Graffiti may be admired in some circles, but localities and property owners are increasingly fighting the illegal practice. The city spent more than $150,000 cleaning such work off public property in fiscal year 2005. A used, rusted spray-paint can, found near graffiti on a wall near the Governor's School, is evidence that the graf writers aren't going anywhere.
The funniest part in the story of how Michael Broth landed a 10-month jail sentence for painting graffiti is how he found the bridge that got him busted in the first place.
Several months before the incident, Broth, 21 at the time, got a speeding ticket heading home to Northern Virginia for the holidays from Virginia Commonwealth University. Demonstrating the sort of Artful Dodger ingenuity that graffiti sympathists adore, he outfoxed the state on its own terms. He took an online driving course before his court hearing, a move that so impressed the prosecutor that he dropped the reckless driving charge and instead fined him $25.
To follow up on his online course, Broth had to go to the Hanover Public Library for a supervised final exam. On the way there something caught his eye: a rusted-out train-crossing over Interstate 295.
It was perfect.
Throughout his adolescent career as a graffiti writer, Broth had admired two guys in Los Angeles known for the enormous amount of space they could cover with paint. The bridge he'd spotted offered a vast canvas and seemed low-risk.
"It's Hanover County. They're probably using lanterns and s--t to light their houses — that was my thinking," he recalls. "You know, they won't even know what graffiti is.
"Unfortunately, the cop up there was actually a very intelligent person."
Broth's entanglement with the law typifies the cat-and-mouse game that's been going on between taggers and authorities since the spray-paint craze blew out of the train tunnels in the Bronx in the late '60s and dripped down the Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 95 to Philly, Washington, D.C., and beyond.
The reasons not to paint on other people's stuff remain the same, and homeowners, localities and citizens' groups still cannot fathom recreational destruction of other people's property as art. If anything, officials have been pleased with an increasingly efficient cooperation between government agencies and citizens' groups, especially in Richmond, where the Fan District Association has become more aggressive and local authorities are prosecuting the graffiti — or graf — writers they catch.
But the graffiti look is getting more popular in museums, galleries and the commercial arena. Art schools and city officials can hardly embrace the trend, but that suits graf writers fine. After all, you have to oppose something to achieve outlaw status. In the world of graffiti that translates to legitimacy. And these days being legit is better than ever.
At about 1 a.m. on one of the warmer nights of February 2004, Broth snuck onto the train bridge across Interstate 295 and smeared the word "REFUSE" alongside "SEEK" with a paint roller in thick white letters, a word that spanned four lanes of traffic.
He would stop when cars passed beneath to keep paint from spattering onto them. When trains came through he'd scamper into the nearby forest and watch the freights roll by, scanning them for familiar tags — stylized signatures of graf writers.
It was a challenge: Because he was hanging down over the rail to paint, Broth had to render the letters upside-down.
"I guess that's where having an artistic-type mind would help," Broth says, "kind of having a natural ability to visualize how it's gonna look."
Broth seems to have an artistic mind. Like other graffiti artists in the city, he's since graduated from VCU's painting and printmaking department, where he made the dean's list. (Broth and other VCU-related writers are uniformly emphatic that graffiti was part of their life long before the university was and they hope their extracurricular activities don't tarnish the school's reputation.)
It was a long night of painting out on the bridge. By 5 a.m., Broth had packed up. But he accidentally left something behind, the forensic equivalent of Cinderella's slipper: a paint-can lid.
David Klisz, an investigator with the Hanover Sheriff's Office, recalls the attention the words sparked. "This was a big thing in the community," he says. "Forty-thousand vehicles go through there every day." It was enough to spur media coverage — the story made the front page of the Times-Dispatch on April 2 of that year — along with lots of speculation about what exactly those words meant.
Klisz recalls that the incident coincided with the release of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ." So, he says, "one person thought it was a religious [reference]. Psalm 8 says, 'The wicked through pride refuse to seek God.'"
