A real revolution? Despite last summer’s big street-art exhibition, the genre is still as illegal as it ever was

Here’s a piece I published in CityBeat this month about street art in San Diego.

Published April 4, 2011 in San Diego CityBeat

by Jill Holslin

If you’re on a bicycle at the bottom of the steep hill at the intersection of B and 19th streets near City College, the view looking up is daunting. But artists don’t see streets the same way we do.

Phil Peralta surveys his work from the Pershing Street overpass

“It’s screaming for a character,” says artist Phil Peralta about what he calls his ongoing “Hill Campaign.”

One sunny day last October, Peralta collected a bucket of brown paint and a roller, put on a Caltrans-style orange vest, headed over to B Street, placed traffic cones along the hill and set out to paint an enormous face on the surface of the street, stretching half the length of the block. While carefully directing vehicles around the site, Peralta completed a giant version of one of the distinctive line-drawing characters that he paints under the graff name Pandemic. An ear juts out where the hill tops off at 21st Street, and a huge eye, nose and chin reach down toward 20th.

The cleverness of the piece is in the element of surprise. To be clear, the piece is not on the side of a building; this one rolls out on the surface of the asphalt, right under the wheels of traffic driving down the hill.

“Heads don’t even notice it, and when they see it, they go, ‘Whoa!,’” Peralta says. “Like, when you fly in on the airplane, it greets you. Like, ‘Welcome to San Diego. Pandemic welcomes you to San Diego.’”

Peralta’s plans to paint more hills were halted in January when he was busted by San Diego Police while painting another character on Laurel Street. He’s now facing $8,000 in fines and possible felony charges. But instead of packing up his paint brushes and going home, he’s planned a series of art shows during the next few months, beginning at two bars, North Park’s Bluefoot Bar & Lounge and Downtown’s El Dorado Cocktail Lounge. He’s calling it the “Restitution Tour.”

While the popularity of last summer’s Viva la Revolución street-art exhibition organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) has created more space for international and local artists to splash some color around our beige city, it seems that San Diego is not yet ready to share the love with artists who paint illegal art.

Like most cities, San Diego’s Graffiti Control Program maintains that unpermitted graffiti is not art; it’s vandalism. And the legality of it has nothing to do with a piece’s style or quality. In fact, most public officials CityBeat spoke with agree that there are artistic qualities to some graffiti. Officers Bill Miles and Ryan Hallahan of San Diego’s Graffiti Task Force appreciate the humor and playfulness of Peralta’s piece.

“It’s definitely an interesting piece,” Hallahan remarks. “He’s got talent to do that.”

They liked it so much that they have a photocopy of the police photo of the piece hanging on the wall in their office.

Photo from the San Diego PD police helicopter

“Even from our perspective, this is kind of cool,” Miles says, “but at the same time, we’ve got to clean it up, and that costs money.”

Marcia Dennis, graffiti abatement coordinator for Portland, Ore.—a city known for its graffiti art—is a former graphic-design professor who agrees with Miles and Hallahan. Dennis points out that no matter the quality of the art, it still becomes a “huge livability issue.” When people see graffiti, they automatically imagine it’s gang-related.

San Diego tends to get fewer creative pieces like the one by Peralta and more of the messy scribbles by taggers from either gangs or clubs, Hallahan says.

It’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Peralta explains. Overzealous prosecution of graffiti vandalism, he says, results in more tagging because artists can neither take the time to produce high-quality pieces nor easily teach other writers to follow the unwritten rules of graffiti etiquette.

And overzealous prosecution isn’t the only issue that seems to be working against graffiti artists here. The public response to any kind of spontaneous activity in the street is often negative, says local artist and community organizer David White, who, with his partner Megan Willis, owns the North Park art space Agitprop and produces events that encourage community members to engage in art activities in the street or out in public.

A few months ago, White was at a demonstration against budget cuts for teachers at City College. He bent down and began to write “No budget cuts to education” in chalk on the sidewalk, but a Guardian Angel citizen patrol member on a Segway rolled up and angrily demanded to see a permit.

“And we are just writing with chalk,” White says. “I mean, it’s chalk. It’s what little kids do. Are you going to stop them?”

All the hype around street-art generated in the past decade by artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy and big museum shows like Viva la Revolución doesn’t necessarily make anyone feel more tolerant of street art, White says.

“It really changes the way people think about public space—that it isn’t just to occupy or be in,” Willis says. “I can’t just sit and be in the street because it seems like I have some alternative agenda. So the streets start to be contentious in that way.”

Peralta’s friend and fellow artist Ronnie Miller stopped doing illegal art several years ago after getting caught and charged with a felony (because it caused at least $400 worth of damage.)

“A lot of my feelings based on this street-art phenomenon are based on me and people in my circle dealing with the real repercussions from doing actual street art,” he explains. “What we do, or what we used to do, was more like a direct response to our social position. Illegal artwork says something that all other artworks can’t say.”

While Peralta respects artists like Shepard Fairey, he doesn’t think the public embrace of graffiti represented by the MCASD show has had much impact on his work. But he’s not going to quit.

“I already do this shit,” he says. “I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do anyways. We’re just trying to do really clever stuff, and San Diego’s really behind. I wanna come paint B Street, and so I’m gonna come paint B Street, and nobody’s stopping me.”

Phil Peralta’s Restitution Tour moves to The Roots Factory (1878 Main St. in Barrio Logan) at 7 p.m. May 7. A piece by Peralta and Ronnie Miller is currently showing at The Linkery (3794 30th St. in North Park).

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