As Sam Mulberry maneuvers his dilapidated van through the Fruitvale on a recent evening, the blinds hanging over the windows clack against the glass. Mulberry, 25, is heading to the most notorious graffiti spot in the Bay Area. "I'm really lucky to be painting on this wall at all," he says with the reverence of a young worshipper making a religious pilgrimage.
His van is filled with the tools of his trade: cans of spray paint, orange traffic cones, a pair of ladders, and a grill with a bag of charcoal. (You never know when you might have a party.)
Barreling down Oakland's East 12th Street, the van creaks around the corner onto 29th Avenue. It pulls into a dirt alley by Tuffy's Hardware and Lumber, and as Mulberry drives on, the van lurches over uneven heaps of dirt. To the left are railroad tracks; to the right a spot unseen by most people, but a shrine to graffiti writers from all over the world. It is the backside of a do-it-yourself storage facility called Safe Storage USA, a cinder-block wall that stretches some six blocks between 23rd and 29th avenues. Its surface gleams with an explosion of bright colors and images, like sweet candy for the eyes.
Known as the 23rd Yard, 23rd Avenue Tracks, or Fruitvale Tracks, the wall is being painted one last time before new construction blocks access for the underground artists. When Mulberry pulls up, a dozen men are already there, chatting, sketching, or working intently with spray cans in hand. "This wall is legendary," says Zore, Mulberry's partner in running Higher Gliffs, a nonprofit mural organization. "I've been hearing about it since '86, when I was in Chicago. Dream and Vogue did some big burners here. They put Oakland on the map."
For two decades, the wall has served as a hall of fame for West Coast aerosol artists. Tags first appeared on the wall around 1984, and soon, full-on pieces (short for masterpieces) emerged. What made the location ideal was that such a large canvas sat mostly obscured from public view. Only those passing by in trains or on BART could catch a glimpse.
Sure, there were occasional arrests, robberies, and trains to watch out for, but writers, as the artists call themselves, could usually work safely in broad daylight.
"It was like an urban gallery," says writer Refa One, 30. "You could always go there every week and the wall would be changed. ... There was a proper protocol: If you can't outdo what you're painting over, then don't paint over it."
Only the best painted at the 23rd Yard. It didn't matter if you were king in San Francisco, says Refa One, who is working on a book about the art form's heyday in the '80s. You came here to make your presence known. And no one painted that wall like the late Mike Francisco, whose tag was "Dream."
Oakland's graffiti king grew up in the projects of Alameda. Francisco began writing in 1984 while in junior high, along with his crew TDK, which initially stood for Those Damn Kids. "It was always a friendly battle with us -- in order to make each other stronger and better," says Vogue, who frequently painted alongside Dream.
The wall came to be considered Dream's domain, says Estria, who was part of San Francisco-based crew TWS (Together with Style). When writers from Los Angeles or New York visited, they would always stop by the 23rd Yard to see his latest, and add a little something of their own. When Estria wanted to paint there, he would call Mike to get his okay.
"He was just smooth," says Estria. "Like, someone would do an E, and do it kind of loopy. It just sits there. Dream would make it flow." Once, he says, Francisco painted a piece entirely in yellow that was so vibrant it attracted bees. But the piece that stands out most in writers' minds is "The Best of Both Worlds," which incorporated two West Coast styles: new wave and funk. Back then, there were two San Francisco crews battling over which style was best: TWS favored new wave and TMF -- well, that stood for The Most Funk. "Funk is like peppermint-stick letters," explains Zore. "It's more traditional. New wave -- that's more abstract." "Both Worlds" made the bold statement that Dream could master both styles.
But art for art's sake wasn't enough for Francisco, who was shot to death in 2000 when two men robbed him. He painted to comment on society. "He had certain politics," says friend Greg Morozumi, who curated a graffiti show at Oakland's Pro Arts gallery in 1993, with Dream as one of the featured artists. "He was trying to take it further. It was very angry, about the local repression of the writers. ... He was also trying to re-find his Filipino culture."
In a time when hip-hop was the soundtrack of urban life and graffiti art its visual component, Dream was the ultimate b-boy, and the 23rd Yard was the mecca for artistic and political expression. "It's not just an art form with spray paint. It's a culture of resistance and of vision," says Refa One, who is still part of Berkeley crew KTD (Kings Til Death or Kick the Dog). Most writers were people of color and working-class, people without a voice, he says. "When you're a kid -- we were twelve, thirteen, fourteen -- you have even less of a voice. You write your name because you're making your voice heard."
The golden age for the 23rd Yard lasted from 1986 to 1989. So full was the wall that people would also hit the trains or sneak across the tracks to bomb -- as in, paint -- the Lucasey Manufacturing Corporation, which today sits empty with broken windows. The large pieces were impressive not just for their size, but because they represented a great effort. It meant a kid stole that much paint, and then risked his ass standing on precarious piles of whatever junk was lying around so he could reach the top of the wall.
Even as the movement waned, artists continued to visit the tracks until 1994, when the city began aggressively buffing over their work. Jill Worsley, owner of Safe Storage USA, doesn't know the history, but regards what she sees as pretty. Just the other day, when the cops stopped by, she went out to tell them it was okay by her that young men were flocking in with spray cans. "We love it," she says enthusiastically. "We think it's free-spirited."
But business is business. Worsley is building another row of storage units next to the train tracks. Bulldozers are already clearing the way for construction, and when it's finished, the only people who will be able to view the artwork will be the customers who rent those units. Bay Area writers, including old-school legends of the '80s -- now thirtysomething nine-to-fivers with families -- have come to pay their last respects to the Yard and to Dream by painting it one final time. This time, they intend to cover every last inch of the massive wall.
For the past two weeks, they have put their jobs on hold to paint all day, and often into the night under the illumination of car headlights. It has become a reunion of sorts, with people reacquainting for the first time in years and firing up barbecue grills as they talk about the old days. "There used to be a palm tree there," says Zore, pointing to a spot. Writers would craftily include the tree in their scenes.
On the 29th Avenue end of the wall, Mulberry works on a swamp scene in glowing greens and yellows before accidentally busting his spray can open on a rock. He dejectedly watches the last of his pistachio green disperse into the air. Further down the wall, Frisco crew ICP (Inner City Posse) paints a Wild West scene called "The Mad Frontier." At its center a cowboy on horseback, in silhouette, rides into the setting sun. One member, Charo, fishes through a huge duffel bag filled with Montana paint, the Spanish brand favored by aerosol artists, in search of bone-white. Past that, a soul train chugs along, a rainbow flowing from its engine, and a Dia de los Muertos graveyard is crowded with headstones bearing the name of lost friends: George Mata, Pak, Big Joe, Plan B, Mike Dream.
The artists' final bombing run may warrant a party but it is also a wake. "It's kind of a sad closure to it," says Vogue, as he considers the hundreds and hundreds of layers of paint, and the local history that lies beneath.
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