Up Against the Wall
Robert Iron needed to hit a wall.
He was sitting in the passenger seat of a Suzuki Samurai cruising north up Federal Boulevard one Friday night last fall, and he wanted out. So the Samurai's driver abruptly veered from the slow-moving parade of cars, pulling into a Circle K parking lot at the corner of Federal and Kentucky Avenue.
A thick crowd of about thirty teenagers was hanging in the lot, using the corner as a temporary meet-and-makeout spot. As the Samurai pushed through and came to a stop, Iron popped out. He pulled his baseball cap down low, strutted up to the building's face, removed a can of blue spray paint from his baggy front pocket and quickly dashed off his tag in sharp, fluid strokes: "Skeme." He added the initials of his tagging crew -- CWD, short for Crazy World Destroyers -- and coolly walked back toward the waiting car.
The Samurai sped off, weaving erratically through a few side streets, then merged right back into the cruise at Tenth Avenue. As it pulled onto Federal, five unmarked police cars suddenly appeared, surrounding the Samurai. There were ten plainclothes officers in all, including three with the Denver Police Department's Graffiti Unit. The graffiti cops had been chasing Iron for nearly a year; when the time came to strike, they'd asked for backup from a nearby vice squad. Fearing that Iron and his two buddies would come out shooting, the officers removed the teenagers from the car one at a time, at gunpoint.
Iron laid his belly on the ground and surrendered. He was the sole culprit responsible for fifty known graffiti cases in 1999, about 20 percent of the unit's entire caseload that year. "All summer long we were getting hit by Skeme," recalls the team's commander, Sergeant Vince Gavito. "He had a big mouth and he talked tough. But it was just a matter of time before we got him." And when they did, they landed not only Denver's most prolific vandal, but also its most feared.
Iron and his posse typified a new style of graffiti crew, known more for its thuggery than its painting skills. In the past five years, these "tagger-gangs," as Gavito calls them, have eroded the town's graffiti subculture, turning it at once more violent and less expressive.
So significant was the arrest of nineteen-year-old Robert Iron, a founding member of CWD, that then-chief of police Tom Sanchez bragged of his capture in a quarterly report to the mayor last winter. In doing so, Sanchez unwittingly gave Iron the acknowledgment a graffitist only dreams of -- he referred to Iron and his crew by their tag names.
But fame has its pitfalls. In his report, Sanchez mentioned something else: While Iron was being interrogated, the teenager spat out a forty-minute videotaped confession, identifying several taggers and admitting to tagging "Skeme" at sixty to seventy locations. "Further investigations revealed that the CWD tagging crew was also involved in a multitude of other criminal activity," the chief continued. "The result of this surveillance operation has definitely had an impact on the CWD tagging crew."
In fact, Iron's squealing led to the arrest of at least ten of his crew members and the instant, if temporary, eradication of the CWD. Two of Iron's closest tagging buddies, known on brick walls as Ease and Groove, were charged with seventy counts of criminal mischief between them.
Sergeant Gavito won't show Iron's videotaped confession, explaining that it's still so rife with good information that nearly a year later, it's continually scanned for evidence against graffitists. And the cops aren't the only ones interested in what Iron had to say: His former crewmates also want to know what he revealed.
"They would kill him," Gavito says succinctly. "He was trying to save himself. He was looking out for himself, which is what he needed to do. But if they could hear what he said and how he said it, they would kill him."
Graffiti hasn't always been a blood sport in Denver.
The first official piece of spray paint "art" here dates back to 1983 and a tagger then known as Z13, but more commonly referred to as Zerrox. According to Crimes in Style, a book that chronicled the then-budding Denver graffiti scene in the early '80s, Zerrox threw up a piece -- twelve feet tall, sixty feet long -- on the Cherry Creek bike path just beneath Colorado Boulevard. Zerrox, who'd migrated from the East Coast, painted a playful cartoon character smashing through a brick wall; the character rose above a naked woman and the word "Art." The piece survived -- "burned," as taggers call it -- for five years, nearly an eternity in terms of graffiti life expectancy.
