Graffiti artists add their mark to the urban landscape and defend against the erasure of a city’s history.
“To be a street artist,” says the elusive artist who goes by the name No Touching Ground, “you have to be a little paranoid, a little naive, a little Caravaggio and a little Mother Teresa.”
No Touching Ground—NTG for short—has just returned from two months of salmon fishing in Alaska on a 39-foot boat, something he’s done to make money every summer since the age of 12. The rest of the year, he travels the world—mostly Europe and South America—putting up delicate wheat paste images of things like birds, beasts and antiquities. Though he holds a BFA in painting, he rarely touches oil paints anymore. As he reclines in a chair in a gallery in Capitol Hill, he’s dressed in all black—the uniform of well-heeled blue chip gallerists and street artists alike. His sneakers, jeans and hoodie are ever-so-slightly spattered with blue drips. Tufts of neatly trimmed, gray sideburns creep out from under a black Mariners baseball cap. You’d never peg him as a vandal.
But, technically, his work is illegal. Many of the pieces he’s put up in Seattle over the last 15 years have been obliterated along with the buildings they were attached to. Others were scrubbed from surfaces within hours of going up, like the life-size images of individual Occupy protesters on the Monorail columns downtown in 2011. Others remain longer, like the John T. Williams memorial mural pasted along 11th Avenue on Capitol Hill. NTG’s practice adds up to a lot of calculated, thankless risk. After spending hours or days hand-tinting his printouts with fine, feathery watercolor strokes and pasting them up in scouted locations, the images might only be seen by a security guard and a buff squad—what artists call the City’s clean-up teams.
At the time of our interview in September, at least five of his pieces were still up, including an oil lamp nestled in one of the inset arches in the gray pumphouse at Cal Anderson Park and an image of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, pasted on the outside of the former Arabica Cafe—now a vape shop. Perhaps they’ve lasted because they’re beautiful and the subversive messaging is poetic to the point of impossible subtlety. Maybe they’re simply overlooked.
“It’s human nature to make marks on things that are not your own,” NTG says. “It’s not just me, it’s every culture and society.” His iconography is inspired by the histories of the places he travels and sociopolitical issues closer to home. Sometimes it comes from memories of working along the Alaska coast. For him putting up images is a form of preservation. “Some things should be remembered. Things become forgotten so quickly.”
Graffiti has existed in tandem with cities throughout history. Traces of it remain in Pompeii: “Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!” is famously scrawled at the bar of Innulus and Papilio. Even foul-mouthed tags provide a glimpse into the real people of a city. When graffiti is glossed over in gray paint, a lacework of voices is erased. To buff is to intentionally forget.
When Art Primo, a store that sells aerosol paints, graffiti markers and other specialized supplies, opened a Capitol Hill storefront last year, a typical volley of vitriolic diatribes for and against graffiti culture ensued online. The fact the business has operated as an e-tailer out of Seattle since the early 2000s didn’t seem to bother folks; the nerve to face the neighborhood as a brick-and-mortar shop did. For many, it’s an affront supporting criminal behavior.
In recent decades, the pictorial strains of street art have evolved, eventually being vetted by and absorbed into the contemporary art canon. Banksy and Shepard Fairey are household names. The subversiveness of projects like Banksy’s kitschy Dismaland is tepid, a big-budget art installation filled with punchlines rather than anything resembling culture-jamming. In Seattle, it’s hard to find either strain of art on the streets—commissioned or illegal.
“Seattle is a well-run, affluent city,” says Christopher Young, Seattle Police Department’s only dedicated graffiti detective. “They throw money at a problem. We have a pretty aggressive program for cleaning the city up.”
A Gulf War veteran and awarded detective in the field of sexual assault and child abuse, Young applied for the newly created position of graffiti investigator in 2011. He was no expert in the field at the time, but the 45-year-old now throws around graff slang like it’s second nature.
“Most of the guys I deal with, they’re just trying to get up and have an adventure. They post on social media when they get up on a heaven spot. They tell me they’re addicted to tagging, addicted to the rush.”
Easygoing and eager to chat, Young looks like Captain America with cropped dark hair, bright eyes and an impossibly chiseled jaw. For him, the distinction between artist and vandal isn’t at all complex: If someone puts up art in an illegal place, it’s a crime. And don’t call that person an artist.
“One of the myths about graffiti is that it’s all art,” he explains. “What a lot of people do I could do—and I’m not talented.”
