The autumn afternoon feels more like a mid-summer heat wave, and thus the walk along San Luis Obispo’s railroad corridor is like treading through hell on earth. Despite the heat, the man ahead quickly leads the way.
- Photo by Steve E. Miller
- A CONCRETE GALLERY : Tunnels found along SLO’s railroad corridor provide graffiti artists a canvas.
“Follow me. Keep up,” he orders as he jumps down from the tracks to a chain fence that borders the corridor. This fence has two uses. It keeps the downtrodden of the tracks out of nearby neighborhoods. More importantly for now, though, it acts as a much-needed handrail to a steep dirt path that leads to a tunnel. At the bottom, an explosion of color in the form of graffiti art greets those who find this secret place.
Spots like this are where street artists come to express themselves. What contractors and engineers once built to divert the flow of water has now become a bulletin board for graffiti artists and taggers.
Most prominent on this board is a purple cartoon character. Painted next to it, like a signature, is the word “SOAK.”
Chances are locals have seen his name around town on a bridge, building, sign or news rack. He could easily be regarded as the most visible graffiti artist or tagger in the county. Many despise him for what he does, while others praise him, if only for his daring. Others simply regard him as a nuisance, while police work to put an end to his game.
And yet, as well known as he has become, he has eluded the police. Why hasn’t he been caught?
For the uninitiated, the graffiti culture can be difficult to comprehend. Even among members of the culture, ideas of what is and is not legitimate graffiti are hotly contested. Few can agree on a universal set of rules by which graffiti artists should abide. Perhaps one local graffiti artist said it best: “The first rule of graffiti is that there is no first rule of graffiti.”
- Photo courtesy of SOAK
- “GETTING UP” FOR ALL TO SEE : Many graffiti artists say the bragging rights go to those who make their tags most visible by hitting “prime real estate.” Others argue that artistry and taste trump mere courage.
Meet “Jane,” a self-proclaimed street artist who wants to remain anonymous for fear of arrest or retaliation from other artists. Jane claims to speak on behalf of a majority of local graffiti artists.
According to her and others, most graffiti artists agree that certain property is off limits, including churches, schools, historic landmarks, and privately owned houses.
There is another idea that most graffiti artists can agree on—the absurdity of the popular opinion that all graffiti artists are mentally disturbed, thugged-out gang members from broken homes who are high on drugs. Jane says that while that may account for a portion of graffiti artists, it is not all-encompassing. Instead, Jane refers to fellow artists she identifies as “hippies, squares, straight-edgers, and normal people with jobs.”
Ultimately, though, that’s where the consensus stops and where the ambiguity begins. There are loosely followed ideas about respect and “crossing” other artists’ work, but like any criminal activity, rules change and diminish over time until eventually, anything goes and nothing is sacred. That, many say, is where the movement stands today.
SLO’s graffiti problem
Lt. Bill Proll works for the San Luis Obispo Police Department and has witnessed firsthand the changes in graffiti over the course of his career. He says ten years ago, graffiti was mostly done using aerosol spray cans. These days, a new wave of graffiti has emerged that involves markers, stickers, blunt objects and even shoe polish as tools to write on walls. It’s these smaller, more “annoying” acts of vandalism that have increased and are harder to enforce, says Proll. Officers who once looked for spray cans bulging from people’s pockets now have difficulty spotting taggers using these alternative tools of the trade.
“Nothing is immune from graffiti,” says Proll. “Citywide it’s a problem and we are constantly looking for ways to reduce it.”
Pierre Rademaker operates his design studio in a second-story office in downtown SLO. He’s been there for more than 28 years. In that time, he’s seen graffiti on and around his doorstep increase significantly. About three times a year, he takes it upon himself to clean it up, paying out of his own pocket.
For him, downtown feels like his house, and when someone does something to detract from its beauty, it’s like a slap in the face. Just weeks ago, SOAK tagged the windows of the vacant storefront below. Rademaker has since cleaned it up.
“People call this art, but there is nothing artistic about it. It’s just ugly and annoying,” he said.
Proll explains that some cities have given up opposing graffiti, accepting it as an unavoidable part of city life. San Luis Obispo does not want to reach that point.
In fact, the police take graffiti very seriously. The city’s philosophy, Proll says, is that if not removed promptly, graffiti spawns more graffiti. Working with volunteers, city workers, and local business owners, SLOPD is committed to keeping graffiti to a minimum.
