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

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“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.”

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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