Sign up for our free newsletter
Fifteenth Street NW, heading south toward R Street. It’s nearly midnight.
“Five-oh, left,” the Bike Artist says coolly as we whoosh past the alley. We brake as the cycletrack hits the intersection, and peer back to confirm we’re past the police cruiser’s line of sight.
M. hops off his bicycle, descends into a crablike stance, and sweeps a patch of asphalt with a large cleaning brush. Straddling her bike, K. drops a slab of carved-up, durable plastic on the ground. The Bike Artist leans over, pulls a can of spraypaint out of a bag, and quickly releases a stream as her hand scans the surface. Lay it and spray it.
K. lifts the plastic stencil, and we inspect the night’s first bombing.
“Bicycle Year-Round!” Pink.
Spraycans go back in the bag. Stencils return to the bike rack.
As we wait in the empty, pedestrian-free silence for the light to turn, M. inches his bike into the crosswalk.
“Scofflaw!” the Bike Artist says, smirking.
A bicyclist has to behave, after all.
The anonymous stencils first appeared in August.
You’d notice them at reds as you braked at the mouth of an intersection. You’d look down, perhaps as you began to creep into the crosswalk, and spy the Day-Glo words on the asphalt: “Make Us Bicyclists Look Good.” And then, maybe, you’d stay put, waiting for that green.
By the middle of August, the messages had emerged up and down 15th Street’s protected cycletrack, around the National Mall, and in bike lanes on R and T streets NW and Rhode Island Avenue. They contained affirmations like “Thank You for Biking,” “Your Bike Is Sexy,” and “Smile! You’re on a Bicycle”; cutesy reminders like “Please Bike Safely Honey. Love, Your Parents”; and cheeky exclamations like “Don’t Door Me Bro.”
These weren’t missives for pedestrians, or motorists, or anyone who wasn’t on a bike. If you don’t spend any time in bike lanes, you probably didn’t see them. But among bike commuters, they quickly punctured daily water-cooler talk. Did you see the bike-lane graffiti?
In the middle of August, Streetsblog, a transportation website, posted a video with a fist-pump-inducing soundtrack and described the stencil art as “extraordinarily motivating” and “sweet.” DCist called it “rather delightful”; Instagram and Twitter users memorialized their stencil-brightened commutes (“OMG I LOVE THESE!!!” read one Instagram comment); and for about a month, pictures of the stencils seemed to take over the popular #bikedc hashtag. (One of the stencils, sensing the opportunity, read “#bikedc.”) Even the District Department of Transportation conceded it had been charmed. While a spokeswoman told DCist that the agency planned to “check into” the stencil art, the @DDOT Twitter feed called the bike-lane messages “kinda cool!”
On Reddit, users debated how the bicycle-lane messages might impact cycling etiquette. “This is fantastic, spray them right next to every rack and street lamp in florescent paint,” wrote one user. Others were skeptical, for different reasons. “I always stop at red lights regardless of these stencils and unfortunately they don’t seem to stop the 10+ riders behind me that blow through red lights on 15th and K St. for example,” wrote a Redditor. Another: “As one ‘asshole cyclist’ among many, I don’t know what they expect this to accomplish. We know exactly what we are doing and we do it anyway. It’s not some sort of ‘I didn’t know I couldn’t do that’ situation, nor do we go through red lights and stop signs by accident.”
The messages proliferated throughout the fall, with dozens appearing in Shaw, Bloomingdale, and Logan Circle. Adams Morgan. Woodley Park. Downtown. Just recently in Arlington, at the entrance to the Key Bridge. After the 15th Street cycletrack was repaved—and the stencil art along it was destroyed—the tagger struck again, restamping the entire strip.
One slogan emerged on M Street NW between 15th and 16th streets—a block where the city recently canceled part of a planned cycletrack at the urging of a church that wanted to preserve curbside space for congregants’ cars. The decision angered District bike advocates and inspired the mystery stenciler to tattoo the block’s pavement with the message “Jesus Loves Bicyclists.”
