“You don’t talk much about cottonwoods,” he said.

“I know,” I replied.

“Don’t you like them?”

“I love them,” I said.

“Well talk about them.”

“Even though they are big and beautiful,” I said. “They aren’t the trees people mean when they say the City of Trees. People think of elms and sycamores in neighborhoods.

“Cottonwoods pretty much grow along our rivers. My favorites are along the Sacramento off of 35th Avenue. So many of them growing tall with all that space for light play fit the wide expanse of river there. Everything is majestic.

“I feel I am in a different world. It’s quiet, especially when leaves flutter in the wind.

“I like to sit looking at the reflections of the trees in the shady water, then to the sky beyond the levee.

“It’s a place to live the moment, sitting with your feet in the water watching the river flow, thinking of your failures as you feel lucky to be surrounded by what is most important. You imagine you see your kids on the other side of the river standing on the levee going off to pursue their dreams, or returning from the big sky on the other side to tell you how their dreams turned out.

“You think of people who came here who couldn’t wait to see the confluence of our rivers. They’d make their way through the cottonwoods, seeing a big bend in the river in the distance, the sleepy trees and brush leaning over the water.

“They’d wonder what was ahead for them, around the next turn, why life is usually lived going upstream, if they would ever learn to flow and go where their power and beauty takes them.

“At the confluence they’d sit together. They’d see water sparkle and light play on leaves and trunks. They would wonder if people could merge like this.

“At night in summer they’d walk through the trees to where the rivers meet, turned on by the shape of the cottonwoods’ trunks. They’d smell damp earth and dry grass. ‘The kids will love it here,’ they’d whisper.

“They’d walk faster, horny from heat and hanging vines, loving crickets and the stars between trees.

“You think of what it must have been like when they saw the water through the trees, how badly they wanted to come together.

“From the edge of the trees they’d sit and talk things over, about what it means to merge, to create something basically like you but greater and more beautiful. All night they’d linger, their future twinkling in the sky. They’d watch water from the mountains ease toward them. They’d let their past flow away in the dark.

“They’d dream of giving everything they have, of being there forever for each other.

“It must have been scary, trusting on something as fickle as nature, knowing that things could not always be contained, that they would surge over the boundaries, that some years one flow would trickle and only one of you would sustain everything.

“There must have been times when they’d wander alone along one of the rivers wondering what happened, grateful for their children, walking until the stars came out, until dawn, when they were as far from the confluence as they’d ever been.

“The strong one left behind would look to the mountains for strength, asking why they all weren’t there with the mountains and rivers and trees – everything you could ask for.

“I ask myself all the time why a freeway is over the confluence, why we call the merging Discovery Park when it’s too noisy to discover love and permanence, things that are most important and we desperately need.

“I think of the weak one wandering back to the confluence, the passion they both felt as they watched the mountains, vowing to be true to themselves.

“They’d think and dream about the kids, knowing time was moving on like the rivers, hoping everybody would age like cottonwoods.

“It’s difficult,” I said, “to feel graceful like cottonwoods when I watch the river flow and see the mountains. My dreams were huge.”

Copyright © 2023 by David Vaszko

Italian pines

“Do you ever get downtown?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I like to go to Capitol Park and look at the trees.”

“Which ones?”

“Italian Pines and Deodar Cedars,” I said. “Why’d you ask?”

“Because I was coming out of the candy shop on L Street across from the capitol. I noticed a beautiful tree across the street. I stopped chewing my candy to look because I was shook up. I walked over to see it. There was a sign on it like on other trees. I worte the name down – Pinus pinea – Italian Stone Pine – then I put my note pad away and looked for a long time. I touched it. When I didn’t think anyone was looking, I kissed it because it was beautiful to me. I was in a daze the rest of the day. At home I started to tell my wife about it but I started to cry. ‘They’re so beautiful and muscular!’ I cried. I couldn’t go on.”

“They fill me with passion too,” I said. “I know what you mean about trees being muscular. When I look at how bulging and powerful and peaceful Italian Pines are, I become aware of traffic on L Street. I feel and see all this power and motion, but traffic has no beauty and no peace. Even on weekends when it’s slow, there’s an uneasy stillness from the ugly buildings on L Street.

“I get sad like you do. I never had the courage to tell someone and to cry to them about it.

“There have been times I couldn’t look at them because they make me aware of peace I don’t have and power and beauty I am afraid to use.

“I watch people during lunch walk by the pines without looking at them. The Deodar Cedars you can’t help but see. The Italian Pines, even though they are huge, are easy to not pay attention to.

“I’m sure there are people who love them like us. A lot of people probably struggle with themselves as they see the beautiful powerful trees, knowing they have to return to the office to have their spirit murdered. They want to quit work to be free, but know they can’t. The trees keep them alive, yet they become more and more aware they’re dying a slow death. There are probably days they can’t bear to look, just like a man without a lover sometimes can’t look at somebody beautiful.

“There’s always somebody who loves their job, who can look at the pines and be aware of life’s preciousness, then allow it to make them love their job more.

“What did your wife say?”

“She cried with me. It isn’t that she loves trees. After we stopped crying she said, ‘That’s how I felt when I had the kids.’ We cried after that too. We hugged longer than we we ever have.”

“The guy who planted the pines,” I said. “I wonder what he felt?”

“What do you mean?”

“B.B. Redding. He was married with kids. He was mayor here in 1856. He was a philosopher, statesman, theologian and scientist. In 1870 his doctor told him he was working too hard and needed a vacation. He and his wife went to Europe. In Italy they saw Italian Pines.

“Being in a country with all that culture and history, and seeing those beautiful trees, must have moved him like they do me and you. He had vision to bring specimens back to plant around the perimeter of the capitol. There are only a few left. I guess he thought their grandeur would suit the elegance of the capitol. He was right.

