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.