We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
On an August evening in Edgewood, five young artists congregate near a freshly painted white wall. There’s Pacer, a skateboarder and self-taught tattoo artist, and Chewy, who also goes by Rep and works during the summer at a suburban country club. Dennis, or Calm, has braces. Collin, aka Quewser, is straddling a fixie; he studies fine art. Jeremy clutches a video camera. And hanging from a ladder is Fame, a quiet guy wearing a turban that holds his skinny dreads.
Someone forgot the spray paint. The evening risks becoming a bit of a mess.
This is far from an instance of young taggers illegally hitting a piece of public property. They have two adults on hand—Cory Stowers, the team’s organizer, and Drew Liverman, the mural’s designer. The project is underwritten by the District government as part of its MuralsDC program, which is designed to redirect graffiti artists’ energy toward legal ends.
And it’s taking place on some prime real estate for spray paint illegality. There are hundreds of tagged surfaces in Edgewood and adjacent neighborhoods like Brookland and Eckington, visible from the Red Line’s above-ground traverse between Silver Spring and Union Station. “Getting up” along “the line,” as writers call it, has been a rite of passage almost since the Metro opened.
The light is fading. Stowers and Fame point at a passing freight train, admiring the tags that cake its side. Later, Stowers will fire up a floodlight and a digital projector connected to a MacBook Pro, placing on the wall an outline of the mural-to-be. The image depicts a vague and happy scene of environmental renewal along the Anacostia River.
Oddly enough, D.C. in the age of gentrification has become a hotbed of street art. Blogs and Flickr feeds document new tags, murals, decals, and wheatpastes. Graffiti artists order supplies online. There’s a store in Petworth, Art Under Pressure, that sells spray paint and serves as a hangout.
There’s also an institutional infrastructure that’s been erected under what was once the ultimate outsider form: Nonprofits like Albus Cavus and Words Beats & Life—Stowers’ employer—teach painting techniques in addition to maintaining legal graffiti walls. Galleries like The Fridge, Irvine Contemporary, and Art Whino frequently display works of spray paint. There are two forthcoming documentaries: The Red Line D.C. Project, about the art along the famous stretch, and The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan, about one of the city’s earliest graffiti artists.
And D.C. graffiti, as with any creative form that has spawned such a network of support, generates panel discussions. A recent Busboys & Poets event titled “The Art of Vandalism” drew nearly 150 people. Nearly all of them, naturally, were graffiti supporters. On the dais, art doyenne Philippa Hughes discussed the work she lets graffiti artists write on the walls of her apartment. Even a representative from the agency that’s supposed to crack down on vandalism—the District’s Department of Public Works—wasn’t all negative. The spokeswoman, Nancee Lyons, described DPW’s efforts to clean up tagged surfaces, but also stressed the new opportunities artists have to do their thing with community input. Her agency, as it happens, is a sponsor of MuralsDC.
This isn’t New York in the ’70s. Or even D.C. in the ’80s. In 2011, graffiti culture and its derivatives are thriving in D.C.—but as sanctioned forms. The government, nonprofits, activists, gallery owners, marketers, and the artists themselves have in large part tamed the practice, raising questions about what the anti-authoritarian form even means anymore. As the graffiti bubble grows bigger and bigger, its contradictions are being painted in vivid colors.
Graffiti, the kind that’s combative and spontaneous and doesn’t involve supervision, will always decorate urban landscapes. “To be respected as an artist is to put your name up illegally,” says Roger Gastman, a Bethesda-bred former graffiti writer who has authored histories of D.C. and American graffiti.
Writers have been plastering their names around the District since the 1970s, though the form has evolved considerably. Native Washingtonians pioneered the local scene, Gastman says. But by the early 1980s, the majority of artists were commuting from the suburbs.
As with most other places, D.C.’s graffiti comes in two basic forms. There’s the hand style: Taggers “bomb” the city with scrawled versions of their names. Che, Sleazy, Stamp, and Moe are ubiquitous these days, but the pecking order is always in flux. Taggers’ work can be difficult to read, adding to both their intrigue and the larger public’s misunderstanding.
Slightly less destructive are the writers who “piece,” creating large, abstract forms that can take hours. This work is less about quantity than striking visuals. Of course, plenty of artists piece and bomb.
MuralsDC, now in its fourth year, began as an effort to save repeatedly tagged property from defacement. The program, championed by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, is a partnership between DPW and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The plan was, and still is, to replace illegal work with collaborative murals, using nonprofits to reach out to writers. The $100,000 program funds murals around the city and pays its young apprentices. This summer, it funded nine projects, with a different lead artist for each mural and a handful of kids to paint them.
In the telling of MuralsDC and affiliated nonprofits, writers can be shown that graffiti is one step on a continuum of options—one of which is fine art. The amount of D.C. gallery shows devoted to graffiti and street art has grown drastically: Borf, D.C.’s most notorious vandal since Cool “Disco” Dan, was arrested in 2005; since then, the Borf Brigade, his group of taggers, has shown in area galleries. Plenty of others, like Decoy and Tim Conlon, have done the same. Beginning this week, MuralsDC is hosting a show about its summer projects in the former library and “Temporium” space on H Street NE.
