“Graffiti is a billboard for gangs,” Jose Lopez says while shielding his eyes from the morning sun. We are standing on the back porch of his City Heights bungalow looking out over the canyon below. Perched atop a hill, directly across from us, a graffiti-covered fence is discernible. Lopez shakes his head in disgust. He points a finger and says, “That [graffiti] means something. It’s up for commercial purposes. If it says ESD, that stands for East San Diego [a local gang.] The number stands for the territory. The message after that is what they can supply. It tells the people who can read it what they have available, whether it is drugs or prostitution.”
The tagging aggravates Lopez more than usual because two days earlier he and a crew of other volunteers spent the day painting over graffiti in the same area.
Lopez serves as president and founder of the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association, a sub-neighborhood within City Heights established in 1997. The association’s main goal is to keep their portion of City Heights crime-free. Getting rid of graffiti is a top priority. Lopez applied for and received a grant from the City of San Diego called “Paint the Blight-Out Program,” totaling $6500.The money was used to purchase buckets of paint, rollers, and brushes to eliminate the vandalism and to paint utility boxes in Fox Canyon.
Before the grant, and prior to Fox Canyon becoming a sub-community of City Heights, Lopez describes his neighborhood as a sketchy one.
“We had gang houses that ran prostitution and narcotic rings. Now, [the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association] makes it a point of knocking gang members’ houses down. We have deemed 42 neighborhood homes nuisances,” Lopez says with satisfaction.
I follow behind him as he walks the length of his porch and opens his back door. We step inside a powder-blue kitchen. Shutting the door behind us, Lopez locks multiple padlocks. To the right, a row of gold-flecked goblets hang neatly in a row above his sink. Underneath the crown moulding and above a door leading to the master bedroom, a plexiglas-enclosed shelf houses a boxy TV that serves as a surveillance unit.
Jose Lopez's 16-year quest for a peaceful City Heights neighborhood
Conversation with Jose Lopez, longtime City Heights resident, about the realities of his neighborhood.
“I installed that after being robbed,” he tells me.
Lopez has motion-detector floodlights equipped with cameras hung around the perimeter of his house. Directly across the street from his modest home, he had the city install a street light that he paid the monthly $21 fee to operate until recently when the city began picking up the tab.
Lopez walks into the living room and sits down on an antique wooden chair to strap on a pair of heavy black boots.
“A neighbor called me this morning about some graffiti on Euclid. I need to take photos and send them to Officer Roman,” the police officer that works with Jose’s Fox Canyon neighborhood on graffiti abatement. “I can give you a tour of the neighborhood,” Lopez offers.
In the driveway, Lopez unlocks the doors to a shiny black BMW and then walks a few more feet to unlock the chain-link fence that surrounds his property. He backs the car out of the driveway before getting out again to lock the gate behind us.
We drive up Lantana Drive, turn left on Dwight Street, and then right on Euclid. A few minutes later we pull over in front of a liquor store. Swatches of mismatched paint cover the exterior of the store. A spot on the wall next to a vending machine is tagged in black spray-paint. The vending machine has been decorated with spray-paint as well. Lopez gets out and photographs the vandalism. Minutes later he gets back in the car. Lopez pulls over on Winona Avenue. He parks his car in a dirt lot at the mouth of the canyon we viewed from his back porch.
A concrete wall borders Chollas Creek. It’s covered in graffiti.
“We come out here regularly to paint over this but they always paint over it again right after. It’s like we’re doing them a favor, like they find glory in it because they have a blank canvas to paint on,” Lopez says.
Lopez wants the city to put a two-lane, 24-hour, street light–illuminated road through the canyon.
“We believe that environment lends itself to crime. All sorts of illegal activity happens down here, but they won’t put a street in. They say [the canyon] is an environmental jewel. Look at this...this is an environmental jewel?”
Lopez motions to a spot of graffiti that has a bright red line through it, and adds, “What happens is, this here is East San Diego claiming the area. If someone comes over and writes a line through it and writes another graffiti, that’s a sign of a turf war. When there is a turf war, they don’t sit down like Mr. Barack Obama and the president of Syria. They aren’t going to talk diplomacy; no, they are going to do a drive-by shooting.”
