El Muro Que Da and the Gang that Took Over

by Melanie Camp

Maite Zubiaurre does not like the way walls divide.

“The world is becoming increasingly hostile, our country, the United States is, we’re trying to wall off everything and just become an island, and I’m very much against that,” she said.

Armed with a big gray wall of her own, dividing her home from a busy street in Venice, Zubiaurre conjured “a very simple, artistic, and activist way” to make a statement about walls.

“When one thinks of a wall one thinks of separation and hostility, and I thought I would make a wall that speaks exactly the opposite, so it’s a welcoming wall, a generous wall, that doesn’t separate but creates a sense of community by just giving,” she said.

Creating under her artistic moniker, Filomena Cruz, Zubiaurre decided to make art pieces and give them away by placing them inside a nook in her wall. Explaining her process, she said, “I take pictures of trash in Venice, and I then assemble them in collage form on a tile I get from Home Depot.” Zubiaurre said she needed something inexpensive that she could give away daily.

Zubiaurre said she needed something inexpensive that she could give away daily.

What Zubiaurre didn’t expect was the reciprocity that followed. “I didn’t think people would leave things in return but that is exactly what has happened,” she said. Passersby have taken tiles and left a dream catcher, a cigarette packet full of weed, and one person even left a five dollar bill emailing Zubiaurre to explain the money was for someone in need. “Generosity generates further generosity,” Zubiaurre said.

Other gifts to the wall included artistic additions. Someone painted a flower that looked like it had grown out from a crack. Another person painted a sad clown face after which someone else took a brush and turned the frown into a smile.

Then in early June, a local graffiti gang, under the watchful eye of Venice-based artist Jules Muck, gave the wall a full makeover.

Muck said she started painting on Zubiaurre’s wall years before Zubiaurre moved to Venice. “David Henebush gave it to me,” Muck explained that street artists honor a sort of unwritten code as to where they paint. When you paint where you shouldn’t, it can start a war. Feeling a claim to the wall, Muck agreed to paint with a few of the Pacific Coast Hooligans (PCH) crew.

Explaining the etiquette of graffiti and muralism, Muck said if you want to take over a wall, as a sign of respect for the previous artist, you must completely cover their work before you begin your own. If you leave traces of what was before, little hints of the previous artist’s work hanging out from under your own, it is a hostile takeover. If someone does this to your work, then look for a tag to find out who hates your arse and destroyed your art. People have been shot for this kind of move. It happened to the head of the first gang Muck ever joined. “He got shot and killed in front of the whole crew,” she said.

When Zubiaurre’s husband called her at work to say a gang was giving it all to the wall, she chose to see it as an opportunity for the continued evolution of her project. She only had one request; the artists needed to ensure the words, ‘The Wall that Gives,’ were incorporated into the mural. And they were, in both Spanish and English.

Zubiaurre with artist Jules Muck and some of the PCH Crew.

For Muck, the wall stood as an opportunity to help young artists realize their potential beyond tagging. “A couple of them are going to sign writing school and this was a good way for them to practice,” she said. Muck knows what it is like to not recognize one’s own talent. As a kid tearing around the Bronx all she thought she could do was scrawl her name with a spray can, until Lady Pink came along and pushed her to do more. By way of paying it forward, Muck takes the role of mentor to the young graffiti artists beyond painting. After the day’s work, the group was heading to an AA meeting. “I had to become sober because I was not able to monitor my drug intake,” said Muck of an addiction that just about killed her.  A kind of surrogate-art-mother-hen, Muck has inspired sobriety in the crew.

Zubiaurre is happy her wall keeps giving. “I saw what she (Muck) was doing and how she was helping young men to actually do meaningful things with their lives and I just loved it,” she said. Adding she especially liked Muck’s “frolicking rabbits.”

A current favorite to paint, Muck’s signature bunnies could just be cuddling but they do look like they are either shagging or have just wrapped up the deed with the lady bunny enjoying what is perhaps a postcoital cigarette. “I like a cigarette after sex,” Muck said with a chuckle. As one Venice local, James Andrew said, “You could look forever and you’ll never get a truer voice than Jules Muck.” It is a voice that not only earns her a pack of fans but also an enemy here and there.

Within a week, the wall had again “evolved.”

A rival gang, identified by their WMD tag, had sprayed overlaying black and white lines through the block lettering that read PACIFIC COAST HOOLIGN. One set of Muck’s bunnies were partially whited over, a target sprayed on top, and the piece was tagged. A blatant hostile takeover.

A blatant hostile takeover.

According to Muck, the attackers claimed PCH did not have permission to put their name up in Venice. One translation of WMD is We Mob Deep, a nod to the crew’s lineage. Muck explained, “some of the kids in WMD are related to Suicidals,” an OG Venice graffiti gang.

Zubiaurre pointed out at least the words ‘The Wall That Gives’ continued to garner respect and had not been touched. Honor amongst thieves.

Irritated by the attack, Muck vented her frustration over the petty and divisive nature of graffiti wars. “We all have real enemies, the people that don’t want any art. And we all are kind of played by them to be against each other instead of these people that are oppressing artists in general. There’s like these people that paint over everything gray, why do we not just go after them?” she said.

A rival gang let PCH know their mural was not welcome in Venice.

Though the wall may divide two local gangs, Zubiaurre sees its evolution as a sign of her activism winning. “Everyday something else happens. It’s a living organism, and I love that because a wall is usually the opposite; a hostile, unexpressive face and surface that separates and nothing else, this one is generating something, it has become alive.”

If only PCH and WMD would unite with their backpacks full of spray cans and do something about that other wall.

El muro que da, forever.