America's Ogre of Train Bombing
In a converted stand-alone garage in the backyard of a midtown Phoenix home, an artist saunters in to his 20-year retrospective exhibition. The exterior of the garage-cum-gallery is painted eclectically in hundreds of exploding colors by the artist -- an eerily omniscient eyeball, a village of leaning buildings, three-dimensional arrows pointing every conceivable direction, and intricate Tetris-like simulated miniature brickwork climbing up the walls, all arrogantly defying the rules of geometry. Inside, painters from Los Angeles, Tucson, Pittsburgh and the Valley hang in various states of animation and repose, present to pay their respects to a body of work that spans most of their lifetimes.
The artist enters the space decked out in a white button-up shirt, black double-breasted suit, black tie with silver tie clip, black Kangol hat, old-school white Adidas shell toe sneakers, blocky square-rimmed glasses, his dark red hair greased like a postmodern pompadour, wallet chain banging against his pants as he ambulates into the melee of reverent fans. On one finger is a gaudy gold ring with a large purple stone, possibly amethyst. He walks across the room, raises the hand with the ring, and rattles off a dubious history.
"This ring was given to me by a really loud, obnoxious guy who was always drunk and smokes crack. He's also the son of somebody famous, but who cares? He breaks into jewelry stores and museums for a living, and who knows where it came from? This might've been Louis XIII's or something. Or Madame Butterfly's."
He takes a hearty gulp of his beer, surveys the gathered crowd, and contemplates the aesthetics of the hanging paintings and their placement. On the gallery's walls, his paintings are hung in chronological order, from 1982 to present; there are photo albums sitting on a table filled with pictures of his work, as well as fanzine covers he drew in the early years of his endeavors. This exhibition (none of the paintings are for sale) is representing and celebrating only one of his mediums. Missing are the acclaimed apocalyptic sculptures he welds from iron, steel and aluminum, as well as his furniture compositions and clothing designs.
His wife is all smiles as she unveils the cake celebrating the 20th birthday of his habit, decorated by a fellow artist and close friend of her husband. Their two small children, ages 6 and 3, are in the care of relatives for the evening, one of the last sultry nights of the Phoenix summer.
As the crowd's reverence is morphing into intoxication, the artist approaches the DJ manning the twin Technics turntables at the end of the room. He asks to hear some old-school hip-hop, something in the vein of Run-D.M.C. The DJ nods acquiescence, though old-school jams never surface. Arranged in front of the turntables like a retaining wall is the artist's cherished collection of vintage Krylon spray paint cans, all of them obsolete colors no longer in production. There's a paper-wrapped (as opposed to screen-printed) can of Jungle Green. There is Glowing Cerise. There is Taupe, Spanish Brown, Bonfire, Avocado and Brick. There is Metallic Blue. On the wall to the left of the DJ's makeshift booth, one of the artist's 1993 paintings threatens to assault its audience -- a super-size hand gripping a can of spray paint with forefinger on the nozzle, aimed at face-level. These are the iconography of his secret life as an artist.
The artist who calls himself Kaper has a heart that pumps graffiti and freight trains. He is maniacally obsessive with his reverence for boxcars and the art of spray-painting them.
Kaper traces the journeys of the pieces he paints on the sides of freight trains using the Internet and railway timetables. He knows the trains that will be immediately repainted or buffed, and avoids them. He knows which lines are short regional hops, and avoids these as well -- the goal is fame, name recognition in all points of the worldwide subculture of freight painting; Kaper doesn't care if some kid in Safford sees his pieces. He knows that the gray Illinois Central cars are often leased by the United States Army, and stays far away from them. He knows that the law requires that train cars' serial numbers must be visible, and sensibly avoids going over them. He knows how to hydraulically drop a boxcar so that the upper portions of its façade can be reached, to paint a "top to bottom." He has traced his pieces' travels to the south of Mexico and far above the Canadian border. "I love to hear about people who see my stuff, my friends that see it in different states," he says.
