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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"The police department just didn't care," he says. "They would say, 'Well, we need more detectives over here.' And they'd say, 'Ray, you've been here long enough, we'll leave you here because you know what you're doing.' And that was fine, but, jeez, when you're getting all of these reports, you can never keep up." While often it was just a matter of understaffing, he also blasts certain DPD officials for just giving lip service to fighting graffiti. "They won't say it if you ask them," he notes. "They're so full of it. It was, 'It's just graffiti, we'll get it cleaned up.' And it got to the point where it just got worse instead of better."
So when a moderator at the graffiti summit asked what the unit needed, Ruybal decided to finally lay it all out.
"I said, 'I'd like to have a sergeant who really listens and knows what graffiti is. I'd like at least five or six detectives so that we could split the day up and always be out there. I need better equipment, good cameras, good undercover cars, radios, overtime. Support.'"
The summit attendees nodded approvingly and moved on to other subjects.
"I honestly thought for a lot of years that I was just there to make it look like somebody was investigating, just to appease the community," Ruybal says. "After the summit, I decided that I put twelve years into it, it was too frustrating, they didn't care, they didn't give me what I needed, we were just there for show more than anything else, and it was time to go."
He put in for a transfer to DIA. While he waited, he sat on the Graffiti Task Force, a forty-member panel established to carry on the work of the summit. The task force was split into three subcommittees — enforcement, abatement and prevention — that explored a variety of strategies, ranging from allowing property owners to file lawsuits against taggers or their parents to establishing "skate and bike watch groups" that would monitor graffiti activity.
While the task force was studying how to stop graffiti, no one noticed that the city had no actual anti-graffiti enforcement. Ruybal's last partner in the unit retired late in 2006; Ruybal himself was getting ready to move on.
Over months of meetings, the wackiest ideas were jettisoned, leaving twelve recommendations that were issued in May 2007 and subsequently adopted by the Denver City Council in November. One doubled the punishment for graffiti, so that a first-time offender now faces a minimum of forty hours of public service and a $500 bill, a second-time offender eighty hours and $750, and so on. (An existing law already allows the worst of repeat adult offenders to be slapped with a felony and up to five years in prison.) A second measure shortened the time that property owners have to remove graffiti from their buildings after being notified; today they have 48 hours to de-tag commercial and industrial-zoned property. In addition to abatement strategies, the task force called for the creation of diversion programs, such as a youth "art park" and a mural program for public spaces.
Another recommendation called for the individual DPD districts to start handling their own graffiti investigations rather than dumping all reports on the graffiti unit. One of Ruybal's final responsibilities was to go to all of the district detectives and tell them that they now had to do their own graffiti cases. The thinking was that this would allow the districts to focus on smaller, neighborhood graffiti while the bigger investigations would be handled by Ruybal's replacements in the unit.
"Some got mad at me," he remembers, "and said, 'Why can't you take 'em with you?' And I told them, 'Because they won't let me.' Those poor guys — they got to do all the cases in the district for auto theft, burglaries, robberies, assaults, disturbances, accidents unless there's injury or alcohol involved. Those guys — general detectives—they're stuck doing everything, and then they've got to do the graffiti and the shoplifting, too.
"These detectives, there's no way they can do that," he concludes. "It has got to be the most unforgiving job. Thankless."
By mid-June, there had been 79 graffiti arrests this year — many of them random, and only two involving adults. On February 26, an officer with the District 2 SCAT observed six juveniles walking north in the 3600 block of Kalamath Street. Two of them tagged a highway sound barrier with gold and silver spray paint, causing an estimated $1,000 in damage; all six were taken into custody. The adult arrests occurred on March 5, when an officer saw two men in their early twenties running down an alley near 754 South Broadway. The officer caught up with the men and saw they had silver spray paint on their hands. He traced their footprints back to a freshly tagged roof.
Commander Doug Stephens says that while such on-the-fly arrests don't usually involve the "big fish" they'd like to get, they can lead to bigger cases. "It's similar to how you'd conduct a drug investigation," he explains. "These people have actually talked to the officers and confessed to a number of different tags in the area."
He says the DPD hopes to use this information to begin pursuing major investigations against taggers. "That's been one of our goals all along," he adds. "You see the prolific tagging-crew stuff all over town. TKO is one that just kind of jumps out there everywhere. So we've been trying to identify those prolific taggers through traditional methods and then go after those folks and tie them into multiple tags around town."
The number of reported graffiti arrests has nearly quadrupled in the past four years, from 47 in 2004 to 60 in 2005, 118 in 2006, 183 in 2007. But much of this growth can be attributed to how the arrests are recorded rather than the number of taggers caught. In 2006, a new computer system came online that was finally able to separate graffiti-specific offenses from criminal-mischief crimes as a whole. "It was a problem since previously we weren't able to single out a graffiti arrest from a broken car window," says Stephens.
