This is all freehand, Ekses says. No stencils here.
Check out that break dancing.
He's done ceramic work and everything.

Back to the street, where they complain about having their style stolen by other crews--biting, it's called. They just want to be somebody, Ekses says.

Someone says: We need rabies shots, we get bit so much.
Another pair of headlights glows, approaching slow and low, a big American car rolling through. Chevy? Buick? Silhouettes of several people inside. Who's that?

The car passes and plods to the cross street half a block away, then arcs into a deliberate turn.

Hey--that car's turning around.
Police say that when they apprehend taggers, they find that more and more of them are arming themselves with small-caliber weapons. The taggers say it's because they're fighting with other crews, or protecting themselves against gangs who don't want them tagging their neighborhood. And really, it only takes one player to raise the stakes.

Not too long ago, NSK tried to get several other crews to join in an all-out war on their rival, to bomb their scribbles so quickly and completely there would be no alternative but for them to take another name. Ultimately, the story goes, the allies backed out, wary of the possible consequences.

If crews try to dis, Sport says, you gotta show 'em what's up. They can do it tagger style, or tagbanger style--they can do it with the Gat or they can do it with the can. Either way. It don't matter.

And so this is what it has come to, the ugly marriage of strung-out street art and gangbanging:

The cluster of people spreads like dandelion spores as the car nears. Guns materialize out of waistbands and jackets. They watch for movement beyond the approaching headlights, shout as it passes:

But there is no answer, no rolled-down windows, no bullets. And no sign of the way things used to be.

"Writing has lost its meaning in Phoenix," says the old-timer, kicking back in a frantic pizza joint and remembering the early years in Phoenix. He was writing and piecing back before there were crews here, and this was only six or seven years ago. It was he and Such and Havok and Saint, guys still around and holding down day jobs. His own tag was Phase, and he still does it every once in a while, but not as a member of any crew. He's 23 now, getting too old for this stuff, the way it is now.

"Tagbanging," he says. "It's just getting out of control. This guy from OBN, he was at my house the other day, and he said he quit. He said, this is crazy. It's dumb."

The hip-hop scene itself is hopping in Phoenix, and a guy named Tim Reed is days away from publishing the area's first hip-hop magazine. But some of the tagging crews--they're shooting at each other, slashing each other's tags; you go to a party and they just yell out their names and it can get ugly.

Phase has a new identity now, an everyday guy by the name of Manny Perez who works as electrician by day, DJ by night. He remembers when writers would carry around piecebooks--scrapbooks with their practice art and outlines for pieces inside--and revere the aerosol kings. Cryone (pronounced "crayon") was an early legend from L.A. who came to Phoenix once and led him on a tagging spree, demonstrating artistic techniques. At the time, the place to hit was "The Dusters," an industrial area in Tempe where train cars were there for the painting, big top-to-bottoms thrown up in wild color.

"We looked up to other writers," he says. "Just to look at their piecebooks--that was it. Cryone gave me some caps, and that meant a lot to me. To go out and do an illegal piece with the best writer from California. . . . We were just a bunch of writers that hung out together.

"All these guys are young. They don't have the feeling we had for it. Some of them--they have no respect. They'll tag somebody's house. I'm not gonna lie--I tagged people's walls, but not their home. That's disrespectful.

"Half of them can't even write. It's all about who can get into the crew, how many guys they can say are in it."

But other kids do have the skills, he says admiringly, and he suggests the city provide a public area for writers, a view held by various sociologists and many in the scene itself. Reed, the magazine publisher, says city officials should look at such a measure as a solution and not as an overall condoning of the evil forces of graffiti. He saved his own South Phoenix business from tagging by allowing a few writers, NSK among them, to do large-scale pieces that decorate his walls inside and out. Now they respect the building.

For a time, there was a wall for writers to practice--Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, where one wall was known as a place for crews to throw up short-lived burners, but, as a similar project did in Denver, the experiment devolved into anarchy once kids who had no sense of hip-hop code got involved.

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