Kaper watches for Southern Pacific boxcars, targeted for their rarity since Union Pacific bought out the line. He's schooled in the lore of the rails; he can tell you which car to hop on a long line (the second of the three engines, the slave engine, which is empty and has a toilet, possibly a telephone). He studies the hobo and train-worker graffiti, and can tell you stories about Herbie (R.I.P.), Waterbed Lou (R.I.P.), The Solo Artist, John Easley, and the Rambler.
"Trains are my canvas; I need to know everything about what I'm putting my paint on," Kaper says.
There are few who can claim as much notoriety on the "Iron Internet" as Kaper. Posh, an acclaimed graf writer from Los Angeles' elite CBS Crew (and a long-in-the-tooth freight junkie himself), asserts, "If you paint freights and you don't know who Kaper is, you don't paint freights in my opinion. From an advertising standpoint, he's one of the Coca-Colas of train painting."
Mike Furtney, regional public relations officer for Union Pacific Railroad, says repainting a single boxcar is a four or five hundred dollar proposition, at a minimum. "It really is a cosmetic kind of consideration as opposed to something that is a safety issue to the condition of our equipment," he says. "So unless it's really just impossible to work around, we tend not to paint it out on our equipment."
Nonetheless, Union Pacific employs a team to monitor the graffiti Web sites and magazines, looking for clues to what yards they favor, what crews are bombing which cities. "But that's frustrating, too," Furtney says. "We operate in 23 states and we have about 35,000 miles of track and trains all over that, so it's a tough challenge."
When the rail lines' police officers do catch graf writers in the act, they are turned over to local authorities for prosecution. In Phoenix, the Maricopa County prosecutor's office has jurisdiction over graffiti-related crimes. Charged with criminal damage, a misdemeanor, a graffiti artist faces fines imposed by a judge, as well as the possibility of up to a year in jail, depending on the extent of the damage, and additional monetary fines to pay restitution for the damage. Unfortunately for the authorities, these cases can prove hard to prosecute, if they manage an arrest in the first place.
Bill FitzGerald of the Maricopa County prosecutor's office explains the complications: "You have to prove that it happened in Maricopa County first. If Union Pacific caught them, they'd turn them over to the local jurisdiction, the local jurisdiction would be us, and they would have to prove by their investigation or by eyewitness accounts that it happened in Maricopa County." He says that freight train graf artists are rarely prosecuted and even community graffiti cases are difficult to prosecute effectively.
Frustrated perhaps by law enforcement's inability to bring Kaper and his cohorts to justice, train workers have at times taken the matter into their own hands, leaving hilariously vehement replies next to Kaper's pieces. One such yard bird, known to local graf writers as "the anti-Kaper," leaves messages like, "Hey Kaper' fags. Just wait till that Sheriff in Phoenix Busts you. Tent City here we come!" and "Kaper . . . Your [sic] a Lowlife Fag Son of A Bitch, . . . your [sic] going to Prison."
"In the whole U.S., I'm the one he picks on most," Kaper says, laughing.
Despite the explicit element of vandalism involved, Union Pacific's Furtney acknowledges the artistic value of some of the pieces, and refers to their creators as graffiti artists, rather than vandals. "There was one artist, four or five years ago, who did a huge scene on four or five cars in sequence, and it was a piece of art, absolutely," he says. "Except that it was defacing somebody else's property. Some of them are very talented; it's sad in a way that they don't find other outlets."
The crunch of stones underfoot echoes beneath a quiet overpass as Kaper approaches a parked, engineless seven-car segment of train. The smell of creosote permeates the air, wafting up from the freshly refurbished tracks. The night is balmy; the area is an oasis of scrub brush and sand in the center of Phoenix's concrete jungle. Homeless people rustle in the bushes nearby. Downrail in each direction, a yellow signal light glows. The train is visible from a nearby highway, but too distant to make out a shadowy figure flanking it.
