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

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.


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