By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Asasn is over where the I and the Z in "revitalization" yawn in blown-out, three-foot-tall alphabet in front of him, filling in the characters with the blasphemous Glidden spray paint provided by the friendly folks at Pioneer Ford.
A splash of bright red, and he stands back, intrigued: "That's like that American Beauty, huh?" he asks, addressing his companions in the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation conference room at Seventh Avenue and Buckeye Road. By this Asasn means a coveted shade of red that aerosol artists don't come by often, so maybe Glidden's got its merits, after all.
Besides, the paint was free, and even a budding 16-year-old writer like Asasn (that's "assassin") can eat his pride once in a while and do a piece without his precious Krylon paint, the No. 2 pencil, the Louisville Slugger, of the street-art world. Oh, but those Glidden cans--who buys Glidden?--just the way they look, lumbering and dark and busy, is all wrong.
Still, it's not often that the establishment gives a writer a chance to legally practice his art, and this opportunity comes courtesy of Xavier "X-Man" Brizar, the guy who heads Pioneer Ford's graffiti-reduction program. Usually, Asasn is out there in the shadows bombing sidewalks or Dumpsters or freshly buffed walls with his tag, his assumed name. And every night there are dozens of other kids doing the same thing.
Asasn, a sophomore at Carl Hayden High School, belongs to a crew named NSK, which stands for No Self Kontrol, and here they are doing a piece--legally!--in the conference room of a social agency. Wait'll Mom hears about this.
No Self Kontrol is also guys who go by the tags More and Phoke and Ekses, and along with Asasn, they have the look down--the backward caps, the belts wrapped around like sashes, droopy pants so wide and baggy the kids disappear inside them like celery into party dip.
The NSK acronym and the members' individual tags will be their signatures, flourishes on the wall, the way they flash on buses and businesses and light poles all over the Valley. The way the game is played now is to get up, to throw your tag, onto as many surfaces as possible, with extra respect for prominence and elevation. They will collect their 15 minutes of fame incrementally, in two-second glances from passers-by.
Tagging, which hit the Valley about two years ago, begat street art sprung in the world of hip-hop, a multifaceted youth movement with 15-year-old roots in New York City. Like everything else, it came to Arizona by way of California. More accomplished writers, of course, would rather leave behind filled-in, five-foot burners and picturesque pieces (short for "masterpieces") billowing with color, originality and style. And that is the difference between being a writer or simply a tagger--writers develop their aerosol skills beyond tagging, whereas taggers only tag. For the kings of aerosol, tagging became sort of a putting green, something to do when time or space wouldn't allow a full swing.
Now hip-hop--a mix of music, fashion and social gathering in addition to street art--has finally hit Phoenix full force, but its arrival coincides with the emergence, via Los Angeles, of a couple of sorry trends: Tagging, the calling card available to anyone with a can of spray paint, has become so popular that aspirations of art have been buried in the glut; worse, although they provide a safe alternative to wanna-be gangsters looking for identity, some tagging crews have attracted former gangbangers whose penchant for violence remains alive.
Unskilled writers are called toys, and an abundance of toys has created an atmosphere where old codes of conduct are ignored. Because hip-hop arrived here so late, taggers have almost always been the norm. The Valley became Toyland. Real writers--whose work might actually be mistaken for art--never had a chance.
"All kinds of people are trying to do it now," says Phoke. "It's like a fad."
Between 15 and 20 crews bomb and exist on a regular basis, and NSK is one of them. More than two dozen members deep, maybe a half-dozen of them actual writers, it also is a crew stuck in the middle, unable to fully extricate itself from its gang origins because of an ongoing feud with a crew it claims broke the rules of the game:
When two crews battle--compete for aerosol supremacy--and a clear winner emerges, the losing crew is supposed to take a new name. NSK says it won the battle and that the losers didn't follow through. The bad blood continues to spill on a water tower on 27th Avenue near Washington, each crew burning out the other. The word is that NSK's opponent has never given up its gang ties, even requiring members to be jumped in--to undergo a group beating to gain membership. Those ties pose a lingering sense of danger to their enemies, which is an unwelcome change for the hip-hop lifestyle.
NSK member More, with his hair cropped short and a left earring, is over in the far left corner, where "Phoenix Revitalization" begins. His black cap reads NSK in silver, Oriental-style type. He's 19, Asasn's cousin, and he motions excitedly: "Put the water tower over here--boom! Up to the ceiling."
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."
The tagger's choice for props, which is to say respect or acknowledgment, is an area of South Phoenix where there are walls that look as though they're crawling with giant spiders. This is largely the result of a battle between two of the city's premier tagging crews, BOWD and DI3. For whatever reason, graffiti stay up in the area longer and yet the risk of being caught is greater because there are more cops. Get up there with frequency and you've proved yourself to the tagging community.
"On Central, at 2 in the morning, there ain't nobody out there," Fus says. "If you see lights, you know it's a cop."
DOP is only a few months old. It formed right after Halloween. The wardrobe fits the motif--baggy pants sashed with the meandering belt--and the nearby elementary school is the practice area. The members are in George's room early on a Friday night, west Phoenix. The wall behind the door, a sort of life-size scratch pad, is bathed in red, black and white spray paint, and that's nothing compared to the closet. A can of Krylon rests next to the cheap stereo playing beat-heavy tunes of the Seventies and Eighties.
"Krylon--that's the best stuff you can get right there," Fus says. "Anything else is sorry."
They say they prefer Krylon because its design lends itself to interchangeable tips, which allow them to achieve various effects with the paint. The different tips are available through national aerosol art magazines like Can Control or, if you know what you are doing, are affixed to cans of oven or battery cleaners at the local supermarket. Low-profile local outlets have surfaced, too. There is a whole underground world of tips out there: phantoms, German fatcaps, Philadelphias, snowcaps, Chicago outliners.
