A decade ago, when the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation was just starting its work to redevelop one of the most blighted communities of southeastern San Diego, it encountered a problem.

When construction crews went home for the night, the taggers came out, vandalizing equipment and work sites with their graffiti, and offering a sobering reminder that the nonprofit’s work, though well-intentioned, was not immune to the realities of crime in the neighborhood.

But the nonprofit’s executives didn’t want to call the police. Their goal was to build community in southeastern San Diego’s Diamond neighborhoods, not lock up its members.

So they recruited a local muralist to set up several large wooden panels on one of the neighborhood’s many vacant lots, and invited taggers to take it over. It was an unconventional approach to address a criminal problem the nonprofit recognized as stemming as much, if not more, from the lack of available graffiti space as from malicious intent.

The volunteer-run program was inundated by interest. When Jacobs needed the land it was using for development, the nonprofit moved the artists to other pieces of property it owned, each time allowing them to take over the walls of vacant buildings until Jacobs demolished them.

In 2004, it moved to its current location, a former bus repair facility on Market Street near Euclid Avenue. The program has evolved into Writerz Blok, an organization with three paid staff members and funding from the Jacobs Center. It aims to turn graffiti from a crime into a productive pastime, a goal that requires little more than providing the space for local youth and adults to paint.

Many of the people who paint there have accumulated long rap sheets because of their graffiti, and are reluctant to be known by names other than their street aliases.

On Thursday, a man who would give his name only as Steve, but whose friends ironically call him Sober because he always looks high on drugs, used spray cans to paint his name in intricate detail across one of Writerz Blok’s 11 wooden panels. They look like low-lying billboards scattered across a wide dusty parcel, and they are covered in colorful art that ranges from illegible scrawl to elaborate mural-like designs.

He started tagging when he was in his early teens because it provided an outlet from his broken home, but it got him into trouble, he said. He’s been in and out of jail for graffiti for most of the last 18 years, he said.

“I used to do graffiti illegally,” he said. “But I’m 30 years old, and I don’t need to be going to jail for writing graffiti anymore.”

So he started coming to Writerz Blok, where he’s no longer interested in graffiti for the rush it gave him to vandalize, but to promote his livelihood as a professional artist. He drives to southeastern San Diego from his home in Escondido about once a week, spends a day on a piece of art, and snaps a picture, which he adds to the portfolio he uses to promote himself as a freelance artist.

He knows that the next day, his masterpiece might be gone.

The rules at Writerz Blok are unwritten, but well understood. You don’t paint over something “unless you can beat it,” that is, unless you know your piece will be better.

But on the street, graffiti gets painted over all the time, usually with whitewash. So at Writerz Blok there are rarely hard feelings when a highly technical piece gets painted over by someone else’s less impressive attempt.

Not all taggers embrace Writerz Blok. Graffiti is a form of public expression, after all – intended to get its creator’s name known among other local graffiti artists, many of who thrive on the subversive. Corralling graffiti into places like Writerz Blok seems to defeat the purpose.

But now more than ever, Writerz Blok’s staff says, it’s important to have places where kids and adults interested in graffiti as art, and not as crime, can express themselves. Recent changes in the law have elevated graffiti from a misdemeanor crime to a felony, and often subject lawbreakers to documentation as gang members and stiff prison sentences.

“We’ve got kids who are facing felonies,” said Marcus “Kut Father” Tufono, Writerz Blok’s administrative director. “That’s the reason this place is so important. We want to be able to change the perception of graffiti not only in the community, but with law enforcement as well.”

A 30-year old artist who gave his name only as John, but whose graffiti moniker is Seven, painted his street name on a panel near Sober’s. “It’s just a throw-up,” he said, a quick, non-technical piece intended to project its artist’s name.

“There’s a misconception about graffiti,” Seven said. “It’s a lot more positive than negative.”

It is well known within communities of graffiti artists that there is a distinction between “writers” and gang members. The artists who come to Writerz Blok are those who want to develop their talents as graffiti artists without venturing in the risky street environment that often finds artists tagging in territories claimed by gangs, and being arrested and labeled as members of one.

“Gang members tag to mark their territory,” Sober said. “If a gang member catches you tagging in his territory, he’s going to beat you down. But for writers, as far as we see it, the whole city is our territory, and we’re not looking for problems.”

But as experience has taught him, desire to make art does not make it right when you do it on walls you don’t own. Some of his friends have served sentences for graffiti.

“When you put these kids in the system, you create a whole other problem,” Tufono said. “The kid goes from being a tagger to something completely different. A lot of times, they truly have an artist in them, but they don’t have the means to be able to express that. “

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org, or at 619.325.0528, and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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