According to Young, there are about 800 graffiti reports a year in Seattle, each of which he investigates. In 2009 Seattle spent $1.8 million removing graffiti from City property. His stats describe the typical Seattle tagger as adult (average age of 23), middle class, white (77 percent) and male (89 percent). Only 1 percent of graffiti is classified as gang-related. Young spends the bulk of his time piecing together reports, reviewing video and photographic footage submitted by business owners. He makes two or three arrests a year.
He’s also adamant about educating the public about graffiti culture and how to combat it. But when it comes to educational art programs designed to intervene and redirect graffiti artists’ energy, Young is unaware of any such initiatives sponsored by the SPD.
“For a period there was a free wall in SoDo on the side of a warehouse,” he says, as though telling a cautionary tale. “The owners liked graffiti and offered it up and it was an important part of the graff scene in Seattle for a while. However, neighboring businesses didn’t like it because kids who went there tagged their way in and out. In my experience people think it will satisfy the kids, but it doesn’t satisfy the need to get a rush by doing something illegal.”
I talked to six artists for this story and most of them believe that programs like free walls are a good idea. Many cite Seattle Public Utility’s especially rigorous Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance as a problem. The law punishes small businesses and building owners by fining up to $100 a day for tags left up on property. Businesses can rack up a maximum of $5,000 and be taken to court if they refuse to comply.
“We spend tons of money we don’t need to, buffing, scraping, penalizing,” says artist Angelina Villalobos. “It’s money that could be going toward public art or repairing streets. And not just cherry-picking the strategic areas where dot-commers live, but in areas that really need it, like South Park.”
Villalobos grew up in Beacon Hill and South Park and now lives in West Seattle. Though she doesn’t tag anymore, she still uses her graffiti moniker 179 to refer to herself as an artistic entity. She holds a degree in graphic design from Seattle Central Community College and now works with muralists and the city of Seattle, and organizes art programming at Northwest Folklife and Bumbershoot. She also manages Art Primo’s warehouse and runs its website.
Villalobos’ art is inspired by Mexican folklore and Pacific Northwest Native American art, as well as her roots in Mexican Catholic American, Japanese, Filipino and African American culture. Like NTG, she doesn’t fit Young’s stereotype of the young male vandal. With her quick laugh, nerdy black glasses and wise demeanor, it’s easy to see why Villalobos is considered a sort of maternal figure by many in the local graffiti community. Hers is a common story among taggers-turned-street artists.
“I was young and stupid in middle school,” she says. “I got caught tagging and arrested at the age of 13. When that happened, a bunch of people pounced on me. They realized I was interested in art for the first time and began to nurture that in other ways.”
Villalobos is currently working with the Mayor’s Office and the “Find It, Fix It” program to identify areas in South Park that need cleaning up. As part of the program, she’s painting the 12th and Trenton Street stairs—previously an overgrown eyesore piled with needles. Despite her passion for the project, Villalobos is wary of the sudden interest in the area.
“Housing costs are still low [there] and people who are being pushed out of neighborhoods up north are moving in,” she says. “I grew up in Beacon Hill and I watched that happen to my community. That is not my neighborhood anymore. It makes me mad. I lived in South Park for six years and I don’t want to see that happen. It’s a horrible feeling to watch your home change before your eyes and feel powerless to do anything about it.”
That sense of powerlessness is one very important reason kids—and adults—in a given community take to writing in the streets.
“If graffiti is one of the foremost things you notice in an impoverished neighborhood, there’s other problems aside from that graffiti that are going on there,” she continues. “Graffiti is a Band-Aid for the issues that are actually happening. And when the city says we have to deal with a graffiti problem, they’re not talking about South Park or South Seattle; they’re talking about Capitol Hill’s graffiti problem or all the graffiti going up in Ballard. It’s urgent to the police because it’s urgent for those who have agency in their community—for homeowners. And many of [those homeowners] have been fed misinformation about graffiti.”
One Capitol Hill tagger is Jazz Mom, whose signature began showing up around Seattle about two years ago. Jazz Mom in the flesh is affable if a tad brusque, her legs covered in colorful tattoos. She grew up in Boulder, Colo., and teaches art to the elderly and children at a local fine-art institution. Her tag is intentionally feminized. She claims there’s been an influx of women taggers inspired by her work.
“The name comes from a silly nickname,” she says, grinning. “I’ve pretty much been doing this shit since I was a little kid. I try to be tasteful in my approach. I try to be tactful about where I place my shit.”
A business owner in the Central District recently commissioned Jazz Mom to paint the side of his building and cover up existing tags. Instead of getting free paint from the buff squad, he supplied her with his own paint.