“I wonder, since he was getting older and needed to restore his health, how much he realized he could never express and never feel when he saw the trees. It’s kind of a tease. Feeling greatness we can never attain, but wanting to experience it anyway and wanting other pople to experience it. What’s great about Redding is he lived a dynamic life and was a great man. I guess he thought the rest of us could be inspired to be great in our areas of interest and with our personality.”

We paused.

“You know the buildings across Tenth Street from the capitol, the ones with the quotations that are profound?”

He nodded.

“The buildings were constructed after Redding died. It’s too bad because he lived the quotations. One of the quotations is Bring Me Men to Match My Mountains. The other is Into the Highlands of the Mind Let Me Go.”

“Are those from ancient times?” he asked.

“They’re from modern poets,” I said. “I think it was masterful planning to plant Deodar Cedars on the front lawn of the capitol, then construct two grandiose buildings across from them. After looking at the two buildings and being jazzed reading the quotations, you become more inspired walking over to the capitol with the gigantic cedars from India, a place with more and bigger mountains than we have.”

“It’s a little overwhelming. Isn’t it?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “The elegance of the three buildings; the eloquence of the quotations; the majesty of the cedars and the beauty, peace and power of the pines probably makes a lot of people afraid to set goals because we know we could not come close to what we just saw and felt.

“But I think there’s more to this than that. The buildings and quotations appeal to our ego. We see the buildings and wish we were a Greek or Roman or southern aristocrat. We read the quotations and we want to be great because we know there are only a few people like Redding who match the mountains and get into the highlands of the mind.

“The trees, as humbling as they are, play second fiddle to the buildings. Our tremendous passion to express, be ourselves and be free is overwhelmed by our desire to compete and be better than.

“It would have been better for everybody if the buildings had different quotations. If one building read Speak Your Truth and Only Your Truth, and the other read Listen to Your Neighbors Truth, we would all feel free and powerful at the same time we felt part of the community. There are a few people like Redding who will stand out among their contemporaries no matter what, but the important thing is for everyone to feel part of a community. We don’t have that.

“Imagine reading quotations like those I made up. It’s a healthier challenge to accept ourselves for who we are than to try to be great beyond our abilities. We’re unhealthy because we refuse to live our truth.

“You know that row of ugly buildings on L Street?”

He nodded.

“They stand for the grandeur we don’t live and the passion and expressiveness we deny. We can’t live the stateliness that we see in the capitol and the two buildings on Tenth Street, but we easily live the lifelessness and constraint of the ugly buildings.

“It’s a struggle for me,” I continued. “When I see the quotes on the buildings I want to be great, to be an important person who knows everybody at the capitol. When I see the trees, I feel I am not livng my passion and beauty, or if I’m confident, I’m inspired to continue to live my truth and be my self. The ugly buildings make me rage because they aren’t great, scare me because they are ugly and make me sad because they stifle my freedom and expression.”

We paused.

“I don’t know what I’ll do when the last of the Italian Pines blows over or is cut down.”

“We can plant new ones,” he said, “Like Mr. Redding did for us.”


“Sycamores are one of the prettiest trees in Sacramento,” he said.

“Most everybody feels the same way,” I told him. “The trees are all over Midtown, East Sac, Land Park and Curtis Park.”

“I think they come from London.”

“Some do. Some are native to California,” I said. “Sycamores grew along the banks of our rivers. They were here when Sutter came.”

“So they left the sycamores along the river and planted the trees from London in town?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said.

“Well what happened?”

“There were a lot of trees along the shores of the river where the people who came after Sutter settled. In 1847 a guy wrote in his diary that Sacramento was ‘a town in the woods, with the native trees still waving over its roofs.’

“But people cut trees for wood and built fires against the trunks of others. Finally in 1853, the last tree that was native to the plain came down. It was on oak.”

“Then they started planting more natives?” he asked.

“No,” I said. Actually they planted Calilfornia Sycamores in 1850, way out of town at Sutter’s Fort Burying Ground where Sutter Middle School is now on I and Alhambra.

“Sutter gave up ownership of the land in 1849 and 1850. Dr. R. H. McDonald bought the land. He named the cemetary New Helvitia Cemetery. New Helvitia means New Switzerland. Sutter came from Switzerland.”

“So Dr. McDonald planted the trees?”

“Nobody seems to know. But we know that the trees on the school’s lawn at the corner of Alhambra and I are the oldest in town. McDonald could have had them officially planted, or someone who had a loved one buried there could have planted them.

“There was a lot going on. A nursery owner named James Warren was selling non-native trees to replace the natives that had been cut or burned down in town. Over at the graveyard beyond Sutter’s Fort, the guy who bought the land from McDonald in 1857, J.W. Reeves, made a beautiful cemetery with trees and shrubs and flowers. The cemetery went all the way to H Street.

“Cemeteries were a big thing in those days. According to Gary Wills, they were considered parks where the living could go and commune with the dead, themselves and nature. Cemeteries were on the edge of town not just for health reasons, but as a symbolic meaning that death is the end of one world and the beginning of another. At the edge of town in the graveyard, the living were in a spot between both worlds looking out to the wilderness, wondering where their loved ones were and what their own death would bring.

“In 1875 the City gained ownership of the cemetery. From then on it was maintained less and less. After 1912 hardly anyone was buried.

“In 1908, the people who had moved out that way wanted to increase the value of their property. They eventually got the cemetery planted in grass so it would look better, and not so much like a cemetery.”

“And of course the sycamores kept growing?” he asked.

“Of course,” I said. “I find it interesting that somethng intended to be sacred could become an eyesore and a nuisance in just thirty years.

“While the property owners wanted walls, shrubbery and trees removed from the graveyard, people in Midtown between B and H and 21st and 23rd started planting London Sycamores. That was around 1910.

