Slightly less destructive are the writers who “piece,” creating large, abstract forms that can take hours. This work is less about quantity than striking visuals. Of course, plenty of artists piece and bomb.
MuralsDC, now in its fourth year, began as an effort to save repeatedly tagged property from defacement. The program, championed by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, is a partnership between DPW and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The plan was, and still is, to replace illegal work with collaborative murals, using nonprofits to reach out to writers. The $100,000 program funds murals around the city and pays its young apprentices. This summer, it funded nine projects, with a different lead artist for each mural and a handful of kids to paint them.
In the telling of MuralsDC and affiliated nonprofits, writers can be shown that graffiti is one step on a continuum of options—one of which is fine art. The amount of D.C. gallery shows devoted to graffiti and street art has grown drastically: Borf, D.C.’s most notorious vandal since Cool “Disco” Dan, was arrested in 2005; since then, the Borf Brigade, his group of taggers, has shown in area galleries. Plenty of others, like Decoy and Tim Conlon, have done the same. Beginning this week, MuralsDC is hosting a show about its summer projects in the former library and “Temporium” space on H Street NE.
Stowers says his after-school “The Bench” classes—named for the meeting spots of New York City’s subway graffiti writers in the late ’70s and ’80s—draw 15 to 35 kids to the basement of St. Stephens Church in Columbia Heights each week. He says around a third of his students remain active graffiti writers.
Stowers, 34, can relate. In the late ’90s, he tagged District surfaces using the moniker EON. These days, he manages the mural program and leads kids to a nearby alley managed by his employer that serves as a practice space for graffiti writers—after he’s shown the techniques on paper.
Other organizations also provide legal opportunities for kids to spray paint. Albus Cavus, a nonprofit active in New Jersey, D.C., and elsewhere, promotes public art projects and runs four “open walls” in the District. Stowers compares such walls, which he hopes to see more of, to skate parks that move kids from the street into parks. He wants to see more safe places to paint, possibly under the city’s aegis. “You show up. You paint. You take your picture. You say bye-bye. And you leave it for the next artist,” he said at the “The Art of Vandalism” discussion.
The eight-year-old Words Beats & Life preaches a message about the law that fans of graffiti-as-class-warfare might not like. “Though graffiti has its own culture, we have our expectations,” says Mazi Mutafa, Words Beats & Life’s executive director. “We have conversations about property and ownership.” For example, Stowers was arrested three years ago for painting “dead New York City subway trains” that were being prepared for scrapping. As a condition of working at Words Beats & Life, Stowers has not painted illegally since. Youth involved in “The Bench” classes sign a similar pledge, indicating they won’t make illegal graffiti. Many follow the rules.
Stowers says he wants his students to find success beyond the narrow world of graffiti, pointing to the accomplishments of D.C. writers who have achieved success in other fields. Cita Sadeli co-founded the animation and design company Protein Media; Coby Kennedy—or Demon—has created clothing designs for Japanese street-wear companies and concept automobiles for Honda.
For Stowers, the gallery is presumably a step above the street. He also co-owns Art Under Pressure, an art-supply outpost and custom design shop in Petworth. The store’s name is taken from the Hall of Fame tunnel, a space by the L’Enfant Plaza Metro stop that was once a graffiti writer’s mecca; after Sept. 11, 2001, it became riskier to tag. Art Under Pressure was also a loose crew that painted in that area.
Art Under Pressure, the store, sells products like spray paint from Montana 94 and clothing designed by graffiti writers. Custom skateboards and messenger bags line the walls, along with zines and markers. A second store opened in Hyattsville’s Arts District last weekend, occupying a corner of the massive new Busboys & Poets. In keeping with the brand of the neighborhood, this Art Under Pressure sells only fine art supplies.