Ray Ruybal Made His Mark

The longtime head of Denver's graffiti unit fought to clean up the city -- until he felt he was beating his head against the wall.

Ray Ruybal can picture the tagger's face: shallow eyes, cocky sneer, mouth that would run almost as quickly as his legs. He refers to the tagger as a "kid," but the guy was 35 years old — and a father of two — when Ruybal put him in jail five years ago on a slate of felony vandalism charges. Busting the punk was one of the few truly successful prosecutions he has to show for all his years of exertion and frustration. But for the life of him, Ruybal can't dredge from his memory the most basic piece of information in a graffiti cop's arsenal: the tagger's street name.

Swek? Aset? Benz? Dime? Nime? It's all becoming an alphabet soup of old cases.

This bothers the longtime head of the Denver Police Department's graffiti unit, who quietly stepped down from that position after thirteen years last fall. Since then, Ruybal's been amazed by how quickly the intelligence data he spent tens of thousands of hours studying, cataloguing and mapping — things like boxes of old photos, catalogues of crew affiliations, gang script, turf boundaries and tags — has faded from his mind. Maybe he's just getting old, he tells himself.

Ray Ruybal at home, with sketchbooks he's confiscated over the years.
tony gallagher
Ray Ruybal at home, with sketchbooks he's confiscated over the years.
City councilman Paul Lopez worked with the Crime Prevention and Control Commission to recruit some of Denver's biggest graffiti vandals to paint this mural in his district.
tony gallagher
City councilman Paul Lopez worked with the Crime Prevention and Control Commission to recruit some of Denver's biggest graffiti vandals to paint this mural in his district.


For interviews, photos and video of graffiti in Denver, click here and here.

Ruybal will officially retire next month. He's been riding out his final months on the force as an old-fashioned beat cop, assisting the fine travelers at Denver International Airport — just about as far out to pasture as you can get in the sprawling DPD establishment. Putting on the starched blues with the heavy utility belt and gun felt strange after so many years toting around nothing more than a camera and a notepad as a plainclothes detective. A man not blessed with Ruybal's easygoing nature might find the transition difficult. Not ol' Ray. This is what he wanted. An easy landing. No more useless foot pursuits, chasing wannabe thugs young enough to be his grandkids. No more biting his tongue and nodding at community meetings while listening to politicians make ridiculous assertions about how they're going to stamp out graffiti once and for all.

Still, as he makes his rounds between concourses, he racks his brain. What was that tagger's name? He looks through old files and calls up former partners hoping for clues.

Graffiti artists have a simple concept of notoriety: Here is my name. Here is my name again with more style. And again bigger. And again with more style and bigger. Ruybal understands this. He can rattle off the names of dozens of taggers he put into the system, and even those of a few writers he came to know and respect. But everything that Ruybal thinks is wrong with the city's endless war on graffiti is embodied in a single name. And he can't remember it.

In this month's State of the City speech, Mayor John Hickenlooper singled out graffiti as "a scourge that violates the rights of property owners and degrades neighborhoods." He called it "the highest priority of our city council."

Though Hickenlooper has pushed for the toughest anti-graffiti policies the city has ever seen, his words are not unprecedented. Over the past twenty years, every mayor and councilmember elected to office has vowed to do something about graffiti.

Under then-mayor Federico Peña, in 1986 the city published a graffiti-removal manual that warned that the "rapidly increasing problem [is] no longer limited to big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago." Re-elected the next year, Peña helmed several attempts to "erase the graffiti problem" permanently with community paint-over campaigns and the establishment of a 24-hour graffiti hotline.

By 1991, when the now-defunct National Graffiti Information Network held its first conference in Denver, the city's emphasis had shifted from clean-up to the front lines in what authorities were now calling a national "war on graffiti" — by banning the sale of spray paint to minors. In 1994, when he was running for a second term, Mayor Wellington Webb promised a "crackdown on graffiti" that prodded the Denver City Council to increase fines and community-service sentences for vandalism, and pass a law making it illegal for anyone under eighteen to be in possession of spray paint anywhere outside their home or job.

Webb also decided that the city needed a "graffiti czar," someone within the police department who could focus solely on spray-can vandalism. Ruybal, then a community resource officer in the DPD's gang unit, was tapped for the job because of his knowledge of gang tags. But Ruybal quickly learned that the beefy title came with little actual muscle, since the original setup had him splitting time between investigating graffiti cases and acting as a PR man for the city's fight against tagging. Ruybal was always good for a quote, but the reality was that it was difficult, if not impossible, for a single man to build solid cases against persistent vandals.

Particularly when the position stood on shaky ground within the department. After barely a year in the post, Ruybal was informed that because of a spate of violent crimes, he was being reassigned to the assault unit — leaving the graffiti-cop slot empty. When members of city council caught wind of the move, they complained to Manager of Safety Fidel "Butch" Montoya. The message that Montoya sent down the chain of command not only made it clear that the position was to remain intact, but also convinced the DPD to retool the job to focus less on public relations and more on enforcement ("Tag, You're It," August 30, 1995). Ruybal's first step was to figure out which graffitists were doing the most damage. He started building hundreds of files by snapping Polaroids of tags across the city. On each photo, he recorded the date, time and location, on the off chance that the illegal scribe might one day be caught in the act and connected to past work.

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