San Diego Early one morning in May, Padre Gabriel Rodríguez walked out the front doors of downtown Tijuana's San Francisco de Asís Catholic Church. When he reached the sidewalk, he turned and looked up to admire the tall, narrow neo-Gothic church, considered one of Tijuana's most beautiful. "I was surprised and uncomfortable and mad," he confesses.
Indecipherable black spray-painted characters stained the top 2 feet of the entire 150-foot length of the church's east wall. Shading his eyes from the morning sun, Padre Rodríguez scanned the edifice's upper reaches and grew angrier when he noticed that the tile dome atop the more western of the church's two belfries had also been tagged. "This church is one of the oldest churches in the city. That is why it is considered one of the monuments of Tijuana, and now it has been violated."
Graffiti is nothing new to Padre Rodríguez. Every wall and building in the neighborhood bears some amount of it. "But not the church," he says. "We have another building that fronts the street, and they paint on that from time to time. But the temple itself? No. Not until now."
Asked why the church has been spared heretofore, the handsome square-faced priest shrugs his shoulders. "Logically, it would be out of respect -- respect for the church. The graffiti is all over the city, but churches usually are not touched."
But even in Mexico, which is 88 percent Catholic, respect for churches is apparently waning. "I have a house in Tijuana," says Chicano Park graffiti artist Victor Ochoa, who grew up in Tijuana. "It's in Colonia Buena Vista near the racetrack. There's a church right across the street, and it gets tagged all the time."
When Padre Rodríguez's anger subsided that first morning, amazement replaced it. "How did they get up on the roof?" he wondered. "They don't make ladders that tall. And once up there, how did they get over the side and up on the dome to paint?"
Back inside the friary, Padre Rodríguez told his confreres about the graffiti. "First we were afraid," he recalls. "We thought that they must have gotten into our house and somehow climbed from roof to roof. But then all the friars thought about it, and we thought that they either broke into the church or maybe were hiding in the church when we locked it up. Then they went up into the bell tower. But they would have had to go past another locked door to get into the tower. So, really, we still aren't certain how they got up there."
Padre Rodríguez reported the graffiti to Tijuana police. "They asked us not to erase anything. They wanted to come out and take photos so that they could identify the gang that did this. They say it's usually gangs who do this."
The police needn't have worried. None of the friars fancied climbing the rickety belfry stairs to the roof, then hanging over the edge like a rock climber rappelling a cliff. But during the next few days, Padre Rodríguez and the other Franciscan friars found themselves leaning their heads back, trying to read the scrawl 100 feet up. "We couldn't make most of it out. It seems to be some kind of code. The one word we could make out was crimen, which means crime, but it was spelled with a K."
From the street looking up, a few other words, neither English nor Spanish, can be picked out: ROKET, EL REKOR, STOREK, TEK, and DREK. "Those are graff names," Ochoa, the graffiti artist, explains, "the names used by the individual taggers. The K stands for 'Krew.' It was probably a group of guys who did it. The police know that, and they assume that means they're some kind of street gang, but that isn't necessarily the case. They're definitely kids who hang out together. Maybe they all go to the same school or live in the same neighborhood. Maybe they're just friends. That doesn't make them criminal gang members."
Ochoa knows the graffiti scene on both sides of the border. He was born in East Los Angeles and lived there until, when he was seven, his parents were deported. As a youth in the 1960s, he began painting on walls around Tijuana. But, he insists, he wasn't simply tagging his alias, Kosmos. "I came up in the social justice era," he says. "I would use Old English script to paint messages, stuff like 'Abajo con la migra,' Down with the Border Patrol."
He insists that he would never have tagged a church, but he understands why Krimen, Roket, and their crew targeted San Francisco de Asís. "The new generation is going for fame," Ochoa explains. "And the more important the building, the more your fame if you tag it. I know that church. It's one of the most prominent churches in Tijuana, and it's very tall. Getting your graff name way up there at the top is an accomplishment for these guys that gives them street fame."
Asked whether he feels solidarity with the kids who tagged the church, Ochoa pauses to think. "I do," he answers. "I feel solidarity with them in the fact that they want to express themselves. I feel solidarity with them in the art form that they've chosen. I don't feel solidarity with them when it comes to vandalism."
Ochoa, whose works can be seen at Chicano Park, Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park, and the Chula Vista Library, paints only on what he calls "permission walls." At one time, he sat on the City of Tijuana's graffiti commission. During his tenure, he organized GraffCon 2000. Hundreds of graffiti artists descended on Tijuana to paint the six miles of fence surrounding Tijuana International Airport. "We had guys come down from Los Angeles and from as far away as Arizona, New Mexico, even New York, as well as a few hundred Tijuana artists," Ochoa boasts.
Despite that success, Ochoa resigned from the commission in frustration. "The other members," he recalls, "kept referring to graffiti as shit: 'What are we going to do to get this shit off our walls?' 'How are we going to stop these gang members from painting this shit all over our city?' I tried to tell them, 'It's not shit to them. Ask any kid what he's looking at when he rides the bus to school in the morning. He tells you he's looking at the fresh tags on the walls. Because for them it's art, it's beautiful, it's legitimate self-expression.' "
Legitimate or not, Padre Rodríguez and his confreres didn't want it on their church. But to clean it off or paint over it themselves would be too dangerous, to pay professionals too expensive. They must have committed the matter to prayer, because God sent a savior. "We have a very wealthy family in our parish," Padre Rodríguez explains, "and one of the daughters is getting married soon. The family has offered to pay to have the church painted before the wedding."