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Tagging Up Denver

The city’s aerosol junkies are in the spotlight.

The most complicated part of removing graffiti is sorting out who owns the surface it's painted on. First, abatement crews have to obtain an authorization form from the property owners, granting the city permission to remove graffiti. Then, once they have it, buffers will clean off tagging whenever they see it or get a report. "Basically, as far as we're concerned, we are in an agreement for as long as they own the property," says Public Works program administrator Neddra Niblet.

But if Public Works can't find the owner or the person refuses to sign the form, there's nothing the city can do. This frustration on the part of abatement crews led to the most controversial recommendation of Hickenlooper's Graffiti Task Force: granting city buff crews access to private property after 72 hours' notification, then charging the owners for the removal (estimates of the charge have not yet been determined). Under current ordinance, the city gives businesses and homeowners ten days to remove graffiti or face a fine.

The buff crews are also not allowed to clean up other types of private property that often become swamped with tags, such as pay phones, ATMs, private construction signs, private concrete medians, portable toilets, barricades, jersey barriers, newspaper boxes (Westword alone spent $60,000 in 2006 to clean graffiti off news boxes) and dumpsters. "And should we have to clean off BFI property?" asks Niblet of the private dumpsters. "We shouldn't."

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.

It seems to Rayburn that the graffiti over the past years has grown more random, spread out. The gangs still mark their territory in the neighborhoods, but the graffiti crews, once isolated to abandoned factories and hidden under overpasses, seem to be dropping their array of acronyms in spots across the city. Once only an issue for certain city districts, the problem is now shared by all.

Rayburn has had graffiti writers assigned to work his truck for community service. He always asks them why they tag.

"Basically they say it's for their crews," he says. "To me, it's no different than peeing on a building to mark territory. That's what it amounts to."

And once you start peeing, it's hard to stop.

"One time I had a tagger working with me. I'm over here power-washing. I go and turn the corner, and he's using the spray paint from the truck. He's doing his tag on the building we're supposed to be cleaning up." Rayburn pantomimes someone spray-painting a wall. He laughs boisterously. "It's almost like these guys can't help themselves. The guy couldn't wait even one day. It's really like a compulsion.

"You got to make this a criminal act. But, you know," he shrugs, "it's just like rap: The kids got to tell their story."

He announces the address of the next wall to buff: 330 East Second Avenue. "If I'm a little late there, it's 'cause I'm over at 7-Eleven," he says. "I'm gonna get me some soft drinks. You like soft drinks?"


Where ERA sleeps, on a mattress upstairs in the attic, graffiti pieces are painted on the crooked walls above him. He lists off the names of friends he let practice with the novice pieces.

"This here is like my first black book ever," he says, flipping open an artist's sketchbook. "This is a long time ago, when I first started. Then I started getting better, doing canvases. Just practice. Just change up your letters all the time. And then I started getting into like a toss-up style."

ERA first got interested in graffiti four years ago, when he was walking home from elementary school and saw some writers painting a wall behind the Boys & Girls Club. It was the first time that he had seen graffiti being produced in broad daylight. The alleyway was a hot spot for mural-style graffiti, because the director of the club and the tenants of the art space next door were sympathetic.

He started hanging out with members of EMS, a crew that his older brother belonged to, but EMS has one purpose only: to tag with reckless abandon and war with their rival from the west side, WKS. Because they hold no artistic aspirations and are cut off from larger graffiti culture, such clans are often categorized as "tagbangers."

The first time that ERA went out bombing, he and twelve other young EMS members got arrested.

"I didn't really care," he says. "I just wanted to show EMS I was down for them."

And the heat didn't only come from police. The EMS and WKS battle often spilled off the walls and jumped directly into drive-by shootings and street fights in which all types of weapons were brandished. At last summer's Taste of Colorado festival, a rumble between more than two dozen WKS and EMS members resulted in one teen getting stabbed. And on December 17, Jonathan "Roman" MacLagan was shot to death at a Littleton house party after breaking up a fight between rival crews. The twenty-year-old Kennedy High School grad "was a peacemaker at heart," says one of MacLagan's friends. "He wasn't down for fighting. He was a good homie like that."

Nineteen-year-old David Miera Jr. was arrested five days later by Jefferson County deputies for the shooting death of MacLagan. According to an arrest affidavit, Miera told police that he and other EMS members became angry after not being admitted to a party. As they left, Miera says he fired a shotgun from the back window of an SUV intending to hit Moke, a member of WKS. Instead, the blast hit MacLagan in the head, killing him. "It wasn't meant for Roman, it was meant for Moke," Miera told investigators. He is currently awaiting a plea hearing on charges of first-degree murder.

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