Zerrox continued to put up cartoon-inspired works, accompanied by slogans like "Zerrox is watching you!" He wanted to spread his art; he also wanted to encourage local artists to get on the walls. And they did.
Over the next few years, Denver's graffiti community grew, albeit more slowly than similar communities in East Coast cities. Tags such as Eye Six, Rasta 68, Voodoo, Fie and The Kid began to appear outside abandoned brick warehouses in Denver's lower downtown area and its adjoining railyards.
The artists were painting for personal recognition. They boasted of their skills and issued each other challenges. If Zerrox put up a large mural on the Cherry Creek bike path, for example, he might needle another by writing, "Eye Six, what you got for this?" Then it was up to Eye Six to respond anywhere in town within a reasonable time frame -- say, a week or two -- and with superior craftsmanship. These contests didn't carry monetary awards -- just respect for the winner.
Respect was important in those days. Marz, a Denver graffitist who began spraying in 1984 and now does only "legal work," recalls the unwritten rules of engagement: Never spray over another person's art, never get off on public artworks, and always respect someone who has been painting longer than you. "Most of all," Marz says, "your production had to do your real talkin' for you. We didn't need to carry gats. We carried cans."
But the good feelings evaporated in 1985, after Denver's aerosol pioneers co-opted a piece of wall along the Platte River and billed it the Wall of Fame. First, Eye Six threw up a masterful display of colors and style to advertise his tag, complete with exploding cannonballs as punctuation marks. A week later, Zerrox playfully integrated his piece right into Eye Six's. Other artists picked up on the theme, until finally one hundred yards of concrete slab were blanketed in comic-book color schemes.
But the Wall of Fame also attracted the "toys," the despised lowest level in the graffiti hierarchy that has little or no skills -- but lots of braggadocio. To the upper echelon of artists, known as "kings," Denver's Wall of Fame was something you didn't approach until you were ready. For the toys, though, an appearance on the Wall gave instant exposure and bragging rights.
In Crimes of Style, Zerrox recalls: "That Wall of Fame, that's where all the real toys came out. You could tell that was going on. That's what screwed up the Wall of Fame. 'Cause, you know, the quality of artists, they were out there doing their gig, but then the others came out to try and do their thing, too."
Once the toys were unleashed, the kings began bundling together and working in crews. Six- and ten-man teams could work faster in illegal spots and display more styles. Crews would challenge rival squads to massive, warehouse-long works of art. Back then, the selection of a crew name might use a familiar acronym or brag of a certain skill set: KGB (Kings Gone Berserk), MGM (Magnificent Graffiti Men) and SYN (Syndicate). Marz, still in his early teens, joined a group called NC, for "No Claims" -- as in no claims to organized gangs. "We wanted to make sure everyone knew we weren't into that," he says.
But the untrained eye made little distinction. Federico Peña had become the city's first mayor to challenge spray-painters directly. He started a community program to help defeat the spread of graffiti by sending police officers to high schools, mostly in west Denver. The officers barked out the consequences of tagging: "You'll get fined!" Meanwhile, employees of the Public Works Department, which was responsible for cleaning up the mess, spoke at neighborhood meetings and told residents what to do when they witnessed a tagger: "Call the cops!" Within a year, though, the program dissipated.
In 1988, Peña announced another "crackdown on graffiti" and set aside an "Off the Wall," weeklong paint-over campaign. After five years of failed attempts to abolish the city's graffiti problem, his police chief warned, the administration was ready to erase the problem once and for all. So the DPD started a 24-hour graffiti hotline and sponsored an "Adopt-A-Spot" program that assigned residents stretches of wall space to keep clean.
But major Denver thoroughfares such as Federal and Broadway continued to fill in until they looked like the doodled cover of a high-schooler's notebook. A Rocky Mountain News editorial supporting Peña's second mayoral run marveled that the police were aware of "more than 50 names of graffiti taggers and their tags" but could do little to apprehend them. Indeed, if taggers weren't caught in the act, it was tough for the cops to match the vandal with his moniker. Vandals didn't have to confess; they could lie and say it wasn't their tag.
