By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In other words, it's always something. They find a way.
A windless Saturday night in January. A dozen figures fade in and out of the 11 o'clock shadows and cluster in the middle of a dark residential street near 55th Avenue and McDowell.
Asasn and More and Phoke and Ekses. Sport and Duel and Unek and Fume. Since and Wrek, Ribon and Meen. Most are NSK, but a few are OBN, or One Brown Nation, one of the Valley's oldest crews, an ally.
Night is their cover and light is suspect, every approaching pair of headlights scrutinized--whose car is that? Someone makes a joke. Nervous laughter. Closer. No, for reals, who is this? Oh, that's so-and-so's uncle.
Duel and Unek founded NSK a year and a half ago. It's not as old as some crews, but, man, they got up. They earned props. They made NSK a contender, fighting for ownership of the big six-oh-two, as in area code, and More guarantees you will see NSK tagged up in Chandler, in Mesa, in Globe.
Sport's talking now, scratchy-voiced and brawny, a prolific tagger at 17: If you live in a neighborhood and you can't go to college or whatever, tagging's just another way to get famous. You hit up walls, people start noticing you. You go to parties, they give you props, you get respect from everybody.
But then, Duel says, you got little gangs running around crossing people out. That's how the wars start. Everyone knows who he's talking about. Gang rejects, they call them. Singers and dancers. Toys. We play with them.
Another pair of headlights: Who's that?
Statistics say 15 percent of graffiti is done by females. In NSK, there is Ribon. The only girl in Phoenix, she says, to hit the heavens. But then she got caught: Little runt named Riot snitched on me, she snarls. He got caught by himself and I got away and he snitched on me.
She became one of the few busted for a crime that is rarely prosecuted.
And for tagging signs on I-10, she served a month and a half in detention and watched other girls go free on drug charges.
It ain't like we don't have lives, she says. That's not why we do it. We do it because we're down. It ain't a fad. It's a fad to some people. People will be a tagger for a month. Then they'll be a dancer and then they'll be a raver, but we're tagbangers and that's what we are.
More: We're a family, like. We don't go around doing drive-bys. See, like gang members, they'll be saying "We're a family" and shit, but then they'll be doing drive-bys, you know, killing little kids.
Ribon: Let me put it this way. We tagbang back.
To me tagging's addictive, she says. It's like a cigarette. You try it out, you get all addicted and you can't stop. 'Cause to me, that's my high. I don't do drugs--you can ask anybody. Tagging--that feeling you have right there, that adrenalin, that's how I get high.
Duel has this thing about the police. I like hitting business areas, he says. Where the police are gonna see. Billboards. Where the big system's gonna see.
Like other crews, their vision of the ultimate canvas is the towering Bank One headquarters downtown. There is no higher heaven, no surer place to achieve legend. One Phoenix crew is said to have offered a prize of 50 cans of Krylon to whomever does it first. As soon as someone figures out how.
Sport: I know they're never gonna get rid of graffiti, it's always gonna be here, but if they want to, like, reduce some of it, they should open some free walls up, or underground clubs to keep kids off the street. Like, let people do drawings and stuff. I'm not saying that will stop everything, but I think that would help.
What about programs like X-Man's?
That's good, More says. That's positive. They hook us up, dude, they hook us up with pieces. But we're not with them against the tagging. They should hook us up with jobs, schooling.
More is 19, one of the older members of the crew, and he senses he has the floor, his peers are listening: They take off our tagging--that's not good, man. We'll wait for them, they'll go buff there--boom, we'll go tag it up as soon as they leave.
Just wasting money, Ribon says.
They argue over who does the Valley's best pieces. Somebody says BWS, or Blessed With Skills, which draws a chorus of scoffs. The naysayers say, yeah, they do good work, but they treat art too much like a science. Blessed With Stencils, says Ekses.
Art as a possible career? Well, Wrek is in the magnet art program at South Mountain High. Beyond that there are barely even maybes.
Except for Merk--Merk is not here, but he is their ace, the guy who will soon be going to California to battle other writers. Do you want to see? They head for the alley, through the house where someone's kin are oblivious to the subculture bubbling outside, TV on in the family room, Mom on the phone in the kitchen, then through the yard and the back gate where they gather as if before an altar. A flashlight shines on the piece, three sections of fence long--a pair of devilish characters in blue and red, clawed fingers extended, faces lifelike, followed by a break-dancing scene where fashionable figures spin in amazing detail. A utility box juts out from the ground in front of it, and even that has been painted, to look like a can of Krylon. The members of NSK have gone quiet, reverential, feet crunching over rocks in their alleyway cathedral.