OAKLAND -- They were, by their own admission, a ragtag bunch. A half-dozen or more sleep-deprived residents spending the wee hours patrolling a sliver of West Oakland's Lower Bottoms district for white graffiti vandals.
They were on the lookout for the same "crusty punks" they believed had recently tagged a nearby church, a neighbor's house and a homeless man's truck.
One of those on patrol laid bare his feelings in a flier that he posted on the main drag. The Lower Bottoms, it declared, "is being attacked by white taggers bent on destroying the neighborhood and starting a race riot."
Graffiti vandalism is way up in Oakland and several taggers aren't abiding by the old code that schools, churches and murals are off limits. The new dynamic is infuriating residents in heavily tagged parts of town, but in rapidly diversifying West Oakland -- a historically black district that is increasingly popular with white graffiti taggers and artists -- there is a racial edge to the anger.
"The sad fact is none of this happened in this community until we got this influx of the other tribe," said Anthony Reed, whose Victorian home near the corner of Seventh and Campbell streets was tagged 20 feet up from the pavement.
The vandalizing of Reed's home helped spur the short-lived patrols. It also fortified the sense among several longtime residents that their neighborhood was under assault by predominantly white newcomers armed with spray paint.
"These kids that do that are like dogs. They just want to piss on our neighborhood," said the author of the flier, who gave only a pen name, Malik Shabazz.
Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney said she didn't have enough facts to confirm her constituents' claims that the vandals are mostly white, but acknowledged the growing frustration. "One person told me we need Sharia law for taggers," she said.
Murals now fair game
Kewesi Simon, who lives in a different section of West Oakland, fought a losing battle with taggers who systematically destroyed the murals on his martial arts studio at the corner of 26th and West streets.
The images of animals and Oakland's skyline were painted by local volunteers, but most of the taggers Simon caught in the act were "suburban kids," who went out tagging after attending parties at a nearby warehouse. One tagger Simon confronted cursed and told him, "I do whatever the hell I want to do."
"Graffiti used to be an urban art form for kids who didn't have another venue," Simon said. "They didn't tag over the churches their mothers and grandmothers attended. Now you have these suburban kids who are working to emulate the art form, but have no reverence for the community and no integrity in what they do."
Graffiti users divided
Simon, who has strong roots in Oakland, also mourns the destruction of street art from his childhood, such as a mural of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland and one of "everyday people" under the Interstate-980 overpass at San Pablo and West Grand avenues. "These murals were my heritage and all of them have been tagged (over)," he said.
Murals are not only under attack in Oakland. Reports of mural taggings have surfaced recently in San Francisco and New York City, where even the legendary street artist Banksy had his work tagged over recently.
"A lot of the rules have been thrown out the window," said Nina Wright, a muralist and tagger living in Oakland. Murals of pictures, such as the ones on Simon's building, are much more likely to get tagged than murals of stylized graffiti writing. Artists say that is because of a divide between "writers" who focus on letter-based artwork and street artists who generally do picture murals.
"There's kind of a thing right now where a lot of graffiti writers don't like street artists," Wright said. "Hopefully, that will change and they will get more respect for the muralists and quit going over them."
Several street artists said they weren't bothered by their works getting vandalized. Kristi Holohan, the artist who spearheaded Simon's murals, said she knew one of the people who tagged it. "I look at it in a way that this kid is probably ... trying to get his words out there, too," she said. "I don't really take offense to it."
Lesson from Lower Bottoms
The citizen patrols in the Lower Bottoms worked for awhile, but didn't have much lasting impact, Shabazz said. They ordered away the several tagging crews that crossed their paths, but didn't want to get the police involved or escalate the confrontations.
The big surprise, Shabazz said, was that not all the taggers they spotted were white. Most were, but there were a couple of Latinos or mixed-race kids. Eventually, the sleep-deprived volunteers stopped patrolling and Shabazz got tired of reposting his fliers that kept getting taken down.
The patrols started and ended in July, but Reed, 63, still keeps an eye out for taggers. He'll walk over to his window late at night if he thinks he hears them outside. Sometimes they see him, too. "They'll say, 'We're not going to tag your house. Sorry about that, dude,'" Reed said. "Then they go off and tag across the street."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435. Follow him at Twitter.com/Matthew_Artz.