Other folks, including some police officers, thought the word meant "refuse," as in trash, intended as a protest against a proposal that would allow out-of-state waste to be sent to Virginia landfills.
"The letters were just so bizarre," Klisz says. "We don't usually get stuff like this in Hanover."
In fact, "REFUSE" was short for "Refuse to Be Smart," a phrase Broth had been promoting for kicks with stickers and posters since he was a high-school student. At the time he was caught, he was selling them online at www.refusetobesmart.com.
It was about a week after the incident that Klisz discovered the paint-can lid on the bridge. From there, he used its identification number to track the paint can to a Home Depot store on West Broad Street.
To nail down the time the crime occurred, Klisz scoured climate data. That February had brought frigid temperatures, so he was looking for a warm night that would have kept the paint from freezing in the trays.
After sifting through hundreds of records from Home Depot, Klisz tracked down Broth through his debit account and receipts for three cans of "oops paint" — paint mixed for a customer then returned and resold at a discount.
Klisz and Broth finally met face to face early one morning in late March. Klisz brought five Richmond City Police officers with weapons drawn into Broth's Fan apartment, accompanied by officers from CSX Corp. — which owns the rail crossing — as well as VCU and the Hanover Sheriff's Office.
Klisz had a strong forensic case already, but the stars of the show were the sneakers in Broth's closet that matched a footprint left near a tag. The tracks were durable enough to hold their shape in the harsh weather because an electrical transformer nearby had magnetized the dirt.
Broth pleaded his felonies down to misdemeanors and went to jail for 10 months: roughly half of which were spent in Hanover and half in Richmond. During his time in Hanover, he traded envelopes he decorated with pen drawing of dolphins, elves and fairies for commissary food. He was eventually let out on work-release and started pulling double shifts seven days a week at the Tobacco Company, undergoing a strip search when he returned each night to the Hanover jail.
Meanwhile, the county closed down the highway running under the vandalized train-crossing for a day and spent over $7,000 to repaint the bridge.
"I was raised to understand that people's property is their property, and you don't mess with it," Broth says. "But it's a rusty old train bridge. I'm sorry, it doesn't f — ing matter."
Hanover's Klisz counters with what is known in urban studies and law-enforcement circles as the broken-windows theory, which teaches that neighborhoods left to decay become havens for crime. In essence, he equates graffiti with the broken window, a sign of decay that invites more criminal activity.
"If law enforcement and the community doesn't address the broken window or graffiti, or throwing soap into the water fountain, the criminals move into the community," Klisz says. "If you let that graffiti sit there, someone would hit the other side of the bridge and then the billboard, and then cars are being stolen, and then you're assaulted on your person."
Increasingly, however, graffiti is being accepted as something more than a symbol of broken neighborhoods. Many now consider it an art form.
Earlier this year the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London opened a graffiti-related exhibit. So did the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where one artist re-created a well-known graffiti tunnel and paid homage to famous taggers by re-creating their work. In June 2005, Richmond's Gallery5 hosted "Urban Scrawl," a graffiti show. The Whitney in New York has featured such artists at several of its biennials — twice-annual shows that amount to the prom in the world of fine art.
If The Whitney Biennial is the prom, Art Basel in Miami Beach — held Dec. 7-10 this year — is a rave. The international extravaganza of gallery owners, dealers and artists had one of Richmond's former graf writers, Dalek, on prominent display. His graffiti-inspired cartoons shared gallery space with Shepard Fairey, whose Andre the Giant stickers have become famous worldwide and gotten notice in such mainstream publications as Time and The New York Times Magazine.
Dalek was a painting and printmaking grad student at VCU until he was arrested in 2001 for painting graffiti on the Sgt. Santa headquarters on Marshall Street, and left town.
"I think now that there has been a generation of graf artists that have been able to find successful art careers — it's a template for up-and-comers," Dalek writes in an e-mail from Miami. "They see a way to make a name for themselves as artists or designers, what have you, in a system that exists outside the normal avenues of school.