Passing a tanker car, Kaper notices a tag on its side: "The Rambler -- 25 Years," dated 1993. Kaper hasn't come to "tag" the train, to simply write his name on it. Kaper has come to do, in the vernacular of graffiti, a "piece" ("masterpiece" abbreviated). Linked to the Rambler's black tanker is a 55-foot-long Missouri Pacific boxcar untouched by paint or marker, perfect blank canvas for an urban guerrilla. Within a minute, the outline of Kaper's name -- graffiti artists almost always write their names, hence the epithet "writer" -- is standing in Navajo White spray paint; he appears to be dancing as he paints, feet still but body writhing to some internal rhythm. The letters are bold, stoic, easy to read, with angular serifs jutting out. He fills the outlines solid with white paint, then goes over the fill in uneven bursts with Clover Green. Next he outlines the letters again in red paint, again dancing, and the letters take life from their new dimensions, leaping off the boxcar. Inside of 10 minutes the letters are three-colored with fills, gleaming highlights, and fractures in their limbs.
Kaper is adding the final elements to his piece, outlining the entire word in yellow paint, when a car's headlights shine toward him from the direction of the dead-end street. Something's not right. Kaper bolts for cover and scrambles beneath the boxcar. The headlights sight the train a couple of beats too long for comfort. "I'm too old to run anymore," he mumbles. "I have to hide these days."
Crouched underneath the boxcar, hoping to become invisible, Kaper's demons swirl about, providing him unwelcome company -- they are the fears, the consequences, the potential repercussions of his obsession. They are fears for his freedom, the possibility of being kept from his wife and children, the financial mutilation that thousands of dollars in fines would wreak; the images of relatives -- his father, his in-laws, his sisters -- shaking their heads in disapproving shame that he would risk his family's financial stability, that he would risk estrangement from his wife and children. They are the threat to his above-ground legitimate artistic endeavors, just now burgeoning into a viable career. They are the memory loss and slight hallucinations that he attributes to 20 years of aerosol fumes. They are the train workers who'd like to see him locked away. They are the recollection of when he was hit in the head by a moving train while hiding from train workers. Kaper's demons are legion.
Amongst them also is a memory, of the time when he was 9 years old, in Chicago with his family for a funeral, where he saw his first real graffiti on walls and trains, and was warned by his father, "I don't want you doing that shit."
So how is it that a smart and talented artist like Kaper ends up hiding under a train with his freedom and his future at risk, at the ripe old age of 32?
Born in Phoenix and raised in a west-side barrio, Kaper, born three-fourths Chicano and one-fourth Irish, was exposed to cholo graffiti from the time he could read letters -- the territorial markings of Chicano gangsters, street names and gang names tagged in simple letters with elongated limbs. The visit to Chicago was his first glimpse of hip-hop graffiti, the art-fueled form he's purveyed for the past 20 years. As a kid, Kaper was prone to write on any surface in reach from the time he could hold a crayon. In his family's garage, he would break pieces of Sheetrock from a crumbling wall and use it as chalk to decorate their concrete patio with aliens, tanks, volcanoes, Godzillas, and other characters culled from a childhood of watching Saturday afternoon sci-fi programs like The World Beyond.
As Kaper entered the early throes of adolescence, his only continued exposure to New York City-style hip-hop graffiti came via car magazines like Hot Rods, staples of barrio culture. The photos inside often showed the tricked-out hoopties parked in front of graffiti'd walls. Shopping at the grocery store with his mother, Kaper hid in the magazine aisle, ripping out photos of graffiti pieces, stuffing them in his pockets to take home and study.
In 1982, Kaper, then 12, painted his first piece on a wall, writing "SPIDER" as his name in cholo-influenced letters. "I would use cholo letters and try to make my cholo letters funkier than cholo letters," he explains. Kaper was hunting graf like a sick junkie hunts smack; as a "toy," or novice, biting others' styles was necessary to the development of his own habit.
