Saturday, March 1, 2008

Q & A with Bruce Tomb

"Cities are places of change and to assume that something will stay the same is contrary to the spirit of the wall."

Earlier this month I posted a story about Bruce Tomb and an evolving wall of graffiti that exists on the front of his office building at 1240 Valencia Street in San Francisco. Tomb is an architect and designer who took over a former Mission District police station and turned it into his home and office. What began as an attempt to clean up a graffiti-covered wall, turned into a decade-long arts project, where Tomb has allowed graffiti and posters to go onto the wall.

I was intrigued by how this wall works and about Tomb’s own intervention with the site. He began taking photographs of the wall around 1998 and in January of this year, he launched The (de) Appropriation Project Archive online. This was in conjunction with an exhibition of the photos at Southern Exposure, a non-profit arts and community center in the Mission neighborhood.

When we spoke, Tomb had just held a public meeting about the wall at Southern Exposure. Until then, it had not been widely known that the wall was, in fact, sanctioned. All the photos here come from Tomb’s extensive archive.

This is, I hope, the first in a series of Q & A’s that will appear on this site.

How did the public meeting go?

Most of the audience was a Southern Exposure audience, which is to say most of them were fairly supportive of the project. There were only three people who were neighbors at the meeting. I was hoping for more. I was interested in hearing criticism from people who might not be a part of the art scene.

Did the people from the neighborhood have critical comments?

No. They were all very supportive. One guy actually showed up because he was afraid other neighbors would be there with pitchforks. He came in support of the project. That was funny. He was under the impression that things might be under siege here.

Any interesting revelations?

Probably the most interesting idea—one that reinforced my own sense—was to hold a public meeting elsewhere, not at an arts organization. One of my earlier ideas, that we decided not to pursue, was to hold the meeting at the new police station down the street from me at 17th and Valencia.

Do you have a sense that there is criticism from the neighborhood?


What are some of the things that they are critiquing? Is it just the simple encouragement of graffiti?

Yeah. For many people the wall looks like a mess. I was looking at your website and the name—urban palimpsest—that speaks to a whole aesthetic that would embrace this kind of thing. The name urban palimpsest represents very dear territory to me and there are a lot of people that are of that like mindset. But the city is a big place, right? It’s not a popular sensibility among people who aren’t necessarily interested in the arts. I think it’s still a fairly esoteric aesthetic.

Do you get into that conversation with people about the line between art and vandalism?

I have to a certain degree. I’ve given lectures and presentations about the project over the years and more often than not, that’s to a sympathetic audience. When I’m out front doing maintenance on the wall, I get into interesting conversations with lots of different people. Oftentimes people are complimentary, but often times they assume I am out there in the front trying to clean up the wall to make it look “nice” as they define “nice.” And they sympathize with me as far as how much work it is to keep up with graffiti and vandalism. It’s hard for a lot of people who look at the wall to appreciate that it is deliberate and that I actually think that it is OK.

What inspired you to start doing this in the first place?

It did not start with the intention of creating a project such as this. It started with a fairly mundane agenda. It was really about trying to maintain the front of the building in a very conventional way by cleaning graffiti. The wall was being tagged intensely when we first moved in. I think—and this is conjecture—I think the building, a former police station, held a fair amount of stigma from the neighborhood. This was a rough precinct. The Mission police were notorious for Civil Rights abuses. Because I am often out front, I’ll be approached by people who spent time here in a bad way.

This building was worse than any other on the block for graffiti and vandalism. It sustained a lot of abuse. We were stepping into that context and trying to undo that and deal with it in some way. At a certain point I realized I couldn’t deal with it. It was too much work. I’ve got a life, a career. It was apparent that it was a fulltime job maintaining the front of the building. Every night there was a new tag out there.

I decided that I would try something completely different. I painted a blue checkerboard pattern on the wall and it changed very quickly from being just a wall to being something that was becoming understood by the neighborhood as a site for something else. Very quickly the layers began to create something interesting, so what began as a mundane tag, turned into a calligraphic fragment with these other tags and patterns beginning to overlay. It created a kind of palimpsest.

