The World Underneath Our Feet

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The World Underneath Our Feet

The tag Gaks painted in the tunnel near San Marcos High School on Oct. 21. The graffiti only depicts the artists’ name.

The tag Gaks painted in the tunnel near San Marcos High School on Oct. 21. The graffiti only depicts the artists’ name.

Photo credit: Matthew Sevilla

The tag Gaks painted in the tunnel near San Marcos High School on Oct. 21. The graffiti only depicts the artists’ name.

Photo credit: Matthew Sevilla

Photo credit: Matthew Sevilla

The tag Gaks painted in the tunnel near San Marcos High School on Oct. 21. The graffiti only depicts the artists’ name.

By Matthew Sevilla, Staff Writer

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I jumped down into the tunnel on a Saturday afternoon, following the figure in front of me as he led me into the darkness in hushed tones. We hunched down and delved further and further into the damp water tunnel until we came across an empty patch of wall.

I took out my camera expecting to see a finished piece waiting for me, but when I heard the rattling sound echoing from his backpack, it was clear that he was creating it now.

The gentle sound of a spray can rose, droning continuously until a sharp noise reverberated from the entrance to the tunnel and we both froze, squinting towards the light with bated breaths and racing hearts. A few seconds were spent in agonizing silence, until the tension was broken by the sound of spraying again.

A few minutes later, I was looking at the two freshly-painted works above.

About 30 minutes and a meal later, we were in the woods by San Marcos High School, sitting in a camp made of broken chairs and discarded food wrappers in the middle of an interview.

“Gaks” is the name he chose to go by, and he is a graffiti artist operating in the S.M. area.

To the general public, graffiti signifies both danger and a government that does not care — a sentiment that shows when you look at cities like Los Angeles, which spends about $7,000,000 a year cleaning graffiti from its streets.

Gaks believes this general distaste is rooted in the Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani’s hatred towards graffiti in the late 70’s, and that the anti-graffiti policies created by Giuliani were picked up by the rest of the U.S. due to New York’s cultural significance.

Another source of the public’s distaste could be the use of gang graffiti, which is used to mark territories between gangs as opposed to the creative purposes that some graffiti is used for.

For those like Kevin Gleason, an art teacher at Dos Pueblos High School, the distinction between graffiti and street art is what is important.

“Graffiti can be very important for people who don’t have a voice as a form of expression.” Gleason said. “I’ve seen examples of graffiti like on the wall in between Israel and Palestine or the favelas of Brazil, so in areas where there is oppression and people don’t have a voice.”

The source of Gleason’s gripes with graffiti are rooted in the fundamentals of the art.

“To be a graffiti artist that I respect, it comes with responsibility,” Gleason said. “When it’s just for personal reasons—basically tagging to get your name out as many times as you can—I don’t really have any respect for that.”

Gleason’s values line up more with street art, which is dedicated to getting out a message and providing meaning beyond the physical act.

Regardless of how or why the public’s distaste for graffiti came into being, currently there are anti-graffiti laws throughout every state, with the legal implications ranging from “hours of community service to years in prison,” as Gaks put it.

Counter-intuitively, the severe legal punishments serve as a source of motivation for graffiti artists.

“It’s the rush of going out and knowing you could get caught and you could spend years in jail,” Gaks said. “If graffiti was legal, not as many people would do it.”

However, the adrenaline rush is not the sole motive—fame and notoriety amongst other graffiti artists is also a driving force.

“The whole point of this is to achieve some level of recognition,” Gaks said. “If even one person saw what you went through the danger to put up, then it was worth the danger.”

At this point, we were sitting on a log rolled on the side of Gak’s makeshift camp under the shade of the eucalyptus trees overhead.

Before the interview, I was under the assumption that nobody I knew did graffiti, that graffiti was some rare crime committed by only a few people in every city. Soon though, I found myself questioning my assumptions.  