“The London Sycamores look better than the California ones. They grow taller and fuller. Nevertheless, next time you’re backed up on Alhambra waiting for the light on H or J to change, look to the trunks of the big California Sycamores on the corner of the lawn at I Street. They are beautiful. If traffic’s slow enough, you can sit through a couple of lights and really get an appreciation for the trunks subltleties.”

“So in spite of development, sycamores still stand above everything like they were planted to do?”

“A lot of them have been cut for skyscrapers,” I replied. “Even where they’ve been allowed to remain, it’s hard to notice them because the buildings are real tall.

“There is an intriguing one on the southeast side of the Wells Fargo Building. It leans way out into the street. It breaks up the orderly row of trees and the rigidity of the two tall buildings. I noticed it when I was walking from the parking lot. Even though I was going to be late for my meeting, I decided to sit on one of the benches and look at the tree.

“It got me thinking about the present – what a great city we have. It got me thinking about the future – how important it is to keep our old sycamores so we can enjoy them, and how important it is to plant new ones so they will be tall when the old ones come down.”

Copyright © 2023 by David Vaszko


INTERVIEWER: You continue to be a critic of our cities landscapes. People don’t
mind your criticisms of architecture. But they think you are off base and
beyond respectability when you support graffiti artists. You insist that
graffiti has merit. Why are you vehement in your support of graffiti?

MAN: I think my critics and I agree that graffiti is terribly important. They will
chuckle and say yes it is terrible. Yet, graffiti is a response to our terrible
architecture. I am vehement in my support of it because it startles me every time
I see it. It is the contemporary world’s great American art form. We refuse to
acknowledge that. We are afraid to.

INTERVIEWER: But it makes most people, at least adults, angry and afraid.
They consider it vandalism. They think the graffiti artists are criminals.

MAN: I think most architecture is a crime. I think the power advertisers have is
a crime. I can see where people get mad. Nobody wants their house spray
painted. Most graffiti is along freeways or on ugly walls of abandoned
buildings or new ugly ones. That is the point. Freeways are ugly. Underpasses
are ugly. Most buildings are ugly. Billboards are ugly.

INTERVIEWER: People think graffiti is ugly.

MAN: The murals popular in the eighties and first half of the nineties were
masterpieces. I don’t consider them beautiful but they were dynamic,
something architecture isn’t. Advertising isn’t beautiful. The murals were not
ugly they were threatening, just like the words sprayed around town today

Think about how we are threatened by architecture and advertising.
Architecture is ugly. Most buildings feel terrible inside. Advertising
threatens us by making us feel we need more things and that we are not
good enough as we are.

People were angry and afraid because at work they were tight as a drum
and had to watch what they said. When they came out of work and saw
POW or TENSE written on a wall they were flabbergasted. They were
overpowered by the brightness and fluidity of the colors.

Imagine being in an office all day where your spirit is pulverized, then
coming out to see POW. You don’t want to be reminded that you’re
not bright and fluid like these colors, or to know that just one word
in an age of jabber can pack such a truthful wallop.

You know you don’t pack much of a punch at work. The rebellion
these kids have is something you haven’t had in a long time.

Imagine coming home on the bus looking out the window and
seeing TENSE. You do not want to be reminded how tense you
are, that there is nothing in your office to offset the tenseness
like there is the colors and sense of motion in that scary word.

Graffiti shows us the tension our cities need to be exciting
that does not exist in architecture and advertising. It’s good
people fear graffiti. What I don’t like is how they direct
their fear.

INTERVIEWER: You mean graffiti abatement squads?

MAN: Yes. That is the easiest thing to do. Get riled up and
denigrate the kids. Throw money into the anit-graffiti
task force.

INTERVIEWER: Well, doesn’t that build community?

MAN: No. Architecture, freeways, advertising destroy
community. Freeways divide neighborhoods. Skyscrapers
cast ugly uncomfortable shadows and make downtowns
tense without constructive tension. Advertising
encouraages people to be selfish. Selfishness is anti-

Under freeways is a great place for graffiti. For one,
what harm can it do? It does not do any harm. All that
dark area that is so oppressive becomes filled with a
more terrifying brightness. But the brightness is scary
because it challenges us to be bright and vociferous,
to say that something is wrong and that we will be
bright even though our society is in effect an anti-
brightness culture and seeks to destroy brightness.

If graffiti is the dregs of American art, which it
isn’t, it is an inspiration for free spirits. But if it is,
what better place for it than under our freeways. We
have cars polluting our air on the freeway, then the
scary art under the freeway.

We have the brightest respectable minds creating
machines that suffocate us with their waste as well
as roads that destroy cities and spirits, opposed by
the brightest unrespectable minds saying we will
transform your creations into something exciting,
alive and challenging. We will not die inside like
everybody else. That’s the whole poiont of
graffiti – not to die inside.

There isn’t a lot of graffiti on skyscrapers. It’s
usually on walls without interest, abandoned
buildings, ugly offices. I like to talk about walls
because so many ugly walls exist in cities. Stop
and think about it. Freeway walls, parking lot walls,
warehouse wall.

All these ugly walls that developers and owners
are too cheap to build with imagination or to plant
vines on. There are all these ugly abandoned
buildings that owners are too cheap to maintain or
too selfish not to tear down and replace with plants
that are easy to grow and maintain until the land is
lucrative enought to sell or build upon.

It amazes me people oppose the selfishness of developers
and their corruption, but get madder at kids for creating graffiti-
which is a pro-active way to criticize ugly architecture and the
intent of our leaders to make money at the expense of a potentially
inviting city. I can see where people don’t like it. But getting rid of it
isn’t going to get rid of the ugly walls and architecure or billboards.

People don’t see that the kids are attempting to bring vitality to our
cities. It is not loud like traffic or gardening equipment. It doesn’t ask
you to buy anything like billboards. It fills in all the open space on
our ugly walls like developers fill in all our cities open space with
ugly and stifling buildings.

