Wall thrives through respect

Staff Writer

The graffiti wall behind the Mobil station along 53rd Street has operated in the grey area between legal and illegal since the early ‘90s. But for the bulk of that time it has been a generally low-conflict zone where talented street artists can practice painting, memorialize a friend or make a statement.

The graffiti wall facing the alley between Kenwood and Kimbark avenues is expected to be demolished this summer to make way for Vue53, a 13-story apartment and retail building on that site.

The wall is owned by the owners of the Mobil station and the car wash. A stretch of the wall that ran behind the adjacent McDonald’s that was demolished was torn down after a truck backed into it.

So while no person or group in particular is in control of who paints what on the graffiti wall, there is a social code in place to keep it a safe and open environment for street artists.

Doug Freitag started painting on the wall very early in its lifespan as an artistic hub. He no longer paints it very often, but he said he does get phone calls from people outside the neighborhood asking for his permission to paint there.

“Every now and then you get an out-of-towner, or someone from Europe,” Freitag said. There have been a handful of big-name graffiti artists whose work has appeared on the wall over the decades.

There are only estimates for how many people have painted the wall — probably hundreds — but when the McDonald’s wall was demolished in 2004, the paint on the wall was reportedly two inches thick.

Officially, there are no rules to the wall, but there is an etiquette for how to behave, who can paint and how to work with the art already there.

One of the first collective groups to paint that wall was Spray Brigade, headed by Ravi Raven and a handful of other artists. New artists would be invited to paint the wall after they had reached a certain level of talent.

Since 1991, teams or individuals have been painting memorials to friends who died, too often by gunshots. A graffiti artist who painted under the moniker “Dare” was recently memorialized on the backside of a billboard that hangs above the wall.

Artists who paint a memorial piece don’t ask that others not cover it up, but the community tends to respect the work and leaves it uncovered for a while.

Other pieces, such as personal tags or the ghosts and monsters that appear around Halloween, can stay up for a day or weeks.

“The majority of the graffiti writers would know the social code, like, don’t paint 53rd Street or anything around it,” said Raven. Occasionally a younger, less experienced or less talented painter — Raven calls them “writers” — would take it upon themselves to paint on other nearby walls, trash cans, garages or anything else.

The social code, though not formalized or written down, told artists they were allowed to paint if they had achieved a certain level of talent, not to paint on anything that wasn’t the permission wall, don’t cover up anything done by an artist better than you and clean up after yourself before you leave.

“The community is allowing us to paint this wall, so you all have to respect it,” Raven said. “So writers who were ignorant of the social code — I’ve seen other writers take brown paint and cover up [their work].”

More amateur artists, who are practicing their skill until they can paint the main wall, can take the space on the far western edge of the wall, between two telephone poles.

Despite the reputation that graffiti has for gangs and violence, Freitag said he couldn’t think of any dispute worse than one fistfight in the 22 years they’ve been painting the wall.

There were a handful of times when writers would be arrested for painting behind the wall, or on the rare occasion a gang sign would appear artists would leave the wall alone for a while until things cooled down.

The rules, code and culture of the wall are best communicated to new artists by older ones through respect and constructive criticism.

“This wall is like a gift, we want this wall to stay,” Raven said. “So if you write over there [on a nearby non-permission wall] neither you nor I will be able to paint here. … Writers would pull back — I’m not going to paint here if I see tags across the alley.”