"For me, watching the older more established guys served as a great template for myself as well. I saw what they were doing and the path they carved and was able to build into it, and I can certainly tell you that the skills I learned painting graffiti were and still are 100 percent key in how I paint today." He writes that there are far more options open to talented youth in the graffiti scene to become legitimate if they want, especially in an age of guerrilla marketing and the trend away from mainstream advertising.
Broth echoes the point.
"I think it's good that you can start out as a vandal and then you can transition that into being a legitimate part of society," he says. "I'd like to think that I could possibly do that."
Since graffiti writers get points for originality, well-respected writers also know the stylistic history of graffiti in their own city and in others. When Broth was choosing schools, the quality of the graffiti in Richmond was a deciding factor.
"This dude who used to write," Broth says of El Kamino, "he's the only person who I've ever seen use spray paint and paint like a painter does, like lay down layers and build stuff up. An incredibly talented person in general."
One of the city's most notorious graffiti writers (and a VCU art-school dropout), El Kamino left town a few years back because things got too hot.
Speaking to Style on the condition that he use only his graffiti name, El Kamino says that he's gone on to land jobs numerous commercial painting, and even got paid several thousand dollars to create a mural on display in an NBA stadium. He attributes his success to the endless hours of illegal painting.
El Kamino says he left school because in critiques he would get pigeonholed for his style, and "graf was almost a dirty word."
"Now, I am 100 percent comfortable walking up to a 20-by-40-foot wall and just attacking it," he says. "Because if you've done graf, you've done those things in four to five hours, you've done that with your eyes closed. I've been kind of able to translate it into a painting job, and I sure as shit didn't learn that from VCU. [There] I learned a lot about talking about art and looking at art," which he stresses as valuable skills too.
If museums are showing the stuff and the practical skills are getting kids jobs, when does Evolution of the Tag invade art history texts and Can Control 101 become an elective in the art school curriculum?
Maybe never. Records related to how many students VCU has expelled for graffiti are confidential, but school spokeswoman Pam Lepley says, "If a student is convicted of graffiti, then they face university sanctions that can include expulsion."
And they hardly seem to need the encouragement. According to records kept by the Fan District Association — the city's most adamant opponent of graffiti — over the past two years 21 of 46 graffiti convictions were of VCU students. Two more VCU students will stand trial Dec. 18 on graffiti-related charges.
As for the city, it's increasing the money it spends to remove graffiti from property. In fiscal year 2005, city officials devoted $157,110 to graffiti removal. They spent $112,187 the next fiscal year, and they're on pace to outstrip that spending by June, the end of fiscal year 2007.
The city's Department of Public Works employs two three-member teams which remove an estimated 15 to 20 tags a day. Sometimes the work is infuriating.
This past year, a tagger targeted the Martin Luther King Jr. bridge — by shimmying out onto a catwalk beneath it, the city believes — and wrote his name: Expert. Using the catwalk would be too dangerous for the city workers, so they had to get a special crane to remove the words at a cost of $4,000.
"Our guys went out and literally two days later our crews called me" because the tag was back, Public Works spokeswoman Britt Drewes says. "They were so disappointed." But the crew, at a cost of another $4,000, returned to remove it again.
For the people charged with keeping the city safe and clean, not to mention many other city residents, it seems absurd that people would vandalize their city.
Steve Nuckolls, who heads the Clean City Commission, is very active with the Fan District Association's anti-graffiti efforts and personally helps elderly and disabled neighbors remove marks from their homes.
He's coordinated fundraising efforts to offer cash rewards for information leading to the arrest of what he calls "graffiti vandals" because he's fed up with seeing his neighbors' historic homes permanently damaged.
"What I would tell them is, you better hope it's the police that catch you," fumes Nuckolls. "It just makes me cringe. Can you tell I'm jaded?"
The kids with the cans prescribe an attitude adjustment.
