OAKLAND -- To Ernest Doty, the walls of Mary and Robert Jeffrey's print shop are an artistic and financial opportunity. But to the Jeffreys, they are a costly magnet for graffiti vandals and profiteers.
Their conflicting visions are being played out in neighborhoods throughout the city as street artists such as Doty go door-to-door pitching murals to property owners as insurance against rampant tagging.
"They say the tagging will stop if you let us put a mural on your building," Mary Jeffrey said. "How much more blunt can they be? That is extortion."
In Oakland, the line between extortion and free enterprise has blurred. So has the line between vandalism and art.
The city is enjoying a golden age of murals and street art. But it also is grappling with a graffiti epidemic like none it has ever seen. Nothing is off-limits anymore. Not churches, not the top of the iconic Paramount Theatre, not even murals themselves. Doty's work gets tagged regularly.
And it's difficult to separate the good guys from the villains. Several of Oakland's most prolific taggers are also its most gifted artists.
City leaders hope that subsidizing more street art will reduce tagging, but they are struggling to reconcile the twin phenomenon. This year, the City Council passed a law that criminalized tagging while setting aside up to $400,000 for mural projects.
Meanwhile, property owners in heavily tagged parts of East and West Oakland are trapped in a graffiti no man's land. The city won't protect them from taggers, but still threatens them with fines if they don't clean up quickly after the vandals strike.
The only people offering protection are muralists. Many will paint for free if given creative carte blanche. But if a property owner wants input on the design, they can expect to pay about $1,000. Some murals do the trick; others get tagged.
Doty, a reformed tagger whose slender frame, bald head and tattooed neck give him the look of a punk rock monk, has been turned down many times. But he said the most hostile rejection came earlier this year when he and a friend made their pitch to Robert Jeffrey at his West Oakland print shop.
"He just unleashed a flurry of hatred on us like a tornado," Doty recalled. "He said, 'the next person I catch (tagging), I'm going to shoot them. I don't care how long I'm going to be in prison.'"
Jeffrey, an 82-year-old retired police officer turned small-business man, doesn't recall the encounter. But he said frustration over graffiti is starting to boil over.
There already had been several tagging-related confrontations before a law student ran over an Oakland man with her car while pursuing taggers earlier this month. One tagger, who goes by the name Irot, said a motorist tried to run him over two months ago while he was spray-painting in West Oakland.
"The danger is there are a few people ... who are very upset and if they catch somebody, something bad is going to happen," Robert Jeffrey said. "As a matter of fact, if I catch somebody ... I'm going to commit an act that I'll be sorry for."
Graffiti has been part of Oakland's aesthetic for decades. But in the last couple of years the nature and sheer volume of it has changed dramatically. Gang-related tags that had reigned supreme are harder to find. Stepping into the void are aspiring artists and self-promoters who aren't marking territory so much as marketing themselves.
Their monikers range from mundane scribble and bubble letters to gallery-quality calligraphy that now blanket buildings, utility boxes, freeway signs and even trees across town.
City graffiti removers covered up nearly 60 percent more tags in 2012 than in 2010. The abatement effort cost taxpayers more than $1 million last year.
The rise in vandalism has coincided with Oakland's emergence as a leading center for street art beckoning muralists from all over the country. "This is it," Kristi Holohan said of Oakland, where she organizes mural projects with politicians and taggers alike. "It's like here and Paris and Eastern Europe."
Irot is in many ways the quintessential new breed Oakland street artist. He's a 28-year-old transplant from New Mexico who has a foothold in both the art and tagging worlds.
"(Tagging) is like an adrenaline rush pretty much," he said while contributing to a mural in Oakland's Uptown District. "After awhile the thrill is gone, so you have to keep escalating."
Like Doty, Irot has offered to paint murals for people whose properties get frequently tagged, but he doesn't always take "no" for an answer.
"It's almost like if you don't want me to do it, then I'll just do it when you're asleep," he said. Asked what he would say to property owners whose buildings he's tagged, Irot replied, "Oops. I did it again."
Council members tried to get tough on tagging this year. They approved funds for more graffiti removers and passed a law allowing the city to fine taggers up to $1,500 and seek additional civil penalties. But so far no fines have been levied, primarily because taggers are elusive targets.
Oakland police have little time to chase after 20-something vandals and can't identify masked taggers caught on security cameras. As of September, police had made 116 vandalism-related arrests this year, about 10 percent of which involved graffiti, Sgt. Johnna Watson said.
Muralists have a different solution for tagging: less graffiti abatement and more graffiti art.
"If you're going to invest in continually doing something, invest in something that is beautiful and creative, instead of something that is dull and ugly and guaranteed not to last," street artist Desi Mundo said.
Mundo, who founded the nonprofit Community Rejuvenation Project, is among several leading street artists who double as community leaders spearheading mural projects and working with local kids.
Doty also has contributed his time to volunteer beautification projects, and sees his work as helping the city. "What if every house had a mural on it?" he said. "Can you imagine how exciting it would be to walk across the street?"
The fine line between street art as a public service and street art as a public nuisance can best be seen along the Solano Way alley in East Oakland. The alley was frequented by prostitutes and a haven for illegally dumped trash until several artists, including Doty and Irot, transformed it two years ago into an outdoor gallery that is now a source of neighborhood pride.
Yet, less than one block away, along East 17th Street at 12th Avenue, street artists of a different stripe ran roughshod over Sam Chan's auto shop. Facing threats from the city and hundreds of dollars in annual painting bills, Chan finally said "yes" when two artists stopped by and offered to paint. Sections of his building now look like a 1970s New York City subway car.
"I don't like it, but I have to let them," he said. "They can't be stopped."
For property owners, there is no easy answer when muralists come knocking. Some reported agreeing to murals that got wrecked by taggers; others, such as David Perez, who was paying $6,000 a year to cover graffiti on his West Oakland buildings, say their murals have worked as advertised.
"I think it is wrong for me to pay to support guys tagging the city," Perez said. "But on the flip side, I think that some of this stuff has some kind of meaning and you either give in or it is going to cost you $6,000."
Mary Jeffrey is giving in, too. She recently decided to commission a mural that will honor important people in Oakland history. One of those to be immortalized is none other than Robert Jeffrey, who fought discrimination as a regional director for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after he left police work.
Jeffrey is not excited about being on the mural. But Doty is excited for him.
"I'd like to think that something I said had an impact in there," he said. "I hope that it brightens his spirit and eases his mind."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.
SOURCE: CITY OF OAKLAND