The Phoenix skyline, see, will preside over the words already flaming off the wall in eight different colors, and NSK will use its artistic license. Asasn draws the assignment, being the most talented of the four, although Ekses will show you the best aerosol flares in town if you let him.

"No, man," says Ekses in high, goateed tones, against the wall at midpiece, arms raised, reaching for the sky. "Do the water tower right in the middle."

But no, that space is reserved for a likeness of the hospital across Seventh Avenue. Anyway, they will have to finish tomorrow, so they clean up after themselves, throw everything in a paint-spewed box, talk about a night of partying. The Glidden is theirs to keep. Plenty of time to decide, but one thing is for sure: Wherever Asasn puts that water tower, it will say NSK and nothing else. For all time.

Unlike the real thing, which at the moment broadcasts the name of NSK's rival, visible in yellow from half a mile away.

Look at this place, it's a mess. Central Avenue in Phoenix is as tagged up at Camelback as it is at Broadway. You see it everywhere. Abandoned buildings, canals, traffic boxes, sidewalk curbs, telephone poles, railroad cars, concrete abutments, underpasses and overpasses, expressways and stop signs, the curve from I-17 to the Squaw Peak Parkway, warehouses, freight trucks, walls enclosing trailer parks and other communities, drive-through menus, a Motor Vehicles Division office on Seventh Street.

"I don't think anything's sacred," says Tempe police Sergeant P.J. Janik of the department's gang detail. Someone even hit a Tempe police car. Tagging in Tempe more than tripled in the second half of 1994 over the same period the year before. Fall kicked off a tagging epidemic, and last month the city's graffiti hotline recorded 200 calls. In Scottsdale, reports Sergeant Frank O'Halloran of the police department's youth intervention unit, tagging has outpaced gang graffiti since he joined the unit 15 months ago, with complaints averaging 44 a month.

In Phoenix, says police Sergeant Mike Torres, graffiti are lumped in with other kinds of property damage, and so he can't say exactly how bad the problem is or is getting. Officer Robert Barnhart of the department's community action program, however, which operates out of the South Mountain Precinct, says tagger markings outnumber those of gangs. "The last six arrests we made down here," he says, "they were all from north and northwest Phoenix. . . . You'll see tags down here that you'll find out in Scottsdale or Glendale. And these weren't kids; they were 21, 22 years old."

The city's graffiti hotline reports an average of 900 calls monthly. "To tell you the truth, it's been really crazy since Halloween," says Adela Guajardo, who orders the paint Phoenix uses and donates for graffiti paint-out. "We've had about 2,100 calls since then. It hasn't let up."

The city neighborhood services department's graffiti-cleanup program is a four-crew operation, each assigned to two of Phoenix's eight council districts. It operates out of a nondescript building on South Central and gets tagged all the time. The department's crews don't do stuff belonging to other official entities like the state, the Salt River Project or even the city's transportation department. Also, they don't do alleys. Often they'll just donate materials to community groups and let them go at it themselves because it's faster. Overall, Phoenix spent $2.2 million to free the city of graffiti last fiscal year. So far this fiscal year, the city has given away 24,000 gallons of paint in tan, concrete gray, white and Navaho.

"These kids keep putting it right back on," Guajardo says. "But we like to say that we have more money. Some of these kids are so talented. It's a waste."

But money is not how score is kept in this war. They can always get more money, and what they can't buy, they steal. Hell, even what they can buy, they steal. Whether former gangbangers or middle-class kids from Scottsdale, whether hard-core or wanna-be, the vanguard has stumbled onto the ethic espoused by street artists from the beginning: The enemy is the system, and when they bomb cities, they're really striking out at the guys in suits and uniforms.

How far they're willing to go is a matter of how much they think they have to lose. Which ultimately is what will filter out the pretenders.

They call themselves Destruction of Phoenix, or DOP. Their real names are Christian standards--Adam, Chris, Gabriel and George--but they go by the names Tagz, Fus, Axis and Rise. They are one of the estimated 100 or so tagger crews that have floated onto the scene with undetermined life spans.

"We used to hate taggers," Rise says. "We were gangbangers."
But as magazines like L.A.-based Street Beat spread the gospel of hip-hop to places like Albuquerque and Tucson and then Phoenix, street art earned new respect. It was tagging, though, that gripped the masses.

"It's the thing right now," says Fus.
Rise: "Everybody's doing it."
"Gangs fight and pull out guns," Axis says. "We write."

"You have to get up to impress us," Fus says. "Like on a roof, somewhere big, wherever you get props. And wear big clothes."

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