That one threw some political shade, but for the most part the messages aren’t meant for bicyclists’ detractors. They say encouraging things such as “Drive Your Bike” and “Bike [Heart]” and “I Want to Ride My Bike With You,” like telegrams from the conscience of D.C.’s collective bicycling consciousness. From time to time on my ride home on 15th Street, I see fellow commuters stopping at red lights, spotting the stencils, and smiling. The messages are illicit by their nature but adorable in their content—quietly empowering random acts of cuteness. That, or they’re the least dangerous, least unsettling use of graffiti D.C. has ever seen.
I started asking around.
It turns out the person behind the stencils—I interviewed her on the condition of anonymity, and agreed to refer to her as the Bike Artist, or BA—isn’t a seasoned graffiti writer, a transit insurrectionist, or even an activist by inclination. Mostly, she wants bicyclists to be a little more polite, be a little friendlier with other road users, and feel a little more appreciated. Her project is both an undertaking of passion and a bit of a lark. And although it wants to inspire and improve the culture of bicycling in D.C., it might reveal even more about it.
Coasting toward P Street, BA calls the play: We’re hitting all four sides of the intersection.
So far, it’s been low-stress. No bystanders. Careful, quick tagging. Lay ’em and spray ’em.
There’s a protocol to this—you can’t do this kind of thing without rules—but so far, so easy. Time to get bold.
I follow BA to the southwestern corner. She drops a stencil on the pavement.
“What are you spraying?” calls a voice.
It’s a pedestrian, coming our way from the Logan Circle bars.
“Just a little friendly bike message,” BA says. Do you bike?
Well, she’s not a local. But she tried Capital Bikeshare. That’s worth a high five.
BA bends over to spray the ground, and the woman continues walking on P Street, turning around at the decisive moment to snap a photo with her phone.
Before BA tagged her first bike lane, she took a cut-up map of the District and marked the streets and avenues she wanted to spray. Then she stashed it behind a large artwork hanging in her living room. “I wanted this to be a fun, secret mission thing,” she says.
BA is a white, young professional who lives in Northwest and has been bike commuting in the District for the nearly four years she’s lived here. She is probably the most responsible bicyclist I’ve ever met: Even on tagging runs, she wears a yellow reflective vest and yellow reflective anklets, presumable hindrances in a flight for freedom. Nine times out of 10, she says, she waits until a red light turns green before biking through an intersection. The first time I met her, she very politely told me I was wearing my helmet unsafely. She picks up litter off the road, even though she also marks it permanently with spray paint.
BA had never made illegal art before August, but says she had been thinking about the roads—about how they are underused as something that carries information—for some time. D.C.’s bike infrastructure may have boomed since the Adrian Fenty administration, but the city could be doing much more to foster better behavior by road users, BA says. After watching a couple of graffiti documentaries, she had an epiphany: She’d reach out to her own tribe and help soften bikers’ reputation as transportation insurgents by talking to them in their native habitat.
D.C.’s roads, BA says, “are not utilized in any way other than street signs to promote and inform. So I saw the streets as being a blank canvas. They’re completely disregarded as something we see every day. The sewage markings, the remnants of construction projects—the streets are just ugly, wasted uses of public space when it comes to our visual relationship with them. I wanted something that was eye-catching and thought-provoking and beautiful that made people smile.”
The bright, encouraging—twee, if you’d like—tone of BA’s stencil art has a purpose. “We want more people to bike,” she says. “We want bicyclists to smile and know they’re appreciated. We want bicyclists to smile at other bicyclists and road users. Most importantly, we want D.C. to be a safe place to ride a bike.”
BA started by buying a pack of thick plastic cutting boards, into which she carved the messages with an X-Acto knife. After a trial run in her neighborhood, she went out with a friend, starting in August with the 15th Street NW cycletrack, which she knew was scheduled for repaving. She wanted to gauge the reaction to her project but didn’t want to permanently mar public space if it wasn’t worthwhile. “If it looked like shit, I did not want to put more crap on the streets. I wanted this to be art,” she says. She quickly decided it was and tagged two more streets that night. Then she left D.C. to visit her hometown. “I kind of fled town, like, ‘I’m gonna do a bunch, and then I’m gonna leave.’”
