Nikko: Concrete Commando

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[How to make a concrete stylus: Take a large nail. Heat the tip red-hot in a blue-gas flame. Drop it in ice water. Now it will resist abrasion as it cuts through the sand, cement, and rock particles in concrete not yet hardened. From the abstract to the concrete. Signed, a friend.]

Delfin Vigil:
I first found Nikko by staring at the sidewalks.

Roman Mars:
Delfin Vigil is a journalist from San Francisco.

Delfin Vigil:
One of my favorite things was always to kind of get lost in San Francisco, and stare at things that might normally have looked past. And then I saw his name written in the sidewalk.

[Nikko.]

Delfin Vigil:
And I thought it was interesting. And then, a block later I found his name again.

[Nikko.]

Delfin Vigil:
Turned a corner through Chinatown into North Beach and I would find another one, you know? I would find them not just in North Beach but Chinatown, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill. They would be references to the street name, like-

[Nikko on Filbert. Nikko on 9th.]

Delfin Vigil:
Or…

[Nikko downtown.]

Delfin Vigil:
And the personality was really coy. It was like-

[Nikko was here. Nikko gets it all. Nikko, concrete compulsive.]

Delfin Vigil:
And I remember once, I was just saying to myself, “Damn. Nikko is everywhere.” And then I looked down and it said-

[Nikko is everywhere.]

Delfin Vigil:
I dunno, it felt like a duty. I remember thinking that this is my duty, to write this story. And then coincidentally I’d run across a clue that said:

[Nikko on duty.]

Roman Mars:
So Delfin decided to track Nikko down.

Delfin Vigil:
You know, I wanted to know was this guy alive, why did he decide to do it? It was the first time I’d ever felt like I was the one paying attention in class.

Roman Mars:
The tags started in 1967.

Delfin Vigil:
Because I saw the date 1967 I figured he must have been about, I don’t know, 12 years old. In some ways, I got to watch him grow up because I felt like his personality kind of got a little more bolder through the years. Earliest messages would just say-

[Nikko.]

Delfin Vigil:
And then, later on, he’d call himself-

[Nikko, concrete artist.]

Delfin Vigil:
I figured he went to school in the neighborhood, so I went to the high school, Galileo, and I went to Francisco Middle School. And so I would start photocopying yearbook pictures from the 60s and 70s. And I would base this on guys who just looked like they had that kind of artful dodger look in their eye.

Roman Mars:
And this investigation went on through years of dead ends. Knocking on strangers’ doors and getting nowhere. And if right now you’re thinking, ‘I love this Nikko kid, he’s my hero too.’ Wait for it. Here it comes…

Delfin Vigil:
It was by the North Beach playground, I believe it was a rainy day. And rainy days are always the best days to read the concrete because it washed away a lot of the dirt. You could read things that on other days you probably couldn’t see. And I saw this etching that was the longest I’d ever seen. It took up an entire sidewalk block. It was like a paragraph. And at first, I was thought ‘no it can’t be him.’ I think it said-

[America is a great country. Built by the white man. Owned by the Jews. Ruined by the–]

Delfin Vigil:
And then the first word began with an ‘N’ but I can’t actually say for sure. I mean, I can presume what it said and you probably can too. But those letters were actually washed away from foot traffic. And then I’d found quite a few others and we’re talking 10, 15, 20…

Roman Mars:
Oh man…

Delfin Vigil:
And as far as I could tell from the handwriting, it was Nikko. I didn’t want to believe it, because it didn’t go with what I identified with. To some extent, I wanted to identify as the loaner kid in the city, too. And this happened right before I finally found him.

Roman Mars:
One of the leads finally panned out. And after a long email courtship, Delfin Vigil grabbed his notebook and a microcassette recorder and met Nikko.

Delfin Vigil:
“How did you never get caught?”

Nikko:
“Pretend like you’re tying your shoes.”

Delfin Vigil:
“Pretend like you’re tying your shoes.”