When Peña left office in 1991, he left plenty of graffiti behind. And it wasn't until 1993, two years into his first term, that Mayor Wellington Webb got aggressive on graffiti. That year, police arrested all of twenty people for vandalism -- a record. "They didn't know what to do with us when they did catch us," Marz recalls. "If they didn't let us go, they'd ask the building owner what they wanted to happen. Usually, the guy would just say, 'Paint over it,' or 'Paint us something good.'"
But even as the city tried to deal with the problem, the problem changed shape. By the mid '90s, the hip-hop phenomenon that had so altered graffiti in Brooklyn two decades prior was entering the mainstream. Not only were urban kids dressing down in puffy jackets and slick Adidas, but so were suburban kids -- and they were eagerly participating in the four standards of hip-hop: emceeing, B-boying (dancing), deejaying and graffitiing.
Gangsta rap and its West Coast, tough-guy shtick were also finding common ground. As the two genres overlapped, the passive and artistically expressive (hip-hop) melded with the aggressive and emotionally terse (gansta). The writing was on the wall in Denver: Hip-hop heads, now out painting in record numbers, weren't the only ones pressing cans. They were joined by hotheaded gangstas who up until this point had used graffiti only to mark territory.
The city got its official introduction to this new group in 1995. That year, a large mural outside La Alma Recreation Center at Osage and 11th Avenue was defaced by several tags. The mural, which had long been off-limits to any true graffiti artist, was a portrait of a Mexican Tarahumara Indian painted by renowned muralist Manuel Martinez; it had stood untouched for seventeen years. The tagging cut through the community's heart.
Martinez told reporters that only "an outside tagger" would deface such a community landmark. But he was wrong. The marks were the new school's way of introducing itself.
Inside police headquarters, just across from the offices of the three detectives who work in the graffiti unit, a white magnetic board lists each of the city's known graffiti crews. Individual magnets carry hundreds of crew names and are divided in vertical rows indicating the districts where the crews usually work. The magnets are also distinguished by colors: Blue and green identify crews that simply tag; the red are the organized gangs, such as the North Side Mafia. But the handful of orange magnets are the most worrisome -- they're the "gang-taggers," a group that's been growing steadily.
The board didn't exist until 1997, when, still unaware of the factions working below the surface, Webb assembled a citywide graffiti task force to come up with a plan to fight the vandalism. DPD detective Ray Ruybal was named the city's "graffiti czar," but the caseload proved far larger than one man could handle. By now the city was tattooed with graffiti. When Webb first took office, Public Works had removed an estimated 400,000 square feet of paint -- by 1997, that amount was up to 1,200,000 square feet. And from just fifty known taggers in 1988, their ranks were now stretching toward a thousand.
The mayor's task force, made up of cops, city council members and angry residents, demanded that the city create a Graffiti Unit inside the police department. The chief quickly made Gavito the unit's supervisor; he could name three detectives to fill out the crew. Thirty detectives applied for those spots, a surprisingly high number for a unit that wasn't exactly a glamour job, like homicide or vice. Gavito selected rookie detectives Mark Rossi and David Stolley, as well as a veteran detective with experience in both gangs and burglary to help mentor the two. The pair was scheduled to work five nights a week, including weekends. Gavito himself still logs six days a week, two of them weekend nights. "I take a day off to keep myself from getting divorced," he says.
The handwriting was on the wall, and Gavito and his unit got some fast lessons in the evolution of graffiti. The West Coast crews, such as Iron's CWD, stood in stark contrast to the East Coast crews. And accompanying the rise in West Coast-style graffiti was an increase in the West Coast gangs that specialized in thug crimes, such as stealing stereos, moving stolen goods and the drug trades. The unit estimates that half the city's taggers -- perhaps as many as 500 -- would claim West Coast ties. But individual taggers are also running with more than one crew and share time in subsets of their home crews, much like organized gang members. Iron, for instance, was known for his CWD, but he also had several smaller, hardcore groups that he signed under.
