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‘Tax Dollars Kill’: Spie One’s Decades of Bay Area Graffiti Activism

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Spie One, pictured in 2015, in front of a Dia de Los Muertos mural he created at SOMArts in San Francisco in tribute to a friend. (Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.

T

he name Spie One has resonated in the Bay Area for nearly 40 years. The prolific graffiti artist, muralist and artivist may be less famous than his former painting partner, the late Mike “Dream” Francisco, but Spie is no less legendary. A mainstay of the TDK Collective, Irie Posse and FC — all with gravitas and legacy in the underground art world — Spie has been both observer and participant throughout the most dynamic eras in Bay Area hip-hop history.

But who is Spie? His nom de guerre evokes subterfuge, counter-intelligence, covertness. Indeed, maintaining anonymity was imperative at the beginning of Spie’s career, during the formative stages of Bay Area graffiti itself.

Over the years, though, Spie evolved into a well-known force bridging activism and visual art in the streets. In recent years, he’s become an accomplished muralist working in different mediums, as well as a teacher, mentor and leader by example.

Those who know Spie well enough to call him a friend talk a lot about his character — his ethics, his dedication to his craft and his belief in collective liberation. They also mention his idiosyncrasies — the bugged-out sketches he randomly emails folks, his insistence on using 20-year-old paint from his garage instead of modern spray cans, his continued willingness to get up on impromptu street art missions even though he’s married with children and has a day job as a high school art teacher.

More on Bay Area Hip-Hop Culture

The words “community” and “family” invariably come up in conversations with and about Spie. While he can claim status in a field where toys are destroyed and respect is earned one piece at a time, one of his defining characteristics is humility. His ethos, he says, is a simple “each one teach one” philosophy.

“You got knowledge, you got to pass it on,” Spie continues. “I got something to share. That’s why I chose to take my work to the next generation, the youth, and to help cultivate their imagination, their radical thoughts… Hip-hop combined with that is what has shaped my pathway.”

I, Spie

Spie grew up in a multiracial household in San Francisco in the 1970s, when the city was still identified with the remnants of 1960s counterculture. His artist mother and bus driver father were both activists whose shared worldview was shaped by revolutionary ideals. While his mom encouraged his artistic sensibilities, his dad let him pal along on bus rides and introduced him to eclectic, cutting-edge music, like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” — with bristling, Reagan-era sociopolitical commentary that made a lasting impression.

A tall, lanky youth, Spie was somewhat introverted, letting his artistic expressions manifest on notebooks and a dresser in his room. No one particular flashpoint led him to pursue graffiti. As a half-Asian kid, or hapa, living in a diverse city, he was eager to carve out his own identity and find a community. The emergence of hip-hop and graffiti in the early ’80s gave him the sense of belonging and creative outlet he needed.

Spie’s first public attempt at a graffiti piece came in 1985, at the tennis courts of McAteer High School in San Francisco. It was a simple piece: a red and black rendering of his early moniker “Spy,” written boldly. Next to it were the words “one man bomber” — a testament to the fact that Spie painted it alone.

Spie’s first piece at San Francisco’s McAteer High School, circa late 1983 or early 1984. (Spie One)

In a 2017 episode of Adam Fujita’s popular graffiti podcast My Life In Letters, Spie explained how the piece brought him local notoriety; he soon became an active tagger on Muni buses, as well as in the Excelsior and the Mission. A Muni Fast Pass afforded him the opportunity to visit other neighborhoods and write his graffiti name across the city, and as he grew more prolific, so did his stylistic ability and reputation.

Young Spie wasn’t alone in this endeavor. Alongside him in the 1980s were hundreds, maybe thousands of restless youth finding their way within graffiti. The status quo called them vandals. But graffiti was their counterculture, and a way to find meaning and identity in a society that didn’t always see or hear them.

By 1982, graffiti had become known as one of hip-hop’s four elements. But it was also a standalone culture that preceded b-boying, MCing and DJ scratching. The community mural movement dated back to 1967 Chicago and aligned with the Black Arts Movement. Murals were already part of the cultural expression of El Movimiento, a.k.a. the Chicano Movement, a push for ethnic identity and empowerment. The modern graffiti movement originated in Philadelphia in the late ’60s before spreading to New York. And gang-affiliated tags had long permeated SF’s Mission and Excelsior districts.

