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.

But his best source of information was the taggers themselves, either en route to juvenile detention or out on the streets. "Talk to these kids like a person and you'd be surprised how much they talk to you," he explains. Though tags of "Fuck Ruybal" began appearing in spray paint or in confiscated "black book" practice notepads writers use to draft pieces, he prided himself on dealing with the kids in a civil manner. By building relationships and trust, he could get better intelligence. "They wanted to tell everybody what they knew, and it made them feel good that they were somebody," he remembers. "That's all graffiti is; you want people to know who you are."

In 1997, city crews removed 1.2 million square feet of graffiti painted by thousands of known taggers. "I would get probably twenty or thirty calls a day sometimes," Ruybal recalls. "And there was no way I could get to each place."

The next year, Webb convened the first graffiti task force, which comprised citizens, law enforcement representatives and Department of Public Works officials. As a result of their work, Denver City Council enacted more ordinances banning juveniles from possessing "graffiti materials" like broad-tipped markers, requiring hardware stores to keep spray-paint cans in locked cabinets to prevent theft, and obliging property owners to clean graffiti from their buildings within ten days after being notified or face a fine. The task force also insisted that a graffiti unit be created inside the police department to supplement Ruybal's work.

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.

Many major cities had established graffiti units. As part of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "quality of life" campaign, New York had 107 officers and detectives devoted to fighting graffiti; Denver's addition of three detectives to its graffiti unit was much more modest. But for Ruybal, it meant a vast increase in the number of incidents that could be covered. Two detectives would take the day shift — contacting victims, taking statements and photos — and the other two would work nights. For the first time, Ruybal could go on the offense.

One of the unit's first big catches, Casper, was a young graffiti writer who'd been tagging the name around town for a bygone crew called Old School Kings. In 2000, the unit spent weeks conducting surveillance on a relatively unknown but violent tagger who went by Skeme. Detectives arrested the nineteen-year-old on dozens of vandalism charges and used information he supplied to slap charges on ten members of his crew, CWK, effectively wiping it off the map. Though significant busts like these were few and far between, at least taggers were taking the unit seriously.

"We could contact more kids, we could cover more calls, we could sit on more locations," Ruybal recalls. "We would make a lot of contacts for possession of graffiti materials, which was good, because at least we took their tools. I kind of felt like we were stopping them for a little while. They knew we were out there."

Even so, possession of graffiti materials barely rated a ticket, and punishment for a single graffiti offense was little more than a slap on the wrist. The suspect had to be tied to multiple acts for anything resembling a significant fine or jail time. But even when the accused was presented with photos of multiple tags, he could always say it was the work of an imitator. In a few cases, the detectives were able to use the department's handwriting analyst to connect the dots. Still, the best way to make the charges stick was to catch the tagger in the act, which meant a lot of running.

"That was tough," Ruybal admits. "A lot of times these kids would run, and they were just quick. But I felt that we got a lot more done with the unit that way than the way it eventually ended up."

Equipped with power washers and paint rollers, the trucks emblazoned with the Denver Partners Against Graffiti logo depart from the municipal garage every weekday at dawn to scrub the streets clean of the scribbled and bubble-lettered markings generated throughout the night.

Graffiti writers recognize the importance of the buff squad. The more philosophical among them will admit they find balance in the impermanence of their work. It's like how Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy builds complex sculptures out of found materials like sticks, rocks and leaves, only to allow his creations to crumble with the next gust or incoming tide. The buff squad is the urban equivalent of this natural process. Walls that have become crowded with a chaotic mess of tags, pieces and gang logos are once again returned to blankness, and the dialogue of the city can begin anew. To a graffiti addict, a blank wall is potent with possibility. Graffiti writers see not what is there, but what could be there.

This itch to fill the emptiness is part of the experience. Another part is the excitement of prohibition — evading the cadre of cops and property owners in order to reach the wall and paint it. Even those top writers who show in galleries and create elaborate pieces on "legal walls" — spots where writers have been given consent to paint — balance their repertoire with illegal "bombing" runs of tags and throw-ups.

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