Canned Heat

Stencil-graffiti artists fight the power with plastic and paint.

He is a radical in Republican's clothing: khakis, loafers, blazer over crisp button-down shirt. Completing the look is the golden retriever trotting merrily beside him as he strolls down Pennsylvania Street between 12th and 13th avenues.

The hour is odd, nearly 3 a.m., but he doesn't look out of place. With his urban camouflage on and his hair trimmed neat, he looks a lot more like a young lawyer who was up late reading briefs in his Capitol Hill condo than a thirty-year-old anarchist on an illicit mission.

But that's from across the street. Up close, a suspicious speckling of purple paint can be seen on both his hands, one of which clutches a tiny two-way radio, the volume dialed low. Without breaking stride, he keys the Morse-code button on his walkie-talkie, signaling his girlfriend -- and lookout -- who is riding her bicycle in fast circles around the block. Three seconds later, she returns the all-clear: two bursts of barely audible static.

He finds a dark spot in the shadows between two porch lights on the east side of the street and tells the retriever, "Sit." He speedily drops the dog's leash, kneels and reaches both hands up under his sport coat to the small of his back, then withdraws a square of Mylar about eighteen inches across and a can of spray paint.

A simple illustration and block letters have been cut from the thin plastic, creating a crude stencil, which he presses against the sidewalk and sprays paint over, first left to right, then top to bottom. The dog wrinkles her nose at the chemical mist. Peeling the stencil off the sidewalk, the anarchist reveals the glistening purple image of a television and the slogan "Weapon of Mass Distraction."

He tucks the wet stencil into a manila folder, caps the spray paint, hides them both back up beneath his jacket, grabs the leash, hisses at his dog, "Let's go!" and then makes his getaway around the corner, turning east on 12th Avenue.

Three blocks and five minutes later, he turns into an alley, stops, pulls out the stencil and spray paint, pushes them toward me and says, "Now you."

Me? No, man, I'm just the journalist here. I observe. I don't participate.

"You're putting some paint on the sidewalk tonight or I'm going to burn your fucking house down."

Damn.

I think he was kidding -- I don't even have a house -- but I got the point. It was like I'd borrowed money from the mob and just got handed a pistol with orders to put two slugs in Frankie the Rat.

Except I didn't borrow money; I borrowed access. And I wasn't dealing with the mob, but a self-professed member of Denver's Black Bloc, the violent faction of the global anarchist movement. The ones who favor "projectile activism" over peaceful demonstrations; the ones who mean we should actually smash things when they say "Smash the state"; the ones who matter-of-factly discuss the pros and cons of various dishwashing liquids as thickening agents in Molotov cocktails.

I really didn't want these guys on my ass. And truth be told, I did agree, as a condition of being allowed to accompany this particular anarchist on a late-night strafing run, to be his -- and I quote -- "willing accomplice." I rather over-optimistically took that to mean that I'd help him keep an eye out for the cops. Oops.

"Come on, Mr. Westword. Don't puss out on me now."

Oh, it's gonna be like that, is it? Well, then, give me that damn spray paint. A deal is a deal, and if the terms were loose, that's my bad. Plus, it's my stencil -- or at least my concept. I'd laid the whole television-as-weapon-of-mass-distraction idea on Mr. Black Bloc in an e-mail exchange, and he'd dug it so much that he was more or less won over on letting me come along with him on this mission -- not to mention changing out his usual "Off the Cops!" stencil. But by letting me tag along, he's committing a blatant violation of the anarchist Security Culture, a clearly defined code of conduct that, among other rules, prohibits contact with the media by anyone other than a media representative selected by consensus.

For nearly two months before I hooked up with this guy, I'd been trying to find political stencil-graffiti activists who would agree to be interviewed in person and would allow me to watch them do their late-night thing. The Security Culture locked me out tight. One local associate of the Pink Bloc, a cadre of gay and lesbian anarchists who prefer elaborate street theater to breaking windows, was basically excommunicated in August for merely providing Westword with a contact name and number.

So fuck it. This guy's taking a big risk for my sake. I figure I'll risk a misdemeanor graffiti bust for his. Forgive me if I don't reveal exactly which of the purple "Weapon of Mass Distraction" sidewalk stencils now scattered around Capitol Hill are mine and which are his. But they're easy to find. And once your eye is trained to look for stencil graffiti -- that is, to distinguish graffiti with clear imagery and a political or social message from all the scrawled, practically indecipherable tagging -- you'll recognize that there are hundreds of pieces of stencil graffiti in Capitol Hill. They're not everywhere, but they're on practically every other block, either on sidewalks or dumpsters or alley walls or stop signs, where the words "Corporate War" and "Police Brutality" are painted below the word "Stop."

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