Another thing people do not see is that graffiti gets people’s minds
off all the commercial ugliness, which it’s supposed to do.
Developers like that. It gives them and the public something to
hate in common, whereas the graffiti guys and the public should
be allies. I remember a stretch of wall across from a business
along the railroad tracks. Whenever I would cross the tracks I’d
walk along the wall and look at the intensity. That was at the time
graffiti abatement began.

Then I crossed the track one day and the graffiti was gone. The
place looked sterile. It was ugly. An ugly blank wall across from
an ugly building divided by the ugly railroad track. There was
no alternative. There was no longer a reminder of what cities
need or could be. Worse than that, there wasn’t even a
respectable mural or an officially unimaginative mural
sponsored by the arts commission that would at least put
color into the wall.

They could have put up a black and white reproduction of the
old freight trains or painted a mural of a steam engine with
smoke coming out and the wheels cranking. They could have
painted roses on it for the Amtrak passengers to marvel at or
planted trumpet vine on the wall so the wall would be a riot
of color for five months.

What they did was make sure the kids couldn’t have it. That’s
a very selfish thing. So what these graffiti abatement efforts
do is get people pumped up. “We got those kids.” Or, “We’ll
get those kids.” If people really wanted to build a community
they could do something more challenging.

They could demand that business owners take down a-frame
signs and signs that project from the building over the
sidewalk. People could demand that new walls be installed
with murals so the kids wouldn’t have anything to cover.
People could say that all walls must be planted with a vine so
there is a nice feel to the wall. Or people could be imaginative
and tell the city, “If you don’t make government walls nice and
if you don’t require developers to make nice walls, we’re going
to paint our own murals and God help you if you abate our stuff.”

But fighting the powers-that-be is difficult. It is so difficult that
a community could really be constructed because of the
dedication, need and trust people would establish together and
the eventual awareness that the worst people are our leaders,
not the arrogant graffiti artists.

There are worse problems than graffiti though. The signs I
mentioned. Cars always parked on the street. Leaf blowers. Dogs
barking all day and all night.

The graffiti abatement effort is comical when you think about
it. I walked down a busy street where a guy was painting over

He was in his thirties, bicycling the neighborhood with
a can of silver spray paint. He had an unpleasant expression.
I saw him covering over the chicken scrawl, which I don’t
like, on one of those big silver signal boxes on the sidewalk.

Now those are pretty ugly. Across the sidewalk from the silver
box is a parking lot. Next to the parking lot is a typical
laundrymat. The laundrymat has another parking lot with no
trees. Next to the parking lot is a car wash. Next to the car
wash is a McDonald’s. That isn’t all. The street was being torn
up for the light rail project.

Next to the electrical box was a pile of dirt. There were
flatbeds all over. The green lawn that had been part of the
street divider was uprooted and yellow. There are the two ugly
drop bars from the railroad divider. Across the railroad tracks
is an ugly dry cleaners. Above the dry cleaners is a billboard.
It amazes me how blind people are and how desperate for
meaning people are. Nothing’s easier than being part of a
graffiti abatement squad.

INTERVIEWER: Did you say anything?

MAN: No.


MAN: If we had fought he would have won. I would have
loved to say something, but I wouldn”t have been able to
stay calm. Even if I was able to stay calm, he probably
would have been offended. You’re right. If I can stay calm
I should tell people, especially if they are as blind and
angry as that guy.

INTERVIEWER: But why are those things you mentioned
worse than graffiti?

MAN: Store signs on the street block a clear view of
things. Just think how much better cities would look if signs
extending from buildings were removed.

Cars parked on the street all day and all night take away
from the attractiveness of nice houses and trees. Cars parked
on the street all night invite thieves. Think how much crime
would go down if people parked cars in a garage. Not only
would the theft of cars decrease, the police would have a
clearer view of the street so muggers and burglars couldn’t
hide as easily or park a gettaway car as easily.

Leaf blowers are bad for our mental health. It’s a sign of
our psychic numbness and lack of political courage that
graffiti is hated but people say that, “You can’t let a litle
noise bother you. Noise is everywhere.” When I say
“You can’t let the ugly graffiti bother you. It isn’t as ugly
as parking lots, billboards, store signs, strip malls,
freeways, telephone poles, street lamps and hundreds of
miles of ugly walls and acres and acres of ugly ware-
houses,” people are very offended.

Like I said, people hate graffiti because it is rebellious.
People tolerate leaf blowers because they don’t think
it’s that bad. I do. Think of all the people who’ve been
awakened by leaf blowers, how mad they get. Think of
all the people who are sitting in their back yard enjoying
their peace, only to be disrupted by a leaf blower. Think
of somebody who comes home mad, then when the leaf
blower comes on curses, “I can’t even relax when I am
not at work.”

Think of the woman having a bad day taking care of
her kids who screams at them to shut up as soon as
the leaf blower starts. Graffiti is a drop in the bucket
compared to leaf blowers. Leaf blowers destroy your
mental health. Graffit can bring it back, if you’ve got
the courage.

Barking dogs are even worse than leaf blowers. Talk
about community. If all the neighbors who had dogs
kept them quiet when a neighbor complained, there
would be no problem with barking dogs.

If people with pets told their neighbor “If the dog
barks when I’m gone, let me know,” there would be
no barking dog problem. People lose tremendous
amounts of sleep over barking dogs. It lowers their
resistance to disease. It causes them to have driving
accidents, to do poorly at work. It increases marital

INTERVIEWER: We’ve been talking about
neighorhood groups and graffiti abatement. We’re
talking about politics. What you are talking about
are people without a voice attempting to be heard.

MAN: Yes. It amazes me that all the groups fighting
for the rights of minorities and the right for free
expression do not come to the rescue of graffiti
artists. All the arts groups trying to make art part of
the community are silent when it come to graffiti.

