The sight of trash greeted the author on a hike along the Santa Ynez river bottom.

R. Ska Tay

The sight of trash greeted the author on a hike along the Santa Ynez river bottom.

Tag, You’re It

Notes on the River

Certainly you remember the game Tag! One person is “it” and runs around and tries to tag another, who then becomes “it,” and so on. It’s a great game and seeds right up there with Duck Duck Goose, Hide and Seek, and Red Rover Red Rover (send Jimmy right over). Pure Americana fun. But much as I would love to reminisce about the fun and games we all had growing up, I want to address a different definition of the word tag.

From what I can tell, “tag” and “graffiti” are mostly synonymous. Yet “graffiti,” for whatever reason, seems to have found a distinct alignment with the hip-hop genre (per Urban Dictionary), becoming one component of the total “attitude package” that is required to be gangsta. “Tagging” on the other hand seems to have no real cultural alliances. It is more a signature than an overarching expression and can be done, for instance, by someone listening to Sting through their Beats by Dre headphones.

Regardless, right after the rains, my young son and I went for a hike down in the Santa Ynez river corridor and ended up at the 101 overpass. “Dad, look, it’s graffiti!” Sure enough, I say, it’s … something like that. We walk around and check it out, critiquing its artistic relevance, discussing what it all means, and then he asks me if it’s legal. I quickly change the subject back to the river at hand and on with our hike.

As we head upstream a little, we begin to see the remnants of the taggers’ nights out. If the bridge is their canvas, the river is surely their backfill.

We see everything from empty spray paint cans, used toilet paper, empty vodka bottles, water bottles floating adrift … so much trash it’s unconscionable. Through the eyes of a 7-year-old, the colorful tags on the bridge were intriguing, but after hiking further, he got noticeably solemn, realizing the cost of said expression: the blatant disrespect of one of the places he loves most, the river.

Here’s what I think:

It’s about 28 miles from Buellton to the estuary just above Surf Beach in Lompoc, one of the most beautiful stretches of real estate in Santa Barbara County, and everything flows downstream. This year I am celebrating 40 years as an artist, an arts activist, and an educator. I’m seven years into being a father. I don’t write to rag on the graffiti under the bridge, but I do write as a steward of the land, someone who works closely with nature. In fact, I am nature … I am the very River you stand in as you choke me to death to spray paint on the walls.

So maybe the next tag should try a two-color throw up in bubble lettering that reads, “If you pack it in, pack that shit out!” Graffitists want to be recognized as artists but still work with vandal status. This “studio,” which also happens to be a sacred waterway, should be treated with the respect shown any other holy place and kept clean. That way, we artist-parents can explain your processes to our youth with respect instead of shame.

To submit a comment on this article, email or visit our Facebook page. To submit information to a reporter, email

Be succinct, constructive, and relevant to the story. Leaving a comment means you agree to our Discussion Guidelines. We like civilized discourse. We don't like spam, lying, profanity, harassment or personal attacks.

comments powered by Disqus
event calendar sponsored by:

Biggest Storm Since 1/9 Approaching Santa Barbara

The storm system brings increased threat of flash floods and debris flows.

Jack Johnson Tours Montecito Disaster Area Ahead of Benefit Concert

Jack and Kim Johnson met with Bucket Brigade leaders to see the destruction firsthand.

Iron Chef Caused State Street Pedestrian Death

Famous Chef Larry Forgione charged with misdemeanor for driving into Gilbert Ramirez on February 24.

Lavagnino’s Sudden Victory

5th District supervisor a shoo-in as filing window closes; Gregg Hart also unopposed for 2nd District.

One Half of Old Town Streets to Get Sidewalks

Walkways planned for one side of Goleta neighborhood streets; parking, lighting talks at community meeting March 22.