Tagging Up Denver

He is tattooed and pierced, with heavy, sad eyes and a translucent mustache. He walks with a combination of swagger and caution, his hands sunk deep in the pockets of his baggy jeans. He is in his mid-teens — not a little kid and not an adult. Old enough for trouble but just young enough to slide beyond the grip of reprisal.

Call him ERA. As in dawn of a new. As in ERAse my shit and I'll write it again tonight.

He glances over his shoulder and turns down a dark alley, keeping one eye on the door of a Mexican nightclub where the manager has chased down taggers with a metal baseball bat. There are a few things he's learned. If a random car or passerby cruises up while you're painting, slink into the shadows. If it's a pissed property owner suddenly on your tail — run. The cops? Fucking fly, homie. A rival crew or some writer you've got beef with? Well, that's where things get complicated. Which is why ERA scans ahead, not necessarily for authority figures, but for other taggers and graffiti artists.

"Everybody comes to this alley," he explains, nodding his head toward a series of minivan-sized pieces (graffiti-speak for "masterpieces") painted along the cinderblock walls and warehouse doors that line the left side of the corridor. The letters are warped, slanted and abstracted in tall flares of color, nearly unreadable to those outside graffiti culture. ERA recognizes several of the names: SHEWP, ACEE, IKON. He admires the particular twists, letter forms, color schemes and shading effects that serve as earmarks of individual style.

"RTD runs these walls," he says, referring to one of the largest crews in the city. RTD has members who have consistently painted for upwards of two decades and carry national reputations. To paint on an RTD wall, one has to either be officially down with the group or be a friendly member of another well-respected crew, which explains the presence of a large piece by KOZE, the head of Denver's TKO posse. Add a writer from SWS and you'd have representatives of the top three crews in the state.

Below this trifecta of RTD, TKO and SWS is an alphabet soup of local crews: KUV, L2K, SRDOT, AM, FTK, AOM, AE, to name a few. It's a wide spectrum, ranging from art-school grads and muralists who only paint approved walls to hip-hop disciples to unabashed vandals and gun-toting tagbangers. There are twelve-year-olds and middle-aged family men who tuck their kids into bed before heading out to maintain their notorious alter egos. All of it adds up to thousands of aerosol junkies in the metro area all jostling for notoriety and respect by marking their tag name and crew letters on any and all available surfaces. To "get up" — to get it higher, to get it bigger and get it longer than anyone else.

"To get up and stay up," ERA recites like a mantra.

At the top of the game sit the so-called kings, a title often claimed but granted to only the most prolific and skilled writers. To be a king is to have a reputation that rises above neighborhoods or northside/southside bullshit. The most famous graffiti writers in the U.S. have conquered not just metropolitan areas, but entire coasts. The mega-crews that recruit this top talent can have hundreds of members in dozens of cities, spreading their ambitions across entire regions and countries. Hell, why not the whole continent?

Scrambling at the base of the hierarchy are the less proficient rookies and posers, kids who just picked up a can or older hacks who still can't cut it, often derided with the most derogatory term in the graffiti dictionary: "toy." "Toys will come here," ERA explains. "But they're not good enough to get up on the [RTD] walls, so they'll tag somebody's fence."

On the right side of the alley are dozens of warbly signatures sprayed on wooden slats and garage doors of residential back yards. He spots a name markered on a dumpster. KNOX lives west of the highway and, as of late, has been crossing out ERA's tags. "That dude hates on my stuff a lot," ERA says, and then shrugs. "Fake crews just wanna come up just by crossing fools out."

ERA is not a king. He hasn't yet developed the skill, history or personal networks to be recognized by the likes of RTD. In fact, on the grand graffiti food chain, he falls somewhere just above toy. Being called a toy isn't a bad thing, necessarily — after all, everyone starts out as a toy — but it's never a good thing. Toys are sloppy; toys are ignorant of who came before them and the basic rules of wall etiquette. ERA's not. For instance, he knows you can go over a tag with a toss-up (a simple outline with a one-color fill-in) and you can go over that with a piece. A break in that procedure could translate to beef with the offending writer. A cross-out, however, is a blatant show of disrespect. ERA pulls out a fat black marker, draws a line through KNOX and writes his own tag above it.

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Jared Jacang Maher