Tagging Up Denver

The cityís aerosol junkies are in the spotlight.

It's a sentiment expressed by many urban citizens, but it's not a distinction made as abruptly by the graffiti world. A tag — crude, fast, illegal — is seen as the primary element in the evolution of a piece. "If you don't have a fresh tag, if you don't bomb, then you're nothing — you suck," says one member of the SWS crew. Graffiti artists by day, tagger vandals by night: For them, it's all part of getting up.

The chain-link fence is tall and topped with barbed wire. ERA has twice walked its length, looking for a break where he can climb without getting shredded. He finally spots a broken-down Chevy truck. He climbs on the heap of tires in the bed and leaps the fence, his backpack clanging with spray cans as he lands in the field below. It's a full moon, and he can see the ruins of Metropolitan Wastewater Facility, which once served as a prime graffiti destination until the area was rehabbed and turned into Northside Park in the late '90s. What remains is a series of concrete retaining walls that are so tall and secluded, it's difficult to imagine a better graffiti spot. But regular visits by city buff crews and police looking to nab taggers make the location sketchy.

He walks down the corridor, surveying all the different tags and toss-ups already on the wall. "I gotta choose where I put my tags," ERA says. "You don't wanna go over someone that you don't want to have beef with."

Members of TKO are ready to write.
Jim J. Narcy
Members of TKO are ready to write.
ERA is "getting up" in Denver's graffiti world.
Jim J. Narcy
ERA is "getting up" in Denver's graffiti world.

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He's careful to avoid the gang tags and graffiti from crews he respects or fears. He finally chooses a spot on top of where KNOX had written his name in faded bubble letters. He begins with the black outline and fills it in with gold to give his letters shape. A helicopter thumps somewhere nearby. When he left his house earlier tonight, he told his grandparents that he was going out to do an art project.

He has just enough paint to complete a three-color toss-up. Has to be simple. Lines, layers, colors, letters — the building blocks of graffiti. Have to do it quick and without attachment, because tomorrow it could be crossed out or buffed over anyway. Or it could run for days, months, years. There's no certainty, because like everything about graffiti, even infamy is temporal. Pretty soon you're getting older, getting replaced by kids who lack fear or responsibility. It slips through your fingers. ERA fills up his bag and decides to check out the farthest corridor at the end.

"Damn, check this out," he says, turning the corner. On the wall are several RTD pieces glowing in the moonlight like plasma-TV screens. He walks up to an EMIT piece and traces his hand along the letter forms. "See, his shit is just so clean," he notes. "That's what makes it good." EMIT is also a founding member of the internationally upped DF crew, whose members have issued critically acclaimed graffiti art books and get commissions from galleries around the world. Many graffiti writers have managed to grow into the art scene and make money. Get flown to Korea just to bomb, live like rock stars. But the vast majority of kings will only live on in the minds of a few devotees or maybe the people whose unfortunate job it was to buff it every day.

ERA turns to head back through the field.

"Someday, man," he says. "That's me."

The next week, the buff crews come. The walls are wiped clean with a pleasant shade of viaduct beige.

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