Tagging Rights Have the nonprofits, art galleries, and party planners who fete D.C.'s graffiti scene also tamed it?

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

On an August evening in Edgewood, five young artists congregate near a freshly painted white wall. There’s Pacer, a skateboarder and self-taught tattoo artist, and Chewy, who also goes by Rep and works during the summer at a suburban country club. Dennis, or Calm, has braces. Collin, aka Quewser, is straddling a fixie; he studies fine art. Jeremy clutches a video camera. And hanging from a ladder is Fame, a quiet guy wearing a turban that holds his skinny dreads.

Someone forgot the spray paint. The evening risks becoming a bit of a mess.

This is far from an instance of young taggers illegally hitting a piece of public property. They have two adults on hand—Cory Stowers, the team’s organizer, and Drew Liverman, the mural’s designer. The project is underwritten by the District government as part of its MuralsDC program, which is designed to redirect graffiti artists’ energy toward legal ends.

And it’s taking place on some prime real estate for spray paint illegality. There are hundreds of tagged surfaces in Edgewood and adjacent neighborhoods like Brookland and Eckington, visible from the Red Line’s above-ground traverse between Silver Spring and Union Station. “Getting up” along “the line,” as writers call it, has been a rite of passage almost since the Metro opened.

The light is fading. Stowers and Fame point at a passing freight train, admiring the tags that cake its side. Later, Stowers will fire up a floodlight and a digital projector connected to a MacBook Pro, placing on the wall an outline of the mural-to-be. The image depicts a vague and happy scene of environmental renewal along the Anacostia River.


Oddly enough, D.C. in the age of gentrification has become a hotbed of street art. Blogs and Flickr feeds document new tags, murals, decals, and wheatpastes. Graffiti artists order supplies online. There’s a store in Petworth, Art Under Pressure, that sells spray paint and serves as a hangout.

There’s also an institutional infrastructure that’s been erected under what was once the ultimate outsider form: Nonprofits like Albus Cavus and Words Beats & Life—Stowers’ employer—teach painting techniques in addition to maintaining legal graffiti walls. Galleries like The Fridge, Irvine Contemporary, and Art Whino frequently display works of spray paint. There are two forthcoming documentaries: The Red Line D.C. Project, about the art along the famous stretch, and The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan, about one of the city’s earliest graffiti artists.

And D.C. graffiti, as with any creative form that has spawned such a network of support, generates panel discussions. A recent Busboys & Poets event titled “The Art of Vandalism” drew nearly 150 people. Nearly all of them, naturally, were graffiti supporters. On the dais, art doyenne Philippa Hughes discussed the work she lets graffiti artists write on the walls of her apartment. Even a representative from the agency that’s supposed to crack down on vandalism—the District’s Department of Public Works—wasn’t all negative. The spokeswoman, Nancee Lyons, described DPW’s efforts to clean up tagged surfaces, but also stressed the new opportunities artists have to do their thing with community input. Her agency, as it happens, is a sponsor of MuralsDC.

This isn’t New York in the ’70s. Or even D.C. in the ’80s. In 2011, graffiti culture and its derivatives are thriving in D.C.—but as sanctioned forms. The government, nonprofits, activists, gallery owners, marketers, and the artists themselves have in large part tamed the practice, raising questions about what the anti-authoritarian form even means anymore. As the graffiti bubble grows bigger and bigger, its contradictions are being painted in vivid colors.

Graffiti, the kind that’s combative and spontaneous and doesn’t involve supervision, will always decorate urban landscapes. “To be respected as an artist is to put your name up illegally,” says Roger Gastman, a Bethesda-bred former graffiti writer who has authored histories of D.C. and American graffiti.

Writers have been plastering their names around the District since the 1970s, though the form has evolved considerably. Native Washingtonians pioneered the local scene, Gastman says. But by the early 1980s, the majority of artists were commuting from the suburbs.

As with most other places, D.C.’s graffiti comes in two basic forms. There’s the hand style: Taggers “bomb” the city with scrawled versions of their names. Che, Sleazy, Stamp, and Moe are ubiquitous these days, but the pecking order is always in flux. Taggers’ work can be difficult to read, adding to both their intrigue and the larger public’s misunderstanding.