"Maybe instead of looking at it as blight, they could see that these kids could be taking a bong hit and doing a cocaine line and sitting at a bar watching football and coming home to porn and [PlayStation 2]," El Kamino says. "These are kids out there going for something that probably is gonna lead to something."
Still, "it wouldn't make sense if it was legal," he says.
"Would we still be creeping and crawling around in the middle of the night if it was legal?" he asks. "Probably not. Wouldn't be any thrill in it. We wouldn't be doing it at 1 in the afternoon with an umbrella and sun lotion. The mission is just as exciting. It's just the way it is."
Most writers start doing graffiti as adolescents, exposed to it by older kids or friends with big brothers. Accounts indicate that this process usually involves skateboards, too. Several writers describe a rush that becomes a compulsion to draw on any available surface. Graffiti writers interviewed for this story described a particular thrill from getting away with something and deriving anonymous fame from their work.
From habit grows a full-fledged addiction to the danger, and the more writers tag, the higher the stakes. Those stakes are driven higher still by competition with fellow taggers and an obsessive fascination with what other writers are up to. The flip side of the competition is the camaraderie.
"When it's illegal like that, you have to really trust people," says one former VCU student who was arrested for writing graffiti and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It adds a whole other level of importance. It's totally different than if what you're worried about with a friend is if somebody calls you back."
To understand the true necessity of the illegality, one must understand the four major food groups of graffiti: pieces (big colorful murals, short for masterpieces), productions (a chain of pieces), trains (instead of walls) and tags.
Murals are important and more likely to be accepted by a general audience, but the tags, the little guerrilla signatures on electrical boxes and bus shelters, are the basic building blocks of a well-balanced graffiti diet.
"In any sport, the top-notch guys always preach about the basics," El Kamino says. "That's the foundation. Yeah … everyone knows you can do these big-ass paintings and backgrounds and characters, but can you still walk around the corner in the middle of the night and do a tag?"
That's pretty much the opposite of the popular theory among "civilians" that the kids who do the big colorful work are of a higher order and the taggers are petty vandals. El Kamino says it's all the same, folks.
A graf writer who can turn out colorful murals gets respect for what he does, but if he doesn't keep up a presence with his tag around town, he's viewed as playing it safe. Similarly, a tagger who can hit every stop sign in the city but doesn't have as much of a train-car presence is fine if that's his thing, but he's no all-star. Ultimately that obsessive watching kicks in, and writers start to notice one another's patterns and judge them against their own habits.
Despite the secrecy that surrounds it, the practice is totally public and anyone willing to take the risk can play.
"I think that the one thing that will keep graf from going pop is that in order to be a respectable writer, you have to be proficient at all the different genres of graf," says El Kamino.
To illustrate the point, he tells a story about going to see Shepard Fairey speak at an art school in the Midwest. The university had paid Fairey thousands of dollars to give lectures and teach seminars for a few days during the semester. Then at night, Fairey dipped out and did what he got famous for doing — illegal street art.
The town and the school went nuts, but for El Kamino, that's beside the point. No matter how much fame or recognition some of them get, graffiti writers still have to maintain their street cred.
"These motherf — ers are driving around in Range Rovers to their beach home, but they still go out and tag, and it's really nice to see that. I think that that's all it is: showing that no matter how far you come, you haven't forgotten what it's all about," he says. "That's the thing that civilians will never understand."
Every tagger who spoke with Style swore that true graffiti writers had limits: no cars, no churches, no private homes. They say the people who do that are vindictive drunks and deserve what they get. At their most philosophical, graffiti writers mount arguments suggesting that their work is, in fact, good for the city.
For one former VCU student arrested for graffiti — and speaking anonymously —it's a way for people to exercise control over their immediate environment even if they don't own it.
"Someone who walks past a wall every day to work has absolutely nothing to do with it 'cause they don't own it, whereas the person who owns the building might live in Tennessee," the student says. "It's your environment," and tagging it takes it back.