Fus steps to the wall, takes the can and spills a quick vertical line that fades out at the bottom. "That's a flare," he says. "NSK does the best flare.
"We're about making our debut right now," he continues. He sounds like a kid, which he is. So far DOP has tagged Seventh and 16th street bridges in South Phoenix, but it's burners, or larger, colored-in pieces that will really get them noticed, he says.
"It's all we do on weekends," Rise says. "Instead of being bored just watching TV, now I come home at 2, 3 in the morning."
"Everybody's making their own crews," says Axis, who at 18 is the oldest of the four. "Like UF--they're toys, but they get up. They get around. I saw them over on 91st. They barely started a week ago."
Axis is the only one old enough to legally buy spray paint, but Fus says some stores don't ask, and supplies are starting to show up at swap meets. Wal-Mart and K mart, though, are their usual sources.
"I don't go in because of the way I'm dressed," Rise says. "I hate when people look at me like I'm stupid."
Getting up on freeway signs remains beyond their boundaries. "You can do it," says Rise. "It's just hard. Those are the dudes that, their parents don't care. If I get caught, it's my ass. And you can go to prison."
"The older people," Fus says, "I know they don't like it. I'll be driving down the street with my mom and she'll go, 'Look at that--it's so ugly.'"
Axis: "My mom says, 'At least they're not shooting.' My sister says, 'They should learn how to spell.'"
One place DOP doesn't tag as much anymore is nearby Thomas Road because, as Fus notes, graffiti there are usually gone the next day. For that they can thank Pioneer Ford General Manager Terry Walker, who drives Thomas into work daily, all the way from 107th Avenue.
About a year ago, Walker started seeing more and more graffiti, and fewer and fewer businesses, around the dealership, which is at 27th Avenue and Thomas. At one point, the vacancy rate reached 70 percent. Because he wasn't planning on going anywhere, Walker decided to put $190,000 of the dealership's money into a graffiti-reduction program, and now that vacancy rate is closer to 10 percent. He's got a clipboard mounted on his steering wheel with little duplicated maps on which he notes fresh markings along the route. The info is passed on to Xavier Brizar, Pioneer's community relations director, and sets at least part of the day's agenda for its maverick cleanup crews.
"Thomas is our baby," admits Brizar, who goes by the moniker "X-Man." He's a young guy, just graduated from Maryvale High in 1989, who looks older than he is and has made that work to his advantage. Pioneer hired him for scrub work when he was 16, thinking he was 18; he grew up with the dealership, moved into the tie-wearing, handshaking side of things and last year was second in sales and first in customer satisfaction. Yet, he points out, he has left the showroom behind for this. "I like helping people," he says.
He has taken a few of the guys from NSK under his wing; he is hoping to help them, too. He first noticed their work in the form of a since-vanquished mural reading "Phoenix Suns" that a McDowell Road apartment building had sanctioned. He asked around, found Asasn and More and asked them to team on a similar project in the Pioneer conference room. A piece in the Westridge Mall community room followed, then the one at the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation.
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.
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.
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.
"Toys," says Wrek of NSK, "they don't know nothing about respecting art."
"Someone's always gonna dis," says More. "No matter what, there's always gonna be toys out there."
The occasional art curator will recognize the medium as a viable art form and design exhibitions around it; that happened recently in Tucson, when the Sixth Congress Gallery's "Spraycan Art" show featured artists like Such in a celebration of the hip-hop culture that originally launched the careers of artists like Keith Haring. Seattle did the same last year, and a few years ago, French Culture Minister Jack Lang drew the wrath of his colleagues when he organized a similar exhibition of le graff at the Museum of French Monuments at the Trocadero. Of course, after a few days there, and maybe you can call it inspiration, some patrons started marking up other works in the building with felt pens.
Jay Beswick, the National Graffiti Information Network consultant, believes the only solution is to come down hard on the perpetrators, to create tough laws and then follow through. The city has to realize that it's throwing money into a bottomless pit. In California, he points out, there are laws that allow the option of taking away someone's driver's license the first time they're caught doing graffiti; the second time, there is no option. They just do it.
He recently sent a letter to the city that expressed his overview of Phoenix based on his recent visit: On the whole, it is cleaner than Albuquerque, but maybe not for long. He estimated between 1,000 and 1,500 writers who tag at least once a week, with another 10,000 wanna-bes tagging less frequently. Many of the newer writers are middle- and upper-middle-class kids coming into Phoenix from the north, from Mesa, from Tempe. Overall, the city is where Los Angeles was in 1990, "and the decisions you make now will shape your future."
Louis Pete of the city's neighborhood services department says the next measure being considered is a fine along with financial restitution, with responsibility falling to the parents if the kid can't come up with the funds. "The businessmen are crying an awful lot right now," he says. "For a kid to just do community service does them no good."
Beswick says Pioneer Ford's program is unique in the country, a business taking on responsibility for its own community, and though change might come slowly, the X-Man is hopeful it will come for some. The opportunity is there to be taken or to be thrown away.
The day after the guys from NSK finish up the piece at Phoenix Revitalization, Pioneer Ford's cleanup crews are out there behind the apartment complex from which Asasn and his family will be evicted inside of a week. Blanketing the walls clean, they sift through the grass, careful to avoid the many needles that sometimes appear among the debris, one of the hazards of the job. One time one of the guys fell into a hole, too, but that's another story.
Moving along the wall, they spray and sift, and now something rolls out of the tall grass at the far end below a splotch of red. Just an old can of spray paint, the worker says. The brand is Glidden.
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