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.”
But then he got married — around 36 years ago, he estimates, but isn’t quite sure. “My wife gets mad when I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. Remembering specific dates and years is often challenging for him. Then he started having kids.
And so, around 30 years ago, he applied to become a painter with the city. “Back then, I just painted rec centers and firehouses, and offices,” he says. “Graffiti was not an issue, thirty years ago. The only graffiti that was out there was at the railroad yards.”
The boom of graffiti didn’t happen overnight, he says. “It’s been a slow progression, how it’s become a thing.”
On an unseasonably warm February afternoon, Erase navigates his lone white van down a dirt path behind Laney College. Only a small “City of Oakland” logo on the driver’s side door provides any indication of what the van’s purpose is today. The van parks by a set of large, contorted metal sculptures.
Clad in white overalls, a red striped sweater and a jaunty straw fedora, Erase hops out, inspects the nearest sculpture, and selects a vat of light beige paint from the back of the van. Armed with a small roller and his paint, he sets to work. In long sweeping motions, he covers the indecipherable scrawls of graffiti coating the sculpture until it’s completely clean.
He’s done this before. Hundreds of times. “My life is like that movie Groundhog Day,” he said.
Erase is dedicated to his job, just as dedicated today as he was in the early 2000s, during the Internet boom and the subsequent explosion of graffiti. But in the years since, he’s grown to appreciate the scene in his own way. “When we first started covering it up, I was a hater,” he admitted.
His perspective began to change about ten years ago. He was doing some shopping around Christmas time and noticed some artists selling their pieces outside a gallery. He recognized the work of someone he routinely covered up, an artist known as Dead Eyes. He was shocked. “That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, there’s a bunch of people doing this.'” And the tags, the graffiti he was covering up were created by real people. “To me, a human being did this, and a lot people don’t associate this to human beings,” he says. “There’s a story.”
Dead Eyes remembers that moment. He was surprised as well. “It was kind of wild,” he recalled. “He just walked up on me and he just started talking to me about his journey.”
Erase began asking himself questions he hadn’t asked before — such as, “Can this guy do good art?”
Jon-Paul Bail, also known as Political Gridlock in the Bay Area, remembers the first time he met Erase.
Bail guesses it was about seven years ago, and Erase was covering up one of Bail’s friends, an artist known as Logo.
“And I ran up on him, and I was like ‘Oh,’ being a smartass. And I’m a white boy, you know, and I look like I want him to buff it,” Bail said.
“So, I was like, ‘Oh I see you’re buffing that kid out.'” And Bail recalled that Erase responded, “He’s no kid.”
Bail turned around and saw that Erase had one of his own Political Gridlock stickers on his paint bucket. “And I was like, ‘Hey, that guy’s a criminal.'”
Erase simply said, “I know who you are.”
Bail recalled the memory excitedly, “Ah! He knew who I was! He’d seen me or some shit.”
Bail was born in Alameda, and at 51, he has been operating in the Bay Area since 1986. With bright blue eyes and limitless energy, his work as a street artist has primarily consisted of posters with anarchist, political messages. He is particularly enthusiastic about his new JACKA$$ campaign — unflattering portraits of Donald Trump that he papers all over Oakland and San Francisco.
He learned his trade at California College of the Arts. Throughout the decades, his posters have included Ronald Regan, the Gulf War, and other major political figures and events. His experience with law enforcement, buffers and graffiti abatement has been mostly positive throughout his career, due to the medium he works in, the content of his work, and that he’s an older white man.
Bail pragmatically views abatement as a necessary part of the street art ecosystem. “If nobody buffed it, street art would die,” he said. “Everyone would hog up this space. And everyone would get territorial about it. And whoever had the best one next to the Apple Store would be the most coolest on the Internet. You need turnover in the world. So, yeah, you know, the buffer serves its purpose.”
Dead Eyes agrees. “The buff is handy,” he said. “It’s a reset button. Most street things are only meant to ride for only so long, so it gives everybody else a fair chance to get out there and claim their space.”
When asked about Erase, Bail is enthusiastic. “I love him!” Bail said.
“He’s an art historian, he knows a lot,” he said. “I’ve been encouraging him to write a book. And I’ve been encouraging him to take photos.”
“Where is the institutional memory of Oakland’s illegal graffiti?” Bail asked. “Where’s that book? Whose computer has it? Because that is historical art. That shit is important. The city of Oakland could make money from that.”
Dead Eyes acknowledges this as well. “Honestly, since they, like, do have to take pictures of the graffiti that they buff, or just to monitor, they might have the best collection of street art,” he said.