As he consciously moved away from the simplistic cholo letter aesthetic, Kaper changed his handle and began writing "2SHY," a reference to his timidity with the opposite sex. "Being 12 years old, I was no Casanova," he says, laughing. "I didn't start becoming Casanova-ish 'til 17 or 18 years old, actually." In 1984, during this developmental stage, the movie Style Wars was released, an hourlong documentary chronicling the breakdancing and graffiti scenes in New York City, the birthplace of the forms. Style Wars illuminated everything Kaper had been thirsting for. Cholo art, which was birthed in Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas, was omnipresent in the Southwest, but hip-hop graffiti emerged in New York City, and its voyage west couldn't come fast enough for the 14-year-old.
Kaper began traveling to Los Angeles to hunt the graf that he'd become hooked on, the funky, sometimes near-illegible letter forms that characterized hip-hop's visual element. The lettering ranged from blown-up bubble letters to the intricate interlocking letters of wildstyle. He was aware through his studies that most graf writers had crews, some more than one, and they'd tag their crewmates' names alongside their own pieces. An only son in a family of daughters, Kaper was no loner -- he rolled with his friends, and was soon convinced he had to have a crew.
So, with a few Phoenix friends and Los Angeles acquaintances, he put together a crew called Bomb Squad Artists in 1985, the first verifiable graffiti crew in the Valley of the Sun. Eventually their moniker changed to Bomb Squad Posse (BSP), and Kaper began writing "SKBONE" (as in "skribble one"), later switching his handle to "ZEST." Two years later, still marinated in the barrio lifestyle, and with no other graffiti crews to speak of in the area, BSP absorbed a separate crew of wanna-be gangbanger types. This misstep would wreak havoc on the crew.
The new recruits were instant trouble, outcast sorts who couldn't make it into other gangs, who came with baggage -- scores to be settled and beefs to bring. The BSP crew dressed and acted like characters from The Warriors, their affiliations airbrushed onto their jackets, with Kid 'n Play-style crown hairdos ("But like way taller," Kaper laughs) and attitude. Kaper and his friends were barely aware of the maelstrom of discord they had inherited with the new heads; BSP had swiftly devolved into a gang.
The new conflicts came to a head in 1988, when Kaper was 18 years old. Colors had just been released, and had sent the country's urban youth into a violent frenzy. "It was like when the World Trade Centers fell down, it just rocked the nation," Kaper recalls.
At a party that year, in its early hours, Kaper was confronted by a rival thug from a 61st Avenue crew. There were stares -- Kaper's stare is as cold as a stiletto -- and words. Very few words. The homeboy from 61st pulled a gun, moving like he was about to fire on Kaper, and Kaper pulled his .38. Kaper says the gun snagged on a string as he pulled it out of his trench coat, firing unintentionally and blowing a round into 61st Avenue's collarbone. After the initial shock, Kaper approached, curious to see what a bullet wound looked like. The hole was spasming, agitated, with what looked like steam escaping it.
Days later, while Kaper was leaving a football game at Glendale High School with five other BSP members, a group of the gunned-down gangbanger's cohorts followed them, revenge surging in their blood. Four of Kaper's compadres split, running different directions. Severely outnumbered, Kaper and his friend Marcos were left to bear the wrath of their assailants. Marcos was stabbed, Kaper was beaten with a baseball bat. He did, however, manage to break one of his attackers' legs, snapping the knee backward with his hand. The man fell screaming. "Even though they were kicking and hitting me, I felt good," Kaper says.
After his release from the hospital the next day, Kaper, still in bandages, joined a few BSP associates and retaliated with a series of drive-by shootings, hitting four houses and shooting one person in the arm. The following weekend, he convened a sit-down of the Bomb Squad Posse members and disbanded the mob. Kaper was furious at the cowardice of his crew when they were attacked after the football game; they indicted themselves further by avoiding his phone calls after Kaper's beating.