Nikko:
“It’s the oldest trick in the book. Pretend like you dropped something.”

Delfin Vigil:
“How many do you think you’ve done?”

Nikko:
“A thousand.”

Delfin Vigil:
“A thousand?”

Nikko:
“I’m just picking 1000 out of the air.”

Delfin Vigil:
“At least 1000.”

Nikko:
“At least 1000, yeah.”

Roman Mars:
Nikko described all the places he tagged in detail. And Delfin believes the vast majority of these are from this one guy.

Nikko:
“My thoughts were that if I do this really deep and do it right, this stuff will last way into the future and the concrete will be all washed away with the pebbles poking up, and my name will still be there.”

Delfin Vigil:
It’s kind of like any story you get into when you have a hunch about it. A lot of it was very close to what I had imagined, a lot of it was different. He did have a very artful dodger lifestyle. His father was out of the picture. He had a very bohemian upbringing with a real carefree parenting style. He was just this kid who was sort of in some ways, forgotten.

Roman Mars:
And after a few meetings, Delfin finally found the opportunity to ask the hard questions.

Delfin Vigil:
“I would see a ‘Ban all non-white immigration,’ over by the Stockton Tunnel. And I’d see it over on Russian Hill, “Help raise white consciousness,” “Help keep America white,” about 12 or 13 of them in the same block of cement, all said the name ‘Nikko’.”

Nikko:
“Let’s jump ahead, you probably want to know, did I write that stuff?”

Delfin Vigil:
“Well, I’ll be straight-up honest with you. I think you did. I can pick out about 15 to 20 that seems to me to be the same guy who did Nikko, who would be you. But if I’m wrong…”

Nikko:
“Here’s the deal. When I was a kid growing up in the city, I’m talking a little kid. On Sunday, we would go to a march in Oakland for civil rights, for a peace march. On Monday, I’d go to school, and I‘d get the sh*t kicked out of me by the very people were out putatively trying to help. And this sounds absurd now. But it was all in my mind, it was all put together. If you get right down to it, how does a boring suburban kid rebel against their parents? They go to the opposite extreme of what their parents believe in. But I repent.”

Delfin Vigil:
“Totally, I understand.”

Nikko:
“I’m a hardcore green activist now, man. Have some more cheese, man.”

Delfin Vigil:
“Thanks.”

Roman Mars:
And that explanation would sit better if the past wasn’t written in concrete.

Delfin Vigil:
I’ve not written my name but I’ve written his name in wet concrete. In fact, that was the first line I wrote for the story was on the sidewalk. Walk up Montgomery Street toward the Union Street steps and make a right at Green Street. And right there, unless someone’s double-parked on top of it, it should still say, “I found Nikko.”

[I found Nikko.]

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Stephanie Foo and me, Roman Mars. A different version of this story was originally broadcast on the public radio program “Snap Judgment,” which I know you already subscribe to. But if you don’t, do yourself a favor, do yourself a favor: go find it on iTunes and subscribe. You will love it. This program is made possible with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, the American Institute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. For more information, including Delfin Vigil’s self-published chapbook, with beautiful illustrations and way more detail than I can go into here, go to 99percentinvisible.org.

  1. Remix

    I inconveniently listened to this episode after visiting San Francisco. Wish I had done so before so I could have been on the look out for Nikko carvings. Albeit I did notice a stencil of a girl holding balloons on a curb. It was a rather impressive eight inch stencil with the little girl in black and white, and several balloons in magenta, green, blue, and yellow in her hands. I am a distance runner and when I visit a new place I enjoy mapping it out on foot. The first time I saw it, I only gave it a thought for a moment, but when I saw it again I began to pay attention. It showed six or seven times while I was there for three days. I distinctly remember one along the Great Highway as it goes by the west end of Golden Gate Park. They may have been done in the past two years. The colors are still vibrant and I did some perusing of Street View from 2011 and couldn’t find one. I wish I had seen one while I had a camera. It is a little message of sorts. Positive in color and childish in nature.

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