BERKELEY – On the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way, someone tagged an eggshell-white wall of the American Apparel store with the sobriquet "Pablo Diablo" in swirling, bloated script. Farther up Bancroft, a redwood fence at the YWCA building has been adorned with slashing white letters all but indecipherable.
Students and residents pass by these examples of either (a) creative street art, or (b) graffiti blight without pausing to ponder any veiled significance or even really noticing these marks that blend into the urban landscape.
But, a few blocks even farther up Bancroft, the eye cannot help but be drawn to an arresting image on the cantilevered Modernist facade of the Berkeley Art Museum. There, 20 feet tall in bold red letters with dripping paint running down, is a tag with the word "Snitch."
You are engaged. You stop and gawk. On closer inspection, you see that this mondo-tag is actually sprayed on a gray tarp affixed to the concrete outcropping. And at the museum's front doors, a few yards away, the glass is covered with a red and black tag – Barry McGee's calling card writ large.
This is what you get, and would no doubt expect, when a museum devotes significant space to a mid- career retrospective of McGee, arguably San Francisco's most celebrated street artist.
Graffiti art – or tagging, if you will – simply cannot be contained within walls. It needs to be on the walls, as well. So even before entering, you are given a preview of the esprit de spray can of McGee and his band of Mission District guerrilla artists. Inside, it's as if he's occupied the space: Animatronic taggers climb the walls to mark territory, the mezzanine has been re-imagined as a bodega, with a trash bin overflowing with discarded objects, wood and paper scraps.
Yet, the tension in this exhibit comes not from the now-clichéd, chin-pulling "is graffiti real art?" argument. There's no shock value anymore in the art establishment embracing these spray-paint-toting Picassos.
Rather, McGee faces that age-old artistic dilemma of how to stay true to his vision and "outsider-art" ethos when his work is hanging in galleries and museums instead of alleys and freeway underpasses.
This tension can be summed up in a single word, scrawled over McGee's tag on the front door: "sellout."
Is this McGee's handiwork, his guilt-ridden acknowledgment of his ascent into the establishment? Or is it an intervention by some unknown tagger bent on keeping this brand of art edgy?
The question brought a bemused smile to Marcelo Sousa. He's a UC Berkeley graduate student who hosts a weekday guided tour of the McGee retrospective, which runs through Dec. 9. He ran a hand across his brow and tried to answer.
"He's insistent on the term 'tagging' in the most subversive connotation of the word possible," Sousa said. "Yet, being here radically alters the terms. The question is, are you tagging or pretending to tag? There's something about the fake-tagging process (at the museum) that sort of evacuates the meaning and subversiveness of the very act of doing what it's referencing.
"That's a compromise McGee now has to deal with. And that is difficult for people committed to the transgressive nature of the work to accept."
Sousa shrugged, for effect, then continued.
"I guess that's a nice way of saying why things like 'sellout' end up getting tagged on the door."
McGee himself seems to have struggled with fame. For a few years, he stopped using his name and stopped using red altogether after his work became too closely linked to the color.
Once you come to terms with the incongruity of institutionalized tagging, you can appreciate the retrospective for what it is – an artist expressing his world view through tags, installations, etchings and vivid op-art panels.
As much as people might want to romanticize McGee as a can-wielding street thug, he does have formal training. A graduate of the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute, McGee quickly evolved from outlaw artist in the Mission District to one whose work has been commissioned at major museums and civic and university settings.
But, as Sousa pointed out, McGee cannot help but tweak the nose of patronage.
"This," he said, pointing to a massive red mural, "is a re-creation of what he did for Rice University (in Houston). You can see down below, he slipped in a derogatory term for 'cowboy.' "
McGee, though, seems at his best when he sticks to what he knows best: the Mission District. One untitled installation is a series of empty Thunderbird wine bottles with McGee's signature sad-faced old men painted on the front. Sousa noted the authenticity, saying McGee bought the drained bottles off the homeless in the Mission.
Those sad-faced men – few down-and-out women, interestingly – are a recurring image in McGee's work, be it tags or etchings or "clusters" of found objects. The faces are part Bukowski, part Hopper, all evocative.
It's not just people, though. McGee imbues found objects with significance, everything from rusted printer's trays to thrift-store frames to vegetable boxes. One sign he snatched for the show is intentionally ironic, reading: "To all taggers, please do not mark on this truck and do not remove this sign. Thank you."
Upon leaving the exhibit, back into the Berkeley fog, you start noticing more examples of this outsider art on the outside. Do you quicken your step and avert your eyes, like any hard- bitten urbanite would? Or do you perhaps pause and consider these ubiquitous tags in a new light?
When: Through Dec. 9
Where: Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
Guided tours: Thursdays at 12:15 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. (included with admission)
Details: (510) 642-0808; http://bampfa.berkeley.edu