Kaper spent the next six months hiding out from law enforcement, eventually surrendering. His father borrowed money to hire a competent attorney, and Kaper pleaded out to a charge of attempted aggravated assault in 1989. He served four months in jail and spent eight years on probation.
After his release, Kaper hooked up with a homeboy who painted "SPEZ," and formed a new crew, Krime Art Posse. Using the acronym, he adopted the name "Kaper." "We were ZEST and SPEZ, and we were the Krime Art Posse-ers; I would look at it and see KAPERS. I decided I wanted to write KAPER -- that's a cool name, misspelled with a K, so I started writing KAPER."
SPEZ fell out of the graf game because of the birth of his third child, and Kaper renamed the crew, of which he was the only member, Krime Time Syndicate (KTS). In 1990 he moved with his then-girlfriend to Surprise, her hometown, separating Kaper from the urban gangbanging lifestyle that was a constant magnet back in Phoenix. Not surprisingly, Surprise held little attraction for him. "I don't know how the hell that happened," he says of the move. "I'm living in Surprise, in this damn little farm town, sandwiched by Sun City and Sun City West, but there's a lot of trains there, so I was tagging trains a lot."
After a short residency in Surprise, Kaper returned to Phoenix about the same time "tagbanging" was becoming a national media phenomenon. Kids with no concept of the history of graffiti and its New York City roots were writing their names anywhere and everywhere, and the media instantly assumed it was yet another symptom of America's explosion of urban gangsters. "We're writers," Kaper asserts. "We bomb, we tag, we piece, we do it all full circle. But we're called writers, we're not called taggers, we're not called piecers, we're not called bombers."
While half of him hated the taggers and the media hype that egged them on, he was also noticing quality tags -- good can control, fresh styles -- and was stoked that graffiti's elements were infiltrating Phoenix. Working construction at the time, Kaper would notice interesting tags on his way to work, write down the location, and later ride the bus back to study the tag.
In altruistic spirit, Kaper attempted to take some of the more talented tagbangers under his wing, schooling them. He formed a new crew with them, Masters of Destruction (MOD), while keeping the KTS affiliation for himself. "I was trying to meet people and be cool with everybody," he says. "Trying to help kids. I was trying to make Phoenix be like Los Angeles where people have talent, where people piece good and paint good. I was trying to instigate kids to be proud of painting good, not to just tag." His efforts were shunned, however, and the kids he had brought into MOD began creating crews behind Kaper's back -- a cardinal sin, stinking of disrespect.
"Right then is when I decided to become an ogre of a writer. I started becoming more and more not cool with people, not sharing information, not teaching people," he says. At the same point, around 1992, Kaper was also beginning a spiritual quest that would change his life.
A few years earlier, Kaper, who had always flirted with a rap career, had been persuaded to attend a Christian rap show by a Salvation Army preacher. The pastor followed Kaper and his BSP homeys around in a white Salvation Army van, trying to persuade them to come to one of the rap concerts organized by Hispanic Ministries. One day, purely because of logistics -- the event was across the street from a friend's house where they could retire to drink beer if the show sucked -- Kaper decided he and his boys would attend.
They saw an act called Soldiers for Christ, and Kaper was impressed with the MCs' skills; this wasn't like that DC Talk pap, these Christians could rhyme. The rappers also gave effusive testimonies about their faith, and Kaper felt the spirit seeping into him. He approached the altar, his gangmates following, and the evangelists began praying for them, touching them, laying on hands. Kaper was convinced he heard his calling. The experience led Kaper to later start his own Christian rap group, True Riches, which experienced limited success opening for touring urban Christian acts.
"I always wanted to be a healer," Kaper says wistfully. "I'd see people all messed up and I would always wish I had the power to touch them, to make them better, make them healthy or whatever." He became a youth leader in his church, largely eschewing illegal graffiti, though he continued to follow and obsess over it via magazines, the network of writers he had ingratiated himself to, and the legal walls he painted (including one at his church). He eventually enrolled in a Pentecostal bible college to pursue a ministerial ordination. "The bible college I was going to was like a healing type ministry: speaking in tongues, healing people, laying on of hands."
