By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
He is tattooed and pierced, with heavy, sad eyes and a translucent mustache. He walks with a combination of swagger and caution, his hands sunk deep in the pockets of his baggy jeans. He is in his mid-teens — not a little kid and not an adult. Old enough for trouble but just young enough to slide beyond the grip of reprisal.
Call him ERA. As in dawn of a new. As in ERAse my shit and I'll write it again tonight.
He glances over his shoulder and turns down a dark alley, keeping one eye on the door of a Mexican nightclub where the manager has chased down taggers with a metal baseball bat. There are a few things he's learned. If a random car or passerby cruises up while you're painting, slink into the shadows. If it's a pissed property owner suddenly on your tail — run. The cops? Fucking fly, homie. A rival crew or some writer you've got beef with? Well, that's where things get complicated. Which is why ERA scans ahead, not necessarily for authority figures, but for other taggers and graffiti artists.
"Everybody comes to this alley," he explains, nodding his head toward a series of minivan-sized pieces (graffiti-speak for "masterpieces") painted along the cinderblock walls and warehouse doors that line the left side of the corridor. The letters are warped, slanted and abstracted in tall flares of color, nearly unreadable to those outside graffiti culture. ERA recognizes several of the names: SHEWP, ACEE, IKON. He admires the particular twists, letter forms, color schemes and shading effects that serve as earmarks of individual style.
"RTD runs these walls," he says, referring to one of the largest crews in the city. RTD has members who have consistently painted for upwards of two decades and carry national reputations. To paint on an RTD wall, one has to either be officially down with the group or be a friendly member of another well-respected crew, which explains the presence of a large piece by KOZE, the head of Denver's TKO posse. Add a writer from SWS and you'd have representatives of the top three crews in the state.
Below this trifecta of RTD, TKO and SWS is an alphabet soup of local crews: KUV, L2K, SRDOT, AM, FTK, AOM, AE, to name a few. It's a wide spectrum, ranging from art-school grads and muralists who only paint approved walls to hip-hop disciples to unabashed vandals and gun-toting tagbangers. There are twelve-year-olds and middle-aged family men who tuck their kids into bed before heading out to maintain their notorious alter egos. All of it adds up to thousands of aerosol junkies in the metro area all jostling for notoriety and respect by marking their tag name and crew letters on any and all available surfaces. To "get up" — to get it higher, to get it bigger and get it longer than anyone else.
"To get up and stay up," ERA recites like a mantra.
At the top of the game sit the so-called kings, a title often claimed but granted to only the most prolific and skilled writers. To be a king is to have a reputation that rises above neighborhoods or northside/southside bullshit. The most famous graffiti writers in the U.S. have conquered not just metropolitan areas, but entire coasts. The mega-crews that recruit this top talent can have hundreds of members in dozens of cities, spreading their ambitions across entire regions and countries. Hell, why not the whole continent?
Scrambling at the base of the hierarchy are the less proficient rookies and posers, kids who just picked up a can or older hacks who still can't cut it, often derided with the most derogatory term in the graffiti dictionary: "toy." "Toys will come here," ERA explains. "But they're not good enough to get up on the [RTD] walls, so they'll tag somebody's fence."
On the right side of the alley are dozens of warbly signatures sprayed on wooden slats and garage doors of residential back yards. He spots a name markered on a dumpster. KNOX lives west of the highway and, as of late, has been crossing out ERA's tags. "That dude hates on my stuff a lot," ERA says, and then shrugs. "Fake crews just wanna come up just by crossing fools out."