Stowers says his after-school “The Bench” classes—named for the meeting spots of New York City’s subway graffiti writers in the late ’70s and ’80s—draw 15 to 35 kids to the basement of St. Stephens Church in Columbia Heights each week. He says around a third of his students remain active graffiti writers.
Stowers, 34, can relate. In the late ’90s, he tagged District surfaces using the moniker EON. These days, he manages the mural program and leads kids to a nearby alley managed by his employer that serves as a practice space for graffiti writers—after he’s shown the techniques on paper.
Other organizations also provide legal opportunities for kids to spray paint. Albus Cavus, a nonprofit active in New Jersey, D.C., and elsewhere, promotes public art projects and runs four “open walls” in the District. Stowers compares such walls, which he hopes to see more of, to skate parks that move kids from the street into parks. He wants to see more safe places to paint, possibly under the city’s aegis. “You show up. You paint. You take your picture. You say bye-bye. And you leave it for the next artist,” he said at the “The Art of Vandalism” discussion.
The eight-year-old Words Beats & Life preaches a message about the law that fans of graffiti-as-class-warfare might not like. “Though graffiti has its own culture, we have our expectations,” says Mazi Mutafa, Words Beats & Life’s executive director. “We have conversations about property and ownership.” For example, Stowers was arrested three years ago for painting “dead New York City subway trains” that were being prepared for scrapping. As a condition of working at Words Beats & Life, Stowers has not painted illegally since. Youth involved in “The Bench” classes sign a similar pledge, indicating they won’t make illegal graffiti. Many follow the rules.
Stowers says he wants his students to find success beyond the narrow world of graffiti, pointing to the accomplishments of D.C. writers who have achieved success in other fields. Cita Sadeli co-founded the animation and design company Protein Media; Coby Kennedy—or Demon—has created clothing designs for Japanese street-wear companies and concept automobiles for Honda.
For Stowers, the gallery is presumably a step above the street. He also co-owns Art Under Pressure, an art-supply outpost and custom design shop in Petworth. The store’s name is taken from the Hall of Fame tunnel, a space by the L’Enfant Plaza Metro stop that was once a graffiti writer’s mecca; after Sept. 11, 2001, it became riskier to tag. Art Under Pressure was also a loose crew that painted in that area.
Art Under Pressure, the store, sells products like spray paint from Montana 94 and clothing designed by graffiti writers. Custom skateboards and messenger bags line the walls, along with zines and markers. A second store opened in Hyattsville’s Arts District last weekend, occupying a corner of the massive new Busboys & Poets. In keeping with the brand of the neighborhood, this Art Under Pressure sells only fine art supplies.
“For young people…the access to platforms for you to express yourself is very limited and graffiti offers you the opportunity to just kind of do it yourself,” says Stowers. “You get your paint. You go out to wherever you’re going to paint your name. You paint your name and then you sit back as everybody else kind of experiences it. And that’s something that can be very powerful for a young person.”
But, he says, it can also be destructive. As Stowers teaches it, part of doing graffiti well is “understanding social responsibility.” If he catches a youth vandalizing a house, he has them introduce themselves to the property owner and clean it up, or do yard work as compensation. 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.
There’s a responsibility that comes with writing, says Stowers, and that is especially the case given the opportunities Words Beats & Life offers: painting legally, gallery shows, and employment.
According to the District government, 2011 has seen a surge in illegal writing. “As of June 30, we’ve spent $385,000 removing graffiti (including salaries) and we paid our contractor, who removes graffiti from structures higher than the first story, $200,000 last year,” says DPW’s Lyons in an email. DPW fields between 300 and 400 graffiti-related complaints each week. In the agency’s last fiscal year—between October and May—it removed 1,780 pieces from both public and private property. In the current period, it’s removed 3,946.
It’s unclear how much of the increase is the result of more residents being willing to complain—a byproduct, perhaps, of gentrification. Lyons says most graffiti occurs in commercial corridors: the area around U Street and Florida Avenue NW, the stretch of Georgia Avenue above the 2000 block, and, of course, the above-ground portion of the Red Line.
Graffiti nonprofits help efforts to control vandalism, but it’s not just the kids they have to worry about. It’s also the teachers. In July, days before he was to teach an Albus Cavus-organized class at a D.C. Public Library branch, Asad “Ultra” Walker, 45, who police allege also goes by “Mar5,” was arrested for graffiti-related vandalism. At DCPL’s request, Albus Cavus dropped Walker from the class.
A graffiti artist since the early 1980s, Walker is a founding member of KGB, or “Krazy Graf Brothers,” a crew of writers known for being intimidating. But he’s also shown work in galleries, an indication that being able to work the establishment doesn’t obviate tagging on the illegal side.
Walker highlights the contradictions inherent in trying to institutionalize graffiti: He worked with MuralsDC to design a painting along New York Avenue in 2010, but feels that nonprofits and public art projects exclude writers with street cred. (He says he’s now working on a project outside of Patty Boom Boom on U Street NW.)
