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.

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Justin Berton