Clean-up of graffiti murals angers artists Part one of a two-part series
Sofa's been writing graffiti for 17 years. He was arrested for it three times in his younger days, back when he was going "all-
Mark Sandoval's had a job painting over graffiti for the city since he got out of high school. He’s spent 40 hours a week for 10 years driving a truck full of solvents and paints.
Though they stand on either side of a long-standing battle line, and though it's unlikely they've ever met, Sandoval and Sofa agree on one thing: Graffiti isn't going anywhere.
"They're never going to stop graffiti," says Sofa. "It's always going to be around."
"I don't think there'll ever be an end," says Sandoval. "It's here to stay."
Sofa's work is no longer the kind that should cause a city worker with a job like Sandoval's any trouble. He's 32 now. He paid his dues. He's a homeowner. He has three daughters and a job. He can't afford to get arrested for the sake of his lifelong passion. "I'm too old for that," he says. "I'm a grownup."
But he can't imagine stopping. Three years ago, Sofa walked through the doors of Acme Iron and Metal, a yard off Second Street in the North Valley. Vandals scrawled their chicken scratch tags all over the fences, the ditch and the walls along the north side of the building. Sure enough, the owner said he wouldn't mind if Sofa and his buddies took over the 150-yard-long wall to paint intricate, detailed murals instead of quick nasty tags, curse words and handles in marker and black spray paint.
Sofa, an acronym for "Stomping Over F'ing Albuquerque," called his friends, old-time writers from all over the country. They painted large pieces, colorful murals, and cleaned up what they began calling "the park," removing some trash and weeds.
A month or two ago, Bernalillo County painted over the hundreds of hours of work and as many gallons of paint in what had come to be a landmark for anyone with an eye for strong graffiti art.
Jerold Schmider, owner of Acme Iron and Metal, says as far as he's concerned, Sofa still had his permission to paint and patrol that wall. "The problem is there is a lot of tagging and a lot of graffiti going on with people that don't have permission, and it looks pretty bad. People came out to clean it up and got a little overly rambunctious," he says. As soon as the walls were once again a blank slate, ugly tags spread like a virus over the yard once again. "It happened rather quickly," says Schmider. "If there's going to be graffiti, the stuff [Sofa and his friends] do looks much better."
Michael Rodriguez, the county's anti-graffiti coordinator, says he went into Acme and got permission from a manager or owner, he's not sure which, before the crew of volunteers painted over the wall. "It wasn't only artwork," he says. "There was gang graffiti on there. The public was concerned and wanted it removed, and that's my job."
Every couple of weekends or so, Sofa and his brother, who goes by Went, head out to check on the wall, to paint or to cover up the chicken scratch young writers occasionally dare to paint over the otherwise revered art. They say their murals help keep the other kind of graffiti writing away. Rodriguez begs to differ. "It spreads like cancer," he says. "People are really concerned about graffiti spreading to the North Valley. It not only promotes fear, but it also affects the value of homes and businesses."
Graffiti eraser Sandoval works seven days a week. He drives up Candelaria on a Sunday morning, the live-dispatch radio's squawk competing with his hip-hop. Stickers of pretty girls adorn the dashboard. The folder that holds his work orders has graffiti-styled letters on the cover. Every time he stops to paint over or spray solvent on a tag, he makes careful note of the signature, reading hand-styles that might be little more than squiggles to the naked eye. Those records are used when a suspected tagger is arrested.
Though Sofa and Went say the city's gotten cleaner over the years, Sandoval says the scrawl is increasing. "It's climbing every month," he says. Last month, the graffiti squad removed tags from more than 4,000 sites. He follows the path of one tagger through a neighborhood, using brown coverup paint on a homeowner's wall, gray paint on a bench, solvents on the light post in front of Valley High School. He says he's never painted over anything that looked like a mural.
Muralist Rock doesn't know who erased the wall he's been painting murals on behind the Pop ’n' Taco for more than four years. He was sure he had permission and had even checked with the realty company that owns the wall on Central and Edith about six months ago. He sought a safe place to paint "to avoid the hassle of people who don't understand what we're doing," he says. "If we can get permission and just an outlet, it's a positive way to express ourselves. That's all we're looking for." Rock has participated in five legit walls around the city, including the Acme wall. After the sweeps of the last few months, he says, only one remains.
Art DeLaCruz, who works with the Solid Waste Management Department, checked on all the walls the Alibi received calls about. Rock's mural, a tribute to Steve Irwin (the crocodile hunter), was covered top to bottom in gang graffiti, according to DeLaCruz. But Rock says he patrolled that wall to ensure there wasn't any graffiti on it. The department attempted to contact the wall-owners on several occasions, says DeLaCruz, and never received a call back. Because of the gang symbols, says DeLaCruz, the wall was painted over. Leonard Garcia, director of Solid Waste Management, says the department doesn't get into content. "We don't care what it is," he says. "We want to make sure the neighborhoods look nice, so it's not a content issue. It's never been a concern for us."
"It's very discouraging," Rock says. "It makes it pointless. The paint costs a lot of money."
Back at the Second Street park two weeks ago, Sofa rolls paint he purchased himself over the tags that went up over the County's cleanup effort. It's pink. He and his crew are reclaiming their space with letters. A few of the wall’s panels host the placeholder art thrown up on this day. "I'm mad," he says. "I want to put some new stuff here, not only to re-cover this ugly graffiti, to recover our turf, our wall. We ain't going to give it up."