Lopez explains that when he spots graffiti he can’t paint over it right away. He follows procedure, sending photos to Officer Roman, who then enters the artwork into the system. If a graffiti arrest is made, they can potentially track the vandal’s tag back to photos in the system and indict the tagger for other work found in the neighborhood.
In 2011, the City of San Diego’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee announced the implementation of the Graffiti Tracker Program, a web-based system that aids in identifying graffiti vandals.
Photographs of graffiti are entered into a database, enabling law enforcement to keep track of vandals. Signatures and other identifying features are repeated by taggers. Information is kept in a database that police and prosecutors can pull from to determine a tagger’s patterns or geographic areas.
In 2011, 82,482 incidents were entered into Graffiti Tracker by local jurisdictions. That year, the greatest number of incidents were entered by the City of San Diego (22,563), followed by Vista (15,124), Escondido (7863), Oceanside (5811), and National City (5025). Sheriff’s contract cities and the unincorporated areas entered a total of 28,035 other incidents.
The City of San Diego estimates that over $1 million each year is spent on eliminating graffiti. That total doesn’t include the amount spent by public agencies, utility companies, and citizens to remove graffiti from their properties. Nationwide, the American public spends nearly $12 billion each year on graffiti removal and education.
In 2011, taggers were ordered to pay more than $783,000 in cleanup costs to the City of San Diego.
Graffiti saved my life
Armor, a local graffiti artist, was one of the unlucky taggers who paid a hefty fee and did jail time for a graffiti arrest. In 2010, Imperial Beach police officers arrested and charged Armor (then 22) with 218 counts of vandalism. Officers pulled him over for a DUI and found sketch pads and drawings signed with the name “Slow” in his vehicle. From the moniker in the sketch books, officers were able to link him to graffiti around town. He pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $87,000 in restitution. Armor was sentenced to a year in Otay Mesa’s George Bailey Detention Facility. He served six months.
I meet Armor at Café Virtuoso in Barrio Logan, near his East Village apartment. He’s 25 but could pass for a high-school student. Clean-shaven and unassuming, he wears a white T-shirt evocative of the stark backgrounds taggers crave. Armor looks like the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind your daughter dating. “I saw this guy wearing a shirt that said ‘Graffiti Saved My Life,’” he says between sips of coffee. “For me, that’s true. Graffiti did save my life. It gave me something to focus on.
“I attempted suicide when I was 15. I was in and out of mental hospitals at that age. One of my doctors sent me to a hospital in Utah for mentally unstable youth. I went into orientation housing with a guy from Chicago who was a graffiti artist. He taught me everything there is to know.”
Armor discovered that art — albeit illegal — helped him escape from the reality of his situation. He found solace in creating. “At that point in my life I was struggling a lot. I had a lot of bad experiences that were hard for me to deal with at that young age. Graffiti kept my mind at a place where I had a goal. I needed something to be extreme. I needed something to be overwhelming to keep me on track and keep me away from worse things,” Armor tells me.
When Armor recollects his early days as a graffiti artist, there is a lift in his voice. He transforms from a shy introvert into a confident young man. “There is no feeling equal to [tagging]. For me, it was the best thing, because there were all these factors. I had to perform if I wanted respect. You can’t just throw anything up and get respect from other people. It had to be good. I had to take my time. I had to have clean, calm lines.”
Armor did that all while worrying about being busted by the cops or being attacked in the rough neighborhoods he painted in. He soon picked up the ironic nickname Slow, thanks to a nearly supernatural ability he had of escaping approaching police officers. The moniker was given to him by another tagger. They were spray-painting the side of a building when his friend spotted police officers drawing near.
“He turned to warn me, and I was already running down the street.”
After that, Armor started signing all his work with the name Slow, a signature that later led to his apprehension. He has since changed that name to Armor.