Look at what graffiti does. It gives kids something
to do they are passionate about. It covers up ugly
buildings that are a blight on the city and the

Arts commissions say nothing to oppose graffiti
abatement. They are too stupid or too afraid to
realize and say we’ve had great public art since
1983. It did not cost the city anything. Now the
city is spending money on graffiti removal that
could be used for something else.

These bureaucratic cowards will not admit that these
graffiti artists are the visionaries and rebels. These
kids have the talent and the daring. These unkown
souls make a mark with their art, and inspire me more
than most famous contemporary artists.

I keep waiting for a city or museum or college to have
a Graffiti Appreciation week or month. The title could
be Living Your Truth as an Artist, Creating Dynamic
Cities, Questioning the Staus Quo. All these topics are
characteristics artists and arts groups claim to have and
value, but they won’t support their graffiti brothers.

It’s interesting that you got me talking about politics.
Here in America we’re supposed to be a democracy.
Economists and republicans refer to a democracy as a
‘trickle down’ system.

Yet in this democracy we do not want graffiti artists to
have even a trickle of a voice. Their free speech is too

People say but it’s private property, that no one should
mark it. Well, nobody should build ugly buildings.
Freeways are public. If they are ugly they need to be
marked as ugly. It’s a great play on tagger. They tag
these walls as ugly.

I might not be able to convince people about the
greatness of graffiti, but I might be able to convince
them of the power of ugly buildings to make you feel
lousy. I lived in a neighborhood with a lot of Queen
Anne homes and Craftsman homes. There were also
a lot of cheap stucco apartments and office buildings
with no character.

Whenever I did not feel well as I walked home, I
felt worse on a street with all stucco apartments
from the nineteen sixties. Then when I got to a
street with a lot of old wooden homes, I felt better.
Now think of when you’re in a good mood. You
walk by the ugly buildings fast and confidently,
then you oooh and ahhh and smell the roses when
you get to the street with wooden houses.

Suppose you had to spend a year in jail and you had
two choices – a blank wall or a wall with graffiti
from 1987. What would you take? You’d take the
wall with graffiti if for no other reason than the
color would make things less bad.

I think we are in jail psychically and spiritually, but
we are afraid to admit that graffiti brings our city to
life and challenges us to think how ugly our cities
are and how ugly we feel. So we don’t want someone
to have a freedom we don’t have.

If we were adults, if we were mature, we would tell
the kids “Go ahead and spray these ugly walls. Our
leaders built these ugly cities for you to grow up in.
We adults by our silence gave our approval. You
deserve a chance to free your spirit and make our
cities dynamic.”

So it is not democracy because a group with some-
thing to say isn’t allowed to have power. There is
no example of trickle down here. Bsinessmen get
to build buildings that are ugly to look at and
creepy to be in, not to mention all the money they
make. The graffiti artists who work for free beaut-
ifying our cities have their work painted over and
receive fines and jail time. They are not allowed
to have a trickling of influence.

INTERVIEWER: But their influence was
tremendous. That’s why it was opposed so

MAN: I already explained that it was opposed
because graffiti artiists are an easy group to rebel
against while developers and advertisers are
difficult to rebel against. Nobody is going to
rebel against the way they feel when they are in
their ugly office without a window or good light
or ventilation.

They fear losing their job and being laughed at by the
people they work with. If they rebel against advertising
they will be labeled unamerician or socialistic.

Graffiti’s lack of influence is shown by the fact it is a
movement that can’t punish those who oppose it, nor
defend itself. People’s choice to oppose graffiti to feel
empowered is power used to fight the powerless.

INTERVIEWER: But parents fear the influence graffiti
has over children. Parents do not want their children be-
coming vandals or joining gangs.

MAN: There would be few gangs if our society did not
place money as its most important value. Most poor kids
wouldn’t join gangs if they had money and opportunity.
Middle class kids wouldn’t join gangs if they were not
bored by the emphasis on money and the boring ugly
world it creates. That doesn’t mean the kids oppose money.

Parents think graffiti is vandalism. I don’t. I think tearing
out a row of Victorians for a parking lot is vandalism. I
think removing a mile of houses to build a freeway is

There is vandalism in the destruction and the new ugly creations.
Graffiti is not destroying anything. It’s covering what is ugly and
creating something better.

It’s odd that nobody would mind their kid being a developer who
builds ugly despiriting buildings. Nobody would mind if their kid
became an advertising executive who created the best ads
encouraging people who can’t afford to spend to spend. Nobody
would mind if their kid became a military recruiter at the high
school. Imagine an adult encouraging a sixteen year old to be a

INTERVIEWER: But all of these things provide an income and
are legal.

MAN: Then that is okay if a parent says don’t be a graffiti artist
because you won’t get anywhere. Most people who try to become
land developers fail. The same with advertising. People join the
military because there are few options. When they leave the
military they do not get great jobs.

People make a moral issue out of graffiti. I make a moral issue out
of architecture, city planning, advertising and the military.

Even when I hated graffiti, I did not hate it as much as architecture
or advertising. I knew developers would never build buildings I
feel good in or like to look at. Their feeling is, “I’m not responsible
for your mental or spiritual health.”

I know advertisers intend to make me feel inadequate and to
create needs and fantasies I never had that I have to pay for and
work longer in a horrible building to pay for. Advertisers say
“We’re not forcing you to buy anything.” That is a lie. They are
ramming consumerism down our throats so we think consuming
is natural.

What adults don’t realize is making people depressed or feel they
aren’t good enough is immoral. Developers and advertisers are
immoral. They influence everybody constantly.

