Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle

Painting for Good

Late one night in his San Francisco studio, the artist Victor Reyes reached for a pair of black latex gloves and grabbed a tube of yellow ochre paint out of a plastic bin. David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” cranked from speakers overhead and Reyes, with a wet paint brush in his gloved hand, was finally ready to re-engage with his canvas.

Reyes, 34, is a self-taught painter who began on the lowest rung of the street artist ladder: Tagger. Graffiti kid. Thug with a Sharpie.

“I loved to break things down,” Reyes said.

At the thought of his tagging days, Reyes stepped back from his work and gripped his paint brush into his fist, then punched an open palm — “It was like, ‘Boom! Fuck you!’ It’s a whole mentality. It’s a mind-set that says, ‘I think you think you’re better than me. And now I’m gonna shit all over you.’”

After a few quick dashes of yellow Reyes took another step back and squinted at his painting. The canvas swirled in a mix of bright hues, cool colors, and fluid lines. Viewers of Reyes’ work often use one word to describe it: Pretty.

Pretty is a long way from graffiti.

So, how did Reyes transform his creative energy from something that was used to break things down and turn it into a force that makes art? Or, in simple comic book terms, how did he transform his evil powers into good?

“Baby steps,” Reyes said. “A lot of it was just being young. I was that guy to a certain degree. I did it, but I also had a brain. Some of that angst is still in my work, that’s just part of my story. I’m never not going to be that person, but you have to move on.”

Graffiti turned into doodles in a notebook, the doodles begat drawing, drawing evolved into painting. At some point, his stroke matured into a distinctive voice, and one that collectors are now willing to shell out thousands of dollars to purchase.

Two summers ago, Reyes completed an artistic challenge through the city’s Mission District, where he painted all 26 letters of the alphabet on walls throughout the neighborhood.

Many of those letters are still untouched, the street’s ultimate respect. He moved on to murals, and recently donated his time to paint a massive “Familia” across a wall in the city’s Potrero Del Sol Park. Members of the local PTA hired Reyes in the hopes his work would repel the graffiti hounds who’d targeted the wall for decades.

A father who admired the mural recently sent Reyes an email to thank him. The man wrote that he took his young family to the park and Reyes’ painting had elevated the day from a normal one into something beautiful.

“Do I get juiced when my art makes someone’s day?” Reyes asked before he dove back into his work. “Yeah, I do. But I don’t revel in what I do. I spend no time in the past.”