There were also artistic differences between the two crews, the unit discovered. West Coast tags are more angular, more readable -- partly because the taggers' skills are inferior, and partly because these crews are more eager for their names to be legible, the better to attract readers, notoriety, attention. East Coast crews incorporate characters and themes and twist letters into an unintelligible font. West Coasters usually scrawl the crew's initials and its members' tags and leave it at that.
The work of the West Coast crews is more violent, and so are their names: There's the OLK (Outlaw Crew), OLD (Old World Destroyers), ECK (Evil Chicano Kings or Every Crew's Knightmare) and D2D (Down to Destroy). "There is no respect to territory or anything," Gavito says. "Their whole purpose in life is notoriety. They want to be famous. So they're throwing up for each other, for their peers, so they can say, 'I did that' or 'I did this.' That is their entire life's purpose."
To fight the new graffitists, the unit had to track the players. Gavito, Rossi and Stolley began dragging the city's alleys at night, installing infrared cameras on frequently hit rooftops (cost to city: $60,000) and chasing taggers down from freeway signs and billboards.
When the three go out on the weekends, they peek through infrared telescopes and binoculars that can spy a tagger 400 yards away in the pitch black. They cruise around in "soft" cars -- patrol cars that are less conspicuous than unmarked cars. They dress in plainclothes. And -- most important -- they wear running shoes.
"They run every time," Gavito says. "No hesitation." At first the youthful taggers may elude the three detectives -- Rossi is the sprinter, Stolley the marathon endurance man and Gavito the all-round roaming safety -- but they don't have the unit's physical conditioning. "They can get you the first 200 yards, but if you keep them in sight, they run out of gas after about 600," Gavito says. He once watched a fifteen-year-old boy jump from the I-70 overpass down to the 1-25 embankment, land, roll over in a somersault and get up running. "We don't do that," he concedes. "Those are fifteen-year-old legs."
The department refused a request to photograph the unit, citing its semi-undercover status. "They shouldn't know what we look like or what we drive," Gavito grouses, "even though they already do."
So well-known are the detectives, in fact, that after they confiscated a "piece book" -- a sketch book of potential throw-ups -- from a Kennedy High School student, the officers flipped to one piece they actually admired: "Phuck Stolley and Rossi," it read.
But they know the day will come when taggers take their shots with more than words and spray paint. "They haven't challenged us yet," Gavito says, driving through a darkened alley. "That's coming, though. It's inevitable. Somebody, someday, will take a shot at us."
Robert Iron started out as many taggers do, practicing on his notebooks and homework. His chosen tag name, Skeme, was borrowed from a famous Brooklyn graffitist who worked on subway cars. Taking another's tag is a typical toy maneuver, Marz says. "When I was young and trying to make a name for myself, I tagged 'Seen' [yet another Brooklyn subway sprayer], because that was who I idolized. I didn't know how stupid that was."
In 1998, when Iron was seventeen and a recent graduate of Lincoln High School, he became a founding member of CWD, according to former peers, current writers and police reports. The group loosely modeled itself after an organized gang, says one former member who was arrested on the basis of Iron's confession. No one claimed the supreme Don seat, but Iron and a few others assumed a shared, lateral power since they'd formed the group and were old enough to buy paint. He was beat into the CWD at the behest of Iron, this former member says, and helped steal car stereos and autos to prove his loyalty. The goods were sold for cash, which was later used to purchase paint. Some of the members of the CWD, which numbered thirty at its peak last summer, also sold pot and used meth.
The majority of the crew lived in Iron's neighborhood in southwest Denver, near Alameda and Federal. Not even the most prolific CWD taggers -- Creator, Ark, Razor, Groove, Ease -- were respected by their rivals for their painting skills. In fact, none of their tags, including Iron's "Skeme," were known to the old-school graffiti kings. "I've never heard of him," says Jher, one Denver's few nationally known spray-can artists. "Obviously, the kid didn't create too many ripples.
"Kids like that are not hip-hop heads," Jher adds, wanting no confusion between art and destruction. "They are gangsters. They're not emceeing, deejaying, dancing or graffitiing. They're just writing their names on a wall. People like that give us a bad name, and I don't consider them writers. I consider them toys. They're gangbangers."
For that matter, word was out on the streets that Iron wouldn't hesitate to flash his piece at a rival graffitist who crossed out his name -- the ultimate disrespect. He challenged, even dared, other crews to cross his name out. And he made it a habit to cross out other names, though he had little artistic ammunition to back up such a presumption.
"I would never have crossed out kids that I could tell were better than me!" says Jher. "Kids these days are too dramatic, wrapped up in their politics of who said what and who did whatever. These kids just don't care who you are -- these kids just start dissing just to start dissing. They're not playing by the rules."
The former CWD tagger puts it more bluntly: "Skeme scared a lot of people with a gun because he couldn't do anything with a can." Before he got caught, Iron was practicing his tag in large bubble letters -- the easiest, least skilled form of scripting.
CWD members split time between Iron's house and another home at Federal and 38th Avenue. On nights that they were going to hit walls, the former CWD tagger says, they'd often meet at one of the homes, drink some beer, get high and load backpacks full of gear. If Iron was packing a gun, he'd let everyone know. Then they would drive around town -- Antiques Row on South Broadway was a favorite high-profile spot for the crew -- or up to the Boulder Turnpike.
Anytime they were going to throw up tags, they circled the area first, scouting for cops and using eager toys, some as young as ten years old, as lookouts. The crew's markings went as far south as Mississippi and Federal and as far north as Federal and Interstate 76. "Have car, will travel," says Detective Stolley. "They got around anywhere they could."
In one of its attention-getting stunts, last year the CWD tried to engage the RTD, one of Denver's oldest and most respected tagging crews, in a wall battle. (According to Gavito, several key members of RTD had migrated from Los Angeles in the mid-'90s, choosing Denver because its naive fight against graffitists was so ineffective.) CWD members began crossing out RTD names, throwing up pieces that directly challenged the group.
But RTD never responded to the taunting, says the former CWD tagger. The crew from Los Angeles had either disbanded or didn't care that they were being called out by a gang of toys. Still, the lack of response only inflated CWD's sense of worth. In the face of RTD's silence, "we thought we were the biggest crew in Denver," the tagger says.
And certainly, their energetic tagging did bring the CWD some attention: from the DPD graffiti unit. As the detectives arrested young taggers, the teenagers started talking. "They're very proud of what they do," Gavito says. "They love to talk about what they do, and in the course of interviewing [a tagger], the names and crews just come flowing out. Usually, if we arrest one, we're able to make several cases against others."
The name "Skeme" busted into several interviews. The youngest taggers greatly admired the nineteen-year-old: He could buy paint, he could drive, and he could carry a gun. "Without fail," Gavito says, "no matter if they were in his crew or out of his crew, they knew who Skeme was." He nods his head slowly. "And he was feared."
In early September last year, Gavito and his crew nabbed one of Iron's rivals. The arrested tagger, just fourteen, was already on probation for a prior graffiti bust and made a shrewd deal with Gavito: In exchange for being released, and therefore not violating his parole, he offered to rat out several true identities, Skeme's included. Even though the boy ran with a rival crew, he lived in the same neighborhood as Iron.
For the next two weeks, detectives Stolley and Rossi tailed Iron. They parked by the curb outside his home, spied on him when he cruised Federal on the weekends.
