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

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A year earlier, G40 took place in Crystal City, but was marred by a conflict between artists and curator before it even started. Two graffiti artists from San Antonio tagged the roof of the then-empty Plaza Five building, and were arrested by Arlington police the next morning. When Pomajambo learned about the incident, he had the graffiti painted over and booted the artists from the show.

That’s the central contradiction of the institutionalization of street art: Its proponents are selling a hierarchy in which successful artists ascend above the street. But in reality, you need to live in both worlds.

“If you want to be part of the legal aspect, you have to be part of the illegal,” says Che. At its core, graffiti is about notoriety. Despite the noble intentions of nonprofits, a vetted mural or space on a gallery wall will never equal the cachet of tagging an overpass.

In the eyes of community groups and government bodies, graffiti is crime. But a sociologist will tell you it has other functions: It’s an expression of identity. It’s about achieving recognition among peers, particularly for youth who feel marginalized. It’s about one-upping other writers. It’s about the thrill of tagging the most dangerous spots. It’s about saturation—repeating a tag or image until it punctures the public consciousness. Some tags are ugly, but they also having meaning. When graffiti is forced onto a piece of paper in a classroom or onto the walls of a corporate-funded art space, it doesn’t.

In today’s Washington, the multiple-story pieces that used to decorate much of Northwest are no longer. Near the intersection of 14th and U Streets, Conlon points to the site of a large piece he made in 1999 with Stowers and others that’s now sealed between two buildings—a Subway and a Dunkin’ Donuts. But on the same block, the restaurant BlackByrd Warehouse has kept exposed in its interior the wheatpastes once on the wall of the building next door, authenticating the room’s gritty, industrial chic. Proponents of legal graffiti want to control the style, but also glorify it.


Graffiti is its own propagandist; its writers remain anonymous. And so the loudest people speaking for graffiti in public are the nonprofits, aficionados, and businesses that embrace its aesthetic. But those benefiting from the popularity of graffiti are reluctant to criticize their own affect on an art form once controlled and defined from the ground-up. In Washington, “graffiti ambassadors”—those willing to speak publicly about the art—have generated plenty of economic opportunities for artists, but they’ve also helped turn the medium into a meaningless signifier for “urban subculture.”

For Che and Walker, risk is part of the form. They even dismiss the storied graffiti on the Red Line as virtually legal, because there’s little danger of arrest. “To us, it’s a joke,” Walker says. So they tag in places where there’s a more in-your-face reaction to the graffiti—mainly in commercial areas with plenty of street life. “We are about the streets.”

For all the preaching of reformed taggers, or the chance to make money at galleries, or rub elbows with scenesters at art openings, graffiti’s elemental cachet still captivates even Stowers’ kids.

In the basement of Fame’s mother’s house in Northeast (he asked I not reveal the neighborhood), I thumb through hundreds of his own drawings. Through Words Beats & Life, he’s sold art in galleries. A few years back, he and Che had a beef, spraying over each other’s names. Today, his story seems like a tale of a once-lost kid who found his creative niche, thanks to a nonprofit’s intervention: He’s participating in as many MuralsDC projects as he can.

But Fame’s tag still checkers the District.

One night, just after spending an evening working on a mural, Fame meets me in Petworth. We travel to the District line bordering Prince George’s County. Walking down a stretch of railroad tracks, we head toward a blank wall with backpacks full of spray paint. I’ve got two colors I purchased from Stowers at Art Under Pressure to paint my bike frame. One will become the “under-painting” to an elaborate 3-D piece beneath a Metrorail pillar.

It’s 3 a.m. Fame puts the finishing touches on his work, and lists beside it the writers and crews who inspire him. A freight train stops a few yards from us. Rail workers emerge for a few moments. We hide in a patch of weeds. After about 30 minutes, the train moves on.

Graffiti is its own netherworld. Writers take advantage of a city’s liminal space, seeing it in a different way. “It’s addictive, it’s more like a drug, because that feeling: the views, the fights, the problems, you just feel like you can do whatever and you feel like you can rule the world sometimes because your name is forever to be known,” Fame told me a month earlier. Tonight, he’s satisfied. It’s like leaving a day of work, he says.

We hold up a light, unused until now, to take a look at the completed piece. This element of graffiti will never change—the desire to be known, simply for a name. “A lot of older people who have done this for a long time...they still do it because they miss that feeling,” says Fame. “They miss that feeling of being young.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, the article misidentified a documentary about graffiti visible from Metrorail's Red Line. The film is called The Red Line D.C. Project.

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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