Tagging Up Denver

The cityís aerosol junkies are in the spotlight.

But you have to catch the punks first.

Since January, Stephens's Street Crime Attack Team (SCAT) Unit has caught 24 taggers, an exceptional amount considering that past quarters turned up zero arrests in District 1. He hopes to increase that number with coordinated graffiti stings every month for the remainder of the summer.

Sergeant Motyka recounts the arrest of two teenagers who were caught after a daytime tagging binge that included garages, fences, cars and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. They were identified easily by the paint on their hands.

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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"Also on the bottom of their shoes," he says. "Obviously, paint is a messy job; they're going to get it on their clothing, their fingers, they're going to step on it. This young man right here" — he points to one of the photos featuring a pair of socks marked with black block letters — "that's his tag name, so he's wearing it on his socks. So we were able to go around everywhere that 'SPLIT' was and take a picture."

He steps carefully across the corrugated metal roof toward the brick wall. There's an auto yard down to the left. Behind him, the Sixth Avenue viaduct. He sets down his backpack and puts on his latex gloves. It's quiet out. He stays in a crouch as he sprays the white outline. He doesn't usually go out bombing alone, but he saw this spot and knew it was big enough for just one piece. Besides, the more graffiti on a building, the quicker the spot gets cleaned.

A homeless guy down on the street shuffles past, pushing a shopping cart. He adds the blue and yellow. He throws in an extra red outline to make it pop. He climbs back down the way he came.

KOZE jumps into his car and drives off toward Kalamath Street.

Depending on the city, TKO could stand for Technical Knockout, The Krazy Ones or TaKing Over. Ask KOZE and he'll say it means The Knight Owls. Quick missions like these are nearly a nightly duty for the west Denver native, whom many credit for being one of the most consistently productive writers in the city. And not just with tags, but with large, full-color "burners," named because the eye-catching pieces seem to burn off the wall. Usually the term refers to a visual technique called "wildstyle," in which the letters are twisted and intersected until they are rendered almost unreadable, but KOZE likes to do his pieces in so-called straight letters.

"I like just plain-ass letters so that regular people will be able to read it," he says. "K-O-Z-E...KOZE. I don't want just graffiti writers to read it; I want everybody to read it." Even his family members, who have long known about his pastime. "They'll say, 'Oh, I saw that you hit up this spot, blah, blah, blah.' I just smile and don't say."

But high-profile locations are not to be taken on a whim. Any graffiti writer who thinks that getting up is only about balls and brazenness is likely one who gets arrested on a regular basis. KOZE has been busted about eight times, but it was all concentrated in the two years before he turned eighteen. "The main people getting popped out there are toys," KOZE says.

Some writers will only paint illegal spots at three or four in the morning, but KOZE is willing to go as early at dusk depending on the circumstances. While he often partners up with members of TKO, he says he'll go out painting with just about anybody.

"It can be a stoner-ass white dude or a skateboarder or whatever. It's all about how they're just getting up, you know?" he explains. All that he asks is that the person be willing to fight if the situation calls for it: "It happens a lot, dog. Fools will just cross you out just to do it, and you got to stick up for yourself. Some dudes think they're too famous and they don't want to lower themselves to someone that is kinda wack. I don't care if they're a little toy or not — I'll still dis 'em. Once somebody starts dissing you and you don't dis 'em back, that's when you start losing the street credit. People don't respect you."

Reputation is often all one has to go on when juggling the responsibilities of maintaining a crew with the never-ending litany of dramas and beefs and keeping his name up in the city. Then he's got his job at a north Denver factory and daily struggles of taking care of his family. Sometimes it feels like he's got three full-time jobs to think about. While it'd be easy to relax on nights after work or take a few weeks off from graffiti, he doesn't think he'd be able to do it.

"I got to stay up in this city, dog," he says. "If I stopped, I don't know. I wouldn't feel like myself. I wouldn't feel like I deserved the name. I wouldn't be KOZE."

Roy Rayburn is going to stop and get himself a bagel. Or maybe one of those bran muffins. "And also get me a latte," he says. "You drink lattes? I know about this cafe. Got all that stuff."

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