She wasn’t caught. Almost immediately, bicyclists were tweeting about the stencils. And while some D.C. pals had been skittish before, now they wanted in. She wanted to find more collaborators, too. “I sent out a call to all my friends, like, ‘Do you want to get in on this project? This is the shit you’re going to tell your grandchildren.’”
Throughout the fall, BA occasionally gathered friends at her home to share a meal and game out the evening’s stenciling—what she calls “LayNSpray.” On the night in November that I followed her while she resprayed 15th Street, her accomplices were K., a barista, and M., who works at the State Department. We met at the Adams Morgan bar Angles, chatting at a window table while BA and M. scraped goops of paint off the more heavily used stencils. They also did some surgery: Too much use had turned “I Want to Ride My Bike With You” into “I Want to Ride My Bike Vith You.”
On this evening, BA began with a ceremonial reading of the relevant legal statute—and then the request that, should the fuzz intrude, everyone bike away so that BA alone will take the heat. And there are rules: Since many street cameras erase their footage about every 10 days, BA asks her accomplices not to mention the tagging in email, on Facebook, or on Twitter for a week and a half. “And that just gets more into the fun secrecy of it all,” she says.
One of the most exciting LayNSprays took place on the National Mall, she says. “We put hearts on all of the bike signals. It was really sweet. And that was to say these are symbolic of human beings. It’s a person. We are living, breathing beings. Give us respect.”
Fifteenth and Massachusetts. “More Bike Lanes.” Barely legible.
“Newsflash,” says M. “Orange is crap.”
BA, annoyed by the spray job, bikes on. Then she smiles. “Orange you glad we have more colors?”
BA may be new to street art, but she understands where bombing—the writing of one’s name on a public surface—comes from: An art form of the voiceless, it’s about proclaiming your existence to a world that has failed to notice you. In her case, “failed to notice” might mean something closer to “didn’t see you before my SUV right-hooked you on your bike.” But while BA has cannily adopted an art form that’s historically belonged to marginalized people and placed it in the streets’ margins, for the most part she’s not proclaiming her existence to the right-hookers. She’s talking to the right-hookees.
If BA is caught, the punishments are real. According to the D.C. Code, BA could face as many as 10 years in prison and fines up to $5,000 if she’s found guilty of damages totalling more than $1,000.
But anyone who can tag frequently well-lit streets for months without consequence must enjoy some kind of privilege. BA knows it. “People look over with curiosity,” she says of the times she is spotted. “Either people are so complacent they’re not even observant of what’s going on, or they could care less because I’m a young white girl.”
Sometimes other bikers double-take when they see BA tagging, but the reaction is receptive. Once, a rider biked by her while she was spraying at 14th and V. “He, like, circled back, looked at the ground, got closer, looked up and said, ‘Whoa, you’re the one. You’re the one!’ He started screaming it in the intersection, and I was like, ‘Dude, keep it quiet.’ And he was like, ‘You’re the one.’ It made me feel like Batman or something.”
Several D.C. government officials interviewed for this story say the Metropolitan Police Department rarely pursues street artists who aren’t generating numerous complaints—like Borf, the teenage tagger whose works briefly captivated Washingtonians until his arrest in 2005—or spraying gang-related messages or names. Likewise, the Department of Public Works, which “doesn’t necessarily tolerate” street art on public property like the bases of lamp posts, prioritizes cleaning up material that’s gang-related, offensive, or has inspired a complaint, according to spokeswoman Linda Grant. To Grant’s knowledge, no one has complained to DPW about the bike-lane stencils.
