Funny how the places we find the expression of the creative spirit aren't always where we expect: On bridges and pylons, on fences, by junkyards, in the industrial neighborhoods, in the places where the poor people have to live, you can find artistry, serious work by serious people whose only crime is their medium - spray paint.
These are the graffiti writers. They are the proud exponents of a specific movement begun on the coasts decades before, but they are also the keepers of the flame; heirs to the uncounted artists of centuries past who have shouted upward at their society. They are reflecting the image of America back upon itself, doing Culture's heavy lifting.
So, naturally, they're seen as a menace. A threat to private enterprise. Gangs of unruly thugs who deface businesses with gang symbols in between gunfights. Graffiti artists must deal with the public perception that their work in inherently invalid, that their chosen method of expression runs contrary to the rules of civilization.
Laws nationwide offer swift punishment for those caught in the act, sometimes even if a building's owner has agreed to let the act occur - zoning is the ultimate enemy, and everyone cares what the Joneses think.
The problem is a perceptual one. People are trained to think that art occurs within certain guidelines, like a chemistry experiment.
Take: A) canvas + B) paint = C) drawing of sad clown.
We know, from whatever minimal art training we received in the public schools (That's money that was better spent on our Differentiated Study of Alternate Board Fiduciary Models, you little whiners!) that to have art you need paint and paper and supervision. Just ask Jessie Helms-but only if you are equipped with a charm to ward off the undead.
These artists, like so many artists in so many cultures over so many years, are taking that perception and coloring it. A gray wall, a cement trib ute to the banality and futility of life in an industrial soul grinder, becomes a wash of sharp and soft together, color and line dancing in harmony. The side of a building at Park Avenue West and Welton Street becomes a fictional universe, where two dragons of different hue battle, hung in an implied yin-yang. All the colors of the spectrum, the light of our world, writ large on the face of pitiless America.
Which is not to say that the criminal element, the gang element, the uneducated and ill-conceived name-writing on store windows, doesn't exist. But that stuff is to what these artists do as a guy moonwalking on the street with his pants down is to the Joffrey Ballet. Unfortunately, every time some hardworking shop owner has to replace a window permanently scarred by acetate (often used by the more malicious and reprehensible), it further scars the already tenuous relationship between the public and the practitio- ners of genuine graffiti art.
And art it is-the act of painting a huge work while looking over one's shoulder for the police ought to qualify it automatically. Like any movement, graffiti has its own set of rules, unwritten but no less binding, its own lingo (for instance, no one wants to be a "biter," meaning someone who rips off someone else's work), its own theoreticians. It has tools, specific ones. It is its own enclosed circle and as such-like most similar art movements-is happy to stay that way.
"I'm not really unhappy with the state of graffiti," local writer Voice said. "I'm fine with it. I'm not trying to get it legalized, it doesn't need to be. It reminds people that not everything is good. The fact that kids are doing it is a sign that the system hasn't worked. It failed these kids. .
Voice has been writing across Denver for years. He first got the bug in 1985, where he saw the work in his old neighborhood by West 1st Avenue and Quitman Street. That was also about the time that the movie Beat Street had come out, and its celebration of graffiti and New York street culture was an intoxicating mix, one which, years later, continues to inform his style. "More or less, my influences were New York influences," he said. "I had no personal influences. I was on my own for quite a while."
Like most local writers, Voice has had his share of run-ins with the local authorities. Surprisingly - and tell- ingly - those particular authorities are not always who one would expect. "Sometimes, I don't know if cops are the problem," he said. "It's zoning laws. Zoning officers hand out the papers saying 'get this covered.' I've painted many times, and the cops pass right on by. At the same time, I've been accused of painting illegally - some onlooker sees, calls the cops, and then they're obligated to check it out. A lot of times they come without a good attitude."
On one level, it is the thrill of rebellion that motivates these artists. Painting large pieces of art in public places without being seen is a dicey proposition, but one rife with the gut-level joy of creation.
"I've always been an artist," local writer Chase said. "I've always been doing stuff, drawing and doing cartoons, and I just kind of like the rebel side of it, the illegal side of it, doing it without permission, erecting large pieces." But that enjoyment is tempered by a serious love of the craft, as well as the realization that laws don't have taste. "I'm doing something that is art, that looks good, that should be considered art. And I'm always looking over my shoulder, like, - I could get in trouble right now, get a felony. - I'm not hurting anybody, I'm just doing it under a bridge. I'm not putting anybody in any danger."
