The Graffiti Paradox

Encroaching urban blight or the flowering of creativity in the public forum? Criminals or the new painters of the Tacoma renaissance? The writing on the wall, a graphic sign of the times, is subbornly hard to read.

Clone Roc and Auraswon are members of 2FTC. (The name’s pronounced “two feet crew,” but derives from the initial letters of two-five-three, Tacoma’s area code.) The young men, both 22, have asked that their street aliases be used in place of their real names for purposes of either anonymity or self-promotion, depending on who’s reading this story. They and some of their friends meet me for pizza in Georgetown, near the Audio Dose studio, where they’re working on a hip-hop album. They’re so excited to tell me about graffiti that almost an hour goes by before we stop talking long enough to order.

Clone Roc, who sports a Mohawk and a mashup of clothing styles — baggy skater jeans, immaculate white Creative Recreation sneakers, a colorful designer track top — has been “writing” since he was ten years old. He says he first saw graffiti around his grandmother’s house in the North End. “Before I went out and showed people what I could do, I wanted to practice. I would go out and stare at graffiti for hours, then go home and draw.” When he was confident enough, he began “tagging” — spray painting his stylized moniker around the city — primarily at “The Underground,” a popular series of walls below Tacoma’s freeways that stretches from the center of downtown to I-5 and beyond.

Auraswon, also known as Auras, shows me “flicks” on his digital camera of writing they just did at The Underground the night before. He claims the large “piece” (taller than me) took him under twenty minutes.

Auras was first arrested for graffiti — tagging bathrooms at a park in Olympia — at the age of twelve. The police let him go, under his mother’s supervision. He was arrested again at fifteen after tagging his school. This time police released him to school authorities, which was OK with him. “I knew I would just get suspended and sit at home and draw, so it didn’t matter.”

When 2FTC was approached last summer to paint a wall on Sixth Avenue with the permission of the property owner, Clone Roc says it was like a dream: “That’s all I really wanted. Instead of having to go out and do illegal stuff, I got to paint all day with all the writers that I looked up to as a kid.”

The four members of 2FTC, one of maybe twenty Tacoma graffiti crews, are essentially taggers. But with two enormous “legal” walls “burning” in Tacoma and more to come, they’re now taggers with CVs. They’re selling canvases in local galleries. They’re being asked to teach classes to young people. They’re becoming a contradiction in terms: legitimate graffiti artists.

Graffiti, from the Italian graffiato — literally “scratched” — dates way back to the days when marks were inscribed on walls: before spray paint. Examples in ancient ruins indicate that Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Vikings and Mayans, among other civilizations, were all wall writers. Modern graffiti emerged as a cultural phenomenon in the early 1960s and achieved its “golden age” (as documented last year in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum) in New York City in the mid- to late 1970s. Superstars like Futura 2000, Jean-Michel Basquiat (SAMO was his tag), Keith Haring and Zephyr all surfaced around 1978.

Though rap and punk were early influences, graffiti today is mostly associated with hip-hop — that is, subversive street culture not dominated by middle class white values. Self-taught, graffiti writers (what they prefer to be called, though it’s almost entirely painting with aerosol spray cans) are literally outlaws who live and paint at the margins of mainstream society and culture. The epicenter of their scene may have originally been New York, but moving murals on the sides of freight cars carried graffiti to buildings and bridges in the West — to places like Tacoma.


Graffiti Is Bad

Tagging is against the law. A Tacoma anti-graffiti ordinance passed by the City Council in 1999 defines the activity as vandalism and makes it illegal, a “gross misdemeanor” and “public nuisance” punishable by up to $5,000 in fines, up to one year of imprisonment or both. Graffiti must be removed promptly from both public and private property, the latter at the owner’s expense. The initiative was inspired, in part, by the “Broken Windows” theory, first advanced in an Atlantic Monthly article by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling and popularized in the 1990s by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. To thwart vandalism, the idea goes, fix problems when they’re small: One broken window left unrepaired inevitably leads to an uncontrolled spiral of negligence. Deter antisocial behavior to prevent major crime.