“I’d say that the messages are positive and pretty unobtrusive. They don’t distract from people using the street safely,” emails Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s director of policy, planning, and sustainability administration, when asked about the bike-lane stencils. “We generally don’t want people to do things like this, because if we did have to remove the stencils it’s a cost to the agency and taxpayers, which means other needed work may not get done. But this isn’t really the same as defacing a sign or creating a large mural in the street because of the size and the fact that the messages are positive.”
BA says she’s worried about being caught—mostly because of what it could cost her financially—but believes she could gather support among bike enthusiasts and galvanize momentum for better biking infrastructure and bicyclist behavior.
Maybe she shouldn’t worry. On the night I watched BA and her friends tag 15th Street, M. wondered out loud if I was going to portray the crew as reckless, entitled white kids. They certainly have tagging down to something like a science, but over time, they got remarkably looser. At several points, they left three or four stencils next to one another, spending several traffic-light cycles at a single intersection. They greeted passersby, spraycans in hand.
And why not be reckless, when the odds of being caught appear to be so low? The most remarkable thing about writing on a well-lit street while being white, 20-something, and bike-bound is how little suspicion you arouse—from cops cruising by, from security guards, from anyone. I had to wonder if the kids who once made the above-ground stretch of the Red Line heading toward Silver Spring a graffiti destination ever had it so easy. BA and her compatriots may borrow graffiti’s customs, but they don’t live in its world.
Even Borf’s sentence was light compared to the maximum punishment—while he was ordered to pay $12,000 in restitution after pleading guilty to tagging a Howard University building, he served only a month in jail. BA is hardly Borf on a bike, at least in terms of any damage she’s doing; if city officials say they’re barely bothered by her stencils, would a judge really treat her as a menace? That she’s tagging public property with well-meaning messages, not painting private buildings with pseudo-anarchic axioms, seems to have helped her cause, at least among local officials.
From a street artist’s perspective, there’s another advantage to BA’s method. Because streets are public property, tags there tend to last much longer than tags on walls, which are often removed quickly, says Cory Stowers, an amateur graffiti historian who runs Art Under Pressure, a skate and paint shop in Petworth. And while street-bound street art isn’t a common approach, it does have a long tradition: Kids have been painting their names on the pavement as long as they’ve been painting them on the side of subway cars.
BA’s stencils aren’t alone on D.C.’s streets. There are the Toynbee Tiles, with their esoteric messages, that can be found on city streets across the Western Hemisphere, plus the Stikman robots that inhabit crosswalks across the United States. Fine artists like Steed Taylor have created sanctioned, gallery-supported “road tattoos.” There’s an artist in Bowie who creates Pac-Man figures, some which are placed so that they appear to be eating lines on the road. That guy uses a heavy-duty adhesive that reacts to heat in order to become permanent, Stowers says. Corporate viral marketers will sometimes stamp hashtags on D.C. roads and sidewalks using materials that fade to nothing in four or five months.
Creating street art that’s actually on the street is a bit more technically difficult than using a wall, Stowers says—you have to hold the can a different way, for starters—but it has the appeal of being less competitive. “Not too many people do it, and it’s a great way to attract attention,” he says. “Going onto the ground is an excellent canvas for folks putting their message out.”
Fifteenth and K streets. BA says it’s my turn to tag. I stammer and agree, but decide to wait for I Street, a block from my office.
I botch a gold-colored “Jesus Loves Bicycles”—wrong hand position—and mess up another stencil inside a white bike arrow.
They paint the whole arrow pink.
The Bike Artist isn’t nearly done. She wants to tag more lanes in high-traffic bicycling areas and move away from her more humorous messages to focus on promoting responsibility and etiquette. And she’s even seen at least one imitator: A friend has begun spraying stencils in Columbia Heights, using his own designs. Similar-looking stencils aimed at pedestrians can be found on 11th Street NW in the same neighborhood, though BA didn’t notice them until after her project began.