Tucked away on a quiet street in East Oakland, Erase keeps a small, Spanish-style house that has been in his wife’s family for several years. With several locks on the garage and lush birds of paradise lining the front yard, the house sits mainly unused. He gripes that it gets broken into a lot. Mostly people just make off with a piece or two of furniture, which doesn’t bother him too much as long as they don’t disturb the main contents inside.
Crossing through the dark garage into a narrow hallway, the space opens onto his exhibit.
With high ceilings and shiny, candy-colored vinyl records taped over the windows, the room has a hushed, almost church-like ambience. This is where he keeps his shrine to street art. Lining the walls are wheat paste posters, stickers, and banners. On the floor beneath are found objects, painted, twisted, pieces of art. Mounted behind glass frames and tucked into binders are photos of what he couldn’t peel off a wall and take with him — murals, tags, stencil art. Some pieces are whimsical, like a painted kiddie pool he discovered covering up a stop sign, and some pieces are disturbing, like a pair of mannequin legs someone had once stuck under a fallen tree at Lake Merritt.
He flits from posters to objects, gleefully reminiscing about this person or that event, from which he acquired this prized possession. He’s like a kid showing off his room to visiting family friends. He gravitates toward a poster board where he’s arranged pictures of Oakland street art alongside pictures of petroglyphs — a type of rock art created by removing part of a rock surface by carving or picking into an image. The petroglyphs are from a walk he does in Yosemite National Park every July as an annual retreat.
Erase is one quarter American Indian, part Miwok and part Paiute on his father’s side, but said he didn’t really get involved with his heritage until after his father passed away about 20 years ago. Now it’s an important part of his life. He volunteers in schools as a storyteller for kids, teaching them about traditions and American Indian culture. The July retreat is especially important to him. He started doing it about 25 years ago and brought each of his three kids with him once they turned 10 years old.
He gestures at the poster board. This area, this large wall, he said, is where they go to visit their ancestors. “The reason why I’m tripping with this is we actually go to this place and we pray,” he said. “So, we’re actually praying to graffiti.”
This poster board sits amongst hundreds, if not thousands, of other posters piled on a desk and in other parts of the room. And Erase doesn’t just hang on to the art he finds. Sometimes he even collects objects related to the artists themselves.
“I think it’s important to preserve, to save these people because they’re going to grow up and not do this anymore,” he said.
In one box is a bunch of empty spray cans labeled with years and artist names. He’s picked up and kept these historical artifacts from sites of freshly painted graffiti. Slung over a chair is another artifact, a backpack that one graffiti artist left behind at a site. And then there are the lists.
Erase keeps lists of graffiti artists’ names, organized by different periods of time, compiled throughout the years. He says he started doing this in 2010 and does this to keep track of who is new, and who has disappeared. “This is from 2015,” he explains about one sheet of paper, remarking over each name, identifying who is still around and who is gone. “These were prolific people from 2015,” he says.
Sitting at his desk, increasingly illuminated by a lamp’s yellow light as daylight fades outside, he reminds himself to start a 2020 list. “I should start a new one,” he said. “Now it’s a new cast of characters.”
Erase’s archive has been acquired over several years on the job.
But this part of his life is coming to an end soon.
At 67, he’s been thinking about retirement. After being out of commission for several months last year due to a knee injury, he’s thought about it even more seriously. He guesses he’ll probably retire within the next 12 months.
Tovar, Erase’s supervisor, isn’t sure if the city will hire someone to replace him. And even if they did, he doesn’t think anyone else will measure up. While Erase was recovering from the knee injury, Tovar had to hire a temporary replacement who, “was not even able to come close to the amount of work that Erase was doing.”
“You have to have the right person with the right mindset,” Tovar said. “He does this day after day, after day, after day … just hunt people down and erase the graffiti.”
As for the house where Erase keeps his collection, he and his wife have discussed selling it. She doesn’t share his love of graffiti.
“My family is sick of this,” he said with a laugh. “My wife appreciates it, but she doesn’t want to hear about it.”
“I mean, I will let this go I think sometime,” he said of his collection. “I was hoping, I would like to donate to the Oakland Museum or something.”
Bail hopes Erase will write that book.
Back in the park behind Laney College, Erase circles the sculpture, squinting through his spectacles against the bright sunlight.
He points at tags he recognizes and recalls other spots in the city he’s found them before, even pulling out his phone for reference photos. He pauses and evaluates improvements, comparing the tags in the photos to the tangible ones on the twisted metal.
And he points to one he hasn’t seen before. “This guy I just noticed today coming here,” he said. “He might be prolific. You kind of don’t know. Some people disappear. Some people get better.”
Erase enjoys spotting another tag, big bold letters tucked on the inside curve of the sculpture. “TWIST” had the audacity to tag Erase’s van last year. Erase laughs at the memory. A tagger had only managed the feat once before.
He hadn’t been mad. He’d simply painted over it.