The Sacramento art scene has been booming, after artists at the core, like Shaun Burner, David Garibaldi, and too many others to name, invested decades pushing the movement for more appreciation of the arts. Collectively, these influencers in the creative world brought districts full of crime, addiction, and poverty to up and coming neighborhoods and culture-filled real estate. The general morale in a downtrodden area is uplifted through the new events and energy in the places artists can afford to live. This transformation is still growing with a strong sense of community and purpose pushing collaborators to stay driven.
Much of Sacramento’s makeover was fueled by the graffiti writers in that era, or graffiti writers that became artists and muralists. Unfortunately, the city had a fearful approach to that culture, and often funded vandal squads to combat what they saw as a threat to our town. This was difficult for the evolution of the art scene, as many artists were aggressively stifled and often relocated to a more accepting city before they had a chance to grow.
Many outside Sacramento felt, until recently, our culture was nonexistent. In the rest of the country, the most common tale of the state capital was of simply “passing through on I-5”. Although I defended my town, it’s true that the urban art scene existed underground. Unless we could show visitors ourselves, the scene was difficult to find. Gaining momentum with venues like Joe’s Style Shop and Horse Cow in the early 2000’s was extremely difficult. When popularity rose, the government came in and shut us down.
Most initially minors, Art vandals knew things were corrupt, and they brought change to the streets. Crews have been living rough lives punished by the same system that was supposed to help them. The budget and attention to graffiti, paired with the degree of punishment, was often overboard. In 2001 I witnessed a graffiti artist face 18 felony charges- for marker tags, on alley dumpsters. That same artist was my partner, and we went through hell that year. To this day, I still don’t understand how it’s constructive to punish someone for putting art where it’s a visual improvement. The people who disagree don’t typically go to those places, and the people who do appreciate the work.
Over the years, dealing with raids, jail, lawyers, and months of anxiety-ridden court dates got old. Vandal squads in Sacramento tried, and sometimes succeeded, in pitting artists and crews against one another. This method may have been integrated into the system after the Zoot Suit riots, a historic account of the government turning ‘Mexican citizens that dress nicely’ into ‘gang members’, and essentially creating MS-13 which as you probably know is still a current issue. According to google
“Pachucos became influential beyond their numbers in 1943, during the famous Zoot Suit Riots, when gangs of American servicemen prowled the Eastside, beating up the zoot-suiters. The riots underscored a building prejudice toward Los Angeles‘ burgeoning Mexican community.Dec 11, 1988” More Zoot Suit History
And, together the military and law enforcement, through prejudice and corruption, created the formula for creating gangs, as seen paraphrased here (and based on my own experience). The Police focused primarily on youth, using very serious tactics to bully them with real-life threats to their freedom and safety. They accused children and young adults of snitching on one another to get other people to talk, and fueled or even created crew rivalries in a previously calmer scene.
Police reports were used as evidence of writers who gave up others’ information, the strongest violation of a graffiti writer against one another. After seeing first-hand how inaccurately the department recorded their paperwork, and how individual cops selectively omitted information, I would not trust the police any more than a neighbor I’ve never met before. I have seen them lie, and I know they are capable of lying to accomplish their goals.
Vandal Squads nationwide turned art communities against themselves, into graffiti-battle war-zones, turning beautiful pieces into offensive chicken scratch. Then they turned around and told the public what a nuisance graffiti is. People got in real fights over these issues, and in some cities people were killed over these police-fueled feuds. Sometimes, they were killed by the police, for changing the color of a surface.
Artists who should be honored and respected like Shepard Fairey, who sacrificed and built their following on a grassroots level, are not recognized today. Instead, these passionate writers spent years they could have been painting behind bars in different cities throughout the country. Artists the public loves spent years in and out of courtrooms with their futures hanging overhead in permanent purgatory.
I can honestly understand why the police wanted the funding to create and fight these art crimes. Stalking artists all day is much more pleasant than addressing the overwhelming shortage of housing for homeless, better solutions for the mentally ill, or the international human trafficking epidemic affecting Sacramento. While focusing on petty vandalism all day means looking at pretty pieces, and confiscating art supplies instead of weapons, some great artists were deeply damaged by law enforcement. For years writers have been beaten down by prison culture, under the guise that they’re gang members, an image started by the police. The graffiti writers never deserved the kind of treatment they received.
Up in Seattle in 2002 there was no overzealous task force. Valuing the arts in all forms, the northwest has always been a very progressive environment. Instead of focusing on prosecuting kids for art, the city gave them walls to paint. Instead of wasting energy on petty crimes, low level offences were decriminalized. Things like wheat pasting, or plastering posters on poles for advertisement or art, were organically going to keep happening, and they considered it harmless, so they legalized it. Sacramento on the other hand had my friends going to court for years over a wheat paste case, after advertising their band. They could barely afford to take off work to make it to court. I moved to Seattle to get out of the system, and it was a breath of fresh air. There I met tons of amazing artists and even participated in my first all-female street-art show hosted by Angel 179, circa 2004. She became a very good friend later down the road. It was such a relief to finally be able to paint without police knocking on my door.
Slow acceptance of teenage rebellion retarded Sacramento’s cultural progression, whereas cities like Seattle and San Francisco were creating the sought after Legends, like Shepard Fairey, we now eagerly commission to bring inspiration to our town.
Like Fairey, the graffiti writers who survived and stayed in the game are often sought after for live painting at festivals, fundraisers for social causes, and commissioned for murals. Art activists who went to jail for what they believe are now paid for their work, dedication and notoriety. And rightfully so, as they not only helped pave the way, they created this influx of amazing art, with most muralists today at least somewhat influenced by graffiti culture. People in all walks of life now have access to graffiti mediums, and innovative ways of thinking about the scale and placement of their work.
With strong values pointing towards real life issues, artists have always been a catalyst for positive social change. Graffiti writers brought heavy Hip Hop and Punk Rock values to the streets and they speak for the underdog in the forgotten corners of the world. Where run down abandoned projects become art, writers fought, died, broke bones, fell off buildings and billboards, and crawled in asbestos filled ruins. They have been hit by trains, bitten by dogs, shot by cops, and chased by civilians. Graffiti writers have gone to jail, and even prison, lost their brothers and sisters, fought the system, and lived in the shadows, so today the international art scene can offer worldwide communities epic works of uplifting art.
Inspired by the growing art culture in the city, perhaps after meeting neighbor (and street artist) Johnny Knudsen, Wide Open Walls founder and producer David Sobon had the idea to bring this growing art movement to the local mainstream. International festivals like Pow Wow and Art Basel frequently empower entire cities with skyscrapers covered in art. Sacramento had never experienced an art festival of that magnitude… until David teamed up with Warren Brand, and started Wide Open Walls.
In collaboration with Branded Arts, Wide Open Walls hosts an annual festival, along with other inspiring art events throughout the year. Together, they brought strong artists from other cities, while still supporting many local creatives. This organization hosts a 10-day festival where artists from around the globe travel to paint the walls of Sacramento. On their website you can read
“Wide Open Walls is a 501(3)(c) whose mission is to promote and celebrate public art. We believe that art is an integral part of the human experience, and can empower, inspire and transform lives. Wide Open Walls promotes diversity through artistic expression. We think art should be part of daily life, and want art to reach a wider audience. Our mission is embodied in Wide Open Walls – our annual festival in August that brings our region together to celebrate Art for All. The festival brings both local, national and international artists together to transform our region with amazing street art. We also produce other public art events throughout the year – including The Mural Jam, Sac Republic’s Paint The Park, and the upcoming Playa Art Trail. Wide Open Walls brings underserved neighborhoods public art that encourages a sense of pride and identity; provides community gathering spaces; generates impactful, measurable economic growth for our region; and promotes greater cultural understanding and appreciation amongst diverse groups.”
In 2018, there were 35 different international artists featured. Each year, the city faces a fast visual transformation as huge sides of buildings are completely overhauled into beautiful works of art. The team hosts parties throughout, and encourages mural tours and activities based on the new attractions.
The variety of talent, styles, and influences of recognized artists from home and around the globe has added significantly more life and value to Sacramento. Some of the featured muralists include John Pugh from Truckee, California, Franceska Gamez and Brent Patten from Sacramento, international artists Pixel Pancho and Mateus Bailon, Rainbow California’s Charmaine Olivia, and of course, the infamous Shepard Fairey. From sculpture made from recycled materials to aerosol art and brushwork, each work of art reflects a different artist’s background and delivers a different cultural experience. Those who visit Sacramento can be inspired by a vast range of globally diverse styles and techniques.
In addition to the annual festival, WOW hosts small events throughout the year amping up the local community and inviting all artists to participate. I got to see their system first hand, for the Sac Bee Mural Jam and the Paint the Park contest for Sac Republic FC. They gave us a format to follow that even a novice artist can use to gain a leg up as a professional in the art world, and a fun sponsored project (thank you Leave Your Mark) that looks great on a portfolio to gain future employment. I was also able to connect with several artists I wouldn’t have crossed paths with who have supported my own local events, like Wolffio, Alikasattic, and Ten of Neverboard.
The events took over unused spaces- a building soon to be demolished and tarps on fencing, making something that served no purpose aesthetically- into an art show! The community building and the buzz around town for both artists and spectators, gives every kind of art appreciator (or non appreciator) so much more to talk about!
With the WOW team hailing from a variety of different backgrounds, they have a unique assortment of resources to bring a heart-filled movement to an even greater audience, while fueling a stronger image of the State Capital, and a better quality of life for the people who live and visit a free museum on Wide Open Walls.