First Amendment Gallery Celebrates An Unappreciated Art Form

One recent Thursday afternoon, a group of about a dozen people stood outside First Amendment Gallery (1AM), on the corner of Howard and Sixth, for its Art of Graffiti class. In front of them, stretched between two palm trees, was a taut piece of black canvas. Their instructor, a bald man wearing gloves and a loose-fitting shirt, stepped up to it and, with a few quick flicks of his hand, sprayed out several ornate letters, their forms swooping elegantly up and down. He turned and issued a short lecture on wrist movements, then invited the group to come try. Within moments, the canvas was covered with thick, vibrant streaks.

One might argue that this is an odd time to be learning how to write graffiti. All over the city, shop owners regularly complain about the fresh tags that greet them each morning. Meanwhile, graffiti on Muni buses and other public property is reportedly costing the city $20 million a year. In an effort to deter this, the city attorney’s office recently announced that they will begin filing civil suits, rather than criminal charges, against repeat offenders. One prolific tagger, who goes by the name “Coze,” is now facing a lawsuit totaling $88,000.

Despite all of this, First Amendment is thriving. Since it was founded in 2008, it's become a central space for the Bay Area’s street art community. The gallery showcases a diverse range of art from an international roster of artists — everything from traditional spray-painted images to intricate stencils, wood carvings, and even works that utilize yarn. It also offers tours of local street art projects and the underground graffiti culture, private workshops, mural services, and, of course, classes on graffiti, street art, and stenciling.

The gallery in June. (1AM/Facebook)

“Graffiti culture is not just this completely wild, anarchist thing,” said Daniel Pan, the founder of First Amendment. “Seeing real people behind it and touching the tactile things that are behind it helps people become more understanding. I used to get angry cleaning graffiti off of buildings, but since I started this, my perception has changed. When I buff tags now, I’m like, ‘Oh it’s that guy! I need to talk to that guy.’”

Gallery owner Daniel Pan at center. (Photo: First Amendment Gallery)

When Pan began First Amendment seven years ago, he had no experience running a gallery. In fact, besides a passing interest in street art and the culture that surrounds it, he had never even been directly involved with the scene. Instead, he was managing a portfolio of commercial real estate, leasing office space and signs to companies like Clear Channel and Viacom, an experience he found less than fulfilling.

“For me, at that point in time, 100 percent of me was serving the 'haves',” he said. “People were paying lots of money to say something. It was just this thing that was very formulaic.”

As he was showing some prospective tenants around the space that would later become his gallery, a couple of guys came in from across the street. They were members of ICP, or Inner City Phame, a graffiti crew that managed the rotating murals that surrounded Brian Goggin’s iconic “Defenestration” building, which was also at Howard and Sixth at the time.

“These guys came in and we started talking about making this happen,” Pan described. “The gallery aspect of it, the educational experience aspect of it, providing the tools of the trade, creating artwork or murals for anyone who wants it. That’s how we started, and it’s essentially still the same. We still have those four elements.”

Since then, Pan has become immersed in the world of graffiti and street art, including the stark distinctions, stylistically and culturally, that exist between the two.

“It was difficult to start this. People were not thrilled,” he said, speaking about the resistance he met to a gallery that celebrated a controversial art. “The spray paint thing, obviously it has a really negative connotation, but no one can really stop you from saying what you want to say.”

Spray paint for sale at First Amendment. (Photo: David Young/Hoodline)

So what is the difference between graffiti and street art? Put simply, graffiti involves an act of vandalism, while street art does not. Graffiti, according to Pan, is “done with letters and without permission,” while murals and street art are more pictorial and require a greater variety of tools.

Although they definitely cross over, graffiti and street art exist in different worlds. In graffiti, for instance, a culture of retaliation, of domination, exists: if someone puts their tag over yours, you strike back. In contrast, if someone tags your mural, you simply fix the image, sometimes again and again.

Pan was quick to acknowledge the negative aspects of graffiti. “Some people are out to destroy,” he said. “It’s a release, perhaps. Maybe they feel angry at a certain something and this is their outlet.”

But he also emphasized that there can be beauty within it as well. “I’m amazed at the calligraphy of the letters in all those tags and slaps. For me, that’s something beautiful. The way it’s balanced out, the shape of the letters and the accentuation of certain parts, I think that’s really awesome.”

Photo: 1AM/Facebook

None of this means that Pan, or his gallery, condones acts of vandalism in the name of art. In fact, many of First Amendment’s educational programs began as efforts to encourage vulnerable youth from breaking the law. However, more than most galleries, they do go out of their way to recognize the art inherent in the spaces around us, whether anyone else likes it or not.

First Amendment’s next exhibition is titled “Catch Me If You Can,” and features the work of Arthur and Oscar Maslard, A.K.A. Ratur and Sckaro. The opening reception is 6:30-9:30pm Nov. 5th, and the show will be on view through Jan. 7th.

Tickets for their classes and tours are available on their website

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