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.”