Early this month, half a dozen people stood outside a defunct factory, painting their biggest project yet: a 13-foot by 6.5-foot mural of the now-ubiquitous sign supporting Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.
Sweating in the heat, the group of painters dipped their brushes in blue and white as they transformed a wall at the old Rich’s Readimix Quarry building on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road into a watery scene of gentle waves and sunshine. Drivers waved and honked their horns as they passed. The painters had no idea how the finished product was going to look, so as soon as they finished, they ran up the road to admire their accomplishment.
Last Saturday morning, the project was gone, destroyed by a vandal during the night. The wall had been splashed with gray paint, leaving only a hint of an orange sun visible.
“A cloudy, sad day in Point Reyes,” the painters said among themselves.
Since a small grassroots group began fashioning the free signs with donated plywood, producing around 600 copies to date, their work has been defaced or stolen repeatedly. Members of the coalition have been frightened by intrusions on supporters’ property and worry the destructive tactics will only further divide the West Marin community around the Drakes Bay controversy.
Bridger Mitchell, the president of West Marin’s Environmental Action Committee, condemned the vandalism. “We don’t condone in any way that type of vandalism or malicious defacement,” he said. “I’ve checked with people at the EAC, and we know nothing about it,” he added.
Mr. Mitchell said the EAC offices faced similar attacks after Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar issued his decision to close the farm: someone dumped toilet fixtures on their doorstep.
“The EAC would fully support citizens’ rights to express themselves politically. It’s evidently something that a number of people feel they want to do and that’s fine,” he said. “We don’t think it’s helpful to conduct dialogue with those instruments. It’s not a political campaign, it’s not who votes for who. The dialogue is really going on now in the United States courts.”
The loose coalition of oyster company supporters consists of roughly a dozen volunteer sign painters—some publicly identified, some anonymous—without a formal structure or hierarchy. They formed in March in response to heightened tensions and a noticeable decline in the tenor of the conversation that had devolved into name-calling and ad hominem attacks, said Robin Carpenter, one of the original members. It seemed you were either a “Koch brothers conspirator” or a “wilderness crazy,” she said.
Following the lead of chef Alice Waters and the other community organizations who submitted a “friends of the court,” or amicus curiae, brief, the signs gave people a non-combative way to communicate their support for the oyster company, Ms. Carpenter said.
“We wanted a positive statement, something happy and nonthreatening and nonjudgmental,” she said. “We didn’t want anything creepy, since we have a lot of visitors here.”
Citing poster campaigns like the feminist Guerilla Girls and roadside advertisements like Burma Shave’s 1950’s billboards as inspiration, the group made a message into artwork. The signs have been produced without any help from Drakes Bay Oyster Company, but with their blessing, members said.
Sonoma Valley resident Yannick Phillips first came up with the idea for hand-painted signs and painted messages on staves from wine barrels, before Barbara Ravizza, a Stinson Beach resident, designed the current version for a larger sign that could be easily reproduced.
Supporters have gathered at open parties where the work runs like a factory line, each volunteer specializing in one aspect. Ms. Ravizza sometimes tells the painters their waves look too much like tsunamis or that the letters are too curvy, but having a unique, handmade sign is part of the appeal, Ms. Carpenter said.
Backers say the signs have had enormous success, sprouting up across Sonoma, Napa and Marin. Some have been seen as far north as Portland, south in Los Angeles, and even as far east as Iowa.
Yet despite the group’s intention to improve the dialogue, a recent surge in vandalism has made supporters question whether they have accomplished their goal or whether this too will devolve into a war without compromise or respect for the other side’s opinions.
The first instances of vandalism in early May were almost comical to the group members. Some opponents simply painted out “Oyster Farm” or inserted “Go Wild” as a message of their support for wilderness in Drakes Bay. Judy Teichman, one of the painters, joked that these vandals did not understand branding when they appropriated the highly recognizable work, instead of designing an original.
But recently, the sabotage has become more violent and widespread, supporters said. Ms. Carpenter awoke on a June morning to find a curse word scrawled in black marker across the sign outside her home in Lagunitas. Jeff Creque, an ALSA board member and Inverness resident, has had multiple signs stolen. Some fences in Bolinas were damaged when vandals ripped down signs screwed into posts. And one sign placed at the Rich’s Readimix Quarry Building, where the mural was recently painted and vandalized, was thrown into a stream behind the building.
“I felt violated,” Ms. Carpenter said of the vandalism to her sign. “It’s scary to have someone on my property at my home or in my garden having enough anger to rip something off or write something ugly.”
Frustrated by the vandalism, the group contacted the Readimix property owners and asked for permission to paint a giant sign on the side of the building, a highly visible message that couldn’t be tossed away. Ms. Ravizza sketched a design and the coalition set up a scaffold and completed the project in three hours.
Fearing the same person who had destroyed previous signs at the factory would return, they posted a red warning against potential trespassers. Neither sign deterred the vandal—or vandals.
When Michael Greenberg, an Inverness resident, found out the sign he helped paint was ruined, he started fuming. “This is a breakdown of society that we can no longer shrug at,” he said. He doubted the vandals had considered the implications of their actions. “This only entrenches people and makes them angry. It encourages other people to put up more signs,” he added.
No police reports of vandalism to the signs have been submitted in the past 90 days, said Sgt. Hugh Baker, perhaps indicative of the pervasiveness of the problem or a realization by supporters that the sheriff’s office probably has bigger shellfish to fry.
The sign painters wonder whether the vandals are opponents of the farm or simply a group of kids who want to stir things up, isolated incidents or a group conspiracy. “It could be anybody,” Ms. Carpenter said.
The painters are publishing ads and distributing flyers for a “Sign Replacement Service,” repainting the large mural at the Readimix and continuing to work down the waiting list of supporters who want their own signs.
“Our signs will keep getting bigger and bigger,” Mr. Greenberg said. “See if you can carry that away.”