New serial street-art tag popping up across SF renews debate over graffiti 

click to enlarge street art
  • mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • A street artist has left a slew of tags that look like squids across The City.
San Francisco appears to have another prolific graffiti artist on its hands who is leaving a mysterious, eye-catching image on public and private property everywhere from Golden Gate Park to Fisherman’s Wharf.

The symbol that some have likened to a squid started showing up in recent months on sidewalks, buildings, mailboxes, utility poles, sewer covers, a U.S. postal truck, a passenger van and a hand railing, among other locations. No object seems immune to the unknown tagger. The painted images range from a few inches in height to more than a foot.

This isn’t the first time city officials have contended with a prolific tagger in their $20 million-a-year war against graffiti.

In 2006, The City became so frustrated with the hundreds of B.N.E. stickers being applied around San Francisco that a $2,500 reward was offered for information leading to the street artist’s capture. To this day, the identity of the B.N.E. creator has not been revealed, but the artist has conducted anonymous interviews and boasts as many fans as critics. The image, which also proliferated in other major cities around the world, was ultimately used charitably to raise money for clean-water projects.

Graffiti in San Francisco remains a vexing problem. It is a frustrating fact of life for business or property owners who are responsible for its removal, but at times complain that the burden shouldn’t be on them, especially when it occurs frequently. In some cases, the responsibility falls to the business owner and not the property owner depending on terms of their lease. And city officials are complaining to the U.S. Postal Service about its perceived failure of keeping mail boxes graffiti-free.

But this time around, there is no reward for information about the culprit behind the mysterious squidlike symbol, which sometimes includes a question mark or the word “Zamar.” The Department of Public Works graffiti abatement team is well aware of the image, having seen “the tag in several locations, including the sidewalk, utility poles, mailboxes, construction trucks and sewer covers,” department spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said.

“Someone also saw the tag in Oakland,” she added.

That comes as no surprise considering an Instagram user with the handle @mr_tentacool, who takes credit for the works, began posting photos of the tags three months ago. There were 107 photos posted as of Friday. Nearly 300 users are following the user’s feed. One commented, “I see this everywhere in the city!” Another commented: “Seen your work, you get around man.” One Richmond district resident even made a request for the graffiti to appear in that neighborhood.

Praise for the sheer number of works is not unusual among street-art enthusiasts. Shepard Fairey, who became well-known for his “Obey, Giant” stickers, which used the image of wrestler Andre the Giant, praised B.N.E. on his ObeyGiant.com website, writing: “I was, and am, incredibly impressed by his proliferation of his stickers, if for no other reason than his work is proof that one person has the power to literally change the landscape of many cities!” He goes on to say, “Whether or not you appreciate or hate graffiti/street art, it requires tenacity and risk taking.”

In addition to having a serial street artist on its hands again, San Francisco officials are embroiled in a dispute with the U.S. Postal Service over graffiti on mailboxes throughout The City. The issue has become so pressing that a letter was drafted to send to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, calling for help. Until recently, The City had an agreement with USPS to abate the graffiti. But the federal agency decided to terminate it due to costs and took on the responsibility itself, according to the draft letter.

But that apparently isn’t cutting it.

“Since USPS assumed these responsibilities there has been a virtually total failure on the part of USPS to respond to City notices regarding the presence of graffiti on the mailboxes,” the draft letter says. “Furthermore, USPS has proven to be basically unreachable and non-responsive to normal communication methods to discuss these matters. Since USPS boxes literally blanket the City, their failure to maintain their property graffiti-free is painfully obvious and is compromising The City’s efforts to maintain a graffiti-free environment.”

The letter asks either for the USPS to crack down on the graffiti or to renew the agreement with The City. The Graffiti Advisory Board reports that between July 2013 and June of this year, there were 1,648 reports of graffiti on mailboxes.

As city officials are rethinking how mailbox graffiti is dealt with, some business owners want The City to rethink how it combats graffiti on private property. Some business owners are required to clean up graffiti (in other cases, it falls on property owners) within 30 days or face a fine of up to $500. City inspectors issue hundreds to thousands of notices each month.

One such businesswoman is Hwagin Lee Chiang, 71, who owns Chinatown’s Sino-American Books. She is forced to repeatedly address graffiti on the store’s property, and received a city violation notice this month. Chiang’s daughter Louisa Chiang said The City should rethink the policy that forces her mother and other business owners to combat graffiti on their own, perhaps by setting up some sort of fund to pay for the remediation.

“It’s a small, humble 30-year-old place tucked away on Jackson Street, removed from the tourist traffic on Grant [Avenue], but graffiti still finds its way to her storefront,” Louisa Chiang said of her mother’s store. “She gets punctual letters from The City threatening the $500 fine, and she has a hard time understanding why she should bear the onus.

“On July 4, she repainted the grille door to cover up the graffiti. Dripping recrudescent splashes of proud colors greeted her [the next morning].”

Graffiti in cities has long created debate and conflict, as law enforcement officials try to stamp out what they consider criminal behavior and blight, but what enthusiasts call art. In fact, when it comes to the work of one of the most popular street artists, Banksy, steps are often taken to preserve it.

Banksy is a famously anonymous British street artist who has created images in many cities worldwide, including in San Francisco, and is often celebrated for his work.

San Francisco-based photographer Eric Brandt, who takes photos of graffiti as a hobby, said he wasn’t sure what these recent serial tags are supposed to mean or represent, but he was intrigued by their “overnight explosion.” The mystery is perhaps part of the allure.

“For the most part, I think going after taggers and graffiti artists is a waste of resources,” Brandt said. “Some graffiti is garbage and pure vandalism, while some is amazing art. It’s not black-and-white, there’s a broad spectrum of quality, talent and ethics. Most of the most desirable and fun cities in the world have vibrant street-art and graffiti scenes, and personally I find that to be a plus to living in San Francisco.”

He added: “I imagine the property owner who gets a notice from The City threatening a fine unless they clean up graffiti on their own dime would have a different opinion, though.”

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