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.

Setting aside the hundreds of gang members and wannabes who use graffiti to mark territory, the metro area is home to no fewer than thirty graffiti crews (by Westword's last count) whose sole goal is to get their insignias in as many spots across the city as possible. While underagers are responsible for a large chunk of graffiti damage, the most prolifically "up" writers in town, whose creatively spelled pseudonyms can be found across semi trailers, newspaper boxes and building roofs, are adult men and women who came up in the late-'90s graffiti wave and have spent the years since perfecting their illegal craft and developing a knack for not getting caught. The largest and most elite of Denver's crews — TKO, RTD and SWS — have hundreds of members spread across multiple states, networks they use to arrange travel, host gatherings and trade painting supplies ("Tagging Up Denver," June 21, 2007). Some are connected to the art community, others lean more toward the gang world or skateboard scene — and then there are some solo writers that no one seems to know anything about except for what appears on the walls.

Most city officials, of course, don't recognize graffiti as art — much less see the romance of it. Unlike Goldsworthy's work, graffiti is returned to nature only with a tide of taxpayer dollars. In 2007, over $2.3 million was spent to remove graffiti in Denver; $1.8 million of that came directly out of city coffers, money that could otherwise have gone to fixing potholes, maintaining parks or staffing recreation centers. The cash-strapped Denver Public Schools alone reported a graffiti clean-up bill of $339,240 — the equivalent of nine first-year teacher salaries.

And then there's the cyclical effect of declining property values that graffiti has on the poorest of neighborhoods. Former councilwoman Ramona Martinez was the graffiti unit's strongest advocate until she gave up her seat in 2003, but her efforts couldn't stop the waves of graffiti that washed over her southwest Denver district. Communities such as Westwood, Barnum and Mar Lee record the greatest levels of graffiti vandalism, largely the work of gang-influenced "tagbanger" crews; they're also among the few neighborhoods that saw the prices of homes consistently fall during Denver's real-estate boom. Lower-cost homes and rental properties receive less upkeep, inviting more graffiti and adding to the perception of crime that degrades property taxes, which in turn produces less money for schools and city maintenance. Suddenly, the spray can isn't simply a tool to express urban angst, as some graffiti artists would argue, but a systematic force that helps make poor neighborhoods poorer.

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.

Paul Lopez made fighting graffiti a central issue in his 2007 campaign for the District 3 seat once held by Martinez. He has an aide devoted to the issue full-time. "I talk to some of these guys doing restitution, and they say, 'Well, the hood has always been the hood.' A lot of young people don't realize that this wasn't always the hood," he says. "There was a time when we had a lot of respect for our barrio, for our community. To have pride for your barrio means you have to love your barrio, not destroy it. When folks tag, I don't think they realize how heavily that weighs on a community, how property values go down. People over here work every single day, three or four jobs just to get by, so it hurts our neighborhood, our community, it dampens our spirit. It creates a sense of apathy. It's the reverse of being proud."


Ruybal remembers the day he gave up. He was sitting in a folding chair at the Denver Botanic Gardens, listening to people he'd never met brainstorm ways to battle graffiti. It was October 2006, and Mayor John Hickenlooper had assembled a graffiti summit, the largest in Denver history. In attendance were some 200 clean-city advocates ranging from neighborhood-watch leaders to Colorado Department of Transportation representatives, as well as a handful of undercover graffiti writers out for a kick. (Tags of "Fuck Hickenlooper" subsequently began appearing across the city.)

People were angry. Their homes and businesses were getting trashed. Someone must be punished, they said. One discussion involved whether the city could levy massive fines against the parents of taggers — and if the parents didn't pay, someone suggested, they should have their wages levied or homes confiscated. Ruybal wondered how financially penalizing the parents of these kids — most of whom come from poor, single-parent households — would solve the problem of urban blight.

The group's mandate was to create a comprehensive policy package that would rid Denver of graffiti vandalism by 2010. But Ruybal had long ago realized something about stronger graffiti laws: Citizens demand them, politicians promise them, and police departments secretly avoid enforcing them.

About three years after the graffiti unit's creation, the disintegration began. One detective left for another division, a second retired. The positions often went unfilled. A detective would join the unit for a year or two, only to be shuffled to another part of the department. Because while graffiti is the "highest priority" for councilmembers, it ranks near the bottom of offenses that the police department has to deal with. Murders, assaults, carjackings, burglaries, drug distribution and hundreds of other crimes take precedence over graffiti. So partners would come, partners would go, and Ruybal was always the last man standing.

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