The artists didn't notice the older man watching them, not at first.
Murals are public art pieces interweaving community, culture, and art together into intricate tapestries. The pieces take a lot of time, and attention to detail, to put together. Particularly the ones found in a city with as rich a scene as Oakland. According to the website of Visit Oakland, the city has more than 1,000 murals.
On that day, the artists' attention was focused on putting together their mural. But after a while, one of them sensed the man's gaze, and turned around.
The man was used to traversing the city unseen — despite possessing an imposing stature, a large stomach, and a penchant for quirky hats. Invisibility is an advantage in his line of work. He typically went through his days efficiently, especially if he was out on the job. But he liked murals, and always took note when one was going up. Which is why he remembers stopping at this one and observing the artists' progress, roughly about eight years ago.
He wasn't too surprised when one of the artists eventually noticed him. But that changed quickly when the artist began laughing. The man's mild surprise turned to shock when the artist levied a question at him.
"Don't you know?" the artist called, merrily. "We call you Erase."
The name stuck. From that day on, the man started introducing himself as Erase.
Oakland's 311 maintenance service received about 3,700 graffiti-related service requests in 2019, up from about 2,800 the previous year. Graffiti can be reported to the city by calling a number, sending an email, filing a report online, or downloading a mobile application from Oakland's Public Works department. And the man known as Erase is one of only a few people tasked with stemming the tide of graffiti in the city's public areas.
For 30 years, Erase has been employed by Oakland as a "buffer," someone tasked with removing or painting over graffiti. He works eight hours a day, five days a week, cleaning up graffiti that inevitably appears on the walls of libraries, community centers, and in parks. He prefers to go by his street moniker, due to unique job-related privacy concerns. Most of his interactions with taggers have been positive, but he still goes out every day and paints over people's work, some of whom might not be happy about that.
Martin Tovar, a construction and maintenance supervisor for the city's public works facility services, gives Erase his assignments every day, an average of six to 11 tickets. His team is responsible for all of the city's facilities — fire stations, police stations, rec centers, libraries, certain park areas. There's another graffiti abatement team, part of the Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful division, three painters who cover city streets, sidewalks, and roads.
Tovar has worked for the city for about 15 years, been a supervisor for the past couple of years, and worked with Erase for about six years. At its peak, he said, his team used to employ seven painters. Today, due to budget cuts following the Great Recession from which it never recovered, his team consists solely of Erase.
"He has immersed himself in it," Tovar said. "Me, I just look at it like another day at work. He will actually come into work on his days off, Saturdays and Sundays, and he's literally going to war with a lot of these people."
"He knows a lot of the guys out there by name," Tovar said. "And even though they don't sign it, he knows who the person is. And they know who he is."
Erase believes graffiti is an addiction, a compulsion. "The heart of this stuff is come up with a word and write it over and over," Erase said. "In a year's time, if somebody is a serial tagger, they're doing a hundred, or even more than a hundred images throughout the city."
But the compulsion goes both ways. Over the years, his job has turned into less of a chore, and more of a personal passion, even an obsession. Now, he says, the only time where he isn't thinking about graffiti is when he's sleeping.
Erase was born in Oakland in 1952, in the Allendale district, between Fruitvale and Laurel. "I tell a lot of people I know I remember when the '57 Chevy was a brand-new car," he says with a chuckle.
Tall and thickly built, his dominating physical presence is offset by a delicate pair of spectacles that rest on the end of his nose and a jovial manner. In a raspy voice, he speaks in long streams of consciousness, linking one thought to another in lengthy tangents whenever asked a question, and will laugh sometimes when he catches himself midstream. His shoes and hands — which he folds frequently over his midsection — are often covered in flecks of paint.
Growing up, he wasn't really interested in art, but he liked learning about Vincent Van Gogh in school. Later, he grew interested in Jackson Pollock and Salvador Dali. "I've always liked abstract work," he says. "And a lot of graffiti to me looks abstract."
He wound up becoming a painter after graduating, doing small jobs on people's houses while experimenting in music and self-described "weird" performance art under the show name DD Downer. During shows he would improvise music and sometimes scream onstage. "If I needed money, I would just go paint a house," he says. "It was no big deal, I bought groceries and stuff, that's all I needed. I paid rent. I had no big dream to own property or anything."