Unlike many other taggers, Armor didn’t paint with a crew. For the most part, he was a solo artist. Because of that, he had a few harrowing encounters. He recounts startling moments of being beaten, stabbed, and having a gun pulled on him while painting.
“I was near 13th and Elm Street [in Imperial Beach] in an alley way that had sheet wall fences. It’s an area where people used to paint a lot. I didn’t realize that it was purely gang territory. That’s the downside of being a solo artist: you don’t have someone to tell you these things. I painted a wall and that was a big mistake. [A group of four guys] came behind me, grabbed me, took me to the ground, and stomped my head out. They just kept beating me. I took one shot to the face and it split my lip. My head started buzzing and I knew if I didn’t get out of there I might never get up. My adrenaline hit me fast. I popped up and got away. I don’t even know how,” Armor recalls.
When Armor talks about his arrest two years ago, he still grimaces over the idea that all his previous art work is gone.
“I had pictures of my work but the [police officers] took all my cameras and my sketch books. They did it again when I got out of Bailey. I was getting ready for an art show and they took all my sketch books. The gang unit was sent after me and they took everything, hundreds of hours of work. They assume you’re going to spend your whole life in jail. They are more concerned with putting you back in than giving you a chance to rehabilitate,” Armor says in frustration.
“He’s Mexican and an artist, people trusted him.”
In Southeast San Diego, near the intersection of Market and Euclid, Sergio Gonzalez meets me outside Writerz Blok in the facility’s art yard. Three long rows of bright graffiti and mural-covered billboards snake through the yard. They offer 10,000 square feet of paintable walls. Behind the artwork is a concrete slab for skateboarding. It, too, is covered in graffiti. Even the trees that line the property are tagged.
“These poor trees,” Sergio says with a smile, “but,” he adds, “everything in the yard is fair game.”
Thirty-year-old Gonzalez is the finance manager at Writerz Blok. He grew up in the neighborhood, Lincoln Park. He started tagging when he was 14. His brothers were in gangs. They had tattoos with elaborate letters. Sergio was drawn to the art work. He started copying the letters in his brother’s tattoos with paper and pen and later graduated to spray-paint.
“I never wanted to be in a gang. There was a difference between being a gang member and being a tagger. In a gang you are involved in a clique and you run with them. Taggers are cliques, too, but we weren’t subjected to one neighborhood. We had to go out to different neighborhoods and write our name and let people know who we were and have this identity. Here in this neighborhood, we had the Euclid pit. It was the place to be. Every other week there were new murals there. As the years went on, it started to get more dangerous to be out on the street. People started picking up knives and guns and threatening people if you were in certain neighborhoods. The [Pit] was kind of safe. I used to paint on the gutters. That’s when I met Jose and we had the same love of graffiti.”
Jose Venegas was instrumental in creating Writerz Blok alongside Gonzalez and is now the production manager.
In 1998 the Jacobs Family Foundation started building a property in Lincoln Park. They brought along bright white trailers and trucks. “Jose and I looked at them as blank canvases. We thought, Man, we got to hit those,” Gonzalez recalls with a chuckle.
What proceeded Gonzalez describes as a cat-and-mouse game. Armed with spray-paint, Venegas and Gonzalez painted the trailers and vans in the middle of the night. The next day they would find their artwork painted over. They repeated the cycle several times until the Jacobs center was fed up.
Instead of calling the cops, the Jacobs center decided to attempt an outreach with the taggers. They hired muralist Victor Ochoa, who worked on Chicano Park, to work on a project with the taggers.
Sergio Gonzalez at Writerz Blok
Sergio discusses graffiti artists leaving their mark at the Writerz Blok art space.
“Victor Ochoa went out into the neighborhood to find the kids responsible for tagging over the trucks. It didn’t take him long; he’s Mexican and an artist, people trusted him. We were approached about working with him on a project,” Gonzalez says.
Venegas and Gonzalez were hesitant to get involved. They thought that maybe it was a ploy or some sort of sting operation that would get them arrested. When free paint was promised if they met with Ochoa, the pair agreed.
