Graf legend

Pub date November 28, 2007
WriterBilly Jam
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

On Aug. 15, on what would have been the late Mike "DREAM" Francisco’s 38th birthday, his old-school graffiti pal SPIE ONE honored his slain partner in the best way he knew how: by creating new street art, on 24th Street between Capp and Lilac in the Mission.

But it’s not just on anniversaries when SPIE thinks about DREAM, the widely respected Bay Area graffiti artist who was gunned down in the East Bay in 2000. "I think about DREAM every day. A lot of us do. It keeps me going sometimes. He was a positive spirit," SPIE said in mid-November. "And it’s pretty amazing how DREAM’s legacy just keeps growing. He has become this really important figure to a lot of youths out here who may never have even met him." That influence will inevitably grow with the publication of a comprehensive book on DREAM that SPIE and others are working on meticulously.

Like DREAM, SPIE is an integral figure in the history of Bay Area graffiti. Born and raised in San Francisco’s Excelsior–Outer Mission District, SPIE remembers the birth of graf in the city. "The graffiti really took off around ’84 in San Francisco," he recalled. That same year he started bombing, first as a solo artist and later with the crews KKW and ACT, which he joined while attending McAteer High School. "McAteer was very unique because a lot of different kids from different neighborhoods all seemed to gravitate there … from the avenues, Hunters Point," he said of the Diamond District school whose courtyard was used as a "writer’s bench." "Some kids would cut school from Lincoln or Washington and cut up there, meeting in the afternoon. We didn’t have a big fence around the school, so it was very loose to come on and off the campus." Others unexpectedly showed up too. "We knew a lot of folks that would find easy ways to escape Juvenile Hall across the street, and they’d be chilling too at the writer’s bench in their county orange, their sandals ready to run through Glen Park Canyon," SPIE said, laughing.

In 1987, when writers from all over the Bay Area converged on the Powell Street BART station for an informal graffiti meeting, SPIE first met Alameda artist DREAM, who’d already been tagging under various names for a few years. "In the book will be one of the first DREAM sketches that he ever did. It was on his court papers," SPIE said. "He just got caught when he was like 16 years old, and he was sitting in court and did a DREAM piece on the court paper!" In the two decades since that meeting, the laws against graffiti have gotten much tougher, and many youths have been tried as adults. "With just over $400 worth of damage, a kid could be arrested and prosecuted as a felon," SPIE said.

Consequently, for writers like SPIE, who requested anonymity for this story, the stakes are high when they do illegal street art. It’s a lot less stressful for him to do legit pieces like the recent city of San Francisco–sponsored mural on 24th Street between Capp and Lilac, which he did with Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth. The bright, block-long collaborative painting — which includes art by Nancy Pili, Marina Prez-Wong, and Mike Trigger — is, like much of SPIE’s work, politically charged. "Overall, it is about solidarity between communities of color and oppressed people … and a commentary on fences and borders around the world, including the Mexican-American border," SPIE explained. "The fence that goes around the parking lot gave us the basis for this theme about fences, walls, and prisons…. It’s like the gating and jailing of a community."

It’s a timely work, appearing at a moment when San Francisco and its developers seem intent on erasing its underground-art past. "They buffed everything out at China Basin and a lot of other places in the city," SPIE said, concerned about the forces that are "pushing the public artists into the far reaches of the city."

For more information on SPIE, DREAM, and the forthcoming book, go to