What graffiti artists are saying is “Wake up!” You could look at
it another way if you ae concerned about children. You can call
graffiti a response to child abuse. I say response rather than

Reaction is mainly destruction – like breaking windows. In fact,
if the kids who sprayed graffiti murals broke windows, all the
adults would be relieved. The reaason the adults would be
relieved is because they could call the kids stupid for not
appreciating what they have here in America.

Graffiti artists aren’t stupid. That is why they threaten adults.
Yet graffiti artists don’t have the backing to create some-
thing as powerful as miles and miles of ugly walls, suburbs
and office buildings, or billions of dollars of advertising.

So these graffiti artists are responding to child abuse
creatively, arrogantly, and with as much planning as their
risky job allows. Yet their arrogance and creativity is no
comparison to the arrogance and lack of creativity of
developers or the arrogance and socially destructive
creativity of advertisers, or the arrogance of recruiters to
con teenagers. Talk about child abuse.

Graffiti artists are saying “We are concerned about your
spiritual and mental health. If you fear us. Wake up. Our
cities are incredibly ugly. If you are inspired by us to sing
your own song, we are proud to help you keep going or
get started.

Not only are they responding to the child abuse against
them, they are an example of doing something about a
problem you do not like. Think about it. If a group of
minors went to City Hall or the Chamber of Commerce
and said we oppose pornography; cigarettes; drugs; alcohol;
gangs and rap music, the members of the council would be
proud of our kids.

The headline the next morning would show the kids
representative shaking hands with the mayor while all the
City Council members smiled. The weekly business paper
would have the lead editorial praising our young people.
The monthly business magazine would run a piece talking
about the huge asset our very fine young people are to the
future of our city’s economy.

But if a group of minors went to the City Council and
the Chamber of Commerce and said our architecture needs
to be torn down because it depresses them, that a great
way to deal with depression for people of all ages is to
change our architecture; that we young people fear
advertising is making us greedy and selfish like land
developers, that we do not want to spend the rest of our
lives being deceived, greedy, selfish, and we don’t want
to deceive our kids either, so advertising needs to be
banned; that we think it is an outrge for the military to
be on campus without showing us footage of war and
boot camps, the kids would be considered a threat.

They would not be praised for participating in
democracy. They would not be admired for having
youthful courage or daring. They would not be
praised for speaking up for what they believe in. They
would not be praised for trying to correct injustices.
They would not be praised for fighting for freedom.


MAN: Yes. They would receive no media coverage.
If they said that graffiti murals are a saving act in a
selfish society, every young person at the meeting
would have his photograph taken off the film of the
meeting and sent to the Gang and Graffiti Depart-
ment of the police.

Another way to look at it is if the ugly walls on
freeways and the ugly warehouses and empty
buildings were not marked up by graffiti, then
our society would be silently saying we approve.
Graffiti shows that somebody is not duped, that
somebody is trying to be healthy.

Graffiti artists are implying they will make
themselves healthy and will challenge the rest
of us to make ourselves healthy. They are saying
“We don’t care if you like it. You need to get

Land developers build their horrible buildings
without concern abouot people’s health or feelings.
Graffiti artists are following the example of our
best and brightest.

INTERVIEWER: But there is no money in it. It
is also dangerous.

MAN: That isn’t how I look at it. These guys are
young. Obviously they will lose interest in art in
order to go to work, or they will lose interest in
graffiti and pursue commercial art. Maybe they
will work and keep doing graffiti.

If you are talking about discipline and motivation,
they have plenty of that. They have more discipline
and motivation than most people.

What is wrong with graffiti is that it requires a lot
of imagination and passion. Most jobs don’t have
that. Another problem is that there is no money in
it. Graffiti artists are proud of working for free
and being anonymous. If they told their parents,
“Okay, I will become a rock star and make all
that money,” their parents would be disgusted.
The kids can’t win.

It is especially important to live your love,
truth and passion now that there is no job security.
If a graffiti artist said he’ll go to work for a
graphics company, he could be fired for
harassment or in a merger.

We want people to conform but we offer them
no guarantee for their conformity. So somebody
gives up their truth to play somebody else’s
game. He loses self-respect because he sold out,
then got fired. The people who encouragd him to
stop singing his song to sing karaoke like them
won’t have anything to do with him. They’ll say
don’t blame them.

Passion is what graffiti is about. It’s a contemp-
orary form of passion. But let me go back to there
being no money in it.

We all know jobs become less secure. We know
the rich get richer. I remember reading a history of
Mexico. The author said in Mexico people make
everything they touch beautiful. They are artists.

That’s how I perceive graffiti. It makes our cities
lively, giving people something to do, allowing
people to be expressive. We don’t want people
being passionate or expressive when they are working.
We don’t want people who are unemployed marking
up the ugly walls of our cities. These guys are bringing
enrichment to their lives. Work doesn’t do that.

People say to artists generally, what will you do when
you are older? They also say start good habits when you
are young. I think responding to an ugly world when
you are young is a great habit to develop.

When graffiti artists work in an office they can paint
flowers on the ugly white wall. If they live in a neigh-
borhood that has billboards, they can plant vines on the
billboards to take away from the ugliness.

If they are successful they can donate money for public
restrooms, drinking fountains and benches so people
can rest.

INTERVIEWER: And look at the ugly buildings you do
not like.

MAN: You got me there. But what will they do when
when they are old? Most people are broke. What will
the people who hate their jobs do when they are
older? They will feel they worked so hard and have
little money.

We should be telling kids to take advantage of their
youth, to rebel while they can. One can say if they
pursue art and rebellion the kids won’t be able to
work in the everyday world, but that doesn’t mean
they won’t go nuts if they do not rebel.

Graffiti or any rebellious art will force one to deal
with the world as best he can as he gets older, to
face himself when he realizes the world is getting
worse but he has no money to live on to avoid
working or avoid living in the street. He’ll either
accept himself or the world, or he’ll figure out
how to make a living. If he ever gets a good job
he can relish his success.