Finally, on Friday, September 13, the two detectives got a tip that Iron was carrying his gun that night. But instead of setting out to cuff the tagger immediately, Gavito asked for the help of some vice officers. "We didn't know what he was up to, so we said we're going to babysit him and see what he does," the sergeant explains. From across the street, the officers watched as Iron brazenly tagged the Circle K for his audience. But when the team caught up to him and searched the Samurai, they didn't find any guns. Instead they identified two baseball bats and another object that "could have been used as weapons," Stolley says. Iron didn't put up the struggle they expected -- he didn't even run like a tagger -- and they easily took him into custody.
Iron sat stone-faced in the interrogation room until Rossi began asking about his craft. "When he started talking about his crew, he broke out of his shell," Gavito says. "We were now in his area of expertise. He was very proud to tell us of all his exploits." And Iron laid it all on the table, identifying not just the spots and walls, but the true identities of his tagging buddies.
Was this kid really that excited to talk about himself and all his gang's achievements? the detectives wondered. Or was the kid confessing because he really was finished with tagging and desperately wanted out of his own gang?
They decided he was just excited.
Until 1998, Denver vandals caught in the act faced forty hours of community service and fines of up to $999. But that year, the so-called Year of the Neighborhood, Webb declared a war on graffiti and, with the help of the district attorney's office, began pushing convicted graffitists into the state system and directly into jail. "We need immediate sentences so kids know there is a punishment," Webb said at the time.
At the suggestion of the graffiti task force, two city ordinances were passed by a willing city council: Paint distributors were forced to lock up spray cans, and if property owners didn't call the city within ten days to have graffiti removed, they faced a fine.
Now when a citizen complains, Public Works employees come to the scene, take a Polaroid of the offending graffiti and wash it away. The Polaroids end up on Gavito's desk, and he files them with thousands of other photos. Of the 1,000 known taggers, perhaps 350 are "hardcore repeat offenders," he says, kids repeatedly arrested by his unit. "Getting caught is a notch in their belt," says Gavito. "Getting caught is not a deterrent. They could care less; it's a status symbol."
But it's a symbol that's increasingly easy to attain. Since its inception, the unit has sent just over 300 cases to the district attorney's office, all of which have ended in a guilty plea or conviction.
That doesn't mean the taggers are in jail long, though. All of the CWD members fingered by Iron have already served their time.
In the year since Iron's arrest, Gavito hasn't witnessed so much as a bubble-gum wrapper with "Skeme" written on it. Better yet, for six months he didn't see a single CWD tag; it was as though the crew had been erased. Over the last few months, a few CWD tags have appeared, mostly along the Boulder Turnpike. Yet the new crew's scribblings are absent any personal tags, a real rarity. Without personal tags, the crew letters stand alone like a gang turf warning.
But although CWD tags are few and far between, graffiti is everywhere. Freight trains that park briefly behind Denver's Union Station and then shuttle cross-country like billboards have become the most revered canvases. "Kids make goals to do 300 to 400 freights a year," Marz says. "That's ridiculous."
Jher, who now makes a legitimate living as a tattoo artist but still marks the occasional freight, has noticed a plunge not only in the quality of the work, but in working standards. "They don't know how to paint a train without blowing up the spot," Jher says, noting that kids leave behind cans, in the process providing clues for security guards.
Last year the city cleaned up more than 1,400,000 square feet of graffiti; this year's goal is 1,500,000 square feet. But despite the city's increased efforts, Gavito knows he won't be out of work anytime soon. "Graffiti is like dope," he says. "It will always be here, it will always be a problem. We can only push it underground."
By the time Robert Iron got caught, he'd done at least $30,000 worth of damage. Iron's victims, primarily business owners along Federal and Broadway, were to be called as witnesses at a trial this summer, but their testimony was never needed.
Iron pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and was sentenced to thirteen days in jail -- seven of them suspended. He served his week and was then released. (Iron initially agreed to be interviewed at length but failed to show up for an interview. In a brief conversation, he said he no longer tags and has "learned from my mistakes." He did not respond to subsequent correspondence.)
"He was one of the biggest boils on our butts in the summer of 1999," Gavito recalls. "Now it's up to him. He'll either grow up and get out of it...or he won't."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.