Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Writing on the Wall

Graffiti makes its way off Boise's streets and onto homes and businesses


On a bright Saturday afternoon, Hawk Sahlein and Colin Pfeifer meander through the broken glass, dumpsters and cool drafts of downtown Boise's back alleyways. They weave around cars and freight crates to find their favorite hidden graffiti spot, Freak Alley. Sahlein and Pfeifer are local graffiti artists who run a design, clothing and production company called Sector 17 Productions. They painted their first mural in Freak Alley more than a year ago and have been picking up projects around town ever since.

Boise's graffiti scene, they note, is still puny compared to many larger cities around the country. But of considerable mention are the legal, or commissioned, pieces that can be seen around town. From the wall at Donnie Mac's to the murals at Need to Bead and Pie Hole, Boise businesses are embracing the street artform as a valid public art medium. Sabra Haney and Justin Ahlin from Need to Bead commissioned Sahlein and Pfeifer to paint a mural at their Vista Avenue beading supply store. The two recognized an opportunity to both draw attention to their business and to support the legal graffiti scene.

"We bought the paint, gave them a hundred bucks and said go for it. Just tie it into the business in some way," recalls Ahlin.

Another area embracing graffiti culture is the gentrifying Garden City. The Boys and Girls Club has commissioned local graffiti artist Antone Chacartegui to paint a 30-foot by 150-foot mural detailing the history of Garden City. Chacartegui plans to use font-style lettering and garden images to evoke Garden City's past. Like the guys from Sector 17, Chacartegui has his hands full with commissioned works around town. In addition to collaborating with Sahlein and Pfeifer on pieces at Pie Hole, Chacartegui has walls painted at The Plank, Dye by the Sword and the Eco Lounge.

"At this time in particular, it seems like [Boise] has just as much legal work as illegal work and I think that's really cool," says Chacartegui.

Through these legal pieces, Chacartegui, Sahlein and Pfeifer are trying to combat the negative connotations long associated with the graffiti form. They've been working closely with the Boise City Arts Commission on a proposal to build a public art wall on which skilled and aspiring graffiti artists alike can practice their style. The first proposal they've drafted is for an open wall where anyone of any age would be able to paint whatever they want whenever they want, minus obvious restrictions on hate speech, gratuitous violence, gang-related art or profanity. The second proposal is more muted and involves a regulatory force handing out one-day painting passes only to people over 18. Sahlein took it upon himself to petition hundreds of local business owners to gauge their support on both proposals, and an overwhelming majority supported the less restricted first proposal.

"It's not going to eliminate graffiti altogether in the city," admits Sahlein, "but at least it wouldn't have total negative connotations."

In turning their proposal into action, the three will face considerable red tape from the vocally anti-graffiti local law enforcement. The Ada County Prosecutor's Office views graffiti as emblematic of gang violence and likens it to the "first thrown stone" that leads to broken windows and community degradation. Last December, the Boise Police Department trumpeted their arrest of the three people they believe were responsible for 80 percent of graffiti in the Boise area. And the City of Boise even added a Graffiti Hotline so citizens can call to report incidences of tagging or vandalism.

Though select businesses are supporting street art in Boise, it seems that local law enforcement, and many citizens, are still reticent to embrace graffiti as art. Unlike larger cities where graffiti, stenciling and wheatpastes (posters hung with flour and water) pepper streets and add unique flourishes to the often monotonous urban landscape, Boise hasn't developed a truly cohesive graffiti scene or following.

"I'm not really sure it has a place in Boise," admits Chacartegui. "It tends to look a lot more like vandalism here, but I guess that's what mine looked like when I started out."

Sahlein and Pfeifer have a different outlook. They believe that Boise is ripe for a graffiti art and hip-hop scene that both promotes the talents of those involved and minimizes the occurrence of property damage. They recently participated in Boise State's Spring Fling at Julia Davis Park, where they spent all afternoon painting a giant graffiti wall in front of a crowd of around 8,000 people. Event attendees were encouraged to pick up cans of spray paint and try their hand at the form. Most people, they noted, were surprised to find it took much more skill and finesse than they had imagined. By encouraging kids interested in graffiti art to practice their work in legally designated areas, Sahlein and Pfeifer hope to promote the idea that graffiti is a valid and culturally constructive art form.

"If you start a dialogue early with these kids, they might be more willing to meet you half way down the road," says Sahlein.

At this point, it's tough to tell whether Boise is ready to welcome a graffiti scene on the scale of cities like Seattle or San Francisco. But as local businesses and private homeowners begin to offer blank garage walls and unvarnished fences to eager kids with paint-stained index fingers and rattling backpacks, Boise's streets get markedly more colorful. From Freak Alley to North End back alleys, a new generation of artists are finding an outlet to express themselves ... and this time nobody's calling the cops.