SAN FRANCISCO – Mark Nelson had just removed another spray of graffiti from his building when he found an additional gift waiting for him – a $268 citation from the city for not erasing the offending tags fast enough.
That was when he turned to an unusual solution that has transformed the gritty alley adjacent to his building into a kind of street art gallery, complete with a revolving show and self-appointed curator who checks for damage every few days. The cost to him: zero.
"Over the months some interesting work has appeared," said Nelson, a developer and architect. "And no one has tagged it."
This July marks the one-year anniversary of the murals on Erie Street and the first time in 15 years that Nelson has not spent thousands of dollars and hours of his time to get the walls cleaned. In a city plagued with graffiti, like many other urban areas, even officials are taking note of the work.
Graffiti is a $20 million-a-year problem in San Francisco. The city has a broad-based campaign to fight it, including a program co-sponsored by the Department of Public Work and the Arts Commission that pays muralists to paint walls in high target areas. It also aids public education, outreach and a volunteer effort that arms citizens with free paint to buff out tags on their own.
Nonprofit groups curate murals in public and private spaces. Tourists flock to view colorful displays in the Mission District's Clarion Alley and the Women's Building.
Few seek out Erie Street, a small thoroughfare between South of Market and the Mission District that is a magnet for homeless and transients. Tucked away near a freeway overpass, it has been a popular spot for taggers.
Nelson considered using the city's mural program, but it would cost him $1,500 and time to get the designs planned and approved. Other mural options were even more expensive.
In frustration, he contacted a photographer and spray art connoisseur whose independent efforts have become well known to city agencies. Nelson admits that he was skeptical when he first met Derek Chamberlain, who is likely to show up for meetings in a baggy shirt and paint-splattered pants.
Chamberlain's credentials include growing up in New York City, where he became an aficionado of urban spray art. When he moved to San Francisco, where he does digital art for video games, he began photographing and documenting the range of graffiti and meeting assorted muralists, spray artists and street taggers.
The more he looked, the more he realized that there was a "disconnect" between generations of street artists and a need for "artist stewardship."
"I thought I could help," said Chamberlain. "I started looking for hard-pressed areas to inject some color."
In the past two years, he's worked with dozens of street artists in more than 25 locations. It typically takes him a few days to get a location painted – usually for free or the cost of paint and any assorted scaffolding or lifts. He guarantees the work by visiting each location every few days and buffing out marks or calling in artists to repaint.
"My opinion is that it's quicker and more efficient to do it privately," he said one early summer day as he watched an artist complete a piece in a vacant lot on Mission Street.
The artist, Max Ehrman, exhibits and sells his work in galleries but will paint for free because, said Chamberlain, it's what he loves to do.
"Just give him the space," said Chamberlain, standing back to watch Ehrman spray-paint a butterfly atop a flower.
Chamberlain said he considers his efforts a way to get museum quality work seen by the public. Graffiti abatement is a byproduct, but not the goal.
He began photographing Erie Street in 2006, he said. When Nelson contacted him, Chamberlain showed him samples of murals, then created a computer rendering of what artists could do on Erie Street.
The first mural went up on a side of Nelson's building around the corner from the alley. Completed in an afternoon with free recycled paint, it convinced Nelson to trust Chamberlain with the alley, where the graffiti was worse.
This summer the murals – which are changed every few months – include large splashes of aqua, orange and bright pink, a lava lamp wearing sneakers and dancing figures holding eyes. Lawrence Perkins, a warehouse worker at a nearby business, calls it "some good contemplation material."
The Department of Public Works reports that graffiti citations in the alley are markedly down since the murals went up, but another property owner there says the taggers now concentrate more on his walls. Shopping carts still line the alley, with homeless congregating and sleeping there.
"It's a disaster," said Larry Matthews, who did not want murals on his building. "I have people who are virtually full-time painters over there, and they can't keep up with it."
Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.