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San Diego Street Art From Back In The Day

Above: A "No Art" stencil recreated by Saint Marko. He waged his "No Art" graffiti campaign throughout San Diego in the early 1980s.

NO ART was confusing, blatantly illegal, and really quite brilliant. Long before Shepard Fairey's "Obey Giant" stickers and posters made their first appearance on walls and stop signs in San Diego, a mysterious local artist waged a 5-year graffiti art campaign here that said it all.

NO ART, two wonderfully ambiguous words, were spray-painted in big stenciled letters on traffic light boxes, concrete barriers, pump houses and other bleak roadside features all over San Diego during the early 1980s, particularly along 101 from La Jolla to Oceanside.

NO ART confronted cars and drivers head on as they left the Roberto's parking lot in Solana Beach. It was there for many years and over time other stencils appeared on the cinder block wall around it: an enigmatic teapot rumored to be one of Swank Zine publisher/skateboard entrepreneur Tod Swank's symbols and the anatomical logo for Limpies, a local surf/skate/music clothing company.

NO ART has stuck with me for something like 30 years. Now, with all the hubbub regarding Viva la Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape at MCASD and the associated street art projects around San Diego, I marvel at what an elegant dialogue with the urban landscape it was.

NO ART prefigured work by some of today's foremost street artists, done as it was when Shepard Fairey was just beginning to draw on skateboards and Banksy was still wearing knee-pants. In retrospect, the anonymous stencil campaign marked a key point in the 1970s when punk rock and skateboarding first collided with conceptual art on San Diego streets.

NO ART was created by Saint Marko, an artist and photographer who remembers painting it for the first time "around 1978" while studying at Palomar College. The school was "a great place," says Marko. "That's where I met Grant (Brittain - pioneering skate photographer) and Sonny (Miller - venerated surf cinematographer/filmmaker). We were the photo department."

NO ART evolved in the early 1980s when Marko "switched to a larger size font and made [the letters] centered and shadowed. It looked more official and added to the confusion." He used property that wasn't privately owned, but admits to making an exception or two.

NO ART appealed to the late Russell Baldwin, who taught art at Palomar College for decades and was friends with Marko. "He was one of the few people that knew I was the No Artist and we had great discussions about his Art Is All Over," says Marko. Baldwin, along with his friends Bob Matheny and John Baldessari, was among the first to explore Post Studio Art in San Diego.

Enlarge this image

Above: "A Yard of Art," 1971, by Russell Baldwin. The artist had commercial yard sticks imprinted with his motto in the manner of hardware-store advertising. An ingenious example of what John Baldessari called Post Studio Art. Photo courtesy Steve Eilenberg & Marie Tartar.

NO ART clearly had a lot in common with Russell Baldwin's similarly ambiguous signature phrase, "Art Is All Over," which began showing up in his work around 1971 (a fine year for art-referential text pieces - see Baldessari's "I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art"). Robert Pincus, the former San Diego Union-Tribune art critic, has quoted Baldessari as saying "There weren't many artists who I found to be as interesting as Russell in San Diego. He was so valuable to me."

NO ART eventually got Saint Marko into hot water. While in Europe for a year in 1984, someone else copied his stencil and sprayed it on the newly-installed Niki De St. Phalle "Sun God" at UCSD. With police and apparently even the F.B.I. looking for him, Marko remembers, "It seemed about then that No Art had run its course. I ditched the stencil and moved on."

NO ART was out of Marko's hands. Some vigilante art critic/prankster took the idea and applied it in a completely different way, and, although I'm not sure I disagree with his or her evaluation, the incident raises inherent questions about ownership of ideas in art (see Fairey's Obama poster controversy) and tagging or defacing other artist's work (see Fairey's mural in Hillcrest).

NO ART had to be recreated for this post. Saint Marko, a surfer who divides his time between the islands of Maui and Newfoundland - as unlikely as that sounds - obliged us by re-making his old stencil and photographing it. We couldn't locate a single photo of the work in situ and the old tags are long gone. But it's the idea that counts. That's the real test of the potency of his work - 30 years later I can see it just as clear as day.

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Avatar for user 'hboooo'

hboooo | September 10, 2010 at 10:23 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

Angela Carone I am thoroughly enjoying your writings. Thank you for bringing a piece of history into the forefront of my mind. I wasnt around when the NO ART was happening but it sounds hella freakin cool. I WANT A NO ART SHIRT!!! DO you think that you can talk to Saint Marko about maybe hooking a brother up.

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | September 10, 2010 at 10:46 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

@hboooo: Glad you like this post - which was actually written by one of my contributors, Dave Hampton. He's the one that tracked Saint Marko down. I don't think there are any NO ART t-shirts in existence at the moment, but perhaps you'll spark an idea.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | September 10, 2010 at 10:48 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

Also, if you tune in to These Days on KPBS radio on Monday morning at 10am, you can hear Dave talk about NO ART, Saint Marko, and the whole campaign.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | September 10, 2010 at 1:01 p.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

I like art, but this hardly art, graffiti better describes what it is, and it isn't brilliant. Neither "art" or graffiti should not be put above the right of property. Welcome to trash culture.

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Avatar for user 'hboooo'

hboooo | September 10, 2010 at 2:08 p.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

randolphslinky wouldn't KNOW ART if it punched him in the throat.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | September 10, 2010 at 3:04 p.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

Since some people are really concerned about toxic chemicals and heavy metals, they might consider that the paint typically used to produce street "art" contains harmful fumes if inhaled or absorbed. In fact, most of us are unaware of the effects that one coat of paint may have. Low levels of vapors from either formaldehyde, benzene, butane, propane, and fluorinated hydrocarbons found in can or spray paints are released on a daily basis for the first thirty days after application. But even year’s later small amounts of toxic fumes can continue to leak into the air. Over a period, exposure to these fumes can be harmful to the brain - brilliant.

If that happens, it won't need to "punch you in the throat."

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Avatar for user 'rastle'

rastle | September 11, 2010 at 10:05 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

I knew Marko, "back in the day," and still have some of his t-shirts, somewhere. I remember the stencil and once knew where it was. Whether that was before or after it was "ditched" I'm not sure. Anyway, I remember one instance of NO ART on a sea wall in La Jolla. The sea wall was repainted, but the painters, whether they thought it was an official sign of some sort, or just appreciated the message (one of them), carefully avoided destroying the NO ART image.

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Avatar for user 'breetflower'

breetflower | September 12, 2010 at 11:13 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

Nissan Patrol

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Avatar for user 'rashellbee'

rashellbee | September 18, 2010 at 3:25 p.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

I remember No Art so well. It seemed so radical at the time if not subversive. I believe St. Marko was a regular at the La Jolla Pannikin throughout the early 1980's.

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