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Street signs, Dumpsters, and mailboxes rejoice: Borf has retired.
That’s the word from Borf himself, aka John Tsombikos, the prolific graffiti artist who has been in the D.C. Jail since Feb. 9. D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz sentenced the 18-year-old Northern Virginia resident to 30 days behind bars, $12,000 in fines, and 200 hours of community service, including 80 hours of graffiti removal, for his two-year tagging rampage.
Tsombikos could have lightened his sanctions with a courtroom plea for mercy, but he couldn’t play the role of contrite convict. “I have no fucking remorse,” he says. “That’s why I wouldn’t apologize in court to Lynn Leibovitz, that piece-of-shit judge.”
Yet this remorseless tagger is disavowing future spray-painting on D.C.’s public furniture. Instead of hitting the streets upon his mid-March release, Tsombikos will try to get his message out via legal means, including art shows, though he hates the word “art,” calling it a “passive and innocuous” concept. He creates vandalism, he says.
According to Tsombikos, his graffiti spree was originally inspired by a friend’s 2003 suicide. It made him realize, he says, that American culture values property more than people. So he set out to destroy property—he saw every clean wall and every gentrified neighborhood as an affront to his philosophy and to his friend’s memory.
His career has continued to thrive behind bars. Other inmates have been giving Tsombikos pictures of their children for him to draw. Tsombikos, a vegetarian, has been bartering the pencil portraits for a break from the meat-laden jail cuisine. He has scored cookies, 3 Musketeers bars, extra sides of carrots and potatoes, as well as art supplies.
“That’s how I get everything I want,” he says. “The first time I’ve sold a painting was in here.”
Tsombikos’ jail sentence is disrupting his pursuit of a degree at the Corcoran College of Art & Design—he’s worried that he won’t pass the classes he’s currently enrolled in. Once he’s finished with his studies, he says, he will never go corporate with his work. He’s determined to avoid the path blazed by Los Angeles guerilla artist Shepard Fairey, who sells T-shirts, stickers, posters, and other items that bear his Obey Giant icon. Graffiti isn’t something that should be capitalized on, says Tsombikos. It’s about kids feeling alienated and needing to be heard.
Whatever course Tsombikos takes, he’ll always carry with him the cachet of celebrity. On his first day in jail, one of the correctional officers was situating Tsombikos’ foot shackles when he realized whom he was locking up. He shook Tsombikos’ hand, called his buddies over to meet him, and said, “You a bad motherfucker,” Tsombikos recalls.
Tsombikos’ blockmates attempted to intimidate him when he first walked into his cell. “Everyone was yelling, ‘Oh, we got a white boy!’” he says. “And afterwards someone was just like, ‘You know we just fucking with you, right?’”
The inmates teased him, asking if he was in for skateboarding.
The cell block that Tsombikos resides on, North Two, is the jail’s “protective custody” unit. Inmates can be placed there by their own request or by the order of a judge or jail management.
Sitting in a cage behind a glass wall wearing an orange jumpsuit, Tsombikos looks defiant, not shaken. He smiles easily. His eyes are a little puffy from sleep deprivation, because, he says, breakfast is served at 4 a.m. The early wake-up call is a tactic to keep inmates lethargic so they will obey guards, Tsombikos says. (Actually, says Department of Corrections spokesperson Beverly Young, breakfast starts as early as 3 a.m. “Because the overwhelming majority of inmates will reenter society as aspiring productive members,” she wrote in an e-mail, “they are discouraged from sleeping all day.”) The jail’s management has added a new edge to his anti-establishment philosophy, rendering it “even more scathing,” he says.
He feels lucky to have been able to meet the people whom he’s met so far in jail. “People with my background, my skin color, and my age don’t get to talk to these people and really get to know them,” says Tsombikos.
So was it worth it?
“Fuck yeah, it’s worth it,” he says. “This is just making it bigger.”CP