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Mike Benson knew Boner, or at least knew of his work. Benson, a collector of graffiti books, had made a hobby of spotting Boner’s spray-can scribbles on dilapidated buildings for the past two years. The 36-year-old alumnus of the Savannah College of Art and Design always appreciated Boner’s fearlessly crass tagline. “You’re driving by it and you think, Wow, Boner. That’s funny,” he says.
Then came New Year’s Eve, which heralded two nights of graffiti revelry on 14th Street. Business owners from U to R woke to find their windows marred with crude tagssloppy, dripping things, says Benson, that approached illegibility. The Source Theatre was now doing advertising for what looked like “Step4,” the Arena Stage satellite for “Rone,” and the unopened furniture vendors Muleh and Vastu for “Money.” And Benson’s month-old bistro, Café Saint Ex, served as a poster board for, among others, “Boner.”
Suddenly, Boner wasn’t so funny. Benson was dismayed to think that the art tagger was hitting active businesses. “We have so many abandoned and crapped-out buildings in D.C. There’s your canvas,” says Benson. “To [tag] someone’s residence or someone’s business…it’s just vandalism. You’ve really lowered yourself.”
Nevertheless, he was willing to shrug off the attack with good humor and some cleaning fluid, until he discovered the tags didn’t rub away. They appeared to be part of the glassmilk-white, looping letters, with a texture like 600-grit sandpaper. “You could feel it had etched the glass,” says Benson.
Acid etching is a fairly new graffiti technique. It gained notoriety at the hands of vandals during Seattle’s 1999 World Trade Organization protests, says Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson Susan Stoltzfus. Art stores stock a variety of hydrofluoric-acid-based etching compounds, which can be combined with paint to wreak havoc on windows. “I told police I had been tagged with an acid marker,” says Benson, “and they’re like, ‘No, you didn’t. You just got to use mineral spirits and it will come off.’” Benson used mineral spirits. He also used Windex, Goof Off, and graffiti remover. “Boner” didn’t budge.
It wasn’t the first time “Boner” had popped up on Ward 1 windows.
Tony Kowaleski, a general manager at the Tom Tom nightclub in Adams Morgan, was doing late-night paperwork at the club last July when he saw two “average-looking kids” outside. One was holding a sponge-tipped shoe-polish marker, a tagging tool that doubles as a dispenser for any kind of fluid. Of the tags they had squeezed vertically onto Tom Tom’s sidewalk windows, “Boner” is the one that stuck in Kowaleski’s memory.
“I knew what they were doing right away,” says Kowaleski. “I yelled, ‘Stop it, you motherfuckers! The cops are on the way!’” To his amazement, the kids remained on the scene, even though a police cruiser was at that moment rolling down the street.
Police charged Jason Halal, then 20, with destruction of private property. Halal pleaded guilty, agreeing to stay at least two blocks away from Tom Tom at all times and to pay its owner $1,947 in monthly installments over the next year. “We all do stupid stuff, and they just got caught,” says Kowaleski. “That’s why we didn’t push [Halal’s prosecution]….We hoped he had learned his lesson.”
Tom Tom was one of several businesses in Adams Morgan that were etched. Acid tags still disfigure Lil’ Peckers and Editorial El Mundo on Columbia Road, and La Fourchette, Chenonceau Antiques, and DCCD on 18th Street. Kowaleski contacted four glass companies and instituted a blitzkrieg of glass-cleaning techniques to restore the windows. The bar wound up replacing all the glass.
As for Benson, he has insurance covering his windows, but with a $500 deductible he says it’s hardly worth making a claim. “And if [taggers] do it again,” he says, “then your insurance companies can raise the rates, ’cause then they start to say you’re in a high-risk area.” He settled for replacing two windows, which set him back $2,000. He sandblasted a third, giving it a frosted look that handily obscures kitchen supplies. He thinks etchers simply don’t know the price of glass. “It’s like, ‘Great! By me being stupid, I just cost these people a thousand dollars.’”
Benson suspects that the tags, with their sloppy execution and cruel location, could be the work of a “toy,” or wannabe taggerthe scum of the graffiti world. The possibility that he was tagged not by the true Boner but by just another hard-on angers Benson all the more, running as it does against the principles he learned in art school.
“Obviously you’re not creating art if you’re not willing to stand behind it,” he says. “Whoever’s doing this is getting [Boner] in trouble, and he’s losing any respect he has as an artist.” CP