Arts & Culture

Art or vandalism? SLO County artist talks graffiti

Graffiti can be found in several spots around the county, including San Luis Obispo.
Graffiti can be found in several spots around the county, including San Luis Obispo.

In the controversial, often illegal world of graffiti art, the canvas is part of the story. Far from gallery walls, viewers find graffiti by passing through alleys, climbing through highway underpasses or hanging out near railroad tracks.

The art often appears in public spaces without permits, sometimes on privately owned buildings or government structures.

But, as one San Luis Obispo County artist asks, does graffiti art force itself on the viewer any more than the marketing messages that inundate public space?

“Every message you see on the streets, it’s bought and paid for by someone,” said Soak, who asked not to be identified by his real name because he fears legal repercussions for his work. “That’s the defining characteristic — can you pay to have this there? If you can’t pay for it, then you can’t do it.”

Soak, who has been painting for more than 20 years, talked about what it means to hurriedly paint — or, in graffiti vocabulary, “throw up” — pieces in public places.

“You do it wherever you feel comfortable doing it,” he said, explaining that he and his fellow artists often go to hidden spots “to be able to write without anyone stopping us.” “The people there, like the homeless, they’re people who aren’t doing very well in society. I’ve done (art) as people are smoking crack or shooting up.”

Soak acknowledged that creating his rule-breaking art is sometimes stressful but, he added, that’s part of the experience.

“You’re full of adrenaline, so you have to learn to control that,” he said. “You have to ignore your sense of guilt. It’s very much a fight-or-flight.”

And though graffiti art is out of sync with community ordinances, the street art community is not a lawless society, Soak said.

“For as illegal as it is, there are rules (with graffiti art) like with anything else,” he said. “Some people won’t write on people’s houses or cars I don’t do people’s houses or cars or churches.

“What I really like going after is community property like electrical boxes, anything that belongs to everyone. For me, it’s more about the experience of doing it.”

Styles and approaches vary in graffiti, as in other genres.

Soak listed a few local graffiti artists who have inspired his work by their artistic pen names: Hockeymask, Buyer, Gwap, Rank, Koach and Sydwox.

Soak’s own style changes from piece to piece depending on time and mood, he said.

“Sometimes you have 12 hours or more for detailing. Other times, you’ve got three or four minutes,” he said. “You can put a lot of detail and color and make it more complex. It’s like, you can put a lot of stuff on a sandwich, but you only need meat and cheese.”