INTERVIEWER: Or he can know he sold out.

MAN: True. But at least he took advantage of his
youth. We haven’t talked about the danger yet. If
a kid’s in a gang he could get shot painting over
someone’s graffiti. A kid could trip over some-
thing in the dark. He could get shot for
trespassing. He could go to jail or get fined.

Kids have always lived dangerously. Look at
all the boys who ruined their legs playing foot-
ball. All the suicides today. All the drunk driving
accidents. All the shotgun marriages. Aids. Drug
addiction, The military. At least graffiti is

It is also defiant. A lot of people think pop
music is defiant, but it isn’t because the musicians
are mainly interested in the money. Any difiance
is offset by the money the company makes.

Defiance is all right if it contributes to the
economy. Think of how much rap has contributed
to the economy. How much money stockholders
in the recording industry, stereo industry and
fashion industry make from rap.

Graffiti is a threat because it says “Just say no”
to conformity. Just Say No would look great on
a wall.

Graffiti is a threat because it does not contribute to
the economy, although I’m sure paint sales have
gone up. Graffiti artists are a threat because they
know making money is not the most important
thing. I think that is a great philosophy for a
young person to have. You don’t hear that from
an adult. Everyone wants their kid to be number

We’re in a quandry as a society. We always
praise the entrepreneur who takes a risk. We
risk our sanity getting a PHD or being an
executive. We risk being broke the rest of our
life when we work a low end job. All of those
risks are all right because they are part of the

A graffiti artist takes a risk of sooner or later
realizing he has all this talent he isn’t getting
paid for, that he can’t take photographs of his
work to use on a resume. In an age which
prides itself on choice, his choice doesn’t
count because he chooses to sing his own

We don”t want kids singing their own song.
That’s the adult way of saying we aren’t
willing to listen, that we can’t possibly be
wrong, that someone young and dumb can’t
possibly be more talented than us, that some-
one young and dumb cannot see what’s
wrong with society.

I remember an accomplished working adult
artist saying graffiti artists are talented but
they need to go on to more serious stuff.
What she meant was they should stop doing
graffiti and become another Rembrandt or
Vermeer or Michelangelo or Da Vinci. She
missed the points of graffiti though, and
makes me wonder if she sees their vision and
conviction as much as their talent.

Apparently she doesn’t see very much. It’s a
juvenile art form in a juvenile culture created
by juveniles criticizing our ugly cities that
are created by juvenile politicians, bankers
and developers.

These seventeen year olds are visionaries –
not marketers, advertisers, retailers. Even
though it’s a youthful art form, it is serious
stuff. They aren’t messing around. They are
as determined to be heard as developers are
to be heard, get rich and have power.

People take graffiti artists seriously and
would kill them if we could. It might come
to that as our country becomes more fearful
of terrorists and considers anyone who does
not comform a threat.

The woman I’m talking about can’t expect
someone to be another Rembrandt. What
she doesn’t understand is there are no
mentors doing adult stuff, like religious
or mystical art, for the kids to move on to.

If the kids are going to move on to art
that reflects their experiences as they get
older, they will have to create it without
help from the previous generation. Any
great spiritual or mysticial or poetic or
healing art won’t happen, and even if it did,
it would probably not be accepted because
people can’t take the time to think or feel.

Whenever people try to get kids to direct
their artistic talent away from graffiti, they are
telling the kids not to think or feel, that what
the kids are thinking and feeling when they do
graffiti is wrong.

That would be all right if the jobs we got paid
well and made us trust one another, but they
do not pay well and make us suspicious and
envious of one another. When adults try to
get kids on the right track by getting them
away form graffiti, the adults are saying don’t
trust yourself, trust us. Graffiti artists are saying
“We put our trust in adults but adults abused it.
We are going to sabotage the stifling adult

Whenever I pass a high school I observe the
murals the kids painted under the supervision
of the art instructors. If any paintings need the
graffiti abatement squad, these are it. There is
no passion, no daring, no intensity, conviction
or meaning.

INTERVIEWER: A lot of people feel that way
about our educational system.

MAN: They are right. Graffiti art is serious art.
By encouraging kids to do safe uncontroversial
art that doesn’t offend adults, adults are saying
don’t take school seriously. Go along to get
along. The message is do not take your passion


MAN: And this is what school is all about –
teaching people for the working world, more
as social conditioning than skill learning.

INTERVIEWER: What do you want schools to do?

MAN: I expect them to tell about the dangers of
advertising. After they tell the students that graffiti
is disrespectful and a crime against property, and
that graffiti could be gang related, they need to say
that advertising is even more disrespectful because
it tells you to be something you are not and buy
things that you can’t afford and go into debt for.

Schools need to say that companies spend billions
of dollars researching with the help of psychologists
to separate people from their money. They need to
tell the students that it is interesting that schools
cannot afford psychologists to help kids stay or
become healthy, but companies and advertisers
use psychologists to find out what will make
people be afraid and selfish.

If schools are not going to criticize advertising,
they shouldn’t criticize graffiti. Schools should
admit that graffiti is a form of rebellion and the
rebellion is understandable.

What needs to be told to the kids is that there
is validity in rebellion. Are you man enough to
pay the price? After you are twenty-one and
you’ve expressed all that you can with graffiti,
will you become a land developer and make
attractive cities? Will you become an official who
pushes a law that all additions and improvements
to one’s property can be deducted from your
adjusted gross income? Will you volunteer to
plant stuff in your neighborhood. Will you fight
for strict building codes? Will you pay the fines of
young graffiti artists? Will you fight to get rid of
graffiti abatement squads?

INTERVIEWER: But can schools come out and
say continue to do graffiti until adults get the

MAN: Schools are not respected.
Schools should say to city councils and
chambers of commerce that “You guys build ugly
cities. You can’t criticize kids for spray painting
them. You guys never stop whining or manipulating.
Who are you to blame the kids? Hire these kids as
part of your art in public places crew.”

