In Berkeley, a campaign against graffiti, waged solo

A one-woman graffiti fighting army at work in Berkeley

Once upon a time, Jane Tierney went to art school, but now she tackles art of a different nature.

Tierney is a one-woman graffiti fighting army. She regularly cleans fences and buildings around the Thousand Oaks neighborhood in Berkeley where she lives, and also patrols the shops and mailboxes in the retail corridor of Solano Avenue looking for graffiti and tags to remove.

Once a week, Tierney, who is the president of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association, loads up her supplies and walks her neighborhood. Armed with spray paint and cleaners, she’s on the look-out for graffiti and tags which, she says, have escalated in the area over the past few years.

“I started collecting different colors of paint and cleaners — the kind that you have to wear gloves to use. They smell really awful. Sometimes I have get businesses to close their doors while I’m working,” Tierney said.

All this purging began back in 2006. “The area behind the old Milo building was especially bad,” said Tierney. “The Milo people were trying to do a good thing, but they would let the animals go anywhere. Dogs were peeing behind the building which was really rundown, and then the graffiti started.”

Tierney says the new owner of the building has put in landscaping and done some cleaning, so that area is not as hard-hit as it was before. “The owner put up some lights and now it looks well cared-for so the taggers don’t bother it as much.”

Recently, the alleyway where the Rosebud gallery is located [on Solano at Fresno] was hit hard. “It was covered in foul language and had a lot of damage. The windows of the gallery were also covered. It must have cost a fortune to fix,” said Tierney.

Over the years, graffiti artists also started targeting mailboxes, shops and fences, leaving lots of unsightly spray-painted marks in their wake. Calls to the city for assistance left Tierney unsatisfied.

“The guy we talked to basically just laughed at us. I was shocked. The problem is so small here compared to the other communities and other things he deals with, it just didn’t seem like that big of a problem to him I guess.”

Tierney points out that retail owners are responsible for cleaning their own buildings, but other things, such as mailboxes, are often left to gather more tags. Older citizens who either physically can’t get out to clean up the mess on their homes, or who don’t know what to do about it, also receive help from Tierney who doesn’t want the tags to linger and attract more artwork.

“There was this house on Ensenada which was hit. The couple were in bed and heard spray paint. They found their garage door and many of the fences on the street were covered in graffiti,” Tierney said.

Mailboxes are a favorite target of local artists, and one of the things Tierney spends much of her time on. “The post office actually gave me the paint and stickers to fix the boxes. They simply didn’t have the funds to do it,” she said. Tierney also says she has expanded her walks to include areas of Marin Avenue. “The mailboxes get it really badly right there,” she said.

Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, spokesperson for Berkeley, says the city does have code enforcement officers who deal with graffiti, but it depends on where the graffiti or tags are. “We clean up graffiti in public places like parks and street signs. We don’t use city funds to clean up private property,” she said.

Tierney says she spends about six hours a week doing her part to clean up what appears in her neighborhood, but wishes others would join in. “The problem is if there is a little graffiti it can lead to a lot of graffiti really fast. People need to take ownership of the their neighborhood. I have, but I don’t want to do it alone.”

Asked who she thinks the taggers and graffiti artists might be, Tierney says she has a theory on who is behind much of it. “It’s not who you think it is. It’s not miscreants. It’s high-school kids, many of them girls.”

Clunies-Ross says: “People should call us if they see graffiti. We also have a website and folks should use it.” An online form to report graffiti can be found on the city’s website.

Related:
The big clean-up of downtown Berkeley begins [01.10.12]
Buffers take on taggers in Berkeley-based documentary [08.10.11]

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  • Batard

    Please stop calling them ‘local artists’.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    Thank you for your work! we do appreciate it!

  • serkes

    Thank you!

  • John Holland

    What a hero!

  • Neil

    Excellent!

    Many thanks.

  • Charles_Siegel

    The city’s web site just has a phone number.  It would be good if they also had an email address for reporting graffiti, so you could send an email with a picture of the graffiti.  The city’s website says that it is helpful if you take a picture, but they don’t have any way for you to send them the picture.

  • Liza

    It’s good work, but Ms. Tierney needs to be cautious about the chemicals she’s using.  The cleaning products used in graffiti removal have been shown to cause a wide variety of health problems, including causing lifelong asthma in people who have never had it before.  This is a serious issue for both Ms. Tierney and those nearby her as she works.  Gloves are not adequate protection.  See this brochure from the Occupational Health Program at the California Department of Public Health for additional information: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/ohsep/Documents/graffiti.pdf . 

