A Game of Tag
People clash over what they see as an opportunity for escape, pride or redemption.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
Security may be his day job, but scrubbing the paint off other people’s property has become a calling.
“It’s hard enough to have a business as it is,” Tony Vincent says. “There are a lot of businesses going under right now, and if a business owner’s building or property gets tagged, it’s $500 or $1,000 to fix, and there goes the money for the PG&E bill or the rent.”
Tony Vincent works in an industry that requires finesse. His business is security, where the presence has to be visible without being obtrusive, and the clients need to feel protected without feeling put upon. Vincent has the finesse part down – he provides security at local clubs, he’s protected semi-celebrities who have come to town (like former mob hitman-turned-public-speaker Michael Francese), and he’s pitching a contract to add private security patrols to Oldtown Salinas. But he’s not exactly a low-key guy himself. He throws the honorific “Conte” (Italian for count) in front of his name on Facebook, and his marketing materials feature babes in sunglasses stepping out of limos guarded by dudes in sunglasses.
But while he’s trying to build his Executive Security Agency, adding vehicles, manpower and a new office on South Main Street in Salinas, he’s also taken on a sideline: cleaning up graffiti, and rallying the community to do it with him.
It all started with the tagging of an adorable green-and-white cupcake truck.
You’ve started this graffiti eradication campaign, with donated materials and on your own time. Why?
Cris Rury, he’s a youth pastor at First Presbyterian Church. His wife Jacey started this cupcake business, A Piece of Cake, and has a cupcake catering truck that got graffitied on. I was reading her Facebook page, and you know, having a business is hard enough as it is. It’s time and money, and the graffiti demoralized her and broke her heart a little bit. She said it was hard to get out of bed after it, and what can she do against that sort of thing?
I was passing by the truck with my son and daughter and said, “Let’s go pick up some graffiti remover.” It took a lot of elbow grease – the sun had sort of baked it in – but it eventually came up, and I sent them the picture and told them not to give up. She cried when she saw it.
That’s one incident, but it led to a project or campaign, “This is Our City, Not Theirs,” where you’re rallying people to help remove graffiti. What’s the evolution there?
The problem of graffiti in Oldtown has gotten worse. You can see it every few feet. They’re climbing towers and putting it on buildings and newspaper boxes and it looks horrible. Just the ugliness of it and what it represents. Why mark an alley or a trash can?
So we had the meeting and asked people to donate supplies. The city and Republic Services are doing a good job – if they get called about it. So this is us going out and seeing the graffiti and reporting it, or taking away the idea that this can be an individual thing where people have a responsibility to clean up the community.
The people doing the graffiti, they don’t see anything wrong with it, but that’s someone’s dreams and someone’s heart and someone’s business. Oldtown is the staple for where you live. Graffiti in Oldtown is an attack on Salinas.
So if you could talk to the guy who tagged the cupcake truck, what would you say?
I would ask him, “Why?” What benefit did he feel he was getting out of it? If he wanted to express himself, there are other alternative and legal ways to do it. Open a gallery. Post your art where it’s legal. Get more positive feedback, as opposed to going out at night and ducking from headlights and trying to express yourself. He could attend a City Council meeting and write a letter and do something more productive than doing something illegible that someone can’t even read.
Tagging as a political act, or why he messed with that beloved cupcake truck.
“If I get caught, I’m more than likely going to prison,” he says. “But realistically, this is never going to stop. People are always going to write their names on a wall.”
He’s now well into his mid-20s, but still baby-faced, a little shy and soft-spoken. As a kid, he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders – all of his cousins were gang members, he learned from an early age that writing your name on a wall was a way to make your mark, and he was incarcerated by the California Youth Authority at the age of 16 for assaulting his father, who at the time was trying to kill his mother. When he got out two years later, he earned his GED, then an associate’s degree in graphic design from a San Francisco art school, and eventually he ended up doing design work for local television stations.
The Weekly agreed not to use his name or his face, but it’s likely you’ve seen his tags – an image of a rooster – and those of his crew, RTS: Racking, Thieving and Stealing.
How much tagging do you do, and why?
Fuck, I don’t know. A lot? I put up 100 stickers a day. I came up with the little rooster tag. It ties back to my grandfather because he used to raise and fight roosters in Mexico.
It started out being an escape from my family problems, because it was the only time I wouldn’t think about the problems, but then it became a fame thing. People would talk about me and not know I was there, and not know who I am. I wanted more people to talk about me because I didn’t get it at home, so I would get it through that. Now it’s almost an addiction.
You have to be very slick. I tell everyone if you’re looking like what you’re doing is what you’re supposed to be doing, nobody will pay you any mind. If you’re looking all scared, they will. Be aware of your surroundings. I used to go in the daytime because it was more exciting, but now it’s when I feel it. I’m trying to get more into the canvas work and the art aspects of it.
Graffiti isn’t something you do, it’s something you live. It’s me being a part of my environment. It affects every aspect of my life. You want to leave a mark. Some people play the guitar and get extreme joy out of it; I like going out and catching tags. I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink. This is my way of getting away from everything.
