By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
X-Man's philosophy is: bond. Get to know them, and let them get to know you. He knows they tag, but he figures doing legal pieces will invite them to consider alternatives. Maybe by spending time with him, they will come to realize the costs to society of what they do. "I go into their houses," he says. "I meet their families. I ask them for advice."
On a sunny Saturday morning, he meets a couple of Pioneer's cleanup trucks behind an apartment complex west of 35th Avenue and McDowell. The trucks are armed with high-pressure water hoses and spray guns capable of firing 1.35 gallons of paint a minute. Their exteriors are dotted with decals bearing the names of the program's many sponsors, among them Glidden Paint, Home Depot, Desert Sky Pavilion and Bank One. Plus there is a burly guy named Troy to frighten away riffraff who doth protest too much.
Today, they've got their work cut out for them: A long wall behind an apartment complex is a magnet for crews from in and out of the area, a 150-foot panacolor soup of tags. It looks as though it was attacked. Across the alley, a gaping city trash bin has suffered the same fate. So has a guesthouse and a utility shed in a backyard where a woman comes out to hang clothes; she has seen the trucks before. The guesthouse and shed are both leprous with red tags, NSK's prime among them.
The trucks begin at opposite ends. One guy drives, another follows with the hose, spraying a quick sheet of beige that buries the sea of scrawl as effortlessly as a comforter thrown over an old sofa. In the middle of it all is an actual piece, unscathed by tags, Asasn's name burning in four-foot frenzy. The workers grant it mercy.
"That one we won't touch," the X-Man says, "and they respect us for that."
The whole thing is a fresh canvas within 15 minutes.
X-Man pulls out his cellular phone and rings up Asasn; he knows him as Arthur. "Yeah. We're right outside your window. Okay. Bye."
"He's still in bed," he says when he gets off the phone. "He lives up there, right there where those bikes are."
X-Man adheres to the broken-window theory of graffiti busting, which holds that the longer graffiti are allowed to remain, the more they will attract, and, conversely, kids seeking fame are less likely to hit an area that won't let them have it for very long.
In a few minutes, Asasn pops up at one end of the freshly buffed wall like a puppet on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. He calls over the X-Man.
"Hey, Xavier, can you talk to the manager? 'Cause they want to kick us out, 'cause they think I'm doing all this," Asasn says. He lives in the apartment with his mother and sister and says they've already received an eviction notice and everything. Even though he has helped take graffiti off the inside walls. X-Man says okay, he'll see what he can do.
"The city will not come and do this," he says, motioning to the purified wall. But if it did, he says, it would have taken it up to an hour. "We believe that if you don't take care of it, you're just going to have more problems." He turns to Asasn, still up there leaning over the wall. "What do you think?" he says.
"Yeah," Asasn responds, then says something about how badly some city buses are scratched up. (Window etching is the latest tagging phenomenon to plague California--mark your calendars.) "Hey," he says to X-Man, "you got your card, so I can show it to the manager?"
Brizar likes this kid, knows he's got talent, wants to save him. Maybe he'll take him to the NBA All-Star Game. He hands Asasn his Pioneer Ford card and turns to leave. The card reads Xavier "X-Man" Brizar and has a happy face on it.
Eradication, demonstrated: Troy aims the spray gun at one of those corrugated walls separating neighborhood from freeway where a tagger has struck, then lets loose with full force. When the proper chemicals are mixed in, you can see the graffiti practically melting away. But every time you turn around, the kids have something new. Fingernail polish. Permanent paintlike markers called "Mean Streaks." Hard-core, homemade markers of combined colors referred to as Neapolitans.
And so chemists concoct cleaners at a pace to match. Phoenix Transit uses stuff with names like Erase and Liftoff. Dry ice is another recent development--when they're done using that, the paint is just a powder on the ground.
Graffiti-cleanup costs in the Los Angeles basin are more than $150 million a year. To clean and replace the nation's soiled surfaces, some say, would run an estimated $7 billion. In the 1980s, New York outlawed sales of spray paint to minors, then got pummeled with markers instead. Officials developed graffiti-proof subway trains, the street artist's original canvas, then awoke to graffiti-plastered garbage trucks. Jay Beswick, a National Graffiti Information Network consultant, came to Phoenix early this month to ponder the prevalence of window etching; University of Dayton researchers wanted to follow him around, hot on a study themselves funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Etching is already a national concern. In cities that have attempted to fight tagging by requiring sales outlets to lock up their spray paint, Beswick says, etching has hit hard.