These cultural precedents were integral to graffiti’s evolution. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, New York’s aerosol kings conquered the subways of the five boroughs. Even though the Metropolitan Transit Authority combatted their wild styles with “the buff,” word spread around the country with films like 1983’s Wild Style, along with the documentary Style Wars, which aired nationally on PBS the same year. Its broadcast on KQED catalyzed the Bay Area graffiti scene. “There was this gravitational pull toward what was happening coming out of these films,” Spie recalls.

One wall to rule them all

By the mid-’80s, a series of walls in an unsecured downtown parking lot near Van Ness Avenue and Market Street became an unlikely ground zero for aspiring aerosol aficionados. A wall painted by Doug “Dug-1” Cunningham in 1986 entitled “Psycho City” became so iconic, the quasi-legal graffiti spot was soon named in its honor.

“When Dug hit it, it was a full-on burner,” Spie recalls, referring to a particularly impressive stylistic production that metaphorically burned competition. “It was like it was framed. It was very solidly panoramic, rectangular. It had characters.”

Afterwards, “[graffiti] just started to expand to all the neighboring walls, to the point where [Psycho City] became the place to go to paint,” Spie adds.

Dug-1’s ‘Psycho City’ piece gave the legendary San Francisco graffiti spot its name in 1986. (Spie One)

Graffiti artists from all over the Bay Area, and even other states and countries, found their way to Psycho City. Over time, the scene became more competitive as wall space became more limited. A piece painted one night might be painted over the next. Needless to say, the competition fueled innovation, as productions became bolder, bigger and more ambitious.

Spie recalls Psycho City remaining active up until November 1992, when a street festival featuring barbeque, DJs, and breakdancing by NYC’s Rock Steady Crew attracted police attention. In the ensuing confrontation, police vehicles were vandalized. The cops returned in greater numbers and began ticketing people. Soon after, “No Loitering” signs were put up, which allowed police to cite anyone in the area, effectively ending Psycho City’s reign. The irony, Spie says, is that instead of graffiti being contained within one centralized location, the police action “ended up pushing it to other parts of town.”

Mike "Dream" Francisco
Spie’s late painting partner, Mike ‘Dream’ Francisco. (Spie One)

Pieces of a Dream

By 1987, Spie had earned a reputation as an up-and-coming artist with a versatile array of lettering styles. That reputation would only grow over time — and with the help of a legendary collaborator.

Over in Oakland, a Filipino American artist named Mike “Dream” Francisco had established himself as the king of the 23rd Yard, a popular graffiti destination. At the time, “I didn’t know Dream, but he was my hero,” Spie says.

In July 1987, Dream painted a massive mural at the 23rd Yard entitled “Best of Both Worlds.” The painting — which has since become the center spread of 2011’s The History of American Graffiti — consisted of two elaborately detailed letterforms, one in the computer-esque “New Wave” style and the other in the abstract “Funk” style. In mastering both styles, Dream was sending a not-so-subtle message to fellow artists of unity instead of division.

Spie and some artist pals journeyed to Oakland to see the wall. “Everyone was talking about it,” he says. He and Dream became friends that day, although it would be another two years before they would begin collaborating in earnest.

Soon after, Phase 2’s widely respected magazine International Graffiti Times put out a call for artist submissions. “Dream won that one and it got really popularized. And then everybody knew that the Bay Area had a scene going on… Dream put the Bay Area on the map as far as graff,” Spie says.

Dream’s 1987 ‘Best of Both Worlds’ wall in Oakland. (Spie One)

Bay Area graffiti was growing exponentially, “but it was frowned upon,” says Susan Cervantes of Mission-based arts non-profit Precita Eyes. “If you had a marker you were considered a criminal. Youth were taking a lot of risk trying to do it.”

Still, the subculture continued to thrive. In August 1987, Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff’s book Spraycan Art showcased local artists Crayone TWS, Del Phresh, Whisky and Daube alongside national and international talent.

“We were in love with [Spraycan Art],” Spie says. He notes Prigoff, then a local resident, would sometimes invite Bay Area artists over to his house to view photographs of graffiti from other regions.