Proll says it is nearly impossible to put a specific dollar amount on what graffiti costs city taxpayers, since much of the cleaning up comes from people who donate their time and supplies to clean up after taggers.
“And yes,” he allows, “we are well aware of SOAK.”
More to the point, SOAK himself is convinced the police are on to him.
Behind the tag
Drivers who pull off Highway 1 onto the shoulder near Cayucos can see a stunning vista of Morro Bay, Los Osos, and, on a clear day like this, Point Buchon in the far distance. Few of them, however, would notice the crumbling aqueduct that flows deep beneath the highway and eventually surfaces near the ocean. Finding the tunnel is no easy task. Actually entering the tunnel is a challenge best left for Indiana Jones wannabes or the most hardcore graffiti enthusiasts.
Inside, paintings abound. The isolation of this place has attracted many artists looking to perfect their craft; SOAK is one of them. His piece is more than a year old now, but still vibrant and fresh, except for a few bird droppings that have streaked his tag from the swallow nests above.
“I knew it would still be here,” says SOAK with satisfaction.
He’s especially proud of this piece. He likes how the “S” curves uniformly and he enjoys the shading underneath. “It was worth the drive,” he says.
It’s been said that the dynamic of competition between taggers is like a race. Only one person can be in first place at any given time, and that person can only hold that position for so long. SOAK agrees with this statement. He says he never targets a business or location for any purpose other than it being “prime real estate,” or in non-graffiti terms, easily visible to the public, and therefore more exhilarating for him to tag.
“It’s never personal,” he says. “Call me immature, but tagging gives me a rush and release. It honestly makes me feel better,” he says. “I pay tax dollars and get screwed by government like everybody else. For me, this is the easiest way to get back at a system that screws people everyday.”
For the most part, though, he asserts he is an otherwise law-abiding citizen. He says he doesn’t use hard drugs and drives under the speed limit. But what started years ago as a seemingly harmless pleasure quickly grew until it began to take on a life of its own.
Graffiti may be a playful hobby for some. For others, it’s a powerful vice. Ask SOAK, and he’ll admit he falls into the later category. Just as with any addiction, the longer someone is hooked, the greater the dose they need to deliver the high.
The fix for SOAK, he says, comes from the rush he gets when writing on a wall while avoiding detection. The higher the risk of getting caught, the greater the rush. Over time this obsession has caused him to look for bigger, bolder, riskier locations that put him under more stress. Hence, he’s driven to write his name on rooftops, overpasses, and downtown storefronts, instead of limiting himself to underground tunnels.
SOAK says most of his work is secretly done well after dark . Often he doesn’t even know if he achieved the tag he hoped for until seeing it the next day.
“It’s kind of like a kid waking up on Christmas morning,” he says. “You never know what you’re going to get until you see for yourself.”
But graffiti has its down side, and not simply for cops and landlords. Success for a tagger does not come without backlash: Conflicts with other artists are commonplace.
SOAK says he’s had many threats, and recalls sleepless nights in his own home armed with a baseball bat. He’s feared not only for his own safety but for the safety of his family as well. Ironically, SOAK himself has been the target of vandalism, and has had his own property destroyed after conflicts with other graffiti artists. He is aware that people despise his tags and want him stopped.
It wasn’t always like this, he says. For years SOAK never wrote on walls, and limited his artwork to sketchbooks. It wasn’t until the death of two childhood friends also involved in graffiti that SOAK felt the urge to become visibly active.
Since then, he admits things have at times spiraled out of control. But the biggest threat to SOAK doesn’t come from retaliation, it comes from police.
The hunt for SOAK
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” says SOAK half-jokingly. More seriously, he says he’s well aware of efforts to put him behind bars, and the pressure is wearing him down. He believes he’s being closely watched by police.
Over the past several months, he’s become far less active. Much of his tags that are still visible were done long ago. SOAK is hesitant to declare retirement, he’s treating the obsession like a recovering addict, denying his fix one day at a time. “What the police are doing has worked,” he says. “It’s hard to live life knowing I’m one phone call from going away for a very long time.”
Jane says she knows at least three people who have called SLOPD offering information about SOAK, only to be told by police that they have all the information they need.