City Council Member Julie Anderson is plenty aware of the graffiti problem in Tacoma and very much of the Broken Windows school. She’s met with local business owners to discuss the matter. Like many, she sees a stark distinction between “graffiti art” and tagging. “I’m supportive of graffiti zones in the city,” says Anderson. “But I have no tolerance for tagging: it’s selfish and it’s anarchy.” She’s in favor of adopting a zero-tolerance approach to tagging in Tacoma and is firmly behind the nuisance law.

Charles “Kelly” Creso, owner of Sixth Avenue Art Gallery, sees the law, which requires him to immediately “paint out” tags on his building, differently: It isn’t working. Every time he paints over, the taggers come back. He thinks that painting over graffiti is creating an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude in the city. “If it’s constantly being covered up, no one in city council has to recognize that there’s a real problem at hand,” says Creso. It becomes a temporary issue that property owners are made responsible for ameliorating. “I’ve wasted thousands of dollars — not to mention hundreds of man-hours — on that approach.”

When I mention Creso’s point of view to Anderson, she concedes, “Well, small business owners definitely need our help.”

Creso has found another approach. Last year he contacted FAB 5, an organization that works to connect hip-hop performers and artists with productive activities in the community, and offered to make an exterior wall of his building available for a mural. The wall faces an easily accessible alleyway and was tagged constantly. FAB 5 introduced Creso to 2FTC and the rest is history — or just the beginning. 2FTC “threw up” the mural in August 2006 and Creso’s wall hasn’t been tagged since, while the wall directly across the alley continues to get hit.

Tagging is largely about claiming something. Marking your territory. Building your reputation. It’s advertising, without legal obligations — except for the unspoken rule: if you know this belongs to someone already, go somewhere else. If you paint over my tag or my piece — you’ve started trouble. Ironically enough, you’ve trespassed — even though this isn’t my property in the first place. Tagging is about usurping a system of rules where the system is practically incoherent.

“We just want to paint,” Clone Roc says. “If someone goes over us, we’ll just go right back over and paint better. They go back over us — we’ll paint over them again.” 
When I ask the 2FTC guys if there’s anything they won’t tag, they respond without hesitation: Churches, schools and homes.

I begin to understand the pattern: taggers evaluate their “canvases” based on the level of risk and the lack of association with their own lives. They respect houses of worship because many of them were raised in church-going families. They stay away from schools because they’ve gotten in trouble there before. And they leave private homes alone because they understand the importance of having your own place. Everything else — businesses and public buildings, which represent commerce and government in ways that don’t concern them — is fair game. Symbols of established authority are the enemy.

“Well, maybe I’d hit a school that’s shut down,” Auras clarifies.


Graffiti Is Beautiful

There are many different opinions on graffiti: Graffiti leads to graffiti. Ignoring graffiti leads to graffiti. Painting over graffiti attracts graffiti. The perplexing wheel shows no sign of slowing down. But a once subversive notion is now widely accepted: Graffiti is art.

Norman Mailer was among the earliest observers to comment on how graffiti was being tamed and transformed. “Graffiti speaks of a new civilization where barbarism is stirring at the roots,” he wrote in a 1974 essay titled “The Faith of Graffiti.” Fresh, raw, fast, loose and immediate, graffiti is ephemeral art made by vigilante artists, the dispossessed leaving their mark. Its rise up from the streets, Mailer noted, was perhaps inevitable: “Art has been saying with more and more intensity that the nature of painting has become less interesting than the relation of painting to society.”

Graffiti is now embraced, in all its rebelliousness and audacity, by the art world in galleries and museums both in the U.S. and in Europe. Its lawlessness has been romanticized; it’s been aestheticized and appropriated in graphic and fashion design and in advertising. Today the graffiti aesthetic is everywhere. Buses and trains that were once covered by tags are now wrapped in slick skins selling iPods and MasterCard.

Graffiti-as-art is an intersection where cultural, social and political issues merge. “Some people say it’s bad, but that’s a matter of opinion,” says Elton Gatewood, who created Tacoma’s Neighborhood Council Program in 1978 to help community members reclaim their neighborhoods. Gatewood is interested in the way graffiti murals cross socioeconomic boundaries of art appreciation. “We used to gear art in Tacoma toward the elite. Now we’re getting more of a community flavor, from the ground up.”