Cervantes, a community muralist since the ’70s, recognized that a new artistic movement was underway. Precita Eyes hosted a book release party for Spraycan Art, and Cervantes curated a graffiti art competition at Mission Cultural Center, which brought her into contact with 16-year-old Spie, who knew some of the artists in the competition. After the event, Spie stayed in touch with Cervantes and the organization as they started to integrate graffiti’s aesthetic into their youth programming. They’ve been connected ever since.

In 1996, Spie and Dream participated in a panel during Precita Eyes’ first Urban Youth Arts Festival. “They discussed their experiences in the graffiti movement with all the young people who came to participate,” Cervantes says. “They were really good about the history of the graff movement and how important it was to show respect for each others’ work.” Their engagement with young people set a tone that Precita Eyes has followed for 27 years, with the annual festival as a linchpin of its programmatic activities.

“[Spie] is a really special person,” Cervantes says. “I think he’s very articulate not only in his visual expression, but also in activism around the issues that are important to him.”

Mike “Dream” Francisco stands before his collaborative mural with Spie One, ‘Tax Dollars Kill,’ in 1995. (Spie One)

Fighting the power

Spie has always viewed activism as a generational legacy. He tells a story of how, during the height of the anti-apartheid movement, Berkeley hosted a “Spirit of Soweto” street festival on Telegraph Avenue. Revolution Books provided canvases for artists to paint politically-themed works. Coincidentally, Spie and Dream both brought sketches of Steve Biko, a martyred South African activist.

Clearly, the two artists were aligned in their politics and artistic sensibilities, and Spie and Dream began working together shortly after. By that point, Spie had become a master of letterforms, characters and backgrounds. In archival photographs of their many collaborations, the pair appear evenly matched; a 1992 co-production at Psycho City literally rises above lesser tags with blazingly vibrant colors and impeccable aerosol calligraphy.

A collaborative piece by Spie and Dream at Psycho City in 1992. (Spie One)

Spie joined Dream’s crew TDK, influencing the collective’s aesthetic artistically and ideologically. The acronym originally stood for “Those Damn Kids,” but soon morphed into alternate meanings, among them “Teach Dem Knowledge.”

Francisco “Amend” Sanchez was still in high school when he met Dream, who was working at the Built to Last tattoo parlor, where aspiring young artists would often “hover” to watch the master at work. At the time, Sanchez had a different tag, but he switched to writing Amend after Dream told him, “Your name should represent. You should have some value to who you are.”

TDK, Amend says, isn’t just about the style of graffiti. “It’s also about just the culture within, an urban community that you want to represent and speak up for.”

According to Amend, Spie plays a unique role within the crew. “He doesn’t get enough credit on how influential he’s been in the Bay Area for multiple generations. As far as TDK goes, I think he’s the main guy who would push Mike Dream, to push the crew to go into that whole social justice point of view, speaking up for … people in the community.”

“This was the ‘Fight the Power’ era,” Spie recalls — a time when hip-hop often felt like a political movement, and rappers like Public Enemy and KRS-One pushed the envelope of sociopolitical commentary in pop culture. For Spie, it was a no-brainer to contribute visually, and inspire others to do the same. There were many causes to join: reproductive rights, opposing anti-immigration laws, protesting LAPD’s beating of Rodney King, pushing back against the Gulf War and resisting the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America in 1992.

“It was a great time of awareness,” Spie says. “I was very much in a learning mode of being aware of the Native struggle and needing to [let people] know that we are occupying Native peoples’ territories.”

Spie’s ‘Solidarity’ was commissioned by the Oakland Museum of California for the exhibition ‘Respect: Style and Wisdom of Hip-Hop’ in 2018. (Spie One)

No justice, just us

As political graffiti proliferated in the Bay Area, a January 1993 exhibition at Oakland’s Pro Arts gallery titled No Justice No Peace became the first local gallery show to feature the artform. Eastside Arts Alliance co-founder Greg Morozumi organized it during the Rodney King protests, which raised profound questions about police accountability. The exhibition, Spie says, was a “proverbial middle finger” against the system.

To enter the gallery, attendees had to walk over an American flag. “That was the welcome mat,” Spie says. Inside, viewers were greeted by paintings by Spie, Dream, Krash, Dug-1 and Refa One — most of which questioned the authority of law enforcement while reinforcing community resilience. Spie and Dream’s “No Justice” paid tribute to Jesse “Plan-B” Hall, an emerging rapper who was murdered in a still-unsolved drive-by shooting in Oakland’s Sobrante Park. Juxtaposed with a Krash painting of a porcine-faced police officer pointing a gun, the piece addressed the emotional toll of inner-city violence.