Photo Slideshow: Tagging D.C.

Our Readers Say

Good read. WBL is great organization. During the discussion panel in Busboys and Poets and also in this article, both Mazi Mutafa and Cory Stowers advocate for government-operated walls where artists can paint freely. All legal graffiti walls must remain independent. There is no room for any city agency to approve and control art content, especially on private property. DC is one of the last free-speech cities in the US where you don't have to go through a city agency to get approval for a mural or artwork on your property. Keep it that way.
DPW spends too much money on the graffiti removal. They need to allocate most of that budget to MuralsDC and take MuralsDC to the next level. It hasn't change since its start, though it shows success.
Great, since this has the eye's of the city taggers/vandals, can one of them come and clean up their crap ktk tag on the wall in front of my house. Thanks, tax-paying dc resident.
M & Peter:

You can actually contact DPW to remove the crap tag from your property. It usually takes about 48 hours to make it happen. Peter, I don't think mazi (me) or cory were advocating that gov say what the content should be. . but that they create safe spaces for writers to get recognition and get better. Kinda like what Albus Cavus does with their legal walls and what WBL does with it's legal wall. The idea was that the city could create specific spaces on public property for writers to get up, so that more of them will not leave their tags of folk like m's house . . sounds like a good idea to me. . i would also agree about the investing more money in Murals DC. .
I'm all for supporting the anti-graffiti groups, even with some tax dollars.

I also support helping all the artists who want to keep their street cred, by stiffening the penalties for when they do finally get caught and convicted. Mandatory prison time and full restitution for costs incurred should be the punishment. If you're a minor, take it out of your guardian's wages. If you receive any sort of public monies, garnish those until you've covered the costs. Nothing in life is free, especially ugly art.
I want to preface this by saying I like what Words, Beats, and Life does, I think they are important, and they are cool people but uh...this was weird:

Mazi Mutafa, Words Beats & Life’s executive director: “We have conversations about property and ownership.”

So your goal here is to teach kids about...property rights? What next, teaching them about the joys of underwater mortgages/staring at property you'll never own/getting evicted? Not really sure how property and ownership as values are necessarily priorities for the demographic in question. Those might be values that certain people in the city *want* kids to hold dear but that doesn't translate into the best benefit for kids and kind of comes across as self-serving for those with property.
A lot of the discourse around the value and place of murals can be summed up by UK prime minister David Cameron standing in front of a graffiti mural to claim the street edginess/authenticity of the street and giving a speech about how, post-riots, they should really start slashing welfare benefits. I mean, come on.

And while I'm at it, this article is really well-written.
Wait, I didn't mean to hyphenate "well written". Whatever.
Why does it seem that any discussion of graffiti outreach begins with commentary on perceived laxity of punishment? Decades of the demonization of graffiti artists has brought you no closer to stopping them. Lets discuss what graffiti is and why it occurs.

Graffiti (and most art) is an artist attempting to communicate a message or idea to an intended audience. The graffiti artist wants to communicate, either with other graf artists or with the public, usually the idea that they exist, their neighborhood or crew exists or maybe even a socio-political theme. This message may not be apparent to you and may not even be meant for you, but it exists just the same.

The fact that this happens in public space points to a lack of other pertinent platforms. This may be a combination of things: lack of art programs in school, lack of truly free wall space in the public forum, etc.

Understanding these 2 concepts, it becomes apparent that more could be done to outreach to graffiti artists. After all, most are fiercely loyal to their communities, most are talented and enjoy working with their talent and most are extremely experienced at producing large-scale works of art relatively quickly and cheaply. I have worked with MuralsDC for several years and produced many murals for other programs. To consider MuralsDC a "graffiti outreach" program is laughable. Not one of the graf artists mentioned in this story as active street artists (MOE, CHE, STAMP, etc.) has in any way been asked to participate. Tens of thousands of dollars have gone out and the targeted graffiti artists don't even know it exists. lol...

