Photo by Conner Ross.
Photo by Conner Ross.

Graffiti is constantly looking for a home.

Standing before a graffiti mural, the collection of colors and keen stylistic movement denotes the persistent argument of implication the art form has faced over the years.

Always expressing the passion and aptitude of the creator while providing an underlying message to the public space it inhabits, graffiti’s place in the greater community has proven to be a constant topic of debate.

With forms ranging from extensive illustrations to scant signatures stating a name or staking territory, the definition of graffiti often relies on interpretation, framed by the culture in which it resides.

Local graffiti artist Jake Kline* has been producing graffiti art in public environments for the past seven years and believes the art form represents much more than often perceived.

“It’s an amazing thing to interact with your environment and to change it, to make it yours,” Kline said. “Just as scholars and the archaeological community covet cave paintings and native etchings, they should find merit in the marks that the people of yesterday and today and tomorrow are so bold to make.”

A Misunderstood Art 

Dating back to the 1960s, graffiti art has progressed over the years, leaving behind it a misconstrued history. Starting in Philadelphia with a man dubbed CORNBREAD, street art has taken multiple forms throughout its lifetime, from denoting gang competition to making poignant political commentaries.

Buried beneath the social and political debates over graffiti art is a unique craft that artists have expanded to incorporate more than just straightforward statements.

“There are a lot of things that drive me to do it,” Kline said. “It can just be a message or it can be a reflection on a concept that’s interesting to me. To have someone put their mind to a concept they find interesting or important and have them be able to add that to the community, that’s amazing.”

However, the way in which some people have decided to go about expressing their ideas and opinions has criminalized graffiti in society.

“I feel like graffiti has officially gotten a negative connotation, in the way that it’s a nuisance that just needs to be cleaned up,” Kline said.

Part of this negative connotation likely stems from graffiti’s long-standing ties to gangs. But according to Kline, this represents a very narrow concept of graffiti, or tagging. He thinks that graffiti needs also to be recognized in a broader sense as a stylistic art form practiced by many different people for many different reasons. Other artists and advocates like Kline believe that this form of expression is ultimately in need of a forum for constructive development.

Bill’s Wheels, a Santa Cruz skate shop located on Soquel Avenue, has donated the outside of their building to this effort, welcoming graffiti artists to freely display their artwork on the space. The shop is one of the only local businesses known to offer this.

Bill Ackerman, who owns the skate shop, has established a long list of artists from around the county who want to paint his property.

“[Graffiti] is an unbelievable skill and true art form,” Ackerman said. “Seeing these guys go from tagging public walls and trains to producing books of their artwork, you can see the different levels graffiti can be taken [to] and the artistic value it can have.”

People like Kline, whose name graces Ackerman’s list of interested artists, wish more places like Bill’s Wheels would provide graffiti artists with a backdrop to articulate their passion without the threat of being arrested.

“There are all these spots that people never go, with big pieces of concrete that have been put there for bridges to go over them or for water to run through them, and to this day they do have amazing pieces on them,” Kline said. “But these are the spots people should feel safe painting at.”

Nonetheless, some street artists revel in the idea that what they do is illicit and view the danger that comes with defying authority as part of the graffiti lifestyle and culture.

Jon Harden*, a graffiti writer living in Los Angeles, started tagging at age 13 as a way to get out of the house and hang out with friends. Primarily hitting spots under bridges and along the Los Angeles River, Harden never viewed his thrill as harmful to the community despite knowing it was illegal.

“As a kid I loved the feeling of not knowing whether or not you’d get caught,” Harden said. “Even now, my heart still races if I’m working on a spot that has high visibility and I feel that pressure can be seen in my artwork.”

But despite enjoying the art-induced rush of adrenaline, Harden says he thinks the laws pertaining to graffiti art are too severe and said that police departments should spend their time and money on issues more threatening to human safety.

“I do believe that gangs tag as a way of marking territory,” Harden said. “But I also see so many different types of people out there just trying to make art, [so] calling it criminal just seems so extreme.”

Community Call to Action

For the past five years, the city of Watsonville has seen an increase in tagging and graffiti-writing throughout the community, and Watsonville police have responded.

“[The] increases caused us to launch a special investigation to try and curb it and control it as much as we can,” said Manny Solano, deputy chief of police at the Watsonville Police Department.

Four months ago the department launched a trail investigation called TAG, or Target All Taggers, which incorporated traditional means of catching criminals, such as talking to those involved and understanding the strategies behind tagging, coupled with an aerosol sensor developed by Broadband Discovery Systems Inc. of Scotts Valley.

However, the police department has purposely kept the specifics of their investigation vague in order to maintain its effectiveness across the community.

“We also created a very thorough database and we’re sharing it with other agencies in the county,” Solano said. “Being that a lot of these graffiti writers will move around through different jurisdictions, we’ve begun sharing information to identify taggers throughout the county.”

Three months after TAG was initiated, 22 juveniles and 15 adults were arrested and charged with 885 counts of vandalism, according to the Watsonville Police Department. Deeming the pilot project a success for the community, other areas of the county have now joined in on fighting vandalism.

“On Feb. 1 we started a graffiti task force in light of Watsonville’s success,” said Sgt. Robin Mitchell of the Santa Cruz County sheriff’s department. “We wanted to be on the same page.”

While the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) has not seen an escalation in graffiti within the city limits, they hope to implement a task force like Watsonville’s in future years.

“We’re looking into creating a task force that would involve compiling reported acts of vandalism onto a centralized database,” said Zach Friend, SCPD spokesperson, “but it’s relatively still in the beginning stages.”

Santa Cruz was incorporated into the task force overseen by the county, but due to lack of resources, they have yet to appoint a designated graffiti investigator, Mitchell said.

Nonetheless, volunteer organizations within the city, such as Graffiti Free Santa Cruz, have arisen in response to community aggravation over the presence of graffiti and the need for assistance in removing it from the public sphere.

Graffiti Free Santa Cruz’s mission is “to maintain the natural beauty of our city by preventing and removing graffiti through community involvement, eradication, education and enforcement,” according to its Web site.

In Watsonville, an annual $150,000 is spent on removing graffiti around the city, not including the amount spent by schools and other businesses paying out of their own pocket.

“It costs the county $10,000 just for the primer in covering up graffiti, and that alone leaves walls scarred and damaged,” Mitchell said. “People need to see that it’s not just artists trying to make murals — it permanently damages both public and private space, and the environmental impact is huge.”

In creeks and watersheds around the areas where graffiti markings can be found, empty spray paint cans and markers litter the area, leaving the natural beauty tainted with remnants of taggers, Mitchell said.

In addition to the efforts made to catch acts of vandalism, Watsonville has tried providing education and alternative outlets to discourage the desecration of public and private spaces.

“The [Watsonville] Parks and Recreation Department is exploring ways in which they could start a community art wall,” Solano said. “We’ve tried this in the past and it hasn’t been very successful, but we’re going to give it another shot and hopefully steer this energy in a positive way.”

Photo by Conner Ross.
Photo by Conner Ross.
Photo by Conner Ross.
Photo by Conner Ross.
Photo by Conner Ross.
Photo by Conner Ross.
Photo by Conner Ross.
Photo by Conner Ross.


*Names have been changed.