They began meeting Ochoa every Wednesday. Their first project was painting on an old abandoned building off of Euclid. While working, Ochoa talked to the boys about art. He talked to them about the struggles he had as an artist. They grew to trust and respect him.
Soon the Jacobs family donated funds to build a facility, and the Writerz Blok art-park concept was dreamt up. “I had a choice to get out and do something positive,” Gonzalez says. “I found a way to take something they saw as a nuisance and turn it into an actual career. And I’m helping my community.”
Gonzalez can already see changes in Lincoln Park. He likes to attribute some of that to Writerz Blok. “A few years ago it was unsafe for kids. Within a five-mile radius you had eight to ten gangs. It’s getting better. We have built relationships with the gangs. As soon as you walk into Writerz Blok, it’s a safe haven. It’s all about the art. If issues come up between artists, we have them do a paint-off and we judge the final results. With social media, there is a lot of trash talking. It can escalate quickly into violence. We try to avoid that. Our goal is to be the urban-art version of the YMCA.”
Writerz Blok, Gonzalez says, also serves as an alternative to legal action against taggers.
“In lieu of a ticket and consequences,” he explains, “[police officers] will bring them here as their first chance, as a get-out-of-jail-free card. We give them projects to do. We give them silk screening, posters, and banner projects. Or we have them help us with basic upkeep of this place — replacing the [spray-paint] panels or landscaping.”
Gonzalez’s goal is to give the kids in his neighborhood the same opportunity he was afforded.
“Graffiti is about being known, having a name. With that fame comes a cost, whether it’s a fine or their life. They are putting large fines on kids. They are charging $800 or so to clean up [graffiti], when I can go out, get paint, and paint over it. Boom — it’s $15, and it’s done. You have kids that are trying to find outlets. They go and do graffiti and get felonies as youth. We want to be a resource for them to do something different. If it wasn’t for this, who knows what I would be doing now? I would probably still be tagging,” Gonzalez says.
I want people to look at my work
“I’m glad it all went down the way it did,” Armor says of his 2010 graffiti arrest.
He pinpoints an altercation with another prisoner during his six-month imprisonment as a turnaround point in his life.
“I ended up in the hole for two weeks. I remember sitting in there thinking, This is what I see on TV. I realized this was not how I wanted to spend my life — in jail or in prison. That’s when I really decided to change my life. I knew I wanted to make my living creating and making art. After that, I spent all day, every day, drawing. I would draw on envelopes for guys’ girlfriends and wives in their letters home. I did detailed drawings for guys’ cells. I would pick designs into people’s commissary cups. That actually paid pretty well. It made my time go faster. That was the first time I ever sold my art. It gave me confidence and a purpose,” Armor says.
A month after his release, Armor was invited to show his art at the Machine Shop Gallery in downtown San Diego. He sold a painting for $400.
Since then he has worked on a live-art installation for Adidas, painted murals for a number of local companies, and performed at live graffiti events. He says he spends six to seven hours a day perfecting his craft at his East Village home.
Armor takes me on a tour to see his work around town. In Barrio Logan, he shows me a wall painted with an intricately detailed face of a woman. She has a lily in her hair. It’s hard to believe that the work was done using spray-paint. He was paid for the mural by the business owner who was fed up with the continual tagging on the wall. Since the mural has gone up, the wall has been graffiti-free.
Next we drive past the Thrift Trader in North Park, a building whose exterior is covered in murals. Armor is responsible for a large jungle-themed portion facing the parking lot. Lastly, we drive to the corner of 30th and El Cajon Boulevard to view a wall production Armor worked on with fellow artists Dexx, Eyemax, and Sade. It features a lifelike woman in a space-age setting.
“I want to get better with form. I want people to look at my work and know I did it,” he says.
I took a knife in the face
“For a long time, there was a movement in City Heights,” says Lopez. “People were saying that graffiti is art. ‘Just let them do it, it’s how they are expressing themselves,’ some people said. And I said, ‘Look at the meaning behind these letters; that’s not art.’” Lopez lets out a weary sigh before continuing in a quieter tone, “If I could, I would be like Saddam Hussein with these kids. People give excuses for [taggers]. They say it’s not their fault because of poverty or because their parents work three jobs. I say they need to learn a lesson and sometimes six months in juvenile hall is part of that lesson!”