A look inside the ‘No Justice, No Peace’ exhibition at ProArts in 1993. (Spie One)

In 1994, Dream and Spie painted an on-stage backdrop for KMEL’s annual Summer Jam concert. The show, headlined by Patti LaBelle, also featured locals E-40, Rappin’ 4-Tay, Tony! Toni! Toné! and A Lighter Shade of Brown, along with Public Enemy, OutKast and Queen Latifah. The backdrop proved that the duo weren’t always incendiary, with colorful letters spelling out “Respect” along with the message “peace follows.”

In 1995, Spie and Dream collaborated on one of their most unflinching murals: “Tax Dollars Kill.” The names of the artists appeared in typical graffiti wildstyle fashion; above them was a depiction of lightning striking the U.S. Capitol building. The symbolism was inescapable, especially because the mural’s title was rendered boldly above the signatures in white lettering, like a masthead.

Throughout their association, Spie and Dream would “always try to bring some kind of message … something poetic to be a part of what people were reading, as far as the painting goes. And that just kind of kept manifesting.”

A copy of a 1994 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle saved by Spie One, showing Patti Labelle performing in front of his collaborative mural with Mike “Dream” Francisco. (Spie One)

In addition to political influence, artist Cece Carpio, who calls Spie a mentor, maintains that he helped establish a Bay Area-identified lettering style. In the pre-internet days, she explains, graffiti was less ubiquitous and regions were often associated with specific styles. “Back then, the Bay Area letters got kind of curvy, just stylized lettering. I actually believe that’s something that the Bay Area started, and Spie was one of the pioneers who did that.”

A controversial mural with a message

While enrolled as an undergrad at San Francisco State University in 1996, Spie painted his first work with acrylic paint and brushes: a portrait of Malcolm X to commemorate the 1968 Third World Liberation Front student strike, which resulted in the creation of one of the country’s first ethnic studies departments. Working in the mode of a traditional painter caused some apprehension and soul-searching for Spie.

“It was always just this back-and-forth around, ‘Are you staying true to this art form? Are you trying to do that other established thing that other people already consider art?’” he recalls. “That was something that I struggled with a lot of those years. But I think the Malcolm X piece really helped me to open up my own personal arts avenues much wider.”

Although the mural’s unveiling was a success (Spie got to meet Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, who came out for the event), the project had a long and controversial backstory.

An earlier version of the mural, painted by Oakland artist Refa One, included a border with dollar bills, a burning American flag, and a Star of David. Needless to say, this did not go over well with the university, whose spokesperson called the piece “hateful” in The New York Times.

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The school administration ordered the mural to be covered up, but a group of students reclaimed it with a bucket of water and soap, and camped out in front of the mural to protect it from further harm. In response, the school brought in a tactical unit in riot gear, aided by the SFPD, Spie recalls. Eventually, the mural was sandblasted over. “It was like they were assassinating Malcolm twice,” Spie says.

Two years later, the university put out another call for artists, and Spie was selected. Facing pressure from student activists, the school administration asked him to work with a Black artist, Kamau Ayubbi, a friend he knew from the 23rd Yard. The completed mural, still visible today, features two portraits of Malcolm X, with the African continent surrounding the United States, painted in black, in the background. It also includes a Malcolm X quote: “Our objective is complete freedom, justice, and equality By Any Means Necessary.”

Spie and Kama Ayubbo’s 1996 Malcolm X mural at San Francisco State University. (Spie One)

Rebel without a pause

In 2000, the unthinkable happened: Mike Dream was murdered in West Oakland. The still-unsolved killing deprived the Bay Area of its most legendary graffiti artist. “It was a devastating blow when he left this world. … So much of my own kind of self-actualization came through his guidance,” Spie later told the East Bay Express. Spie and the TDK crew have kept Dream alive and in their hearts for the past 23 years, organizing a series of annual “Dream Day” events in Oakland beginning in 2010, benefitting Dream’s son Akil.