"I think a lot of time graffiti gets just summed up into the same group of what broken windows are," says Ed Trask, a local artist who remedied the problem of having gallery doors close in his face by doing paintings on plywood and screwing them to walls around town. Now he's known for his legal paintings and murals, such as those of Princess Diana presiding over Shockoe Bottom and the beauty queen waving from Sidewalk CafAc in the Fan.
"So you look at a building, you see graffiti," he continues. "Automatically, something's got to be done. It's true, but I don't think the graffiti's the actual crime sometimes. Sometimes the graffiti can actually be beautifying something that needs to be changed, and for me that's a great sign. If art can show that some change needs to happen, then that's great."
Will Carsola, one half of the local video production outfit DaybyDay, has documented parts of the Richmond graffiti scene in the past, though he stresses he is not an expert and certainly not a participant.
"I always think about all the billboards and advertisements everywhere and how you are forced to look at it. If I'm forced to look at a sign for erectile dysfunction, I might as well be forced to look at graffiti," Carsola says.
At its most polemic, graffiti is a reminder that people are not under complete social control. The logic runs something like this: Tag a piece of neglected property that's been ignored for years, and the city will spend thousands of dollars (and perhaps close a highway or two) to restore it to a condition just good enough to continue ignoring it. And throw in a felony charge. Who's being reactionary now?
Is it art? Should the punishment be stiff? Why do kids get such a kick out of it? Does graffiti that's left alone lead to worse crime in the neighborhood?
Perennial questions. What's new is the ending.
"He and his wife are running a business and he's being successful at it," reports Investigator Klisz of Michael Broth, the "REFUSE" writer.
Indeed, Klisz keeps an eye on Broth's newest project. It's a clothing and sign-painting Web site, www.wiltedroses.com, which Broth runs out of the home he owns with his wife, Brionna.
On the site, Broth announces that "after years of experience in large scale outdoor painting, often in very difficult (and illegal) conditions, I can easily handle your business signage needs." S
The CriticsFor the sake of argument, let's just say it's art. How are various Richmond taggers stacking up? We asked artists Ed Trask and Heide Trepanier, along with KS, a local graf writer we agreed not to identify, to weigh in. All our panel members stress that they are hardly experts, but here's a sample of their thoughts. Read expanded critiques online at www.styleweekly.com. — A.B.
CritiqueChurch Hill Ditch
Trask: Ghost and Moki have a piece together that stands out. I have a hard time finding Usefull or Ghost in any of the unbalanced lettering to the left. I like the color and shadow work, but I'm just not really that taken by Moki's lettering or the structure of the piece as a whole. Moki can blend color well, but I get the feeling this is early work for them and that they have probably done some nice work other places. The stencil I love for its over-literal use of words and its retro graphic (remember I'm old).
Trepanier: The Usefull tag (which contains tags of Ghost and Moki), you notice the character in the center, looking kind of dopey and useless, demanding its importance by the ascribed title. Ghost and Moki flank the character, each is done in a different independent style, not too tight, and the colors are vibrant, loose and fluid. I prefer work that is free-form when the spirals and marks emanating from the work add to the complexity. This is one of the largest and brightest of the works here, I can't help but notice next to it is a stencil, also by Usefull of a '50s-style mom, stating "you can't count things that aren't there." This exemplifies Usefull's skill at not only mixing stylistic mediums, but also of making profound statements.
KS: What is this crap? I'm not much for stencils but if you're going to do something that takes 30 seconds to execute and took you hours to make, do it in a high profile spot where the public can actually see it, not in a ditch on the east side.
