Graffiti or art? SF at center of street art debate

September 14, 2011 7:30:14 PM PDT
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say, and one San Francisco neighborhood is discussing whether what some see as blight is really a work of art, while the city explains the rules.

San Francisco's Lower Haight is one of the city's most colorful, vibrant neighborhoods and street art adds to that distinction. But now there's a lively discussion. Is it vandalism? When is graffiti art and when is art graffiti? A series of koi fish are a symbol of the debate.

"Some people don't want the koi in front of their house or in front of their business," neighborhood activist Thea Selby said.

Selby helped create one mural in the Lower Haight. On the sidewalk below swims a school of koi which she finds problematic

"I've seen where the koi go down and graffiti goes on top of it and that could in some ways exacerbate graffiti and tagging," Selby said.

But the kois' artist says it's just the opposite. The elusive Jeremy Novy says he's created 3,000 koi on the streets of San Francisco and he believes they are beautifying the environment.

"The fact that they cover up a lot of graffiti tags and a lot of graffiti vandalism by putting these images on there is itself is very much helping and bettering the community," Novy said

San Francisco spends about $20 million a year on a rigorous graffiti abatement program. Homeowners and businesses have to pay to get rid of it.

"The simple word is permission. If the property owner gives you permission," San Francisco Department of Public Works spokesperson Mohammed Nuru said.

Novy says he has permission for all of his works. There is debate about that.

There's been a surge in the street art movement. A locally produced documentary called Vigalante Vigilante examines the battle between anti-graffiti fighters and the artists.

ABC7 asked the filmmaker if he thought it would encourage more illegal tagging.

"It should inspire people to question laws that are so strict about street art and graffiti in a city that really wants to eliminate it altogether," he said.

What is important for home and business owners to understand is that if you haven't given permission for the art or graffiti, it is still your responsibility and if you don't clean up the blight within 30 days, the city will do it and send you the bill.