ERA is not a king. He hasn't yet developed the skill, history or personal networks to be recognized by the likes of RTD. In fact, on the grand graffiti food chain, he falls somewhere just above toy. Being called a toy isn't a bad thing, necessarily — after all, everyone starts out as a toy — but it's never a good thing. Toys are sloppy; toys are ignorant of who came before them and the basic rules of wall etiquette. ERA's not. For instance, he knows you can go over a tag with a toss-up (a simple outline with a one-color fill-in) and you can go over that with a piece. A break in that procedure could translate to beef with the offending writer. A cross-out, however, is a blatant show of disrespect. ERA pulls out a fat black marker, draws a line through KNOX and writes his own tag above it.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
But first he's got to buff him some walls. In graffiti slang, to buff is to make graffiti disappear by paint, water, rag, even spray can — to wipe it all clean like a classroom eraser at 3 p.m. To be a buffer is to be Rayburn; he's erased more graffiti in Denver than anyone.
At 7 a.m., Monday through Friday, Rayburn and his partner, Joel Martinez, set out from the Denver Department of Public Works facility in a retrofitted white delivery truck. Painted on the side is a large symbol of two hands clasping, the emblem for Denver Partners Against Graffiti. The city program employs twelve "maintenance technicians" who operate six such vehicles. Each is equipped with a power washer, various rollers, brushes and buckets, a variety of chemical solvents, more than a dozen shades of spray paint, and a palette of six base colors, such as yellow, musket brown and viaduct beige. To eliminate hard-to-reach graffiti on billboards, street signs or roofs, the division also has its own cherry picker with a bucket that can extend up to thirty feet.
Each truck has an assigned district, and Rayburn and Martinez cover Capitol Hill and South Broadway, two epicenters for taggers and graffiti artists (as well as stencilers, wheat-pasters, sticker bandits and a more recent trend of paint-drippers). Depending on the difficulty, Rayburn can remove graffiti from more than twenty locations in a single shift — other days, he might eliminate only one.
"But the [graffiti piece] may be like 3,000 to 5,000 square feet in size," he says. "Like a warehouse, someplace down by the railroad tracks. It's ten feet high, and you might have to bring two or three trucks."
Today, Rayburn's work order lists an apartment building near Ninth Avenue and Sherman Street. He locates the tag in the alleyway on a wall above a dumpster. It says "EOS" in three-foot red letters, and before Rayburn even gets out of the truck, he knows it's going to be a headache. Some surfaces are easier to clean than others; this facade is the most difficult because of the way spray paint becomes embedded in the crags of the yellowish, grooved brick. Plus, it's an east-facing wall, and the tag has been there at least a week.
"It literally gets baked in by the sun," he says. "The longer the paint sits, the harder it is to get off."
He throws open the rear door to the truck and pulls out a container of clear goo known as "Elephant Snot" that will break down the paint molecules so the tag can be blasted off with the power washer. "If this was flat brick, we could go ahead and blast it right away," he explains while watching Martinez roll snot over the tag. "But this is grooved, and we have to wait."
When he began his career as a professional buffer, Rayburn could somewhat decipher the subtext of the tags. That was back in 1989, the year Federico Peña created the city's first maintenance crews devoted exclusively to graffiti removal from city property. They had a couple of trucks and a few employees, with extra labor provided by Denver County Jail inmates or at-risk youth from the local juvenile-detention facility. One of Peña's first tasks for the outfit was to paint over hundreds of yards' worth of long-ignored graffiti murals along the river walls in the Central Platte Valley. Most of what Rayburn remembers removing throughout the early '90s, however, was gang graffiti.
"It was real simple," he says. "Bloods and Crips. West Denver, North Denver, Park Hill. A lot of one-eight-seven's. A lot of rest in peace's. The messages were clear. You knew what it meant."
The communities knew what it meant, too.
"When we first started, the neighborhoods, the associations, were very much involved, because there never was any real function like this from the city before," Rayburn recalls. But as the decade continued, the vandalism persisted. Not only that, it seemed that every time the city responded with anti-graffiti ordinances — such as banning the sale of spray paint to juveniles, or increasing fines for those caught tagging — the crime only rose. In 1991, Rayburn and the buff crew removed an estimated 400,000 square feet of graffiti. By 1997, that amount was up to 1,200,000 square feet.