A favorite teacher of his told the class once that the day's lesson would be speaking in tongues. Kaper was unconvinced. "Are we going to learn it?" he asked. The teacher responded negatively, grabbing Kaper's head, and trying to force the holy language out of him. Kaper wasn't feeling it, but began imitating the sounds he'd heard other Pentecostals erupt with. "It all sounds the same," he says. He became convinced it was a psychological reaction to religious fervor, not the language of heaven as he had been taught.
Around 1995, while still in bible college, Kaper met his wife "AMOR" (as he tags her name) in their Glendale church. Hailing from a similar background, and with some experience in the culture of graf, Amor and Kaper hit it off immediately, despite a seven-year age difference. "He was in a church drama," she recalls with a grin. "One of those type of 'Gangster Got Redeemed' dramas."
During this same time period, Kaper met two other graf writers who would play significant roles in his future. While painting a mural with Amor commissioned by a local politician ("one of those basic stay in school' type deals . . ."), two writers, Pez and Fise, from a crew called Blessed With Style (BWS), rolled up and introduced themselves. Ironically, both were employed at the time by Pioneer Ford as "buffers," charged with cleaning out graffiti. Pez and Fise were forming a new crew, christened NG (for "Nitty Gritty," although NG members often adapt the phrase creatively to fit the acronym, like "No Girls"). Today NG is widely acknowledged as the premier graffiti crew in Arizona, and includes satellite writers in Pittsburgh, Albuquerque and El Paso. Kaper was asked to join at NG's inception, and because he respected BWS' work, he became a founding father of the crew.
Kaper's relatively docile life was about to be shaken to its foundations, though. On March 21, 1996, Kaper and a like-minded Christian friend named Chico were trying to sell crosses outside the Willow House on East McDowell Road, preaching to the youths they encountered. "Nobody wanted to buy the crosses; everybody was cheap," Kaper recalls. "So I just said, Let's give them away.' So we started giving them to all these goth people that were wearing upside down crosses, being all Satanic. I was trying to get my little preach on, like, Here, you've got a chance, He understands you no matter how messed up you are. . . .' I was good at it. I could sit there and turn demonic people into interested individuals."
The next morning, the phone rang at Kaper's home; his mother had been killed the night before in a car accident. His mom, sister and baby niece were driving back from another sister's house in Missouri. Around Las Cruces, New Mexico, his sister fell asleep at the wheel and the car went off the road. Kaper's mom and the baby were ejected from the car; his mother died instantly, but the baby only suffered a scratch on her head. Now 8 years old, the little girl still bears a scar from the accident. "Every time I see that scar on that little girl's head, it's just totally like in the movies -- a flashback. Like whoosh, whoosh, whoosh,'" Kaper says, shuddering.
Kaper's church was quick to respond and comfort the grieving young man, but the empathy of the faithful was short-lived, at least in Kaper's estimation. He'd never experienced loss of a close relative; his four grandparents were still living, and he expected more pity from the church than it had to offer, especially since he was soldiering in the Lord's service when his mom passed away.
His one confidante, his girlfriend of nine months Amor, shouldered the duty of comforting and consoling Kaper. "He's really a closed person when it comes to things like that, personal things," she says. "He didn't really share his feelings too much. I just let it be and just let him do what he had to do, and I think he appreciated that a whole lot."
Kaper's mother's death was only the first blow to his faith. Shortly after her death, Kaper and Amor found out that she was pregnant with their first child. Kaper told his pastor, who was shocked. "You're a youth leader in the church," the pastor said, "an ordained minister of the Lord!"
"I'm not anymore," Kaper replied. Then, little by little, the church members began whispering about the scandal, shooting the couple critical looks, vibing them away.
"It kind of revealed to us how they all really thought, how they all really were," Amor says. "Everybody was almost like a phony. We could feel that vibe coming from them, like, Oh, you guys are bad.'"
