Tagging Up Denver

The cityís aerosol junkies are in the spotlight.

"I wanted to get out," ERA says. It wasn't just the constant hustle of violence that got to him; he also wanted to progress more on the art side of graffiti. The leaders of EMS understood. "They knew I was just super-young and that my family had already been through a lot with all this shit."

ERA has always lived at his grandparents' house. His mother only stays there sometimes. ERA doesn't talk to his father much, ever.

His mother looks up and stares at her son's pieces on the walls. "I like them," she says. "He does different things, and I like the colors. Just as long as he ain't doing it everywhere on people's property and stuff." She says this is the reason why ERA is allowed to do it on the fence in the back yard facing the alley. "This is pretty with all the colors and stuff. He doesn't do I'm going to kill you and all that other stuff," she repeats. "To me, I think it's art. If you don't go around just tagging that property — that's ugly."

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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"I love his art," adds his grandfather. "Like I always tell him, I don't ever want to see him painting Me killa you! Me killa Westside! That's crap! That has nothing to do with graffiti art. You didn't see the caveman putting that on their walls. They decorated to tell a story, to have a history of what was going on. That's the only thing we know about them. But I like his work, his expressions."

ERA exits from the back door and heads into the alleyway to show off the fence he regularly paints with pieces. Every time he does a new production, the city buff crews come by and paint over it. Sometimes it won't even last one day. It doesn't make sense to him why, considering that the creations were obviously done with permission. He peels off a layer of the brown to reveal a piece he did earlier that week. ERA's grandfather says that he never signed a graffiti-removal authorization form, but the crews come and paint over it anyway.

"We never signed nothing like that," ERA says. "But every week [the buff crews] just roll up the alley and paint the whole thing over."

The graffiti writers call it "The Tunnel." The department brass call it "The Sewer." It is, technically, a storm drain — but not like any storm drain Officer Mike Felsoci knows of. The passage is about ten feet wide and tall enough for Felsoci to stand up in as he walks alongside Sergeant Motyka. Both are careful to keep the stiff echo of their footsteps to a minimum.

Felsoci holds his flashlight near his shoulder, pointing the beam into the narrowing tunnel. Another thirty feet and the shape of it changes. The floor becomes gravel and the ceiling drops, forcing both men to walk with their heads hunched to the side. After a couple minutes, they arrive at a spot where the tunnel diverges into three directions. They listen.

"Well," Felsoci says, finally. "You wanna keep going, Sarge?"

"If you want to keep going." he answers.

"Well, they have to be in here somewhere, don't they?"

Motyka thinks about the question. "Somewhere, yeah."

"Well, I'll take this one," he says, indicating the left tunnel. "You take the other." Both passageways are filled with ankle-deep water. "We'll push them out."

One week earlier, Felsoci was driving along his regular patrol route in lower Highland when he saw three kids in their early teens lurking around an odd location near the highway noise barrier. He and his shift partner swung the car around to check what they were doing when two more kids suddenly popped out of a storm-drain grate at the teens' feet.

"They had backpacks with graffiti materials inside," he remembers. "And so we check down there and find this little underworld."

The teenagers admitted they belonged to a small tagging crew from Highland called BMS (Blame My Squad), or Bums for short. They told Felsoci and his partner that the tunnel was a regular hangout for the crew and that many of the sixteen members would be painting the next day where the tunnel let out, just north of the Denver Skatepark. Sure enough, the officers went to the location the next day, peeked over the concrete retaining wall where the tubes dump into the Platte River, and caught six more of the Bum taggers. Their biggest question for the police while being taken into custody: "How big are we compared to other crews in Denver?"

Today, District 1 SCAT unit officers decided to take another swing by the storm drain grates and heard voices coming from inside the tunnel. Felsoci leaped inside his vehicle and sped across the overpass, bleeped through lights and hopped curbs into the park in an effort to box the subterraneans in before they could escape. Some might say that the resources being devoted to catching taggers who are writing on walls that no one will ever see is an effort in futility. But for SCAT officers looking to put a hand on the elusive taggers, the tunnels serve as the perfect trap (though they come up empty-handed today).

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