Sacramento Graffiti Art and Battles

Sacramento's history with graffiti vandalism runs deep not just through our communities but through the wave of a spray paint can in the eyes of an artist and the arresting nature of the law.

By Aaris A. Schroeder
“I will take you to the C Yard,” says Toast1 who looks as if he is about to begin reminiscing past days at ‘The Yard.’
Apparently, The ABC Yard [as it is officially called] is located at the end of C St. right by the rail yard.  When we pulled up, there was a park nearby with several people taking naps on the ground and a man with three bird cages full of several types of small birds.  The day was nice as the sun was peaking out and it wasn’t chilly at all for mid-November. 

Toast1 took my photographer and I up over a hill next to the railroad.  We walked along this raised hill looking down at the ABC building to see many of Sacramento’s great graffiti-artists communication skills up on the walls.  The walls spanned nearly 800-feet in length and went across D St. to another building as well with tag-names colorfully displayed along the way. 

This wall has been used for over 25 years, evidence states that three well-known graffiti artists in the community, Refa1, Tunes and Rapski actually received permission to paint legally, according to Toast1 by the building owners, in the early ‘90s.  Toast1 explained that there were five main crews back in the day, TNS [The Night Shift], TCB [The Capitol’s Best], BRI [By Reason of Insanity], XS [X-Streem] and DOI [Disciples of Imagination] that ran the streets and the walls.

Legal versus illegal artists vary greatly; although respected in the community as an art form, legal ‘graffiti art’ is considered urban art.  Graffiti, according to Toast1 is vandalism, period.  There is also a fine line between street art and graffiti art that spans between the west coast and the east coast where street art was originally from.

“I personally like [street art]; it’s urban art,” says Toast1, who continues, “You have to be fast [in Sacramento], so in Sac people mainly do graf-art.”

There were battles, according to Toast1 such as Resn of DOI versus Refa of TCB and Resn of BRI versus Asia of TNS that would go down.  Both crews would show up and run paint crew for crew.  The leaders would battle for eight hours a day – two days straight.  Everyone in town that was judge-worthy would give up props to the best lead-painter from each crew.

“I would skip school everyday to be out here.  This was a straight 24-hour spot,” says Toast1, who eventually taught classes in ‘97 at Valley High to students who were interested in urban art; this was around the same time that public schools were being notified of graffiti art as being vandalism and to report the painted walls to authorities. 

Back in the day, all four corners of hip-hop were covered – the graffiti-art scene was painted, the music scene was spoken, the djs were spinning and the dancers were breaking.  Everything was rocking in Sacramento for the hip-hop community in the mid-90s.  The Yard was where it was at.  With the popularity of graffiti art in Sacramento, the notion grew of who was better than another at wall-art; hence taggers began gangbanging with guns at that point.  

These gangbangers made up less than 10 percent of graffiti artists, according to the Sacramento Police Department.   If someone showed up, someone was unfortunately in the eye of the gun, viable to get shot.  Cops started to come around and it wouldn’t take long before illegal artists were scared off or hauled in.  ‘The Yard’ received a lot of rain as artists from the Bay Area and Stockton started to stream in to show Sacramento what was up.  Once popularity grew, flyer graffiti became yet another way to get the word out about events, festivals, music groups and other much-needed community information and the police were taking notice.  Still illegal, many people posted up their flyers.  The most notorious flyer-graffiti posters were The Cawz, a Sacramento-based hip-hop group; Scratch 8, a hip-hop venue and 720 Records based out of Sacramento as well who would post flyers of their band’s events all over downtown Sacramento.  The groups were eventually fined.

According to the SPD, Sacramento already was filled with many serial taggers by the mid-80s and had become overwhelmed with the rising problem of graffiti vandalism by the mid-90s.  The SPD hadn’t taken an aggressive approach towards graffiti vandals before causing artists to continue their illegal acts.  In ’97, Public Works created a connection with the SPD in preparation of a program for prevention, enforcement and cost recovery from acts of graffiti crimes.  
Because of police and interaction with vandals, artists needed to take a step back to learn the rules of the art.  The imperative notion of graffiti is make something worthy but don’t go over someone else’s work unless yours is worthy of being artistically better.  Even then, this is how you begin an art-battle.  These can go back and forth for a long time and can end not just on the wall but in the streets with not only words but physical violence.