The CritiqueSouth Side Retaining Wall
Trask: This piece of art is a wonderful example of what I believe to be the perfect production piece. This work not only gives stunning graphic appeasement, but it keeps you enthralled and challenged to decide what the letters actually say and where they belong. The background is started in a brilliant sky blue and is accented with lighter tones of blue to create a perfect smoky, bubbly cloud-like layer for the letters to jump off of. The letters, which are that of two different artists, intertwine to create a wonderful tension and rhythm that keeps the eye moving from front to back. This piece has great balance and draftsman like qualities...geometric shapes collide with organic lines to create perfect structural and natural flow. ... The writers El Kamino and Aestwo have created something very innovative and fresh and are obviously artists that have become brilliant craftsman.
Trepanier: Another large and vibrant piece, filled with references to closed doors and watchful eyes. These two artists hit it well and by the cover of an overpass, managed to complete a pretty amazing bomb. I am not sure, is it called a bomb? It kind of sounds dumb when I say it, like a grandma saying "sweet" instead of "nice dear." Another skillful, layered piece with a bold use of complementary blues and oranges.
KS: These guys did a great job on this wall; the leapfrog idea came out really well. This is when two or more writers alternate letters between one another. In this case Aest and El Kamino, (two varsity, first-string writers) killed it.
The CritiqueDowntown Train Trestle
Trask: "Hell yes!" is the first thing that comes to mind. Not only is it a daunting feat to walk this railroad bridge and hang over off the ledge while one-arming your work but it is also pretty out in the open. The words Kuma and Youth are placed perfectly in front of a backdrop of city redevelopment and condos that these kids (and the majority of us all) will never own. The letters are tight but nothing extravagant, though I don't think the letters are the real purpose behind the piece.
Trepanier: This is by far the gutsiest of the work. The risk putting this tag up was pretty high, and the logistics of the suspension needed to do it are kind of scary to imagine. I of course would like to appreciate the aesthetics of the work as much as I appreciate the tenacity of the artist(s), but it's not quite there. Thumbs up for effort.
KS: In case you citizens were wondering, there's no special, magical, spy-hunter way they did this. What you see is what you get. They climbed out there like a couple of crazy death-defying bastards and made a mess on that poor bridge. No ropes or ladders or anything like that, but I hear that Youth carries a laser.
The CritiqueSouth Side Auto Shop
Trask: This is just the amazing work of graffiti artists that have been perfecting their craft and can make a spray can do whatever they want and are perfectly aware of the artistic foundations that make a piece of art stand firm. These walls should be seen by everyone. They stand out for me.
Trepanier: Bainbridge Road's Sistine Chapel. … I know this one was "legit" and the artists were given time and a budget, and what a difference it makes. … This thing is huge, I am guessing 70 feet on either side of the building; one side references hell and the other heaven. I can only make out a few names, but it doesn't matter. I am glad to have this work in my city, the backgrounds are unique and uniform, the tags are all different in size and tone while staying within a similar hue. ... It is dizzying when I drive by it, like trying to look at the tags on the tunnel walls of the "EL" when I lived in Chicago. ... The caverns are really well painted and do not rely on outline and graphic qualities to illustrate the perception of space.
KS: This was a legal wall that some guys came in from all over the East Coast to come paint. It's very good. ... This is a shot of the heaven side. Note Flanders chilling in the Con piece. The Omega piece takes the cake on this side I think. Sigh killed [the hell side] (did a superb job) and took up lots of space. The Rcade piece on this side is also awesome, kudos my good man, well played.
The CritiqueRetaining Wall
Trask: Not really much to say about this. I just bet this kid has a good hand because it just looks like it's placed well and confident; but it's not really my thing.
Trenpanier: EYE or ELYE or EYLE? Um I do not understand, and am particularly bored by this tag, especially having it on every corner in this small area .… What if it is a gang tag in loving memory of the talented Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez, from TLC? A group of teen girls respecting "Left Eyes" tenacity and skill at arson memorialized her untimely death by naming their gang after her. I can't believe I wasted my time thinking about this …
KS: I see this and think: "Hey buddy, yeah I'm walking around too. What's that? No I just ate, but we should get some Vietnamese later or meet up for drinks." Kind of like a stop 'n' chat, but with a tag. S