warm inside, and my chances of being arrested decline sharply as I close the front door and latch the deadbolt.
That was my first public defacement, and I hated every second of it. Fire alarms rang in my head from the moment my car pulled away from the curb, laden with damning evidence, until it rolled back into its parking spot, little over an hour later.
Perpetrating societal harm is a frightening, cold, and lonely act.
Driving the next day for work responsibilities, I tour San Diego’s worst offerings of public art. Sprinkled around the downtown area, these concoctions of paint, metal, and stucco blight the cityscape I love. When I pass them, I think of the poor visitors to San Diego who might happen upon them and leave here to tell everyone back home that San Diego is a wonderful place, with bright, warm people and a natural beauty rivaled by few places in the world, and it is equally notable for its display of hideous communal creations.
First on the Ugly Art Tour of San Diego is the amateurish Engagement. This sculpture looms over the traffic island near the airport, at the corner of Laurel and Harbor. The structure consists of two aluminum hoops, thin and cheap looking. Bolted crudely to the tops of the hoops are plastic cubes that look like those lopsided birdhouses that resemble gigantic diamonds. Oxidized, frail, temporary, crude, and bland, the “engagement” rings pop into view like a warning on the drive from the airport to downtown. Out-of-town conventioneers, take note. Don’t let this happen to your city! (I’ll let you speculate as to what these awful things might mean to the institution of marriage.)
Ultimate Surrender occupies the second slot on the Horrific and Shameful Tour of Odious Desperation list. All 25 feet and three tons of Ultimate Surrender guard a part of downtown waterfront called “Tuna Harbor.” It is the giant statue of a sailor kissing a nurse, the recreation of a 1945 V-J Day photograph featured in LIFE magazine. For this sculpture, King Kong proportions and a classic-movie colorization treatment replace the intimacy and grainy black-and-white of the original. There isn’t a miniature mall flowing with tacky souvenirs on display beneath it, but the hawking of such plastic trinkets wouldn’t feel out of place.
Finally, on the Gross Misappropriation of Public Funds for the Uglification of San Diego Tour we come to the most disturbing of sculptures. On the corner of State and Date in Little Italy you’ll find what was once one of our prettiest little parks, Amici Park. That is, until 2001, when the Little Italy Association and the Commission for Arts and Culture plunked down four red-and-white, oddly symmetrical tables fitted with bronzed food and recipes on how to make the depicted bronzed food. Bronzed food — have you ever seen bronzed food? It looks exactly like rotten food, only grosser than the real thing. So, there sit four tables with bronze plates heaped with brown, corroded, metallic artichokes and fish tacos. Dotting the sidewalk concrete around the park are little plaques engraved with trite phrases pertaining to food, like “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup. — Beethoven”
Yes, that Beethoven, possibly suffering from bipolar disorder and suicidal tendencies and never described as “pure in heart,” though an apparent soup-lover: Beethoven.
The funniest of the little plaques around Amici Park is one attributed to a Sicilian proverb. “The less things change, the more they remain the same.” Either the Sicilians are blander and blunter than I give them credit for, or the plaque is misquoting a cliché attributed to Alphonse Karr: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
I’d love to leave my house with a bucket of black paint and a bag of brushes. I’d love to slather a thick coat of pigment over each of these eyesores. I’d love to make newsprint-paper posters of rocket pops and completely cover these horrid works and give the passing people — people flying to Tulsa, people driving limousines, people settling in for a picnic with a friend — something that would lift them from drudgery and fill them with the whimsy of childhood.
And I might.
I know I said I wouldn’t deface others’ artwork.
But, what do you want?
I’m a vandal.