Hey, we have to lock up people with paint cans to make up for not locking up city councilmembers who steal a couple hundred grand from a children's sports fund. Duh.
Lock them up for being creative? Let us lock up congress for not being creative. Give them a chance to paint "murals" on those blank walls in DC Jail, in half way houses, in church storage rooms, on the walls of their local schools basements, lunch rooms, etc. Let them have a contest to paint murals, graffiti in the panel of the White House Visitors Center...Ask Artomatic to include them in the next show. Ask all the K st new construction to include some panels on cardboard ie: Howard Finster,folk artist for their rooms. This is Not Rocket Science. Kids are creative...as they get older and suffer schooling ...it goes away..look at the "adults" who have such dead comments! Just do it!
Cory, how come u didn't mention that you head up DC's most active crew doing illegal vandalism in today: 2DK aka The Deuces?
when a mural project calls for some dope throwies, im sure moe and che got that handled...real talk.
all jokes aside though, dc graff hasn't been tamed, this is just the veil of maya being placed over your eyes with special effects and bright colors. there are heads painting and even though we may not all get along, i know who's up every time i come back from break and they're presence is in the street ( which is dope, real talk). I don't know where in the article the artists mentioned claimed they were straight slayin the mean streets of dc with their swag and whatnot, but the mural shit keeps the government derps and the derps of society in this city quiet (which is dope too,less complaining due to the illusion of graff being tamed)

graff will never be tamed
its cousin, commissioned graffiti art murals may be, but the aforementioned...never.
their presence*
"He’s also tried to send word to all the writers in the District—including the ones who don’t work with well-intentioned nonprofits—that the three-block radius around Words Beats & Life’s office in St. Stephens is “off-limits” to graffiti."

Excuse me, what? Gurl, please...

i dare andy shallal to unionize the workers at busboys and poets and to hold a day where he gives away food to homeless people. Martin would have done it. Langston would have done it. Its one day. Langston is not Ronald McDonald. Stop using the tragedy in Iraq to sell Catfish...It will be cheaper to do that after people tag up shit at your locations...anti-capitalist millionarire..hahahaha
@Stitch almost everyone in dc, including the author of the article, has either never heard of toyDK or understands the difference between thinking youre a graf artist and actually being one... graf is a culture. u cant just come along and make up your own rules and declare yourself "down"...
Yo if that "no tagging in a three-bloc radius" thing is true, he can go fuck himself as there are a shitload of apartment buildings in the area and he has zero right to tell other writers who live there what to do. I wouldn't recommend going up on St. Stephen's since they are awesome, but a three-block zone? Fuck is this? Fukishima Anti-Graf Nuclear Exclusion Zone?
@chungo Busboys is one of the few places I know of where full-time servers get non-mandatory health care benefits. They also give away food to organizations that feed the homeless.

It's a little ironic seeing Asad's old-mouf running his quasi-intellectual jibs here. After getting pinched earlier in the summer, the other members of Mr. Walker's crew were recently apprehended in a series of raids - everyone except Mr. Walker. I guess the culture has no rules about snitchin, you rat.
@bobby wow, way to not confront anything i said. just label it all "quasi-intellectual".

actually, being an ex-con (for charges unrelated to graf), i have very well-defined rules about snitching and also insinuating someone is a snitch. but, i guess i cant argue that point w/ you cuz you won't even post your real name. since you seem to be following events in my life w/ baited breath, i have notified the prosecutors that i rejected their plea deal and will be taking my case to trial and fighting my charges. not really the sign of a snitch.

on an interesting note, the prosecutors recently approached muralsDC about getting graf artists in the system to do community service for the city, but muralsDC refused. "graffiti outreach".. really?
Video Demo 2010 a nine-minute-long clip of found footage from Dadabit, which aperaps to be the collage archive of a visual artist from Georgia (the country). It was made in collaboration with Sunny Levine, who produced Ariel Pink's amazing new album (which not the music in this video, FYI). We suggest you recline back in your puffy chair with some yerba mate and lose yourself in the gauzy light of the images, cause this is a brain-sized goose-feather pillow of weirdness. (via Schmooze)
ayesha - hey, salaams!awesome sereis. love the one where his shadow is painted on the wall, and the ones showing the flash flare in the lens.nice work!
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transformers, more than meets the eye I love this bird's site. I love it even more that she's featured my most faotvriue event at the Drake every year: Resurface. And a lil snap of my most fave graf artist: Elicser. Oh gosh, when it's this good, I can't help but come back!
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