Mayor Wellington Webb responded to the outcry from residents and business owners in 1998 by convening the first Graffiti Task Force. Citing the often-used phrase "graffiti breeds graffiti," the committee concluded that quick removal was one of the strongest deterrents. They recommended that the city remove the scribblings from consenting owners' residential or commercial property for free. But even after Public Works doubled its graffiti clean-up operation, the stats continued steadily upward. Last year, city crews buffed 3,041,731 square feet of graffiti at a cost of $1 million.
The cost of removal is shouldered by other municipal agencies as well. According to a 2006 citywide graffiti abatement report, both the Parks and Recreation and Traffic Engineering departments spent approximately $200,000 each. The Regional Transportation District shelled out $12,600, while the Denver Housing Authority spent $20,000. And don't forget the $310,000 dropped by Denver Public Schools.
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."
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.
"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."
"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).
"See, you can see the gangs will come down here and just cross out everybody," Felsoci says. "It's sloppy." With so many possibly rival taggers packed in such tight confines, he wonders how long it will be until someone gets seriously injured or killed in one of the tunnels. "They could die down there, and the only way we'd find them is after the next big rainfall flushed them out," he says.
The purpose of the SCAT unit is to deal with street-level crime as it happens. Because of this, SCAT officers do not take calls. Since first starting on the SCAT team four months ago, Felsoci has learned that catching taggers is as much about them being lazy as it is about good police work.
"This team is all about productivity and making arrests, and I was told that tagging and graffiti arrests was a really big thing," he says. "I'm like 'Oh, my God, how am I going to catch one of these taggers?' And then I got a guy with a marker, and I was all excited. And lately it seems that we're at the right place at the right time. So we should see the activity around this area slow down a little, because we've busted about seven or eight of them.
"I think they're just getting lazy, more lax. So, it's a lot of being in the right place at the right time, sitting and watching the kids and them being a little lazy," he says. "Honestly, it's just a lot of luck."
GATES decides she is feeling blue. She kneels in the dirt and stares into her open bag. It's black with a canvas strap and bigger than it looks. She selects one of six cans of Rustoleum and holds it down low where the warehouse security light is slipping under the freight car. She reads the label: "Aqua." She begins by spraying a long arch and filling in her background. Eventually, she swaps the Aqua for some Royal Blue, careful to keep her pack organized and secure.
As soon as she begins with the outline, GATES hears a sound from the other side of the tracks. She crouches down and signals for her male companions, WALDO and ELAB, to stop work on their pieces. She slowly climbs between the trains and over the hitch. She peeks down the railroad yard but sees nothing. She crawls back to position and drops the signal to resume painting.
As railroad spots go, this one is relatively safe. Directly behind them is a now-quiet recycling facility where huge cubes of mashed up cardboard and magazines are stacked like aging ruins, shielding them from view. More important, the freight cars are not hooked up to an engine.
"I'm really, really cautious about painting trains," says GATES, the only female member of the SWS crew. She's been at it for eight years, since her early twenties in Texas, where an interest in punk-rock activism and wheat-pasting grew into tagging and then a full-blown obsession with train bombing. Like many female writers, she chose a feminine tag name, MEOW, and followed a style that flaunted girl-power themes with softer colors and cartoony letter forms, as if to say girls can vandalize, too, motherfucker. But, instead, she soon felt that the approach predisposed writers of both sexes "to give me extra credit or something just because I'm a girl."
So after moving to Denver in 2002, she went the opposite direction and chose a genderless tag and an equally indistinguishable style. Now, most people who have spotted a GATES piece on a train or a city wall have no idea that the writer behind the name is female, let alone a single mother who works as a stylist in an upscale Denver salon.
Clack, clack, clack.
She sets in with the jet-black paint, carving an outline around the G and the A. When she first started, her train pieces were small, "'cause I could get the idea out and do it a lot faster without worrying about it." But these days she knows that if you want to get seen and not get covered, train pieces have got to be big. In order to trace her can to the top of the T, she has to stand on her toes.