What constitutes a tagging crew? How many are there in town?
It’s a group of friends trying to accomplish the same goal and abiding by the same code. You can’t start a beef without a legitimate reason, no churches, no private property, no mom-and-pops, no houses. You don’t want a house to get tagged up. But anything the city takes care of, the high visibility spots, the freeways and the trains and the mailboxes are fair game.
RTS has 11 members from Portland to Arizona. We’ve had as many as 16. We shoplift stuff so we can return it and buy paint with the credit. Sometimes we go on the road and couch surf and paint those different cities. For a while we used to have a different crew, the Scumbags, but we dropped that crew after a while because one of our friends killed himself.
There are probably five or so legitimate crews in Salinas. There’s ATK (After Two Krew), there’s TITS (Terror in the Streets), WRK (We Rock Krylon) and LCM (Editor’s note: provenance unknown). The gang graffiti I see in Oldtown seems to be tied into people getting out of bars and being drunk, but most of what I see comes from the legitimate crews. That’s what I see.
You mention Oldtown, which has become a hot spot for tagging. What’s behind that?
Why does everyone paint Oldtown? Because it’s Salinas’ gem. It’s the only place the city throws a hissy fit over. And that’s why I painted that cupcake truck.
Wait a minute? You did the cupcake truck? Doesn’t that go against the code of no mom-and-pops?
The East Side is tagged to shit, and the streets are a disaster and it proves the point I was trying to make. People tag the taco trucks on the East Side all the time and nobody cares. The owners call the police and the police tell them to clean it up – it’s not their responsibility.
I love cupcakes. It’s not that I don’t love cupcakes. I was trying to prove a point.
That dude who is trying to clean everything up? I don’t know if he’s been to the East Side or not. On the East Side, everything is mom-and-pop, it gets tagged and nobody cares. So go do some good on the East Side and everyone will vote for you.
their mission: helping kids do street art off the streets.
“I know what it’s like to be bullied, to have my life threatened,” Joseph Frausto says. “Having a skateboard let me fly across town, it let me see there are nicer places than the dark alleys, the borders and the boundaries of over there.”
Joesph Frausto and Adolfo Arias are a seemingly mismatched pair, yet perfect for each other artistically, brought together by financial fate.
Frausto, tall and animated, and Arias, shorter and self-possessed – the quieter one. Frausto, a self-taught airbrush artist who saw his hours as a maintenance worker at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital cut to the bone and his house face foreclosure. Arias, who started drawing with pastels on his grandmother’s cement floor in Mexico as a toddler and opened a Christian-themed art shop in Salinas, only to see it close when the economy tanked. They’ve bonded over a desire to make so-called street art into the main, and to give kids all over Salinas a different way of thinking, through their Studio 3:16.
How did you and Adolfo get together on your art mission?
Frausto: I was going through a hard time, with my hours being cut. My coworkers found out I did airbrushing, but they wanted more intricate pieces than I could do. The next thing you know, we were airbrushing T-shirts together.
Arias: We were a couple of starving artists.
Frausto: And during my hard time, I was volunteering with a Salvation Army day program my son was in. I was teaching a basic airbrush class, but I asked if I could bring in someone with more expertise so the kids would really grasp it, and brought in Adolfo. From there, we were asked to participate in an arts retreat, and then an even larger art camp.
Adolfo, how did you start working to bring art into the schools?
Arias: My best friend growing up is a teacher at Alisal, and so we started out doing the airbrush (temporary) tattoos at sober grad nights. At the same time we started interacting with the schools that way, an administrator at Alisal High School started bringing in guest speakers to interact with the kids, and the kids started asking us to come. We do basic art, introducing them to Sumi-e, which is Japanese, and watercolors and pastels, but the kids really want the airbrushing. We’re trying to teach them there’s a difference between art and vandalism, and give them something they can take pride in.
So in the end, why do you think you can help kids in a way that others maybe haven’t tried?
Frausto: Growing up in East Salinas, you have two choices. You’re going to be a leader or you’re going to be a follower. If you’re young and you don’t have proper guidance, it’s easy to feel wanted and accepted by your peers. I know what it’s like to ask your friend to steal his father’s gun because I was afraid. I know what it’s like to go to school with a gun in my backpack over the fear that someone is going to take me out and try to kill me.
A lot of people, a lot of businesses have already labeled a lot of kids in the county. Adolfo and I believe in going in, front line, and showing the kids what art is, what the difference is between art and vandalism, and how they can use that art in a creative and positive way.
It’s our dream to have a mobile art clinic to travel to different schools and target the kids wanting to develop their skills. Airbrushing is a small part of that equation. As a young kid, if you see something inspiring, that seed will have been planted. Kids need to see all forms of art, graphic design, photography, dance, ballet, theater. As much as they can see, there will be something they can connect with, something to give them focus. We can find a way to make those connections.
There are so many organizations that go after the kids when there’s grant money involved, but they don’t teach them what they want to be taught. They don’t feed the kids what they’re hungry for, which is self-expression. If you can teach them the basis of that, you will have opened the door for them, pulled them off the street and given them focus.