The destructive element of the scene is looked upon with disrespect and indeed, revulsion by those who consider what they do art. "Tagger," while often a misapplied term - opinion seems to be divided as to whether it is a pejorative or not; good tags, i.e., names and their expression in graffiti form, are highly respected, but simplistic and wanton tag-scrawling is as unwelcome in the scene as Ken Starr at a bondage orgy - tends to be a catch-all for those who deface the work of others, those who give the rest a bad name, and those who are merely marking gang territory. But, as always, there's a deeper story.
"A tagger just tags," Voice said. "A writer is not excluded from tagging. Tagging is the backbone of all graffiti. The name, the tag, sparks everything else. The (taggers) with real passion will eventually be doing murals. The writer incorporates the tag in the rest of the art form."
According to Jolt68, a local and a member of Life-AOM crews (the crew, much like the posse, much like your group of friends, is a highly informal concept), taggers and writers have to face similar hurdles. "A lot of people will say that there is ( a difference)," he said. "A tagger, a bomber, is not concentrating on skill. It's the art of getting over. Both are equally artists in their own way."
Bombing is the process of going out and putting your work, your name, up and around. It's the street-level version of corporate networking. For some artists, such a visceral style is the only way to go. One such individual is Chie Rock 1, a member of the nationally known Four Horsemen, a group of San Francisco-based writers who recently held a show at Revoluciones Collective Art Space. "Strictly bombing, man," he said while working on a wall-sized canvas. "There's a science to getting up, finding the right spot, figuring it out, the timing. You have to be in the moment to pull it off."
So San Francisco, legendary home of tolerance, is no more accepting of graffiti art than, say, Tulsa?
"In San Francisco, if you get caught, you're going to jail."
Going to jail, or the threat therein, is an equating factor all over the nation. But for a lot of these young artists, many of who grew up skateboarding and listening to punk rock, that just adds a touch of spice. Because it is a counter-cultural thing, after all. "My goal is not societal acceptance, but societal neglect," said Grey, another of the Horsemen. "I love doing illegal graffiti, hitting transit, especially the subways. I don't expect the public to condone it. I do wish they'd put it in the proper legal context; put it out of felony range and into the petty misdemeanor range."
But, since private property has always been one of America's graven idols -legally more important, for a good stretch of our country' s history, than individual liberty- graffiti writers, many of whom pursue so-called fine art as well, are equated with spousal abusers and kidnappers. Despite all this, there are those who labor unceasingly to improve the mindset of the next generation of writers, and thus by extension the future Public-at-Large.
The owners of Art & Sol, Denver's only true graffiti shop, are such folk. They try, by encouraging young artists to learn to paint in traditional settings and discover more about their craft, to take graffiti, and art itself, past their current limits. The store also sells Montana brand spray paint, which, as most writers will tell you, is the Rolls to Krylon's LeSabre. "It's bad ass," Jolt68 said. "It's better than anything."
Jher451 is another local writer, one who has been involved with the scene for over a decade, and whose bold, brilliant work graces the side of legal murals inside and outside across Denver. He sees the progression of grafitti writing as a natural, artistic one.
"We're trying to elevate the graffiti mentality," he said. "Bombing, getting busted - you're up against this huge wall, i.e. the Government. Even if it's legal, they'll still crack down. It's a form of oppression.
"If they don't understand it, they try to shove it under the rug. . . the mayor, the anti-graffiti camp, all the media hype, these kids tagging don . t realize that it . s a different, elevated form. It . s a type of modern hieroglyph. . Some have even taken graffiti writing to the corporate level. Kinsey and Shepard Fairey, the other two Horsemen, run a company called Blackmarket, a "visual communication design studio."
"We do marketing and branding for certain companies," Kinsey said. "We've done work for Pepsi, we've done work for Ford, we've done CD packaging, movie posters, a lot of different stuff. It's a place for me to experiment with different styles of design." The money that the two make working the straight world goes directly back into their true passion. "Corporate America funds my art," he said.
At least on that level, in that instance, it gave something back. Unfortunately, for the most part, these artists are forced to practice their craft in secret, hiding from the authori- ties, pariahs in a supposedly understanding society. But public perception will only change gradually, and only with lots of help from the writers themselves, for whom the fight for respect is unending.
"It's not about destroying things," Voice said." It's about meeting people and painting."
But still, the urge to create is, like any other energy, indestructible. Graffiti, along with its practitioners, is here to stay.
"Give us a wall, we'll paint it. Take it away, we'll still paint it. If society doesn't recognize art as important, then society will suffer."
- Tag: signature; usually a taggers nickname
- Bomb: to paint many surfaces in an area
- Piece: a large, labor-intensive painting
- Top-to-bottom: a piece that spans height of a train car
- Throw-up: larger than a tag, smaller than a piece
- Wild style: complex, colorful, intricate pieces; usually difficult to read
- Photography by Jeffree Benet