  • berkopinionator

    Thank you Jane.  We need a Chinese communist party style effort to “re-educate” the taggers engaged in this senseless vandalism.  They would benefit from a mandatory two year program of agricultural education picking carrots or lettuce.

  • John Holland

    So obvious, and so brilliant.

  • Batard

    Inspiring. 

    The trash & recycle bins on my street were getting hit so one day I took a can of acetone and a rag and walked the length of my block, cleaning the cans as I went.  More recently it’s the backs of the street signs that need a touch of silver spray paint to cover the tags.

    There was an article in the Express (?) a couple years back about Jim Sharp aka the ‘silver buff’ http://sfist.com/2010/02/24/meanwhile_in_berkeley_25.php.  The authors have since made a movie ‘Vigilante, Vigilante’ which I haven’t seen, don’t think it’s been widely released.  Their point of view is essentially pro-graffiti, but I say Jim Sharp is another local hero along with Tierney.

    IMHO tagging is a primitive expression, no more of an art form than my dog lifting his leg as we walk down the street.  My own observation is that there is a LOT more of it lately, especially in neighborhoods where you least expect it .. upper Solano, TO, along the Alameda, up Spruce and Euclid.   I suspect it’s a byproduct of hip-hop culture permeating the suburban white youth.

  • Anymouse

    Thanks for differentiating between taggers and artists. As a person who appreciates public art (and also thinks crappy tags are crappy), I hope Ms. Tierney is doing the same.

  • Jane Tierney

    Hi there. The main thing we’ve discovered about the green bins and trash can tagging is that it happens when the cans are left out at the curb for several days. If people would move quickly when they get home from work and store their cans by the sides or back of their homes, and not on the street, it will minimize this problem. The taggers usually don’t trespass. They look for easy, accessible targets. I agree with your assessment and analogy with primitive expression. I love public art, and I don’t consider spray painting your name on someone else’s property to be art. With permission, fine. Look at the wonderful street art in the SF Mission. There’s a whole alleyway of walls and garage doors that are painted with street murals, with the owners’ permission. That’s different.

  • Batard

    Indeed — maybe we could set up a “Berkeley Camp Annex” out in Dixon or someplace and loan them out to local CSA farms on a day-labor basis.  

  • Bill

    Thank you Ms Tierney.  My neighbor does the same thing and I certainly appreciate it.  For one thing you can read the “No Outlet” sign at the end of the block! 

  • Guest

    Some day they shall join the late 1990s and get their own email address.

  • Berekelyboy

    At least someone in this God forsaken town cares.

  • Iceland_1622

    Graffiti Removal :  This company has led the fight for graffiti removal in Cities across the country using the best and safest products they could manufacture.  It removes the tags from all of the new cans with ease without strong chemicals.  All of my requests to the City for Berkeley for such removal have been met with total silence and apparent inertia across time.  Maybe it’s time we all got on this together.  This gets the jobs done safely and they have entire protective wall coatings designed for return taggers.  Watch their videos and read their back-story and track record:  http://www.graffitiremovalinc.com/

  • Cheryl

    THANK YOU for making a difference.

  • Jbok

    Great work! I’d like to do my part. Can you list the products she uses so I can try my hand at it? I know there are orange oil products that might be safer but I don’t know if they’d work.

  • EarlyMorningCoffee

    I love the local art scene!

  • velo_rooster

    This is great. I did this for years in the Berkeley flats (around Sacramento and Dwight). I had to get the paint for the mail boxes secretly from a mail man after both the city and the post office claimed the other one was responsible. I would walk the ‘hood about once a month and cover graffiti on the mail boxes. I even got stopped by the cops once for covering graffiti…that was a funny interaction.  When I started there was a constant flow of tags on the boxes, stop signs, etc. After covering them up consistently, the pace of graffiti slowed substantially…sometimes it was many weeks before a box would get hit again. Glad to see others doing this….I now live in the Thousand Oaks ‘hood and would be happy to help out! 

  • cl

    Thank you, Jane and thanks to Berkeleyside for writing this story. I also agree with the previous commenter on word choice: I would not use the words “art” or “artists.” This is clearly vandalism, so I suggest vandals in place of artists.

  • CindiJ

    Yes! This is my biggest pet peeve too. Thanks Jane Tierney!

  • Adri

    Thank you, Ms. Tierney!  Your efforts are appreciated and have inspired me to try to do the same in my neighborhood across the bay.