Population-wise, the chances are not as low as you may think. It is easy to assume that you could count the number of graffiti artists in Santa Barbara on one hand, but the number easily runs dozens long.

“If you go pretty much anywhere and just keep an eye out, you’ll see hundreds, if not thousands of names. They could be well-known or just the first time that person wrote,” Gaks said. “I’m sure someone at DP writes. There’s no way there are no writers there.”

Of course I knew there was a chance that some graffiti artists might go to DP, but I doubted that any of my peers or friends did it. None of my friends seemed like the type, but soon I found myself questioning that belief as well.

Gaks explained that although the immediate stereotypes of graffiti artists are “kids with skateboards that run around defacing property,” he has “met gang members that write, art students that write”.

“It’s not just the angry, little, vandal that runs around defacing things,” Gaks said. “It’s an artistic release for a whole range of people.”

Since potentially anyone could be a graffiti artist, the next question is obvious: Is there any way to tell if somebody is a graffiti artist?

“Really, there’s no tells, unless you hear cans rattling around in their backpack,” Gaks said. “I guess you could go up and ask someone if they write, but even if they do know what that means, personally if someone asked me I wouldn’t tell them.”

For such an anonymous society, there are clear and strict unspoken rules that graffiti artists must follow if they want to achieve the respect and renown they strive for.

“Schools are generally off-limits,” Gaks said. “So you don’t generally write on schools. You don’t mess with churches, or government buildings that much. And you definitely never write on private property.”

As for the interactions between writers, being a graffiti artist is a balancing act between quantity to get your name known, and quality to get your name remembered.

The few local “Kings of Graffiti” have this mastered, and are renowned for their skillfully drawn mural-like works and their tags that cover seemingly every corner and tunnel. These “kings” put hundreds of hours of work into graffiti, and are known by every graffiti artist in Santa Barbara.

With potentially dozens of graffiti artists in Santa Barbara alone and millions within the US, it’s no surprise that legal compromises have been made between authorities and graffiti artists.

“I think certain legal walls are a good idea. For example, London has legal walls like Leake Street,” Gaks said in regards to SB. “I think something like that is good for people who want to develop a certain style and are interested in the artwork but not the culture.”

But why has not the US adopted the policy more widely? Possibly because illegal graffiti simply would not stop if legal walls were made. At least, that’s what the DP’s school resource deputy George Hedricks argues.

Hedricks supports the idea of a legal wall being placed in Santa Barbara, but doubts that the legal wall would ever completely stop illegal graffiti from being created.

Gaks backs up this theory as well with his own opinion.

“You shouldn’t just be confined to one space because that’s not what graffiti is about,” Gaks said. “If you only paint legal walls, that’s you, but you’re a street artist, not a graffiti writer. Street art is often done with permission, but graffiti is raw, in the streets, in the tunnels, under bridges, hopping fences, just dirty. All about your name.”

According to Gaks, street art is about your message – but graffiti is about your name.

As for legal walls coming to SB, Hedricks explained that the wall would require land and proper funding, which means that the possibility is uncertain.

If the legal wall is ever made, in addition to lowering the graffiti rates, it would bring attention to a community living in obscurity.

A community that, despite being completely anonymous and unorganized, has developed rules and guidelines that all notable graffiti artists follow. A community comprised of a diverse cast of artists, skaters, gang members, and everything in between. A community living beneath our feet and scattered amongst the public, striving for fame in their obscurity.

As I concluded my interview and began to pack up, a thought crossed my mind. I had already known about graffiti artists prior to the interview with Gaks, but I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole went. If such a complex and dedicated culture had passed by the public eye for so long, how many more lay just out of sight? Who else around me could be leading a second life, hidden behind a normal face?

My mind was racing with possibilities, but the sun was beginning to set. And just as I had finished packing my gear and saying goodbye, I asked a small, offhand question.

How long do you see yourself doing graffiti?

Gaks answered without hesitation:  “As long as I possibly can.”

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