Painting It Over

"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, February 2006

Recently, I went to see Quality of Life, a movie about graffiti artists in San Francisco's Mission District, the neighborhood most famous over the past several decades for wave after wave of gentrification battles. I wasn't expecting much from the movie except for a few laughs-it's always amusing to see somewhere or something you're familiar with horrifyingly misrepresented. But the movie was actually more entertaining than I expected-the lighting was dramatic, the camerawork stylized, the music relatively energizing and the opening shot of a naked buff boy with a shaved head jumping out of bed and throwing on his thick comfy hoodie was enough to keep me entertained for at least 20 or 30 minutes.

The movie did reveal some useful tips for shoplifting. For example, if you need to get spraypaint, just deliver Chinese food to a paint store. Then, while you argue with the clerk about whether he/she ordered this feast, your friend ducks into the dimly-lit aisles and makes off with a feast for neighborhood walls. Never mind that no store in San Francisco-and certainly not in the oh-so-hot-and-trendy Mission-keeps their spraypaint outside of locked cases. I guess that's the secret of Chinese food-bite into an egg roll and boom the locks on the glass cases vanish and you can fill up your bike messenger bag with every color in the rainbow.

Oh, and if you spill pizza sauce on your brand new sneakers just before going to your former-tagger-friend's art opening, just duck into a local clothing store. While your buddy tries on a hat and flirts with the girl (wink-wink) you'll have plenty of time to slip into the window display, take the shoes off the mannequin, switch them for your saucy damage, and exit the store just as your friend reveals that no, he actually doesn't want to purchase that cute knit-cap-with-a-visor-thing . Okay, I've got to admit that if I was that girl behind the counter and my Lane Garrison (yes, that's the naked boy with the shaved head from the beginning, only now he's not naked anymore-at least not until I enter the picture). Oh wait-I'm getting distracted again-my point is just that if Lane Garrison came to my makeup counter, I could certainly be waylaid for-oh-20 or 30 minutes.

Anyway, this movie does reveal the sophisticated, intellectual straightboy slang of the moment. When Lane walks into the underground-but-oh-so-exclusive graffiti-artist-transitioning-into-art-world art opening, the bartender hands him a drink and then passes one to that sassy lady over at the bar and says to Lane: "that's to get rid of the handicapped sign on your nuts." But back to the opening-it's getting out of hand because Lane's Best Tagging Buddy is off inhaling rails of white lightning off a freshly sharpened pocketknife (so tough! a little blood only helps with the high!). That's right-emo-boy buddy is suddenly amped-up and getting into a fistfight with art trash, and Lane has to break it up and then the whole thing is called off, they've fucked up their tagger buddy's gallery splash.

Oh-did I mention that our heroes are white and tight in a sea of Mission conflicts? There's the Latino neighborhood-or wait, are there any Latinos in this movie? Oh-Lane's father, of course, with that paper-white Irish son of his (but oh, those lips!). And the graffiti artist making it is a potentially multi-racial multi-talented man of color switching it up on white expectations. He gets to utter a few sentences.

Then we have the callous evil yuppie boss-who just happens to be black. And the white mother with the mixed-race child-but no sign of any men of color around her (except the evil black boss-oh...). Then there's Lane's apparently Latino father, who gets to yell at him for not getting out of bed fast enough (oh Lane, I'd never yell at you for that!). There are a few young taggers of color pushed out of our heroes' pristine alabaster artist train tunnel. And there's the high school kid of color lectured by his probation officer for tagging-yet again! His father threatens to beat him up. But where did this family come from? They don't appear in the movie either before or after.

Oh-and don't forget, the evil black cop in charge at our heroes' community service ditch-digging experience. Clearly, there's a very conscious attempt at reverse stereotyping that fails to do anything more than erase cultural histories and replace them with our white heroes fighting it out on the tough streets of San Francisco's magnificent Mission graffiti canvass.

