Writer's Block A "carefree" era for D.C. taggers comes to an end.

Deface of Change: DICEONE, left, and his mysterious friend in their old spraying grounds.
Darrow Montgomery

This place used to be the spot.

Back in the early 1990s, these dim train tunnels were a graffiti artist’s utopia. Taggers came from all over the city, painting a river of electric pieces down the tunnels’ flat, perfect concrete walls. The cops showed up sometimes, sure. But you could slip between the dividers separating the tunnels and get away. Hey, with time to spare, you could even warn your peers about the invasion.

They called this space the “Art Under Pressure Tunnel” and the “Hall of Fame.” Among writers (another name for graffiti artists), the place was a nationally known spot, says Cory Stowers, a 30-year-old who first visited the Hall in 1995.

It’s all still there, if you want to see it. Go to the corner of 14th and D Streets SW, just a stone’s throw from the Holocaust Museum. Head toward Virginia and then peel off to the left just before the bridge. The graffiti starts by a ramp, leading up to the tunnel, and it stretches all the way down to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station.

It’s like a museum now—the old stomping ground of such washed-up graffiti legends as CERT, DEK, BOVE, and SEST. Writers still go there sometimes. But the heyday is over.

The Hall of Fame connects with a corridor jampacked with big-time federal buildings, like the Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation. After 9/11, security cameras were loaded into the tunnels, and police poured into the zone, according to a writer who goes by the tag of DICEONE. Thanks to the hassles, the Hall of Fame’s no longer the mecca for writers it once was. But these days, they’re not catching a break anywhere else in the city. Besides “Big Brother” monitoring the streets, there are other forces at work. Gentrification, and its accomplices, are beating down the District’s graffiti culture, say various artists. The city has augmented its graffiti removal programs. Citizens are proactive in reporting and personally removing graffiti. And the cops are everywhere. The “carefree” days are over, says writer SMK, a prominent artist in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The District’s “graffiti problem” was thrust into the limelight in 2005, when local graffiti artist Borf, aka John Tsombikos, was finally apprehended after painting his trademark images all over the city. Tsombikos, who was 18 when he was convicted in early 2006, was sentenced to 30 days of jail time.

The Department of Public Works (DPW) receives some 75 graffiti complaints a week and responds to roughly 60, according to DPW spokesperson Linda Grant. The city employs eight graffiti removers, four of whom were added in recent years, Grant says.

In early October, the DPW announced that residents could pick up free graffiti removal kits, including a voucher for free paint from Duron or McCormick paint stores.

Writers, however, aren’t bowing to the government’s fortified front. The latest crop of D.C. graffiti artists have a new meeting ground, in a rather unlikely spot: the basement of a church in Northwest. People convene here once a week. The group is invite-only but doesn’t feel überexclusive: Start tagging, and they’ll find you, says Stowers, the group’s leader, who runs the meeting. There are about 60 regulars, with 20 people usually showing up to a meeting. The participants are between 12 and 23 years old.

They don’t actually tag there. The basement is their “writers’ bench,” where artists talk shop, look at books and movies about graffiti, discuss tactics to avoid getting caught, and bond with one another “to minimize the beef” out on the streets, like when writers cover up fellow artists’ tags.

At last week’s meeting, a stream of pop songs blared out from a small set of speakers. Kids trickled in and out of the room, with some hunkered down, focused on their drawings, and others drifting around, chatting. The writers spread out across a few tables and old fold-up chairs. The scene resembled nothing so much as a meeting of an after-hours high school club (where the activity just happened to be illegal).

One of the recognizable tags in the room belongs to “MAGIC,” an 18-year-old male who started doing graffiti three years ago. The new see-and-be-seen spots, he says, are Georgia Avenue, 14th Street, and Northeast, near the New York Avenue Metro station, and “all around the neighborhoods.” At least, that’s where he prefers to go.

A few months ago, he went out to Arlington and got arrested, he says. The cops handcuffed him, and his dad had to pick him up. Despite this incident, MAGIC seems undeterred.

“I like to express myself. Show the world I’m here. Give the old dirty neighborhood some color,” he says, later adding: “When you’re doing it, your heart’s pumping so fast, especially when people can see you.”

And there are people who are looking. On Nov. 1, three Dupont Circle residents set out to combat the unrelenting graffiti in their area.

They do this about once a month, they say. They’ve got an arsenal of products and tools to take on the blight, always beginning with the least toxic chemicals and then going up from there: Resident Gil Hill’s kit includes rubbing alcohol for Magic Marker; Goof Off cleaner and Klean-Strip graffiti remover for spray paint; steel wool and a brush with metal bristles to scratch off stickers; a six-in-one tool, also used to scrape and pry off stickers; and cheese cloth and paper towels, for the final wipe-down and cleanup.

This past July, Councilmember Jim Graham’s office initiated a graffiti-related program. He secured money for the hiring of 27 ex-offenders to bolster the city’s graffiti-removal ranks. He also kicked off a wall mural program, which would designate graffiti-targeted and alley clean-up spaces in the city as places for murals. Over the summer, two murals were completed in Ward 1. Two weeks ago, Graham’s office sent letters to other councilmembers, launching the project citywide.

But is government-sanctioned graffiti really graffiti? At least one writer at the taggers’ meeting seemed to have other leanings. SEREN is a teenage girl from Northwest, who’s been dreaming of spray painting the city for about a year but hasn’t yet worked up the nerve.

It’s not that she’s freaking out about getting caught; she just wants her style to be straight, not some ludicrous amateurish crap, before she hits the streets. To her, the whole concept of graffiti—especially here in the nation’s capital, it seems—symbolizes something greater: ignoring the government’s omnipresent, paranoia-driven demands to get in line. She talks about the Patriot Act, fear tactics, all that “bullshit.”

“One day, my friend and I were talking, [saying] we’re going to hit up the White House and the Washington Monument,” she says. “When I see my name, I’ll be so proud.” 

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