Kaper and Amor left the church, and have never returned. "I just said, Screw this, let's quit going and live our own life,'" he says. "Now, when people ask me, What are you?' I go, I'm just a human being right now that's searching for knowledge and truth.'"
At the same time Kaper's faith was slipping away, the focus of his graffiti was shifting from walls to trains. "I just looked at a bigger picture," he says. "Before all I cared about was where I lived, my surroundings, the environment, my city." Kaper wanted a national audience, and boxcars would be his vehicle.
It's impossible to overstate the impact that Kaper's mother's passing had on his life. "That was totally a pivoting point," Kaper says. "Everything in my whole life shifted -- my graffiti, my beliefs, my friendships, being with Amor, everything. After it happened, I was pretty mad. I needed something to keep myself from going crazy, so I painted hard. I painted really hard. I was doing six, seven, eight trains a night, every day of the week, every night of the week. That year I did probably 450 or 500 trains. I just snapped. I promised myself I was going to be the king of Arizona. Then I was like, I'm gonna try to be the king of the U.S."
In the train yard, after the threat of capture seems to have passed and the offending headlights have long disappeared, Kaper crawls out from under the boxcar and finishes his piece, filling the outer crevices of the letters with yellow bubbles that gather and loose themselves from the letters' joints. He tags his crews' names on the piece's periphery -- "NG" and "Boxstars" -- and his name with a halo above it. Then, thinking of the scare moments before, Kaper remembers he has forgotten his good luck ritual, a habit originated by necessity, but continued out of superstition. He walks down a couple of cars, ducks between them, and defecates on the tracks, wiping himself with a roll of toilet paper he keeps in his bag of spray cans.
Kaper's been striving to become king of the freight painters in Arizona for years, and those intimate with the medium say he succeeded years ago. Los Angeles' Posh, whose CBS Crew includes many underground hip-hop luminaries, such as the Shapeshifters, reflects on Kaper's career with awe. ³The guy's just done an amazing amount of work. There's very few people in the entire train game that have done the quantity that Kaper's done for the amount of time that he's done it and actively kept going with it. He's just about that: the amount, the quantity, the quickness. It's refreshing to see a guy that's still out there doing what originally freights were about, which is quantity and readability.²
"I'm on a higher level," Kaper says. "Some high school kids might not know who I am, but they don't even matter. There's all these little flash in the pans everywhere, flavors of the week. But I'm the flavor of two decades. They're all a bunch of shiny little stars, but I feel like I'm the whole universe that's holding these stars together. I'm not trying to sound egotistical, but if they'd seen what I've seen, it would amaze them."
Kaper's eyes go glossy when he muses on the trains he's painted over the years. "Imagine if my pieces had eyes, if my graffiti had eyes, or if I could throw a video recorder on the trains that I've painted on, all the shit my pieces have seen."
Now age 32, with two children by his wife Amor, Kaper shares with his family the demons that hide under boxcars with him, but the couple stand by his choices. "It makes me nervous, but I support it," Amor says. "I've gotten really used to it, I guess. We've been together for so long and nothing's ever happened before. He's very careful and very level-headed and calm when something does happen, so I believe he'll know how to take care of himself when situations arise. I've just gotten really comfortable with the fact that nothing has happened, so I'm not really as nervous as I should be."
She is also consoled by the fact that Kaper's freight painting has slowed in frequency, and that his forays into the legitimate art world have been received enthusiastically.
There is a division of opinion amongst "real" graf writers as to whether it breaks the code of graffiti to capitalize on your art and cross over to the gallery world. It's an especially disconcerting issue in an age where any kid with a digital camera and Internet access can present himself to the world as an accomplished writer. Kaper thinks there is a fine line, but that he deserves his due in Benjamins. "I think a writer should wise his ass up and make some money off his art instead of kissing the man's ass," he asserts. "Success is being happy doing what you want to do."
