Rebel in the Night
We went into the streets with graffiti artist FED UP and talked about what it’s like to keep the walls alive in the rapidly changing city of Oakland.
Two minutes into my support role in a graffiti mission I’ve already ripped a hole in my crotch. “Looks like they boarded up the gap in the fence here,” remarks artist FED UP as we hop barbed-wire, squeezing ourselves between the tops of two poles. Our goal for tonight: getting into an abandoned oil refinery near Downtown Oakland. I’m with graffiti artist FED UP, who is carrying a backpack full of paint and a roller. “We’re going up there,” says FED UP, gesturing to a huge metal ramp that leads to massive silos. Is it too late to state that I’m scared of heights? I think to myself as we begin our climb.
We’re here tonight because someone dumped paint all over graffiti left by FED UP and another writer, IROT. “Somebodies hatin’, don’t know who it is though. Maybe it’s the X-MEN,” ponders FED UP. (The X-MEN, he tells me, are a group of vigilantes, possibly paid by the city, that paint over people and “X” them out.) Looking straight up from the ground, over a hundred feet into the air, we can see buckets and pools of paint that the perpetrators left behind.
We sit down for a quick smoke. FED UP cracks open a forty. “What I need you to do is watch the road. You’re going to be looking for security guards or blacked-out police cars. If they roll up on us, we can try and run or just walk out, get the trespassing ticket,” says FED UP while scanning the road. Behind us, the water in the San Francisco Bay glistens, and for a moment I wonder if we could swim our way to freedom. But the thought of braving the water only to find a police car on the other side quickly dispels that fantasy.
Keeping my eyes up at an angle to avoid watching the ground quickly vanish beneath me, I hang on to the railing for dear life. Once we’re almost at the top, FED UP tells me to sit down as he begins climbing onto one of the silos. As soon as he starts painting, leaning almost half his body over the side, my heart beats faster at the sound of every gunshot and police siren. My mind continues to play out different scenarios of police or security rolling up on us, but the question going through my head is: What drives someone to do this?
”I started writing graffiti about ten years go. I was selling drugs, I was having suga mommas, I was doing whatever I had to to get by, and it was just... boring. There wasn’t much I was into when I was younger, because everything was taken away from me,” FED UP told me later when I interviewed him in Oakland. Growing up in Hayward, FED UP quickly got the graffiti itch. “You couldn’t take graffiti away from me; if I was in jail I could etch my name into the wall.” After growing up in the Bay Area, FED UP made his way out to the Central Valley and had his first brushes with the law. “Graffiti struggles in the Central Valley, because they are constantly fighting the buff,” says FED UP, referring to the rate at which graffiti is painted over. But the Valley’s location means a constant stream of people seeing graffiti on the streets, and as an agricultural center it means another thing: trains. “They’re just bombin’ the shit out of trains in the valley. I’m seeing trains out here, [with graffiti] from Modesto.”
“In the Central Valley, it’s straight hot boy. You’re looking for cops, and they’re looking for you. But in the Bay, you can paint for 15 minutes in the street, and not see one car,” FED UP tells me. Moving back to the Bay about two years ago, FED UP still saw similarities in the scene. “We’re weirdos, we’re vandals, we’re punks and thugs… A lot of us come from a messed-up, fucked-up background. There’s something missing and we’re looking for it.” But for FED UP, it goes much deeper, “For me I want to be seen, but not seen. I want to be invisible, but still known.” When asked if he was planning to cash in on his art, FED UP was very clear: “No fuck that, this is an illegal business, you steal shit, you break into places, but selling your name? That’s not what the game is about.”
FED UP is coming up in the graffiti game at a time when the Bay Area is undergoing drastic changes. Large tech companies are setting up shop while their employees are taking up residence in working-class neighborhoods. As people are driven out of San Francisco, many are moving into near-by Oakland. These waves of displacement and foreclosure have led to a decline in black and Latino populations.
In a post-Occupy Bay Area, local elites have pushed for massive amounts of surveillance. Meanwhile, gentrifying neighborhoods now have their own private security forces and gang injunctions. For many developers and politicians, graffiti is the “broken window” from which other crimes stem, frightening away potential investors. As City Councilman Noel Gallo stated in the San Francisco Chronicle, “As a resident of the city, it’s a quality of life issue. For some it may be artistic. I'm trying to win families back. I'm trying to win businesses.” But as more and more voices raise themselves in opposition to gentrification, many claim it’s the politicians themselves who are driving working families out of the Bay Area.
For graffiti writers, the changing of Oakland’s neighborhoods often means that their art is pushed into specific areas such as West and East Oakland, as others become more policed. “I’ve seen more activity as far as buffing, I’ve seen more cameras, I’ve seen more vigilantes. They’re trying to restrict our limits,” says FED UP regarding the changes in the Bay. In other instances, some places are shut down forever. The Albany Bulb, a squatter encampment and haven for sculptors, artists, and graffiti writers, was shuttered recently and those living on the Bulb were evicted after having lived there for several decades. This may be just the tip of the iceberg, and other long-term graffiti spots may soon face a similar fate. The area next to the abandoned refinery, for instance, known as the “5th Ave. Marina,” was once home to a community of boat squatters and artists. But they were evicted to make way for the new “Brooklyn Basin” development.
The morning after painting at the refinery, FED UP told me he had gone back to take more pictures, only to find that his work had already been gone over again. “I guess there’s someone there, watching the place, trying to stop people from painting,” he says.
“The Bay Area needs to wake up again – to get these walls to wake up again,” FED UP tells me before heading out for the night. “You got to be willing to risk your freedom. You got to be willing to risk everything to make a name for yourself that doesn’t necessarily even stick. Don’t sell-out, because that’s what the whole country is about.” But as every inch of Oakland quickly becomes more policed, gentrified, and controlled, the question remains: Will there be anything left to paint on?