“For young people…the access to platforms for you to express yourself is very limited and graffiti offers you the opportunity to just kind of do it yourself,” says Stowers. “You get your paint. You go out to wherever you’re going to paint your name. You paint your name and then you sit back as everybody else kind of experiences it. And that’s something that can be very powerful for a young person.”
But, he says, it can also be destructive. As Stowers teaches it, part of doing graffiti well is “understanding social responsibility.” If he catches a youth vandalizing a house, he has them introduce themselves to the property owner and clean it up, or do yard work as compensation. 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.
There’s a responsibility that comes with writing, says Stowers, and that is especially the case given the opportunities Words Beats & Life offers: painting legally, gallery shows, and employment.
According to the District government, 2011 has seen a surge in illegal writing. “As of June 30, we’ve spent $385,000 removing graffiti (including salaries) and we paid our contractor, who removes graffiti from structures higher than the first story, $200,000 last year,” says DPW’s Lyons in an email. DPW fields between 300 and 400 graffiti-related complaints each week. In the agency’s last fiscal year—between October and May—it removed 1,780 pieces from both public and private property. In the current period, it’s removed 3,946.
It’s unclear how much of the increase is the result of more residents being willing to complain—a byproduct, perhaps, of gentrification. Lyons says most graffiti occurs in commercial corridors: the area around U Street and Florida Avenue NW, the stretch of Georgia Avenue above the 2000 block, and, of course, the above-ground portion of the Red Line.
Graffiti nonprofits help efforts to control vandalism, but it’s not just the kids they have to worry about. It’s also the teachers. In July, days before he was to teach an Albus Cavus-organized class at a D.C. Public Library branch, Asad “Ultra” Walker, 45, who police allege also goes by “Mar5,” was arrested for graffiti-related vandalism. At DCPL’s request, Albus Cavus dropped Walker from the class.
A graffiti artist since the early 1980s, Walker is a founding member of KGB, or “Krazy Graf Brothers,” a crew of writers known for being intimidating. But he’s also shown work in galleries, an indication that being able to work the establishment doesn’t obviate tagging on the illegal side.
Walker highlights the contradictions inherent in trying to institutionalize graffiti: He worked with MuralsDC to design a painting along New York Avenue in 2010, but feels that nonprofits and public art projects exclude writers with street cred. (He says he’s now working on a project outside of Patty Boom Boom on U Street NW.)
“If MuralsDC is supposed to be a graffiti-outreach program, I don’t know any active graffiti artists involved in the program,” he says. Following his arrest, Walker volunteered to participate in “The Art of Vandalism” panel, which was jointly organized by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, DPW, and Words Beats & Life, but says DPW turned him down. On his Facebook page, he opined that at least one D.C. street bomber should have been at the discussion.
To hear Walker tell it, graffiti’s new public face has marginalized actual graffiti writers—while borrowing their aesthetics. A bearded, massive man with a Zulu Nation tattoo scrawled up his arm, Walker has taught kids through Albus Cavus and other programs. He took his students to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, where they could see the work of artists who never received training, and says he still wants to help graffiti artists interact with the community. “We want our surroundings to be beautiful just much as the next person,” he says.
I meet with Walker at a café on U Street NW. He shows up with Che, another KGB member, who won’t give his real name. Che says he’s not a fan of Washington’s “graffiti ambassadors.” A few years ago, Che was a student in one of Stowers’ classes, but his involvement was short-lived. He was fine making legal art, but that wasn’t going to stop him from tagging buildings. That, to him, is still the gold standard of individuality.
In D.C. graffiti culture, KGB might be a throwback, but its presence is significant. “They want to be the people that you’re afraid to go over [with paint], that you’re afraid to run into at a club, that you’re afraid to bump into at an alley,” says Gastman, describing KGB’s ’90s presence. “Beef is part of graffiti—getting beat up, getting roughed up. It’s full-contact and illegal. At its core it always will be.”