"I'm so friggin' short," she laughs in a whisper. "The tops of my Ts are always blurry."
While GATES doesn't want her productions to be loaded with stereotypes, she's more than willing to utilize other's assumptions as a means to become more productive. Being a short white girl on a bike sure comes in handy when law enforcement and wary citizens are profiling for the thugged-out taggers marauding down alleyways or lurking in the spray-paint aisle looking to "rack" supplies. Meanwhile, GATES is la-la-la-ing out the side door with an entire shopping cart of swiped Krylon.
WALDO and ELAB, both members of the R86 crew, first began to get into graffiti through the hardcore music scene. For them, the aggression, energy and basic act of defiance of graffiti seem to fit with the music. "Please, everyone, keep thinking that we're all a bunch of fourteen-year-old kids from the hood who wear humongous pants and listen to hip-hop," GATES says sarcastically. "Every single one of us."
She heads down the line of freights, writing tags with a silver marker as she goes along. She estimates that she's painted more than 1,000 pieces on trains that travel around North America like a never-ending art exhibit.
"Trains are just seen more," she says. "I mean, like, Denver, we see what we see here, but this is going to be seen all over."
That looks like trouble," says graffiti-sting volunteer Karmen Hanson.
Gale Lindley, who's maneuvering the white PT Cruiser around their assigned precinct of Villa Park, agrees. "Umm-hmm," she says slowly, lifting her police radio to her mouth.
"Are you going to call?" Hanson asks.
"Hello, Lowell," Lindley says, giving the code name for the police sting car. "I'm looking for any car close to the Sixth Avenue frontage road, eastbound at about Osceola. We've got two males, heavyset."
"It looks like they had stuff in their pockets," Hanson interjects, craning her neck to look through the back window.
Lindley repeats, "It looks like they have stuff in their pockets. White T-shirts. Hats askew. There's two of them, both Hispanic, and they've got saggy pants with stuff in their pockets." She flips the car around and heads down a side street to take another look at the suspects.
"We may actually get one this time," Hanson says in an affable tone. A boardmember of the Berkeley Regis United Neighbors group, Hanson also volunteers at the District 1 cop shop. "I did the last sting," she says. "April 13. Friday the 13th. We were bored out of our gourds!"
They had great spots, too, she notes. Right along the viaduct, all that nice, untouched wall — and then nothing. But it was kind of cold out, and the officers concluded the operation at barely 10 o'clock.
"We were like, 'This is stupid,'" she says. "We didn't see anything even remotely juicy. And we had the train yards right there, and so we had all these great huge murals going by and not a soul painting them."
But tonight, she hopes, will be different. Behind the wheel, Lindley is a reserve officer for the Denver Police Department, one of eight volunteers in what she calls "the forgotten unit," since many district commanders don't even know such an outfit exists. But she receives all the same training as a regular officer, Lindley points out. She says she continues because she believes it's her duty to take responsibility for the safety of her neighborhood.
Lindley pulls the PT Cruiser to a stop between two brick pillars that have both been defaced with large, black EMS scrawls. As the two suspects walk past, Lindley exits the car and approaches them.
"Have you guys seen a little white dog?"
The two young men, maybe in their late teens, survey the area around them. It's possible that they could be out causing trouble. Or they could just be heading home. It's only 10:15 p.m.
"No," one of them says. "No, we haven't. Sorry."
They turn to continue walking and Lindley cocks her head and surveys their pants for any suspicious bulges.
"Good ploy," Hanson compliments her partner as she climbs back in the PT Cruiser.
Lindley gets back on the walkie talkie and updates their position to Lowell. About ten minutes pass as the pair canvass the surrounding blocks; then they spot the blue-and-red police lights flashing near the top of the hill.
"Ooh," Hanson says. "Is it them?"
They get nearer and see two parked patrol cars surrounding the youths, who are sitting on the curb. "Yup," Lindley hoots. "Sorry, buddies."