Rather than slow down, though, TDK remained active. Amend, Vogue and Stash all became widely known artists in their own right. Dream protege Marty Aranaydo, a.k.a. Meut TDK, a.k.a. DJ Willie Maze, furthered hip-hop activism through painting and as a member of socially conscious DJ collective Local 1200. Meanwhile, Spie soldiered on, earning a teaching credential and landing a job teaching art at a regional high school.

In the 2000s, a new generation of artist collectives emerged, building directly on Dream and Spie’s sociopolitical blueprint and the family values of TDK. Trust Your Struggle member Carpio says Spie has gone out of his way to push her artistic efforts to the next level. And while Carpio’s work stands on its own, Spie’s influence reflects in themes of Indigenous advocacy, resilience and racial solidarity.

The two recently painted a commemorative project at UC Berkeley honoring the Third World Liberation Front. The project, which has yet to be installed, features vibrant portraits of revolutionary icons Richard Aoki, June Jordan, Lehman Brightman, Ron Takaki and LaNada War Jack. According to Carpio, “what makes [Spie’s art] different in comparison to a lot of other graffiti and street art is his accountability to the movement and his accountability to the community.”

2014’s ‘Key Tree,’ Spie’s contribution to Oakland’s Palestine Solidarity Wall, visualizes liberation of oppressed peoples. (Spie One)

Spie has painted in New York, Los Angeles, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Cuba, Costa Rica, Mexico and Portugal. Still, some of his most memorable work has been local. In 2007, he, Mike Ramos and H.O.M.E.Y. painted the mythical Aztec Feathered Serpent in the Mission. In 2014, he was one of 12 muralists who contributed to the “Oakland Palestine Solidarity Mural” in Uptown.

In 2018, he manifested a solidarity-themed mural as part of the Oakland Museum’s first-ever hip-hop exhibit, and a ruby-throated hummingbird for environmental justice organization PODER. During the pandemic, he and several family members volunteered to paint the exterior of the Precita Eyes building. In 2021, during the George Floyd protests, he was one of the first artists to turn downtown Oakland into an outdoor art gallery. And in 2022, he painted a work entitled “Serve the People” on the window of Casa De Apoyo, a transitional housing resource center in the Excelsior.

As he’s become a more accomplished muralist, Spie has stayed true to his roots by including elements of graffiti even when working with other mediums. “I can remember that he started using acrylic paint with a brush to block in everything, and then he would do all the fine effects and details with the aerosol,” Cervantes says. “And that’s kind of what our youth arts program still does today.”

Throughout his storied career, Spie says he “always chose the side of the earth, the subjected and the oppressed. And, you know, what they like to say: the voice of the voiceless.”

Spie and Cece Carpio collaborated on a tribute to the Third World Liberation Front and other revolutionary activists. Their work will be installed at UC Berkeley at a later date. (Cece Carpio)

TDK: The Dream Kontinues

Spie can recount descriptive accounts of protests from decades past, but when asked about future projects, he simply sends over a link to YBCA’s recent “YBCA 100” celebration, with a visual art display by TDK Collective.

At the event, Spie held court on the venue’s second floor, dressed unassumingly in a Madow Futur jacket and Bored Stiff baseball hat. As he greeted attendees, including visual artist Agana and documentary filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, a monitor played Bay Area Graffiti: The Early Years, followed by Style Wars.

Art supplies were laid out on a table, along with various hardcover books on graffiti. Adjacent walls were decorated with TDK’s historical works: several Spie-Dream collaborations, including “Tax Dollars Kill,” and a tribute to the Rodney King uprisings that depicted an overturned police car, a colorful piece by Pak (R.I.P.), a tribute to Plan-B, and a late career piece by Dream. Several of Spie’s solo works were integrated, among them two vibrant “Spie” letterforms, linked by the word “vs.” (referencing the classic Mad magazine cartoon “Spy vs. Spy”). The artist was clearly in his element.

Spie pulled out a binder he’d assembled, consisting of Dream’s pieces, sketches, quotes and airbrush work. The collection held serious gravitas; all that it needed to be included in a library alongside Spraycan Art, Dondi White: Style Master General and similar graffiti books was a hardcover binding and written essays.

Whatever the future holds – a comprehensive TDK retrospective, the publication of his Dream book or some other legacy project – Spie doesn’t reveal exact plans. It’s understandable, and completely in character, that after five decades as an artist, he seems to take satisfaction in maintaining his mystique, revealing only what he deems necessary.

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