But wait-there's a Buddhist temple! Inside, the model minority gallery graffiti champion/sell-out is working on his new...mandala. It's an ornate number made of carefully poured grains of colored sand. He's been working on it for a whole week when Lane shows up, just as he's pouring the last few grains of green and blue. He turns to Lane, and says: It's for you.

Just kidding. That's my line. But Lane isn't too keen. Even though he's grown up in San Francisco's multi-culti Mission moment, he has no idea what Gallery Girl is giving when GG sweeps a whole week of painstaking labor into the dustpan, Lane gasps and musters his most clever verbage: What the fuck you doin' man?

GG: It's a mandala. LG: Nelson Mandela? GG: No man, a mandala-it teaches us the impermanence of life. Lane has been tagging for all of his teens and into his twenties, but he's never grasped this concept. I guess he's never seen one of his tags covered by his father's paintbrushes, or anything (I forgot-that's Lane's job, covering up graffiti on cute Mission Victorians-what a clever plot device!).

But the highlight of the movie is when emo-boy gets a little too jumpy on juice, after the cops raid his house in the middle of the night for evidence of graffiti and he jumps out the window, and his girlfriend leaves him (with their multi-racial son!), then suddenly emo boy's tagging outside a liquor store and the art trash from the gallery fight apprehends him. Art Trash: That's my fucking store! Emo-Boy: You wanna bump? Art Trash pulls out his pistol-no girl, not that pistol! This is a real fucking gun, contrasting the multi-colored tattoos up and down this splendid scenester's sexy forearms. But Emo Boy switches it up on Gun Girl and gives her the big shebang in order to flex Gun Girl's throat muscles. No, honey-not that shebang. This scenester's got a gun in her throat! Oh-did I mention that it's the middle of the day? No problem-Emo Boy holds up a cab and then switches into car chase realness all the way to his girlfriend's workplace, so he can blow his brains out in the well-lit exposed-brick office loft.

All of this leads to a touching finale. Lane climbs up on a building to finish his friend's tag, complete with a semi-religious heaven-type scene constructed in broad daylight. Then, having learned the lesson of the mandala, Lane pulls out his paint-roller and covers up the illegal art. Thank Jesus, I mean Buddha, I mean Bishop Desmond Tutu.

The filmmaker was present at the screening, and I got to ask him a question. I wanted to know whether he added the action movie ending in order to make the movie more marketable as a Hollywood product, and also whether his white tagger narrative was furthering the cultural erasure already enacted in a trendy Mission district where most taggers are not black or Latino, but straight white scenesters. I wanted to know whether the director's choice of "colorblind" (switcheroo!) casting was actually another form of cultural erasure, an attempt at addressing racism that actually ends up doing little more than normalizing straight white male entitlement..

The director didn't really know what to do with my questions. He was ready to talk about how he filmed the car chase (rent a police car and drive it around in circles), how much the film cost ("$30,000...I mean, just under a million"), and how he was able to shoot a scene with a gun (make sure you have an on-duty cop in on the racket!). But as to my questions, the director said that this movie did not have a Hollywood ending because in Hollywood, Emo Boy would have shot the gun and it wouldn't have gone off, or something like that. He repeated what was already contained in my question-that most graffiti artists in the Mission are now "skinny whiteboys from the suburbs," unlike when he had been tagging, but he presented absolutely no critique of this gentrification/colonization, except to say that he couldn't, in his heart, cast the guy with the gun as someone Latino. But he didn't address why on earth he needed a gun in the story at all. And what about the world he constructs, where taggers are completely unconcerned with (and unencumbered by) race -- hello white male privilege!

But wait-the movie was based on a true story. Have you heard of Pablo Picasso? One of his feminist buddies apparently killed himself (in the graphic design studio of his runaway runway girlfriend), and this ushered on the most creative period in Picasso's life-his blue period.

But I don't think Picasso painted over those canvasses.