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Out by the road, a sharply dressed cluster of thirty-somethings stagger back to their cars from the First Friday art openings along Santa Fe Drive. ERA is down with art. He likes to slip into the galleries sometimes, check out a few paintings and prints, maybe swipe a bottle of Jameson or something from the booze table. It's not really his thing, since the type of art he likes best is the kind hung on the outside of the gallery walls, where it's not supposed to be. Just like him. Each tag can say something even while it doesn't say anything at all. For ERA, the gibberish he scrawled on the dumpster says ambition. It says he wants to improve his style, make connections, get respect.
"I want to get my name out there, you know?" he says. "I want to get known."
KOZE stands and clears his throat. "All right, hey, everyone," he announces. "Let's get this meeting started."
The two dozen young men gathered in the living room and kitchen gradually end their conversations and turn their attention toward KOZE, who's dressed in a long-sleeve collared shirt tucked neatly into dark pants. Save for a few associates at work or in jail, most of TKO's Colorado membership is in attendance, which makes for a lot of destruction to fit into the small suburban apartment.
"We're having a couple issues that we need to talk about," he begins.
Like KOZE, most of the guys are Denver-born Latinos in their early- to mid-twenties. One esteemed member, who traveled from his home in Highlands Ranch, is in his late thirties. Meetings like this are utilized by larger crews as a way to build unity between members, but also to air grievances. The floor is granted to anyone who wishes to speak, although it's not uncommon for "someone to get smacked for saying the wrong thing," one member explains. Alcohol is banned from the get-together, so members drink off a case of Mountain Dew or smoke weed from a small pipe being passed around the back.
"First off, there's been a couple people complaining that I haven't been holding shit down right," he continues. "Saying that I haven't been keeping everyone up to date with shit that's popping off, who we got beef with and all that."
A few heads nod. Talk of beef always seems to lead the agenda. It's the bad blood that circulates throughout graffiti life. Cross-outs, shit talk, style theft, personal disputes, envy, boredom — who knows how it all starts? Any way it comes, an individual writer's beef is generally carried by his entire crew. It's why several TKO members are enlisted as "head-crackers," enforcers whose sole purpose is to back up the graffiti writers when heat arrives from rival graffiti crews or violent street gangs. But to be effective, a head-cracker has to know which crews he should be fighting.
"What the fuck's up with us having beef with some fool and then next week going out and painting with them?" asks one member. KOZE sighs. "It's a communication issue," he admits. "I'm trying to relay it best I can, but I can't be calling every single person up for every little thing."
To clear the air, KOZE lists crews with whom TKO currently has heavy beef. One of these feuds recently resulted in a member getting stabbed. At this announcement, everyone looks over at the apparent victim, who slouches easily in a recliner. A few hands pat him on the back while he nods in acknowledgement.
"I feel bad, dog," apologizes CRIMS. "I should have been there. If I would've known all that shit was going to go down, I never would've left that night."
CRIMS is a head-cracker. But it's his style with the spray can and his ability to paint large pieces that have earned him a significant amount of say within TKO. He listens in as the group votes to expel a non-present member over a laundry list of complaints, including not signing his pieces with the TKO tag, but he chimes in when the discussion shifts to expanding the crew into the prison system. "I can't rock with that," CRIMS asserts. "As soon as you start doing that, that's gang shit. And this ain't a gang. It's a crew."
It's an important distinction for CRIMS. And not because he's anti-gang, but because he's already a lifetime member of the Sureños. Up until now, he's been able to justify his membership in TKO because the group's lone purpose is to paint graffiti and battle other crews. A move into the penal system — where CRIMS officially earned his gang stripes — would send TKO down an entirely different path. It's a development that often ensnares neighborhood crews who never progress past rudimentary tagging and therefore can only get respect through turf wars and violence. "Taggers become gangs because they have to," he concludes. "And we don't have to."
Originated in the mid-'90s by the graffiti artist TOOMER in South Central Los Angeles, TKO now has roughly a thousand members in cities across the U.S., Europe and Mexico. The crew's quick rise in Denver can be attributed to KOZE, once a small-time tagger from the west side who joined TKO in 2000. After an intense run of bombing Denver with tags, throw-ups and twenty-foot-tall "top-to-bottoms" that covered walls of entire factories, he established himself as a leader about three years ago. Since then, the size of the crew in Denver has quadrupled — and with it, its reputation. Many observers ascribe TKO with bringing a more harsh, gangster-style attitude to the Colorado graffiti scene, a mentality that is increasingly becoming pushed to the forefront.