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.