As with most artists, community is a crucial element in the graffiti world. Sometime in 2002, three neighboring parking garages in downtown Tacoma, near Ninth and Broadway, became a sanctuary for graffiti writers.

“The parking garages were first hit illegally,” says Clone Roc. “Then a few graffiti artists talked to the owner so that they could paint there more. TN crew started painting there and bringing other people in and they filled almost the entire garage.”

Keger, 26, is not a member of 2FTC, but his work appears on both of the crew’s recent murals. He was one of the writers who spoke with Lorig Associates, former owner of the garage, and made an agreement to allow graffiti writers to paint inside “legally,” which is to say with the property owner’s consent: technically, graffiti, unlike mural painting, is never legal. The ability to paint, risk-free, in a covered yet open-air spot was almost too good to be true. Keger says he knows writers who traveled from as far away as Sacramento to paint in the garages.

The walls, floors, columns and even windows were covered with every genre of graffiti I imagine exists. There’s tagging, vibrant “wild style” murals (the form most commonly associated with large graffiti pieces: super-bright colors and, to the untrained eye, illegible lettering), scenes featuring characters from the famous Mad Magazine comic strip “Spy vs. Spy” — advertising a painting contest in the garages between 2FTC and another crew — and a pack of sinister yet cuddly-looking Pandas, painted by Charms, a mentor to 2FTC. They call Seattle-based Charms “one of the best graffiti artists in Washington” and attribute their clout to the support that artists like him show for their work.

The garages grew more popular, and as with any good party that goes on too long, things eventually got out of hand. Windows were entirely painted over — then broken. More windows were broken; theories don’t come out of nowhere, I suppose. Then the garages were sold. The new owner, W.M. Riley & Co., shut things down around the summer of 2005, chaining the garage gates to lock the painters out. But the graffiti was left untouched. It’s still there now.

“Those walls are getting bombed [tagged] by kids with no skills and it looks terrible,” says Clone Roc. But 2FTC doesn’t seem fazed by the loss of the garages. They’ve clearly invested their energy elsewhere — and it’s worked to their advantage. They have acquired legal walls that afford them opportunities to work with other respected graffiti writers like Keger, whom Clone Roc calls “old-school Tacoma.”

Standing among 2FTC and their friends, Keger and Pubs one, it’s clear to me that creative collaboration is key to their alliance. These are not taggers who roam the city alone, inventing new ways to terrorize property owners. Nor are they gangsters who make a lifestyle out of intimidation and violence. These are young guys who thrive on giving and receiving feedback on their work. And they like doing it in the daylight, when they can stand back and admire what they’ve done. Do touch ups. Even “roll out” (paint a wall a solid color using a roller) a new background and revise the work completely.

“With these legal walls, writers will be more open to experimenting,” says Pubs one, 25, a graffiti artist who prefers to “fly solo,” as the writers say. He makes a point of telling me that graffiti artists are always working to improve. “If you paint a cool wall,” he explains, “you always want to come back and do something better.”

Graffiti artists are focused on moving forward in their work. They’re not content with stasis — or reproducing the same old style. Working in a group is conducive to making progress. Crew members challenge one another. “Ain’t no audience like your peers,” Auraswon jokes. Moreover, they’re a mutual support system. The guys of 2FTC share resources. They rely on each other for cell phone access, rides and art supplies. When one member gets a break (they tend to work at undemanding, low-paying day jobs like apartment maintenance and food service) and is able to cash in on paint, he shares it with the crew.

Pubs one stands out among the writers I met, not only in his artistic style, but because he chooses not to make crew life his primary focus. He is about to earn his B.F.A. from the Art Institute of Seattle and already has a job as a graphic designer. Sure, he wants to stay connected to graffiti — it’s a part of his identity — but he doesn’t want it to freeze up. He can see graffiti growing to become a relevant art form that challenges both graffiti writers and audiences. “If you combine graffiti with acknowledgments toward culture and environment and place,” he says, “it creates more meaning. Otherwise, it only has meaning to the graffiti writer.” •

In Part Two of this Special Report in the May-June City Arts: Street gangs and graffiti. Plus, is 2FTC really going legit? Here’s a preview: No.