In many ways, the tone of her street art—chipper, encouraging, mischievous but hardly subversive—reflects a change in D.C.’s bike culture. Between 2000 and 2011, only New York City saw a sharper drop in car commuting than D.C., according to a recent Public Interest Research Group study. Bikeshare reports about 250,000 rides a month. According to the League of American Bicyclists, bike commuting in D.C. grew 445 percent between 1990 and 2012, and as many as 4.1 percent of D.C. workers commute on bike. The typical D.C. biker is a lot like the Bike Artist—pretty normal.
“Bicyclists now aren’t your middle-aged men in Lycra, they aren’t the young white hipster bike-messenger lookalikes,” BA says. “Everyone bikes.”
Bike culture in D.C. is “night and day” from about a decade ago, says BicycleSpace co-owner Erik Kugler, whose 7th Street NW bike shop sits in front of a rare sidewalk stencil made by BA. “It used to be exemplified by the courier culture…that was a turnoff to many people. Now it’s just everyday people who are out. What separates the culture now is it feels like you’re in on a secret that brings happiness to your life.”
That’s exactly the distinction BA is trying to draw—between bicyclists’ reputation, semirooted in an outdated notion of who bikes, and the way she feels every bicyclist ought to behave. Where most of us fall is probably somewhere in between. “Bicyclists have a reputation of being serious assholes, and this is confronting that perception,” BA says of her project. As an example, she points to a recent article on Greater Greater Washington, a first-person account by a bike-accident victim who was ticketed by police after a driver turned into his path, causing a collision, and was later allegedly told by a police officer that of course he was at fault—he’s a biker. In that case, the bicyclist did everything right. But in the heated discourse of urban transit policy, BA is frustrated that bicyclists are often stereotyped as aggressive lawbreakers. That perception, she says, is unfair, but is nevertheless framed “by the portion of people that run through red lights, don’t yield at stop signs, bike on sidewalks, bike the wrong way up streets—those people frame other road users’ perceptions that all bicyclists are wrong and disrespectful. I’m so polite. I’m overly polite to get over that perception. I, like, stop and wave and smile at people.”
Bikers, of course, have plenty of reasons to remain aggressive—they still get killed on the road, after all, and must navigate laws that often force them to think like motorists and pedestrians at the same time. And so the notion that more bicyclists ought to set a better example, Kugler says, is “a little tough to swallow with all these cars doing illegal U-turns” and violating traffic laws in ways that can hurt bikers. “We’re supposed to be the ones who set a good example?”
As American cities have knocked down the barriers to everyday biking by building more bike lanes, adding Bikeshare systems, and improving signage—as they’ve given more of the road to bicyclists—those policies have become politicized. (See the conservative think tank founder who recently berated a bicyclist for reporting a truck blocking the L Street cycletrack, or Christopher Caldwell’s recent Weekly Standard screed against the bicycling lobby.) But in D.C., the temperature of the bicycle debate is beginning to drop. Public discourse still centers on the toll of gentrification—on the widening gulf between the city’s wealthier, whiter population and its poorer, blacker one—but three years removed from the Fenty administration, bicycling is less of a signifier of a societal rift. (Biking advocates, of course, might point out that the pace of bicycle-infrastructure expansion has slowed, too, although DDOT wants to build 140 more miles of cycletracks and bike lanes.) And as the population of daily, nonideological bicyclists has grown, BA’s instinct—that they need an angel on their shoulder—more or less feels right. That, anyway, is why Kugler says he gives the bike stencils a “99 out of 100.”
“It’s a message for the modern biking culture,” Kugler says. “It’s not a renegade culture anymore.”
Fifteenth and M streets, heading back north. It’s after 1 a.m.
Cans and stencils hidden. A police truck rolls through the intersection.
As the vehicle pulls away, M. waves enthusiastically. Under her breath, BA says, “Sucker.”
M. looks at me. “Did you write that down?”
They arrange their bodies for the usual routine. Lay it and spray it.
This time it’s “I Want to Ride Bikes With You” in gold. M. lifts the stencil. The lettering is perfect.
“Ooooh!” he tells BA. “It’s your magnum opus!”
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery