When the City of Oakland laid off eighty of its police officers in July — leaving the city among the most under-policed of its size nationwide — nobody quite knew what this would mean for the city's crime rate. While recent statistics have shown that violent crime is down this year, those involved with the local graffiti scene say the layoffs have made Oakland, always a popular destination for would-be graffiti writers, even more attractive.
According to members of the local graffiti community, whose names have been changed herein, Oakland's thriving above-ground art scene, coupled with a populace that may be more appreciative of street art than most, has always made the city something of a destination for painters from all over the Bay Area. Kyle, who's originally from Walnut Creek but recently moved to Oakland specifically for its graffiti scene, said that even before the layoffs, kids he knew from the suburbs would routinely show up at popular walls in Oakland. "It's like, if you're an aspiring actress, you're going to go to Hollywood," he said. "And if you're an aspiring bomber, you're going to come to Oakland. Everyone knows you're never going to get acknowledged writing in Concord all day."
But now that the city's cops are stretched thinner than ever before, those in the community say the perception — real or imagined — that Oakland's now a safer place to break the law has made the city much more popular for those who want to engage in illegal art without getting caught. "I've definitely seen the migration from those areas east of the tunnel," Kyle said. "It's just a reality that Oakland's a safer place to paint now."
The resultant irony is that Oakland's scene is now dominated largely by people from outside the city. "The current Oakland heads — the main people — aren't from Oakland," Kyle said. What critics of the cop layoff worried would make the city less hospitable to business and tourism and less safe for citizens is having the opposite effect on illegal artists.
Sam, who lives in the Oakland hills, said he's met people who travel from as far away as Sacramento, the Central Valley, and the Peninsula to paint, and that he and his friends have been doing graffiti both more frequently and more brazenly than they did before, simply because they feel the risk is low. "There's definitely this idea, like, 'there are less cops, that means we can paint more,'" he said. "It's actually nice being able to calm down a little and worry less about the cops, because they're out solving more important crimes."
And Steven, who lives in San Francisco but routinely comes across the bay to paint, said the combination of the cop layoffs and the already-robust scene has resulted in an "explosion" of illegal art, particularly in Oakland's industrial and commercial areas. "Everyone is taking advantage of the streets," he said.
Further, Kyle said, the perception is that even if Oakland police do make a graffiti-related arrest, government budget cuts mean writers may slip through the legal system's cracks. Kyle was arrested just after the layoffs and said that he's yet to be served — and what's more, that he doubts he will be at all. "They're just so backlogged, when it came to my case, they just haven't dealt with it," he surmised. "I sort of feel like they forgot."
According to David Ferguson of the city's Public Works Department, the number of graffiti-related calls to the department's citizen hotline — an imperfect and seasonally affected measure — have actually decreased slightly from 2009, almost seven hundred in the nearly six months between July and mid-December, compared to 1,600 in the full year that began in July 2009.
But even if the number of incidents has remained stagnant, Kyle said he and his friends are seeing a "definite rise" in both the volume of Oakland graffiti writers as well as their frequency and audacity. "It's like a playground now," he said.