INTERVIEWER: But is this realistic?

MAN: If you mean is this going to happen? No. Is it
realistic? Criticizing the powers that be is certainly

Schools should do that and explain to parents who don’t
like graffiti that the kids are only mimicking the bad
taste of developers and the aggressiveness of advertisers.
What would cause a problem is hiring graffiti artists to
work for someone else. Most of them could not adapt to
following someone else’s rules.

Schools wouldn’t get the respect of the public, but they
would get a lot of the kids’ respect. I do not mean
popularity, because the kids know the principal or board
would be taking a terrible risk. There are other things
the schools could say.


MAN: They could talk about the creativity and imagination
that the kids put into the work. “We should be proud of our
students for their imagination and their refusal to accept
our ugly adult world. Our developers, architects and city
planners should be ashamed of themselves.”

INTERVIEWER: Isn’t this too sophisticated for kids and

MAN: Probably. But so is globalization. It is probably
harder and takes more sophistication for adults to see my
arguments than for kids to hear an economics instructor
explain it is better for the economy if business is financed
by many sources rather than just banks. Why have all our
economy’s lending money in one basket? That’s easier for
kids to understand than adults understanding my claims
that graffiti is a reaction to our ugly cities and is no more
selfish than what land developers do.

Even if it is too sophisticated for kids, kids need to be
told how ugly our cities are and what a con and how
selfish advertisers are. I’m aware some kids won’t under-
stand how ugly their world is, but others know it and need
to have it affirmed.

Maybe they will be inspired to change the world in their
constructive way like graffiti artists change the world in a
constructive way. When some students get older and try
to figure out what is wrong with their life, they might re-
call their high school teacher who told them the world is
ugly. The former student will realize that a lot of what is
wrong with him is not his fault, that part of his angst is a
battle against ugliness.

Since kids love to shop so much, they will have the
hardest time with accepting the dangers of advertising.
After all, ads are sexy and the music is great. But they
need to hear it. Kids need to have adults tell them that
certain things are bad.

INTERVIEWER: But what about kids who don’t like

MAN: That’s fine. But they need to hear that if you
think homeboys or graffiti artists are con-artists, the
adults with political power are much worse.

INTERVIEWER: Any more thoughts?

MAN: I don’t want to end with us talking about the kids
who don’t like graffiti.They are not going to be treated
any better at work because they oppose it. Graffiti is
about freedom and having a voice.

INTERVIEWER; What is more important: to have cities
that make us feel good or have ugly cities where graffiti
is tolerated?

MAN: Having cities where people feel good. Part of feeling
good in a city is safety. Even if crime ended tomorrow, our
cities are still too ugly to circulate in. Our cities would still
make us feel uncomfortable with one another, if not
fearful of one another.

If we had attractive cities and no crime, we would feel
great in them. We would be able to cultivate metaphysical
freedom in a city with little crime and with a sense of
beauty. Of course if we did not have political freedom to
circulate and sit around, a crime free and beautiful city
might make us feel worse than a city with crime and

INTERVIEWER: When you say metaphysical do you
mean God?

MAN: Yes. Graffiti sends a message that our cities have
gone to hell. It’s telling people to be bright like God, to
be fluid like a god, to face their cowardice at work like a

INTERVIEWER: That isn’t going to happen.

MAN: So I will continue to praise graffiti and challenge
people to face their fear.

INTERVIEWER: You are an inspiration for us.

MAN: Good.

Copyright © 2023 by David Vaszko

Mt. Davidson

People wonder why I like Mt. Davidson, since I do not attend church.

San Francisco is about God: inspiring vistas, great churches, mystical

light, dreamy fog. It is natural to put a symbol of faith on a hill.

Mt. Davidson is a challenge for us to rise above ourselves. The

bridges are beautiful, but they are not intended to make us revere

God. Sutro Tower is imposing, but it does not represent God or

connecting with others. It symbolizes isolation, ugliness,


The cross on Mt. Davidson is not beautiful. From a distance

it is impressive. It is cumbersome up close, especially in fog.

If feels and looks ugly. There is not a sense of God’s

gracefulness and warmth.

Those who constructed the cross were not showing their

love for God, but imposing their ideal of God from afar.

They succeeded. The cross inpires me when I lust and

wonder over the hills and ocean.

The cross is not about commerce or commercial

communication. As we communicate more poorly

personally, the cross can inspire us to communicate with

God in our loneliness, to thank Him for the beauty of our

city and ask Him for courage to make our city a city of

beautiful, trusting, curious, spontaneous people.

The cross was raised to stand out from a distance. The

intention is similar to skyscrapers, which were

constructed to look good in a photograph, but were also

intentionally constructed to be ugly up close and feel

lousy to work in.

There is one Mt. Davidson, but many tall buildings.

We must ask ourselves if we want to keep distant

from each other as we do everything we can to make

a good impression on each other. If we don’t, we can

be inspired by the cross standing alone in the wind

and fog. Can we stand tall with our arms

outstretched as we are at a crossroads of our life?

Can we spread our arms, surrender ourselves to God,

accept who we are and who everyone else is?

Christianity was established to deal with the

isolation of a commercial and military world. Our

city embraces business. Our country embraces the

military. We need imagination and faith to admit we

need this cross as the world becomes more chaotic,

as our civilization faces a crossroad, as we realize

we live in a police state, as our jobs are not secure

and we will stand at a crossroad several times.

Business will create more isolation and

heartbreak. The military and police will be more


In the sleepy murky mystical avenues is the

cross that boldly says God can save us. Let us

thank God for Mt. Davidson and the religious

imagination. Let us rise from our fog,

dazzling and tremendous as the sun.

Copyright © 2023 by David Vaszko