Back in the day there were two to three crews at ‘The Yard’ – made up of roughly 10-20 people, when it was a legal spot to paint.  The spot went dead because a lot of the artists went dead, according to Toast1.

Or maybe they were just too afraid to keep bombing and tagging due to enforcement?  The success of the SPD sweeps came in by the handfuls as ‘free walls’ such as The Yard were shut down.  Many local artists were questioned about the history and culture of graffiti art and were used as expert witnesses in adult and juvenile court cases.  This caused many of Sacramento’s artists to have warrants issued and artists were arrested.  By ’97, the SPD began ‘graffiti sweeps’ in multiple locations, flushing out as many artists as they could.  They could show up to an artist’s house on suspicion and with a warrant, come inside find paint cans or articles of clothing with paint on them and immediately warrant an arrest.  By ’00, over 45 homes were swept by police.  The SPD then created a website called maintained on a volunteer-basis where a database was created to post images of artists and their records along with images of their art.  The website was password protected for law enforcement only.  A graffiti hotline was started so locals could call in graffiti art they saw in their neighborhood or catch taggers in the act.  These artists and graffiti flyer vandals were sent to small claims court.

Certain taggers who will remain nameless gave their personal thoughts on how to curb graffiti in Sacramento.  They also told police valuable information to incriminate artists on their acts of vandalism.  The taggers also explained to the police the history of hip-hop culture and the different elements involved, graffiti-art being one of them. 
“This was our greatest analysis tool as well as the most productive response regarding serial ‘taggers,’” according to the SPD who also states that the results from the taggers they arrested proved to reveal the framework for investigating, arresting and prosecuting taggers with restitution and probation actions in the next six years.  Books, magazines and videos were confiscated so that the SPD could research the art of tagging and prosecute artists so that they were less likely to repeat offenses. 
 Many artists begin when they are about 15-years-old, according to Toast1 which makes sense in view of the fact that many artists are perfecting their talent and they want to see how they compare to other cats.  According to Toast1, Refa1 held a meeting entitled, “Writer’s meeting,” for taggers.  This meeting was set up to show the youngsters how to tag, which ‘tips’ to use and which magazines to read.  Refa1 was trying to unify the artists so that they respected each other. 

“He made sure everyone was getting up,” says Toast1.

“Although ‘tagger’ graffiti rarely represents any ‘real threat,’ the ‘perceived threat’ of gang violence and terrorism is real. This fear-based perception guides communities in the way they respond to the blight displayed in their neighborhoods. Damage often goes unrepaired, reminding people that there is ‘disorder’ in the community.  In ‘97 we didn’t know that most of our graffiti was different from gang graffiti. We discovered that ‘serial tagging’ is responsible for approximately 95% of Sacramento’s graffiti. Our initial analysis helped redefine our problem into three unique elements: serial taggers, flier and gang graffiti,” according to the SPD.
Mostly a man’s sport and art form there were some females that participated in painting walls, putting their lives and records on the line.  One of which is Jean Gray.  She changed her name to B Jae because she was convicted of art-crimes.  She still, to this day declares her artistic expression on the back of the ABC Wall. 


*The Three Types of Graffiti Art in Sacramento

Vandalize with a ‘tag name’ or a ‘crew’ name in spray paint, liquid markings, stickers or etching.

Is illegally posting signs and failing to remove them after an event. In the late 90s flier graffiti was a major litter nuisance and abatement was an enormous cost to the city.

Makes up only 5-10% of Sacramento’s graffiti problem. They promote their group, claim a territory or make threats to rival gangs.

*According to the Sacramento Police Department







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Sacramento Graffiti Art and Battles

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