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Tagging Up Denver

The city’s aerosol junkies are in the spotlight.

Ever since the subculture originated in the subway tunnels of New York in the 1970s, graffiti writers have formed into crews. Some form out of simple friendship or geographic proximity; for other crews, it's a shared style and skill level. In the upper ranks, crews are organized and managed on the order of something resembling a professional sports team. There are the writers who might specialize in piecing or throw-ups or getting tags in impossible locations, others who are the established, superstar members and can do it all, including murals. Then there's the new talent, which TKO recruits out of smaller, mostly west Denver crews, into a kind of farm league it calls T2.

Most often, prospective members go through a trial period during which they have to prove themselves by throwing up a certain number of T2 tags. SHOE tried out last year and, after visiting L.A., was put into TKO by TOOMER himself. But his output suddenly fell off, and he was dropped from the ranks. He's come back to ask for a second chance. He stands and addresses the members.

"I want to get back down," SHOE says.

Denver SCAT officer Mike Felsoci and Sergeant Bob Motyka head into "The Tunnel."
Jim J. Narcy
Denver SCAT officer Mike Felsoci and Sergeant Bob Motyka head into "The Tunnel."

"Why?" asks NIME.

"Because," says SHOE, his arms crossed. "I want to become an established writer."

Another member shoots back, "You ignored a lot of writers. You had your chance."

"I did," he admits. He stands for a moment and tries to think of something else to say. "I just want to be back down."

"I'm flat out against it," NIME says. "I feel like you want more from TKO than you want to give. But, that said, whatever the majority vote is, I'll back it up and never say anything about it again."

"So what's up?" CRIMS says. "We vote on it."

He barely passes; he's got two months to prove himself.

"If he's hitting mad spots," says CRIMS.

"And while he's proving himself," KOZE replies, "he's getting us up."


Tall, with a crewcut that could land jets, Sergeant Bob Motyka references a series of PowerPoint images projected onto the screen behind him. "So this is what we're looking for," he says. "Like I said, the spray paint, Sharpie markers. Here's more spray paint. This here is a bottle of shoe polish that they were using."

Fourteen volunteers — a mix of community members, neighborhood group leaders and business owners — sit in the operations room of the Denver District 1 police headquarters. The presentation, "Graffiti Sting," covers the basics of how to identify a tagger and his tools. Tonight, June 8, is the second time police in west Denver have recruited and trained community members in the fight against graffiti. Unlike the more common abatement efforts, where property owners take part in a city-sponsored graffiti clean-up, the stings attempt to catch taggers in the act. The first, organized on an evening two months ago, focused on the Highland and Jefferson Park neighborhoods and racked up six arrests — although only one was a suspected tagger. This time the sting is targeting Villa Park, West Colfax and Sloan's Lake, the areas that regularly get slammed with tagging. Big arrests are expected. Officers from the district even painted over some regularly tagged walls to offer fresh bait for delinquents.

"And one thing I want to stress tonight: No kids are in school; I doubt they're going over to Johnny's to spend the night. So if they're carrying backpacks, there's a good chance they're getting ready to go somewhere and do some tagging," Motyka offers. "They obviously conceal it. They wear shorts that would fit me, and they keep the cans in their pockets and stuff. So if you see a kid walking with what looks like a can of pop in his pocket, it's probably not."

District 1 Commander Doug Stephens would like to see stings expanded in tagging hotspots across the city. "One of the things that's good about the stings, even if we don't make a lot of arrests, is it provides people with the opportunity to take more of an active role and also see how difficult it can be to catch taggers," he says a few days after the meeting. "And one of the reasons is that most of them are really fast. They're just throwing up their tag; it's usually short, and they can do it within seconds and then they're gone."

Outside of, perhaps, open-air drug dealing and rampant homelessness, there is nothing more representative of urban chaos and decay than graffiti. The issue regularly ranks as a top concern of city boosters, property owners and the business community. With hopes of coordinating efforts between the city's often disconnected departments and to gain input from citizenry, Mayor John Hickenlooper held a Graffiti Summit last fall, which resulted in the formation of the Graffiti Task Force. With a stated goal of creating "a city free of graffiti within three years," the group held numerous meetings over a five-month period. On June 11, it released recommendations in three categories: prevention, abatement and enforcement.

Already, state law allows adults caught vandalizing through graffiti to be slapped with a felony if the property damage is more than $500. But Stephens, chair of the enforcement subcommittee, says, "The community members involved felt that we need to send a stronger message about zero tolerance." They advised the city to create mandatory sentencing guidelines dubbed the "Graffiti Package." This would include doubling all fines — increasing the charge for a first-time offense from $250 to $500 — along with mandatory community service and restitution, as well as fines and probation for juveniles caught in possession of graffiti materials. The committee would also like to see the city explore the prospect of recouping money for property damage by filing civil lawsuits against graffiti vandals. And there is talk of creating a database of graffiti and tags that could be accessed across agencies so that criminal cases could be better organized against individual writers.

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