In the court system, graffiti is still lumped under a general property-damage ordinance, so it's impossible to determine how many of those graffiti arrests resulted in prosecution by the Denver County Court. Only cases that involve more than $1,000 in damages are bumped up to the felony level and handled by the Denver District Attorney's Office; the damage amount was raised from $500 this summer to adjust for inflation, according to City Attorney Vince Dicroce.
In March, Denver City Council president Michael Hancock, who represents east Denver, was driving through Green Valley Ranch when he saw that the new, $147,000 skatepark had been severely tagged. Hancock brought it to the attention of District 5 police; within four weeks, police had arrested three juveniles and one adult with the KVS crew — as in Killin' Various Spots — for dozens of acts of vandalism throughout the neighborhood, totaling more than $8,000 in damages.
It was the first such graffiti investigation in District 5, says Sergeant Larry McCandless. A team of detectives and officers used confidential informants as well as information gathered off the Internet to match the tag Qwiz with a specific individual. "And we were able to continue it to the point where we were able to get some confessions and enough evidence to charge this set of people," he says.
Because the officers could document more than $1,000 in damages, all of the suspects were slapped with Class 4 felonies. The one adult charged, nineteen-year-old Carlos Mejia, is out on bond and still awaiting trial; if convicted, he could get as much as two to four years in jail and be forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution, says a DA spokesperson. Mejia's seventeen-year-old brother has already been fined $8,000 in juvenile court, ordered to fulfill 100 hours of community service, and sentenced to house arrest for ninety days with an ankle bracelet.
"We are doing everything in our power to prosecute these young people to the fullest extent of the law," Hancock announced at a council meeting, adding that he hoped the District 5 takedown would "make examples of the very economic and physical damage you make by this very terrible activity."
But those examples were lost on many in the graffiti scene, because the dozen-member squad was composed of young novices, categorized as "toys," who're largely unknown in the city. The big dogs — dubbed "kings" for their longevity and ability to tag across the entire metro area — tend to be older, more entrenched and much more calculated about their tagging strategies. Many of Denver's most prolific graffiti writers, who spray their colorful, large-scale pieces nightly on skyscrapers, light-rail trains and bridge girders, have never been arrested in this city. In Denver, they say, kings don't get caught, toys do.
"It's crazy the cops are paying so much attention to the little guys," Mejia says. "There's these big names out there that have never been touched. How much time and stuff do they spend tracking down little kids and neighborhood writers?"
Mejia was initially freaked out by the massive maximum sentence, but he was somewhat relieved after his arraignment last Friday, where, he says, his public defense attorney received a plea-deal offer from the prosecutor to drop the charges to a misdemeanor. Mejia says that he has quit doing graffiti. "I'm done. I've got other things," he says.
Despite serving close to a year in jail for vandalism, one tagger — Ruybal's last big bust — refused to hang up his spray can. Ruybal recognized his tag; he'd see it hundreds of times as he drove around Capitol Hill and South Broadway. "He's one of the guys I wanted to make an example out of," he says. "Just because he's 35 and he's just real cocky: 'You can't prove anything. You can't get me.'"
Word got out that the city's graffiti cop was looking for him, and the tagger somehow got hold of Ruybal's home phone number and left him a message. I hear you want to get me before you leave, the tagger said. It'll never happen.
Ruybal tried, but time ran out when he left the unit in October. "I just had to let it go," he says.
After Ruybal moved to DIA, Detective George Gray, formerly of the SWAT division, and Detective Gerard Alarcon, from District 4 SCAT, were tapped to finally fill the vacancies. They started with the unit in December, even as the Denver City Council was issuing its anti-graffiti edicts. Alarcon is well-versed in the violent battles occurring between westside tagbanger crews like EMS and WK, a rivalry that has resulted in several stabbings and drive-by shootings. When they started their graffiti assignments, they were expecting to find a dense electronic database of graffiti suspects and their suspected work.
"But when we came in, there's no database," says Gray. "There are a few lists of all the tagging crews and a few lists that have people identified back from 2000 or 2004."
The DPD was also supposed to collect evidence from the eight wireless "graffiti cams" unveiled by police and city officials last November as a "powerful weapon in our anti-graffiti arsenal." Denver was the first city in the nation to deploy the surveillance equipment in popular graffiti spots. But the $5,000 state-of-the-art cameras — which are triggered by "graffiti-related motion" and send an image and text message to police — have yet to lead to a single arrest, says Gray. The problem is that the cameras have to be hidden in precise positions, and the signals don't always reach police. Fortunately, the equipment was donated by North Carolina-based Law Enforcement Associates Inc. in the hopes that Denver would buy more cameras in the future. Since none of the free cameras are currently in use, that's not likely. (Back in 1996, Ruybal touted a similar $2,500 camera sensor program that also proved disappointing.)