At this point, Lopez’s BMW is gliding back down Lantana Drive, toward his home. He points out the window as we drive past a small house.
“Christmas 2005, there was a drive-by shooting at that house. That was the last one we’ve had since. It had to do with graffiti tagging on the corner of Euclid and Lantana.”
After pulling into Lopez’s driveway, he ushers me onto the porch. He sits on the front stoop while I opt for a bench out of the sun. For a long time, Lopez says he ignored the state of his neighborhood.
“I was a financial refugee when I moved here in 1993. Even if I wanted to move, I couldn’t,” he says with sincerity.
Back then, Lopez went about his business. He kept to himself. He worked on restoring the inside of his home. He painted the interior in peaches and pale blues. He restored the hardwood floors, put up crown moulding. He set about making a beautiful home for himself.
“As a kid, my family’s motto was, ‘Hell is outside and heaven is in here in the home,’” he says.
The problem was, the hell from outside was starting to seep inside his home.
“My next-door neighbors used to have these big rent parties at the end of the month.”
One time, it was mariachi music from 12 p.m. to the early-morning hours. Their music broke the glass in one of Lopez’s windows.
“Look at my windows. These aren’t vinyl. These are original to the house. I restored them,” he says with a twinge of outrage.
Lopez promptly drove to Home Depot to replace the glass.
“When I swapped out the glass, I cracked open a beer to celebrate my accomplishment. That’s when the glass broke again.”
At that moment, Lopez decided that he was fed up with his neighborhood and he was going to have to do something about it. Lopez rattles off a lengthy list of atrocities he endured up until that point: theft, drive-by shootings, prostitutes working on his street, condoms hanging like ornaments off a tree on his property, and trained pit bulls used by gangs in turf wars roaming the streets.
“Do you know,” he says, “that back then we couldn’t even get pizza delivered on this street? Now, Papa John’s delivers. When they started delivering to us again we had a big party. All the neighbors pulled out their card tables and we had wine and soda out there in the street, eating our pizza,” Lopez recalls with a smile before turning his mind back to the broken window.
“That broken window was it!” he declared.
Aside from the mariachi music and rent parties, Lopez claims his neighbors were also running a human-trafficking ring. The morning after the window incident, Lopez started knocking on neighborhood doors. He circulated a petition to get his next-door neighbor’s house deemed a nuisance house. He received enough signatures to get them out. From there, he slowly began organizing his neighbors into the Fox Canyon Neighborhood Association. He made it his goal to get to know the people in his neighborhood. One of his first orders of action was to remove the graffiti from Fox Canyon.
“We had four generations of taggers living here. We said to them, ‘Quit it.’”
As a result of these actions, Lopez suffered various repercussions. Taggers made it their mission to continually tag Lopez’s garage door. Lopez turns his face and points to a dimpled scar on the right side of his cheek.
“I took a knife in the face while standing on my front porch. They took out some of my teeth. There was a gang house down the street. They were running narcotics and prostitution. We told them, ‘If you don’t move, we’ll chase you out.’”
The gang members retaliated. Three men confronted Lopez on his front porch.
“They started swearing and threatening me. I said either you kill me or not. So, one of them took out a knife and stabbed me. Afterward, they walked nicely away. Running and crying to the police isn’t going to change anything. That makes them win. You don’t snitch; you get even.”
Lopez’s way of getting even was to receive enough signatures from neighbors to declare the assaulter’s home a nuisance house. They were kicked out.
“Look at this street. Do you hear that? That’s silence. It never used to be that way. Now, when my neighbors leave their homes to go to work, they don’t have to worry. We aren’t scared all the time anymore,” Lopez says with relief.
He has only a few buckets of paint left from his graffiti grant.
“I don’t think we’ll need more. Once they run out, I think the graffiti problem will be under control in this neighborhood.”