"I hope we get one so bad," says Hanson. "If I can make my little dent in the world, I'll be so happy."
(As it turned out, neither of the boys had any graffiti materials in their possession, and they were released.)
Both women have property that's been tagged. For Hanson, it's mostly her fence and dumpster that get hit on a regular basis. But she feels the worst for the small businesses that seem to constantly get slammed with graffiti. Lindley was in the same position. She owns the Denver Bookbinding Company at West 31st Avenue and Tejon Street, which was a never-ending target for tagging because of the 15,000-square-foot building's eastern-facing wall.
"So about seven years ago, I hired a tagger artist to paint a mural of a bunch of books on the front of the building," she explains. "I told him what I wanted, and I paid him, and I liked it so much I had him do another one in the back." Since then, she says, "if we've been hit six times in the past seven years, I would be surprised. I think that taggers respect the building now." Last year she "went underground" to commission another graffiti writer to paint the business's name in bubble letters on the facade and is considering another large mural later this year. "I just think it would be cool. Personally, I like that kind of art."
Hanson agrees. She loves looking at the complex and energetic murals and pieces she spots around town: "I don't have any respect for a tagger, but I do have respect for a mural artist."
It's a sentiment expressed by many urban citizens, but it's not a distinction made as abruptly by the graffiti world. A tag — crude, fast, illegal — is seen as the primary element in the evolution of a piece. "If you don't have a fresh tag, if you don't bomb, then you're nothing — you suck," says one member of the SWS crew. Graffiti artists by day, tagger vandals by night: For them, it's all part of getting up.
The chain-link fence is tall and topped with barbed wire. ERA has twice walked its length, looking for a break where he can climb without getting shredded. He finally spots a broken-down Chevy truck. He climbs on the heap of tires in the bed and leaps the fence, his backpack clanging with spray cans as he lands in the field below. It's a full moon, and he can see the ruins of Metropolitan Wastewater Facility, which once served as a prime graffiti destination until the area was rehabbed and turned into Northside Park in the late '90s. What remains is a series of concrete retaining walls that are so tall and secluded, it's difficult to imagine a better graffiti spot. But regular visits by city buff crews and police looking to nab taggers make the location sketchy.
He walks down the corridor, surveying all the different tags and toss-ups already on the wall. "I gotta choose where I put my tags," ERA says. "You don't wanna go over someone that you don't want to have beef with."
He's careful to avoid the gang tags and graffiti from crews he respects or fears. He finally chooses a spot on top of where KNOX had written his name in faded bubble letters. He begins with the black outline and fills it in with gold to give his letters shape. A helicopter thumps somewhere nearby. When he left his house earlier tonight, he told his grandparents that he was going out to do an art project.
He has just enough paint to complete a three-color toss-up. Has to be simple. Lines, layers, colors, letters — the building blocks of graffiti. Have to do it quick and without attachment, because tomorrow it could be crossed out or buffed over anyway. Or it could run for days, months, years. There's no certainty, because like everything about graffiti, even infamy is temporal. Pretty soon you're getting older, getting replaced by kids who lack fear or responsibility. It slips through your fingers. ERA fills up his bag and decides to check out the farthest corridor at the end.
"Damn, check this out," he says, turning the corner. On the wall are several RTD pieces glowing in the moonlight like plasma-TV screens. He walks up to an EMIT piece and traces his hand along the letter forms. "See, his shit is just so clean," he notes. "That's what makes it good." EMIT is also a founding member of the internationally upped DF crew, whose members have issued critically acclaimed graffiti art books and get commissions from galleries around the world. Many graffiti writers have managed to grow into the art scene and make money. Get flown to Korea just to bomb, live like rock stars. But the vast majority of kings will only live on in the minds of a few devotees or maybe the people whose unfortunate job it was to buff it every day.
ERA turns to head back through the field.
"Someday, man," he says. "That's me."
The next week, the buff crews come. The walls are wiped clean with a pleasant shade of viaduct beige.