Stephens notes that many of the laws and policies recommended by the task force were implemented at the start of the year. "It's in its infancy," he says of the program. "In the graffiti unit, Detective Alarcon and Detective Gray, they come in fresh and they give it a fresh perspective. Ray Ruybal is certainly a graffiti expert, he's done a great job for the department and the city for a long time now. His expertise will be missed. But these two new detectives are very excited about the new opportunity, and they've been out there doing a great job."
Ruybal wishes them all luck; they're going to need it. "I hope they enjoy it, but it's going to be tough for them," he says. "One detective isn't enough, not even two detectives is enough. Some days I used to get so frustrated. I would think, I'm just bashing my head against the wall. I really wanted to do things, but something was always stopping me."
Gray agrees that the unit could use more detectives. "We're working unlimited overtime; the city should start seeing that two guys are working way more overtime," he says. "We don't have the resources, and we need to get those resources if they're serious about combating graffiti."
Though local graffiti writers say they haven't noticed any sign of an enforcement clamp-down by police, the buff squad is out in force. "It's pretty much dead in the streets," says one longtime writer, who noticed a dramatic increase in abatement about two months ago.
Reliable tagging spots are painted over the next day. Stickers that have ridden high on light poles for years have been scraped off. On Internet forum boards and at street art shows, graffiti writers compare notes and attribute the intensified cleanup to city officials scrambling to spruce up the town ahead of the Democratic National Convention. Some taggers have fought against the tide, others have simply focused on other parts of the city. The leader of one major crew says he's advised his members to lie low, maybe take a vacation, until the convention has come and gone, at which point they can resume their regular bombing runs.
Neddra Niblet, one of two "graffiti fellows" in the Mayor's Office, insists that the cleanup has nothing to do with the DNC. Rather, it reflects a new strategy the Department of Public Works implemented earlier this year that has abatement crews focusing on graffiti "hot spots," such as South Broadway and Federal Boulevard. The strategy came with an additional $224,000 for this year's abatement budget, which currently stands at a record $1,193,203.
And this figure doesn't include the hours put in by hundreds of volunteers at several "community paint-outs" organized by Councilman Lopez's office. In one day, they used 59 buckets of paint, cleaning up dozens of alleys and commercial strips throughout the west side.
While Lopez says he keeps in touch with the graffiti unit, he leans more toward prevention as a long-term strategy to stop graffiti artists. "I understand the mentality," he says. "It's a form of resistance. But it's almost like a rebel without a cause. There's not very many things for young people to do nowadays. I think it's almost a cry for help to say, 'Hey, this is what we're interested in.' There's a lot of young people out there who are talented, but they need someone to channel that energy."
He plans to push for more rec-center hours and art classes for teens, but he's also excited about a mural program being run through the Crime Prevention and Control Commission. Still in its nascent stages, the concept involves hiring local graffiti writers to paint large murals on walls either owned or obtained by the city. One was painted in May at the Globeville pool by members of Your Name in Graffiti, which preaches against vandalism. In Lopez's district, a large mural on a wall in the Westwood neighborhood with the phrase "Stop the Violence" was much more jarring because it was painted by hard-core members of TKO (see story, page 22).
"These were taggers, but when we put the mural up, we had a barbecue cookout, and some Aztec dancers came and did a prayer," Lopez says. "A guy came out with his lowrider, opened it up and played music. For the first time, we realized this was a community. It was an event that resonated with the community. That mural has not been touched."
Despite the best efforts of municipal leaders, graffiti may never disappear entirely — but it can be made more conscious and less ugly. "If you really want to clean up the city," says Acee, a graffiti writer with RTD, "your best bet is to change the culture."
Ray Ruybal wonders what's become of all the boxes of photos he took over the years, whether they're of any use to the new detectives. He recently testified at the trial of an accused tagger in Aurora and ended up talking with some old cop friends there about graffiti for two hours. But in a little more than a month, he'll be completely retired and won't have to think about it anymore.
The real "kids" that Ruybal arrested in the mid-'90s are grown men by now. Some of them probably have jobs, families and property of their own. Others are in jail for worse crimes than spray-painting a wall. Still others continue to tag. A few years ago, one of the young boys he'd busted and later gotten to know invited Ruybal to his high-school graduation. "I felt good about that," he says. "I do miss it."
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He wishes he could remember the name of the 35-year-old tagger who continues to leave his moniker across the city while his kids — who're probably in elementary school by now — sleep at night. The one he never got. The one who mocked him.
Ruybal is one of the few people in this city who really understands the language of tagging. Who realizes that, behind the gangster bravado and fuck-the-man attitude, what graffiti really speaks to is a desire to be heard, to be listened to, for the world to know your name.
So maybe Ruybal's single act of forgetting is his greatest revenge.
"I think about him less every day," he says."