Generally, it’s a bad idea to return to the scene of your crime.
It’s also inadvisable to allow a videographer to tail you, or to let passersby take your picture. But don’t tell that to the street art duo known as Inkognito.
“Most people go out at like 3 or 4 a.m.; we do it at, like, 11,” says M, a wiry 18-year-old with curly hair.
“We’ve had some close calls,” adds M’s partner, J, also a thin, shaggy-haired 18-year-old.
One recent close call: M was keeping watch while J applied homemade paste to a squat building near the Duke Ellington Bridge. M then pressed a picture of an American Indian holding a Starbucks cup to the wall, next to a decal they had placed there a few weeks earlier.
Though the two wore dark clothes, they were easy to see—since they were working beneath a spotlight cast by American University film student Sareen Hairabedian, 21. Attracted by the scene, another woman stopped to take pictures. “I won’t catch your face,” she promised.
Unperturbed, M methodically pressed air bubbles out of the decal—until a bus driver paused at a green light and peered out his window.
“That bus driver is staring us the fuck down,” said J.
“All right, let’s roll,” M concurred, and they scampered into the darkness, leaving their videographer behind.
That’s a typical evening for Inkognito, which until recently was known as Stranger Crew. The two teens, who are still in high school, are on a mission to become D.C.’s most prolific street artists. They spend almost every evening creating decals and plastering them on alley walls and abandoned buildings. Now, in what they’re calling their “100 Rooftops Project,” they’re geo-tagging pictures of their work and posting them online. (Also on Washington City Paper: A slideshow of Inkognito’s work.)
“We’ve hit basically every neighborhood in Northwest below Friendship Heights,” says J. “We definitely want to hit up Southeast at some point. Currently, we haven’t had the time to make the trek across the city to hit it up, but we have every intention to.”
Inkognito’s work ethic has made its calling card—a long-haired man wearing a fedora and sunglasses—ubiquitous in Adams Morgan and nearby neighborhoods. Many people, however, aren’t quite sure what to make of it.
“He looks like a pirate,” says Reston, Va., resident Ben Schenker. “Nah, I take that back. He looks like a criminal.”
“He looks shady, with the mustache and the fashion glasses,” says Amanda Carroll, an Adams Morgan resident. “He looks like he’s hiding something.”
“If he had an earring, he’d definitely be a pirate,” adds Schenker.
According to M, the character is supposed to be a hipster, but he doesn’t mind if people mistake it for a pirate. The worst, he says, is when people think it’s Mr. Brainwash, the street artist of dubious talent who’s the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Before that film, the D.C. street art scene was dominated by older artists, says M. Now, he’s seen more teens wheatpasting. Though M has been writing on walls since age 6 and tagging since he was 15, he’s not irked by the newcomers. “It’ll never be really popular because it’s illegal,” M says.
Eric Shutt, editor of the D.C. street art website Mixed Media District, thinks M is probably right. D.C. is, after all, a city with more than a dozen different police forces and plenty of security cameras. But it wasn’t always so unfriendly to street artists, Shutt notes. Once upon a time, even downtown was prime for tagging.
“L’Enfant Plaza used to be the main spot in the city for graffiti in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,” he says. “After Sept. 11, the federal government came in and closed it off and put up cameras.”
A 2001 law imposing stiff fines for tagging—up to $1,000—and making property owners responsible for graffiti removal also dampened the D.C. street art scene. However, Shutt has noticed a resurgence in the last few years, especially in the form of stickers and decals. This may be because adhesive art is easy to put up and usually easy to remove, so it doesn’t attract police attention like spray paint, he says. (Indeed, many of Inkognito’s works are now gone.)
With their energetic campaign of hipster heads, giant hummingbirds, and accordion-playing girls, M and J are major players in the scene’s D.C. renaissance, says Peter Krsko, a street art aficionado and founder of the mural-making non-profit Albus Cavus. “They bring attention to places that are hidden or broken or abandoned, or empty and lifeless, and bring the life back to these places,” he says.
Another reason Inkognito stands out is its lack of a political message: Not having an axe to grind is pretty radical in a place like D.C., Krsko says. “It’s refreshing to see something on the street that’s just a girl playing a musical instrument,” he says.
At least one homeowner is also a fan of Inkognito’s whimsical work. Last summer, Adams Morgan resident Ted Fields discovered on his garage a large image of Albert Einstein gleefully riding a bicycle. He has no plans to take it down. “I’ve appreciated it from the moment I saw it,” says Fields. “It’s fascinating. I have no idea who did it.”
M and J’s paste-first-think-later tendencies irked some viewers last fall. On Sept. 8, a drunk driver crashed into the Ethiopian restaurant Keren near 18th and U streets NW, injuring two women, one of whom later died. After the restaurant’s owner boarded up the smashed window, Inkognito decorated the plywood with an image of a car and a “No Parking” sign.
Many people were mystified by the art, “a funky car” with NASA emblazoned on the hood, says Dan Silverman, who wrote about it on his blog, Prince of Petworth. “It was pretty tasteless, and not very appropriate given the fact that people were seriously injured,” says Silverman.
“Somebody removed the wheatpaste and a number of flowers and other remembrances were put in the area. It was a far more appropriate use of that space.”
What was the meaning of the NASA car? It was just a funny decoration, M says. “It looked like she had parallel-parked her car inside the restaurant, so we were making fun of it,” says M. “We put it up before the girl died.”
NASA, he adds, was an early crew name. M and J briefly dubbed themselves “Not Another Street Artist,” before they discovered NASA is also an acronym for the U.K.’s National Association of Street Artists. Then they became Stranger Crew, but abandoned it for a similar reason. M and J aren’t really married to the name Inkognito, either, and haven’t bothered coining individual monikers. That’s because, in many ways, Inkognito is a work in progress.
“We’re still working on developing our own style,” says M, who names street artists SWOON, DECOY, and JR as inspirations.
Next year, M will go to art school in New York, leaving J— currently a high school junior—in D.C. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” says J. “I’m going to visit every weekend.”
When Inkognito decamps to New York, our streets may be noticeably less lively, says Shutt. But, he thinks their work is “a little basic,” and that they could benefit from the opportunity to refine their style and message. “It’s great they are going to art school,” he says.
M won’t be leaving until the fall, though, and as the weather gets nicer, D.C. pedestrians can expect to see a fresh crop of Inkognito’s work. They plan to put up plenty of hipster heads, and may try making more decals with political leanings.
But what, exactly, were they trying to say with that Starbucks Indian? The two teens weren’t sure—so they asked a friend, who said, “Starbucks is, you know, the biggest symbol of capitalism and our throwaway society, and that is in complete contradiction with the Native Americans, who used every part of the buffalo,” recalls M.
“I’m glad you remembered,” J says, “because I forgot.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery.