"Oh, man, favorite things this is one of my in San Diego," says Neko Burke as he stares up at the decades-old mural on the side of Golden Hill Liquor at the corner of 28th and B streets.
"When I was a kid, that was a flying Impala with a cholo in it," he adds, pointing at what's now a couple flying in a UFO. "I've been looking at this thing for 30 years of my life. It's still the same aesthetic, but it's totally different now."
Same aesthetic, but totally different now. The phrase could easily describe a faded liquor-store mural or the current state of the local graffiti and street-art scene.
Neko grew up around that scene and has been participating in it since 1991, after he was initially inspired by the Old English graffiti lettering he saw at Grant Hill Park. He points out the Golden Hill mural at the beginning of a nearly two-hour tour of some of his favorite street art around San Diego. Soon enough, he's remarking on the Keith Haring-inspired, Rocco Sotoshi "Freedom" mural on the side of Albert Einstein Academy in South Park ("I helped paint that when I was a kid") and a giant wall piece by Persue, Rime and Dabs Myla in the alley between Illinois and Ohio streets in North Park ("That's just cool graffiti to me"). He even points out stuff he doesn't like ("That just pumps up some corporation or business—I understand it, but I hate it").
With the latter remark, there's a tone in Neko's voice that echoes the sentiments of many old-school graffiti artists these days: that their medium is quickly becoming oversaturated with so-called "street artists" trying to capitalize on trends. Nationally and locally, galleries are filled with pieces inspired by graffiti and other illegal forms of art. Documentaries are made, Jeffrey Deitch throws a party and suddenly every kid who can afford a can of spray paint or a permanent marker is the next Banksy or Zephyr.
"To me, street art' is a term somebody made up so that it wouldn't be viewed as negative and people would accept it. If they don't like it, it's vandalism. If they do, it's street art," Neko says. "That's what they do in the art world. Once something gets popular, suddenly guys are getting flown around the world and getting paid by companies to paint what is essentially just a gigantic graffiti mural."
Dave "Persue" Ross caught the graffiti bug in 1988 after seeing the works of first-generation graffiti artists like Quasar, Zodak and Dysein. He's managed to turn it into a career, becoming the artistic director of a skateboard-apparel company that would eventually become DC Shoes, as well as collaborating with big names like Mike Giant and Mo2 One. While he generally agrees with Neko that the local scene can seem a little "watered down" at times, he adds that talent and drive will ultimately weed out those whose hearts aren't in the right place.
"It's a question of personality," Persue says, calling from Detroit, where he's stopped briefly while on a cross-country tour with fellow graffiti artist Jersey Joe. "Are they willing to sacrifice? Do they give up and get that corporate job, or do they want to rough it and see where their art goes? The ones that are going to do it no matter what, regardless of whether it's popular or not, are usually the ones that are really unique and will get opportunities."
Persue makes a valid point. Of the local artists that he and Neko mention as up-and-coming, almost none of them returned emails or calls for this story. It seems that even as ubiquitous and accepted as street art, graffiti and, to a lesser degree, tagging, have become, those who engage in it are still a secretive, conspiratorial and even flakey lot. If you're lucky to track one down, it's rare that you'll get them to respond, much less go on the record.
"I wasn't there that night, and I didn't touch any animals," jokes "Bobby," the alias of a young artist and tagger whom Neko finds particularly promising. "I got into street art because I was bored with what I was doing with my art at that time—making it for myself. I wanted other people to see it. And more than that, I got into it for reactions. It's all sort of selfish, really, except what I get out of it
San Diego graffiti tour
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Back on our tour, in North Park, Neko points out Bobby's signature tag spray-painted on the side of a trash can (now painted over) and on a telephone pole next to Lefty's Pizza (still there, for now). The autograph is easy to spot and decipher, since it looks like either a kindergartner or a mentally disturbed person wrote it. Still, crude as it is, it makes Neko laugh and gives him hope that there'll always be a new generation of artists skulking around the streets late at night looking for something to use as a canvas.
"I love graffiti so much because there's always going to be people who would rather look at a solid, blank wall than have someone paint something amazing on it. No matter what changes, there's no way you can package and sell the pure act of graffiti as vandalism. You can use it to sell a T-shirt or two, but you can't sell the act of fucking something up."