Lt. Proll says the word SOAK is associated with numerous acts of felony vandalism. He declined to give details about the investigation, other than to say, “We have people telling us who they think he is.” He added, though, that the police are still accepting information.
Hated by many, loved by few
Sylvester’s in Los Osos prides itself on serving what could arguably be the world’s messiest burgers. It’s one of SOAK’s favorite places to eat around here. Their sign outside reads, “Big, Hot N’ Juicy.”
“Just like me,” laughs SOAK.
Seated in the back patio, he admits he’s gotten a lot of flack from fellow artists who criticize him for what they perceive as “poor taste” and a “lack of respect.”
“Soak is not an artist, he’s a menace,” says Jane. “He has zero talent. He’s just brave and stupid. His art is a waste of paint and makes me sick.”
Jane and others say the difference between themselves and SOAK is that he is a destructive “tagger.” Tagging, says Jane, is the equivalent to a dog marking its territory, while “graffiti art” requires talent and creativity. That art is often witty, clever, and offers amusing commentary on modern society. Graffiti, she says, has a socially redeeming value not found in tagging. Jane is very passionate about this concept.
“He’s not even taken seriously by well-respected artists,” she says. “SOAK is a joke.”
Not all share her viewpoints. Once again, the lack of universal values within the graffiti community creates disagreement. It can be said with some certainty, however, that there are two core values within graffiti; artistic talent and guts. Some artists value talent above all else, while others have made reputations for themselves solely on their ability to “get up,” or make their name the most visible.
One anonymous local artist, “Ben,” praises SOAK for his “intestinal fortitude,” calling him a “guerilla artist.” “SOAK is keeping graffiti raw and dangerous, right where it should be,” he says.
Others disagree. Another artist who requested anonymity argues that SOAK is the most visibly active tagger in the area, and has not improved at all artistically.
“SOAK doesn’t even try to create something the public might admire like others artists do, and if the rest of the graffiti community doesn’t enjoy his work, he’s just doing it for himself.” These artists feel legitimate graffiti “gives back” or “enhances” their surroundings, while vandalism does the exact opposite.
The debate of tagging versus graffiti is nothing new. Ben sums it up best by saying it’s all about personal preference. “How do you compare a Renoir to a Warhol?” he asks.
SOAK defends his work, arguing that graffiti artists who denounce tagging are like “pots calling the kettle black.” And that’s one sentiment SOAK and the SLOPD share. Proll only laughed when told that many graffiti artists look down on SOAK.
“That’s pretty ironic,” says Proll, who notes the police see no such distinction.
SOAK at rest
After spending time with SOAK, it’s apparent he could be anyone to anybody: a neighbor, friend, employee, or family member. He goes to work, pays his bills, and spends time with friends and family. There is nothing about him that would otherwise alert someone to his malicious alter-ego or the aerosol monkey on his back.
Back at SOAK’s house, a video plays on his television. Around the room, contemporary art and photographs hang that bear no resemblance to the work SOAK himself creates. There is no trace of graffiti in this house, and SOAK likes to keep it that way.
The movie is a documentary about famous graffiti artists from around the country. Each one is interviewed for a few minutes before moving on to another. SOAK’s respect for them is apparent. He admires their talent, their passion, and their bravado in what they do.
“I’m just doing what they do in big cities, but doing it here,” he says. Big city mentality in a small town, he calls it. “If I didn’t, someone else would. I’m just trying to compete against people who want to take over this town.”
The documentary breaks from the artists to tell the story of the “Graffiti Guerilla,” a vigilante who has taken the law into his own hands to rid graffiti from his city, one tag at a time. In the video, the rabid man scrubs a stop sign while vehemently denouncing the taggers. SOAK abruptly pauses and rewinds the movie to point out the man is illegally parked against traffic in a red zone.
“What a hypocrite,” laughs SOAK.
He says he feels the same way about artists who talk down on his work. “I’m never going to change people’s opinion about what I do, I know that. But anyone doing this type of thing knows that what they’re doing is wrong. At least I admit what I do isn’t wanted, instead of candy-coating it as something acceptable.”
The telephone rings. It’s one of SOAK’s family members calling to remind him they have plans early the next morning. He’ll need a good night’s sleep if he is to be ready on time. Obviously, there will be no graffiti for SOAK tonight.
“Love you son,” says the voice coming through the telephone.
“Love you too, Dad.”
Patrick Barbieri is a New Times intern. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.