“If MuralsDC is supposed to be a graffiti-outreach program, I don’t know any active graffiti artists involved in the program,” he says. Following his arrest, Walker volunteered to participate in “The Art of Vandalism” panel, which was jointly organized by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, DPW, and Words Beats & Life, but says DPW turned him down. On his Facebook page, he opined that at least one D.C. street bomber should have been at the discussion.
To hear Walker tell it, graffiti’s new public face has marginalized actual graffiti writers—while borrowing their aesthetics. A bearded, massive man with a Zulu Nation tattoo scrawled up his arm, Walker has taught kids through Albus Cavus and other programs. He took his students to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, where they could see the work of artists who never received training, and says he still wants to help graffiti artists interact with the community. “We want our surroundings to be beautiful just much as the next person,” he says.
I meet with Walker at a café on U Street NW. He shows up with Che, another KGB member, who won’t give his real name. Che says he’s not a fan of Washington’s “graffiti ambassadors.” A few years ago, Che was a student in one of Stowers’ classes, but his involvement was short-lived. He was fine making legal art, but that wasn’t going to stop him from tagging buildings. That, to him, is still the gold standard of individuality.
In D.C. graffiti culture, KGB might be a throwback, but its presence is significant. “They want to be the people that you’re afraid to go over [with paint], that you’re afraid to run into at a club, that you’re afraid to bump into at an alley,” says Gastman, describing KGB’s ’90s presence. “Beef is part of graffiti—getting beat up, getting roughed up. It’s full-contact and illegal. At its core it always will be.”
Stowers says he wants graffiti to enter a kind of post-rival stage, in which artists don’t bully one another. Galleries are a great place to do that. But even he recognizes that something is lost in the process.
“When you come up on a fresh piece of graffiti in a random cut space or even just walking down the street, the impact that it has on you versus how you see it on a canvas or in an installation is greatly reduced,” he says.
The ranks of D.C.’s muralists may be full of graffiti writers, but the resulting projects are hardly spontaneous. Nonprofit leader Mutafa meets in advance with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, property owners, and neighborhood associations to develop themes and find the right space. Artists submit work based on these concepts. They await a green light. It’s a bit like getting a liquor license. “It’s hard to build a groundswell,” says Mutafa, and see the walls “as part of the larger city.” Attendance at meetings can be low; for the Edgewood mural, only two community members attended a first meeting.
The result of that meeting is a bright, cartoonlike depiction of the Anacostia. Colors and content divide the river into three parts: past, present, and future. “Starting from the right, the first section is an undisturbed, idyllic river with happy animals and healthy plants,” says Liverman. “The middle panel shows a polluted mess with trash and debris clogging the river….As you move from right to left in the third panel you see people cleaning up the river and then the animals are all happy and the sun’s out and prominently placed in the top left. It’s a pretty literal interpretation of the community input, but I think the way it’s depicted makes it a little more open to viewers’ interpretations.”
A few weeks later, six people, including artist Eric B. Ricks, met to discuss a mural that would adorn the exterior of U Street’s beloved Ben’s Chili Bowl. Mutafa had residents pair up to consider two themes: community and the environment. Ideas that the groups shared included ideas like family, diversity, the Sankofa bird, a Ghanaian word that means “go back and take,” Zipcars, and stories of the Ali family, the owners of Ben’s.
Tim Conlon, a graffiti artist who now mostly shows work in art galleries and works full-time for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, designed a mural two summers ago through MuralsDC. He says most projects have nearly no relation to graffiti, except in their use of paint and execution by graffiti artists. He hopes that as the program develops, the murals become edgier, and that it will put more trust in the artists’ visions and designs.
Stowers agrees. “While I love participating in MuralsDC and I love participating in these large-scale public works, I do know that it is the vision of the lead artist through the lens of the arts commission and the community, so it’s not necessarily the artists’ vision and definitely not the young artists’ [vision] that are participating…They are working with the artists on something that the adults have all agreed is good art.”
Which is the kind of sentiment that might prompt even non-artistic kids to tag the nearest wall in sight.
This year, Gastman co-curated the first major exhibition of graffiti art in the U.S., at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In 2008, the National Portrait Gallery hosted “Recognize!” to examine contemporary portraiture in hip-hop and featured commissions by a pair of graffiti artists (including Conlon). It was the first time the Smithsonian has ever shown graffiti inside its doors. The Corcoran has pieces by Cool “Disco” Dan, donated by Gastman, in its permanent collection.
Locally, the biggest annual showcase for graffiti and street art is G40, a massive, Artomatic-scale exhibition organized by the National Harbor-based gallery Art Whino. This year, G40 took place in a former office building on 14th Street NW and shared four floors with scenester megasite Brightest Young Things. The space, open for one month, was funded by vitaminwater as part of their national series of “uncapped LIVE” pop-up venues.
The G40 site contained just about every variation of street art imaginable: graffiti on canvases, graffiti on miniature train cars, grafitti on skateboards, graffiti and wheatpastes on the walls. LivingSocial and vitaminwater logos were stamped around the space. Fifty thousand people attended, according to Art Whino owner Shane Pomajambo. Art Whino sold 200 pieces.
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.”