Very soon after that, the posters started to appear where there had been no posters before. The early pictures have a wonderful balance of my intervention, the tags, and posters. Now its almost exclusively posters. So it’s fascinating how the whole thing evolved. It was 1998 when I took my first picture because there was something very different, something very interesting, going on here compared with other walls in the city.

It must be interesting walking out every day and wondering what’s going to be there. Are there moments that really stick out? Designs or posters or moments that surprised you?

The most startling thing for me would be the first person that I ever met was using the wall as a site. It turned out to be a senior citizen, which defied my preconceptions of who might be the audience or the players on the wall. I think most people would be surprised to know that it was a senior citizen. She was a Quaker activist. Well, Quakers are actually pacifists, so that’s a contradiction. She was out front measuring the wall for a big poster that had to do with the Afghanistan invasion. I walked out and there she was with a tape measure. I asked her what she was doing. She was very reserved and protective of revealing what she was up to. We started talking and she realized that I condoned what was going on on the wall. It was so sweet. She was very relieved that she knew that she could put stuff on the wall without getting in trouble and she admitted that she had an awful time convincing her friends to come out there at night and do this activity. She needed help because it was a big project. Subsequently she would come by and do things on a Sunday afternoon.

How did a Quaker senior citizen know to come out and put a poster there? How do you think that people began to understand the space and know to use it in this way?

That’s one of the interesting questions. In many ways there’s no way to know for sure. It’s not as though it was ever announced. It’s through the way that people have read the wall as they pass by it and the way word spreads between people of like minds. It’s never been announced until now that it is a kind of an official thing. I think there are some interesting lessons there about urban life and public space.

Do you think the activity will change as it becomes known as an officially sanctioned space?

I believe it will, but I haven’t speculated on what that will be per se. The wall has evolved quite a bit over the years and I would expect it to continue to evolve. That was part of the interest in holding the public meeting and formalizing the archive. Cities are places of change and to assume that something will stay the same is contrary to the spirit of the wall.

Have you followed the news of The Splasher in New York?

Only a little bit.

Essentially, someone is going around and splashing paint on the more prominent pieces of graffiti and poster art, especially those being made by people like Banksy. It’s a comment on that question of what’s art versus “true” graffiti. Has this process gotten you thinking about that line? Clearly there are graphic design students putting work up there.

There’s a lot to talk about there. There was this fellow who was clearly very active in using the wall as a site for postering. At one point I was out there and we were talking and he started to take issue with another person in the community using the wall. This other person had been commissioned by a nightclub to put up posters that might look like an art poster, but in fact they were building an image for this club through the iconography. The person was using the wall like a billboard. It’s nothing new for advertising agencies to co-opt graffiti as a marketing strategy, but this was at a pretty local scale. It wasn’t like it was a big campaign nationally run through an ad agency. This guy I was talking to believed that he was using the wall in a way that was correct and he really took issue with this other guy for using the wall for what he thought was an inappropriate activity.

I thought it was a curious exchange in that he had adopted in his mind a sense of what could go on the wall. There were no rules that had been issued, this was just a kind of self-entitled assessment of what’s appropriate. He went on to say that this other fellow was not respectful of what the wall was all about. I had to stop the conversation at that point and interject and say that it’s important to remember that everything going up on this wall is grown not out of a culture of respect. As soon as people start to assign rules that need to be respected I find it quite ironic.

The other thing that’s worth noting in this case is that this is a kind of working model, a little laboratory of anarchy. I used to get upset over certain activities happening on the wall, but I wouldn’t edit them. Nonetheless it bothered me. I learned to get over it and set aside my own sense of judgment about it because I found that things correct themselves pretty quickly on the wall. Because there is a general, overall, community sense of what the wall is and what should be on it, it self edits itself in a curious way. It always seems to be seeking it’s own true self.

This makes me think about the series of photos from a few years back when people were commenting heavily about a guy named Dave. People wrote some pretty derogatory things about Dave’s artwork.

There were some people who did not like Dave at all.

But then there were others who commented back and said, “I love Dave! Keep it up!” It’s interesting to see that dialogue.

Some of the handwritten commentary about Dave was really violent. “Kill me before I poster again” would be a typical note written on his posters.

But he kept postering?

I haven’t seen his stuff on the wall for years. There were a few years where he used the wall quite intensively as his own gallery. There have been any number of artists like that who have cycled through and used the wall as a kind of gallery.

In terms of your own maintenance, do you just let it continue to build? Do you have to scrape it down or clean it?

It’s actually quite a bit of work. Most people would never suspect it. Things tend to peel off that aren’t put on well. I peel off things that are not sticking well because when something subsequent comes around, it in turn does not stick well. It creates this problem where things are coming off the wall. How do you facilitate a robust collage? That’s the sort of thing I do. I tidy it up. The rains that we’ve had recently, it’s dissolved so much of the wheat paste on the wall, that bunches of paper and goo has soughed off. It’s been a mess. This weekend I spent a fair amount of time trying to get stuff down to something fairly flat.

It looks like at some point, you painted over everything?

I haven’t. Early on I did those few interventions. But the city at a certain point beige washed the wall. Subsequently, and it’s conjecture, I think a vigilante group painted it white. Both those times, the wall was already unofficially understood as a condoned site, so there was some great stuff that got covered over. I know the one intervention was from the city and I had a run in with them. Once I threatened to sue them, they backed off.

Technically it’s private property so they have no right to paint it.

Exactly. That was it. They were no more justified in painting the wall than a tagger might be.

Can you estimate how much time you spend each week maintaining the site and taking pictures and posting the shots to the web?

Maybe 4 hours. This weekend I spent much of Saturday out there.

What prompted you to go to Southern Exposure and do the talk?

It was by invitation from Courtney Fink, the director. She lives not too far from here and would walk by the wall on a regular basis and she was quite fond of it. She interviewed me a year and half ago for neighborhood public radio and I spoke about the wall there. Recently she gave me a call and invited me to do something with the wall at the gallery.

Do you have any plans to do a book?

I would love to do a book. I think it’s an enormous project that I need a major grant for. All the images up to late 2007 are on the archive site, but we only have a couple years that are keyworded for searching. There’s an archaeologist who comes in one day a week and she’s helping go through the images and add keywords. The archive and getting that up and public was a major hurdle.

And then you have your actual work.

Right. It’s one of those things that gets pushed to the back burner. Courtney asking me to do this thing at Southern Exposure was the kick in the pants to get the images together. It’s not until there’s a deadline put in front of me that stuff happens.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens as you have more public conversations.

All of the stories that go along with the wall and building as a former police station are a kind of nexus for different people to come forward and tell stories about the neighborhood. The people who have had run-ins with the cops. The cops themselves actually come by periodically and tell stories a la NYPD Blues. It’s a fascinating position to occupy and witness all the convergences of stories. It’s what the city is all about.

People have these memories and stories of buildings, and while all of the graffiti and posters don’t specifically relate to the story of that building itself, the idea that you are visualizing the ongoing story of the city on a daily basis is really interesting.

In the public meeting, one of the questions that came up was the degree to which the history of the building matters to the wall. There were quite a few people that were of the mindset that the history of the building was of no significance to what the wall is today. I don’t agree with that. I think the history of the building contributes to what the wall is today. Whether people are aware of that is another thing. The wall wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for the fact that this was a police station and that I was trying to figure out how to deal with the transformation of that police station into something else.

There were also quite a few people there who clearly used the wall, though they didn’t give their names for obvious reasons. One person said that among the people he knows who are involved in like activities elsewhere, when they come to town, if they do postering, they invariably put something on this wall. If you can do one thing in the city, that’s a place to do it.

You realize now that there is this hidden foot traffic that regularly comes and surveys what’s on the wall.

And that people from an area much larger than the neighborhood are coming here. People come from all over the country and the world to San Francisco and they are participating in that wall. It’s wonderful. I think of it in terms of the Internet. These kind of virtual communities that emerge based on common interest. There is a physicality to this. It serves a lot of those same purposes, but it’s very physical. It does represent a very extended community with shared interest.