Kaper's legal forays into art are as brilliant, or more so, as the letters he paints on trains. He's spent much of the past two years delving into welded sculptures -- his intention was to craft spray cans into various experimental constructs: an assortment of robotic spray cans with menacing, saw-like limbs, cans with heads of children's action figures; a giant syringe with a spray can as its bladder and shopping cart rods for the needle and plunger. He diversified into non-spray-can sculpture, crafting works such as a heavy steel turntable and a robot with a transistor radio for a head, holding a microphone. The only common denominators are that nearly all his works relate to Chicano culture or the culture of hip-hop and its four elements: the MC, the DJ, the graffiti writer, and the b-boy (breakdancer).
"[Kaper's] metal work is incredible," Posh gushes. "The sculptures are a secret weapon of his. If he could monopolize on that . . . I don't think he realizes how much money he could make from that shit. In L.A. people buy metal sculptures all the time, and his metal stuff is cooler than any of that shit. He's a metal wizard."
"I like it because it lets me work with my hands, making things with my hands instead of just spraying a tip on a can all the time," Kaper says. "I always have dreams about making gigantic sculptures like you see in front of banks or in parks -- big 40-foot-tall sculptures. I've got crazy sick ideas that blow away any of these sculptures I see out there."
Kaper's also experimenting with furniture designs, and clothing designs as well. "ReZurrection [the Tempe vintage furniture store] is garbage compared to what I'm going to do. I'd like to do a show in the spring, hopefully, of all my furniture. Like an interior decorating show sort of -- real fancy, real nice."
Kaper's advancing age, his familial responsibilities, the demons that haunt him when he considers the repercussions of his actions, and the fact that he has little left to prove in the graf world all beg the same question: When is it time to give up illegal graffiti?
His wife believes that the process is already in motion. "He's told me before that he wants to stop," she says. "But I don't think it's really in his heart to stop -- not yet, anyway. He's certainly slowed down a lot, but I don't know if that's just because he's got other things going on. I think that's what his whole 20th-anniversary party was about, just showing people that he's done his time, he's paid his dues, and if he stops, then nobody should be complaining about it. 'Cause he's been there. He's done it.
"He's used to the old-school way of doing things. All these younger kids, a lot of them hold different views than him about the way graf should be, and he's trying to teach the younger kids, but a lot of them don't want to hear it. I think that might be a driving force of him actually stopping one day. Then again, I could be wrong," she says, laughing.
As for Kaper, when the question is posed, he responds with a noncommittal poker face. "I realize that I'm older and sometimes the things that I have at home are more important, definitely, than my graffiti. Being the age that I am, there's a lot more to lose if I get caught. I won't tell my father-in-law or my mother-in-law; my dad doesn't know. I guess part of me is ashamed, and another part knows they won't be able to handle it. To those people, whenever I put my family in risk of me not bringing income to the family, if I'm in jail or get killed or something, in their eyes that makes me very immature, very unstable to them. And I understand, expect even that they might think like that."
Kaper, who supports his family as a welder, cannot abandon the thought that there is more to life, however, than making a buck.
"I think that being a father and a husband that still does what his imagination takes him to is more prosperous to my family, to me.
"Everybody who's painted as long as me, or done something in their scene as long as I've done it, should have the right to feel respected," he continues. "I feel like I'm at the point where I'm only gonna do it like twice a month. Maybe it'll come to a point where it's once a year. When am I gonna stop? As a famous writer from New York, Scheme, said, When I'm done.' Maybe when I'm done means when I'm dead," he says melodramatically.
"Illegal graffiti is what the whole point is, that's what makes it fun because it's like cat and mouse. I'm living my life fighting against evil, which I feel is like the government and the police system and all of that. I do it in spite of who they are, just to get them mad."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Mesa Police Kill Woman During Asperger Meltdown
- Troublemaking Teens Busted in Tempe Car Shootings
- Joe Arpaio's Headless Horse to Be Buried; Horse Group Picks Fight with State...