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."

Tagging is about one thing and one thing only: spraying one's moniker all over the place like a dog marking territory. Stencil graffiti is about spreading a message that inspires a passerby to stop and think for a second about whether they agree or disagree with it, and why. The famed stencil artist Western Cell Division calls stencils "wonderful little booby traps of information, lying in wait." And there is a code of honor that further separates stencilers from taggers: Do not hit storefronts, vehicles or other valuable private property. Folk, another local activist, won't even stencil on red-flagstone sidewalks. Only concrete.

"Concrete is man-made," he e-mailed me, refusing to be interviewed any other way. "Flagstone comes from the Earth; it can speak for itself."

This sensibility is probably a big part of the reason that the city-funded Denver Partners Against Graffiti has logged only one request for removal of political stencil graffiti this year as opposed to hundreds of requests for removal of tagging. Not that city officials see much difference between the two. "We don't treat political graffiti any differently than any other graffiti," says DPAG director Nedra Niblet. "If it's out there, and it's on property where it's not authorized, and if it's reported, we're going to remove it, whether it has a political message or not."

The first stencil artists were cavemen who blew powdered dye through hands pressed against stone walls to create images of animals. In modern times, stencil graffiti has been more political in nature -- and not always in the service of liberal or leftist causes. During World War II, Italian fascists used stencils for street-propaganda images in support of Mussolini. But beginning with students in Paris in the late 1960s, stenciling has been most closely associated with subversion, from Northern Ireland to South Africa. Microsoft took the act corporate last year, hiring a team of guerrilla marketers to stencil the company's new butterfly logo on the streets of Seattle.

In Denver, some of the stencil-graffiti images and slogans are purely original; others are part of nationwide campaigns, with images being downloaded from Web sites and then traced onto Mylar or cardboard. The most famous stencil-graffiti campaign began in 1989 when Rhode Island design student Shepard Fairey mass-produced stickers bearing the image of professional wrestler Andre the Giant and the phrase "Andre the Giant has a posse." That image evolved into a stencil of Andre the Giant's face and the word "Obey," which can now be seen on sidewalks and walls around the world, including at least ten spots in central Denver.

"In a world saturated with high-priced corporate imagery, the stencil is a cheap and effective way for an artist or activist to put their work in front of the public and level the playing field," Fairey writes in the book Stencil Graffiti, which was published earlier this year.

Stenciling is also a uniquely criminal form of activism, with its own criminal rush. Each time you return to the scene of your crime, you get another little jolt of "Oh, yeah" as you watch pedestrians slow down and look at your work. For me, it's worse than a cocaine jag. I went out two nights in a row last week, dragging my ass into work in the morning like I was on, well, a cocaine jag. I'm halfway hoping that by putting my name out here like this, I'll stop myself before I get caught in the act.

Hi, I'm David, and I'm a graffiti addict.

I'm not only hooked on laying down my own; I'm also getting more than a little obsessive about documenting the work of others. And I can tell you that the most common stencil currently on the Hill is a portrait of President George Bush above the motto "One Term President." I saw them start cropping up by the dozens after Bush's most recent State of the Union address. It turns out "One Term President" is an international stencil and sticker campaign, with a Web site documenting the image in more than thirty cities on four continents.

Denver stencil artist and sticker bomber Dr. Nez intends to increase that tally to five continents when he travels to Antarctica later this month to work as a cook at a scientific-research station.

"Bush already has 50 million dollars to spend on his re-election campaign," says Dr. Nez, who also would comment only through e-mail -- plus the added security of an intermediary. "The opposition to Bush and his foreign policy, we don't have that kind of money. So we try to appropriate public spaces: newspaper boxes, telephone booths, soap dispensers in bathrooms, spaces that aren't otherwise being utilized. All these crazy spaces where you can jump into someone's head before they know it."

When I asked Dr. Nez about his motivation for stenciling, he went all Nader Raider on me: "Ralph Nader says there can't be a daily democracy without daily citizenship. My daily citizenship is to do whatever I can with visual art to combat the current regime. I can sit around and bitch with my friends all day long or I can go out and put up some ŒOne Term Presidents.'"

One of my personal favorites -- because it's so simple yet provocative -- is the block-letter phrase "We Are The Terrorists." No picture. Just the words.

That's Folk's handiwork, which I didn't know until our e-mail interview, because, like most stencil artists (or activists -- you make the call), he doesn't sign his work. It's not about him; it's about the message. But most of his images in central Denver are months old, because Folk doesn't graffiti in the city anymore. "I'm trying to communicate with people besides urban liberals and Democrats." Now he primarily bombs the suburbs. "It's scarier in the 'burbs. You stand out like a motherfucker at 2:30 in the morning.

"A big part of why I do this," he goes on, "is because corporate media is inaccessible to me or anyone who even remotely thinks like me. Everybody is cut off. With stenciling, I'm creating my own media. It empowers me. And I hope it empowers others to create their own media."

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