“I’m riding this gray line,” she continues. “I don’t need to get up and be some fuckin’ bomber, not trying to be a part of that part of the culture. It can be so bro-y, like ‘Look at my big dick.’ My whole point is the opposite: Look at this tiny gem. The people who do see it appreciate it and start noticing things. That’s another thing I’ve found interesting: It’s a way to help people look at stuff. You look at a dumpster differently. They become works of art, embedded with the marks of people. It’s a way to document how the environment is changing so fast.”
The artist known as Baldmanwatching is another Capitol Hill tagger. A classically trained performer by day, he has seemingly endless energy that he spends painting extravagant, geometric murals inside abandoned commercial buildings that may never see the light of day. On the streets, his cartoonish Baldman stickers have cropped up all over the city for more than 15 years.
He’s sitting on the floor of a Capitol Hill gallery, his tan jacket covered in a faint pattern of turquoise spatters. A pin on the lapel of his coat spells out “RENT CONTROL” in all-caps. His feeling about the role of artists in the streets echoes the sentiment that the housing crisis and runaway development leave no room for basic public dialog.
“America in general is afraid of the voices of the people,” he says. “You travel to other countries—French cities, Barcelona, Lisbon—there’s much more of a sense that the people cherish that voice and protect it. They leave a space for that voice. It creates an opportunity for sharing and conversations.”
Baldmanwatching got his start tagging as a kid in Bellingham. He took to the streets at night with his father, who would tag script from the Bhagavad Gita in forgotten crevices. He was arrested for graffiti twice as a minor and once while attending art school. He still tags, but he won’t get up on independently owned businesses or religious buildings. In fact, he prefers to tag garbage and furniture falling apart on the side of the street. For him, such detritus represents the truest liminal spaces, neither public nor private, always unwanted. But he’d rather see real public space given over to artists, and see a different kind of education for property owners.
“Do we want our city to be gray? Or do we want our city to be covered in art?” he says. “There are steps. We can ease up, we can take cues from European countries and other communities interested in having artists communicate publicly, in public spaces. We could start with recognition of spaces that are free to put art on. Right now there are no clear lines at all.”
It’s impossible to know for certain who would be more effective in the long run: the artists who want to replace policing with community engagement or the city departments that systematically enforce the buff with Sisyphean determination. It’s clear which approach results in the further graying of Seattle.
Other cities have found ways to embrace graffiti. London officially frowns upon graffiti but the form has won widespread public fandom and earned leeway across many neighborhoods. In cities like Athens and Berlin and across many South American countries, entire neighborhoods explode in myriad colors, provocative messaging and outdoor “galleries” spangled with work of Sistine proportion. NTG wistfully describes pasting art around Buenos Aires in broad daylight. Building owners typically offer cold beer and ask about preserving the work as long as possible. Here in the city he calls home, he persists against the buff, against forgetting.
A few graffiti-friendly efforts are slowly shifting public perception, perhaps most visibly and valiantly Urban Artworks, which trains and employs at-risk teens through a program of public mural projects. The organization has overseen the completion of more than 400 murals since 1995. Public Art 4Culture is planning a two-mile Street Art Corridor that will run along 5th Avenue in SoDo and transform the backs of warehouses into massive pieces of art viewable by passing bus and Light Rail riders. Smaller organizations like Martin’s Way, a nonprofit dedicated to rehabilitating troubled areas in Seattle neighborhoods, have looked to street artists to catalyze transformation. Earlier this year Martin’s Way commissioned Jeff “Weirdo” Jacobson to paint a mural on the side of a derelict tavern in White Center. Until more programs emerge, most of Seattle’s street artists continue to work in the dark.
On Sunday night of Labor Day weekend, Baldmanwatching arrived at a brightly lit intersection on Capitol Hill, a five-foot-wide vinyl sticker under one arm. He made the piece in 2006; it remained buried in his closet until recently. During a brief lull when the throngs of people thinned, he peeled off the back and adhered it to a vacant storefront window with lightning speed. It’s a hand-painted picture of George W. Bush, caricatured as a baby, with a bullet hole through the head. “BALD SHOT BABY BUSH,” reads the text. In 2015 the image feels uncannily salient—a ghost from the not-so-distant past haunting our tenuous political present.
By morning it was gone.
Across the street, Hypnos remains. In contrast to the unsettling Bush cartoon, the Greek god is eerily beautiful. One wing extends from the temple of his head. It has begun to slightly peel from the facade. If we are to believe the artists, these transgressions might momentarily stir us awake.