The graffiti began showing up approximately in September, with multiple tags in Tempe and a few in Phoenix. The perpetrator would write "Penis Man." Nothing more. But the tagger, or taggers, quickly grew into an internet legend.
Then, for a few days last month, Penis Man became the college town's biggest problem, with tags suddenly showing up everywhere — even on the front door and walls of Tempe's iconic City Hall building. Police fanned out to interview witnesses, review videos, write search warrants. Their quick investigation soon led to a raid on a man's condominium that included a dozen officers and a tactical team.
That man, Dustin Shomer, now stands accused of 34 felony and misdemeanor counts related to the tags. Shomer is 37 years old and seems to have latched onto the Penis Man phenomenon as a copycat, going on a spraying spree during Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. He has admitted as much, and apparently believed for a time he was making a stand for leftist politics. Now Shomer says he was set up by an old friend who may be the "original" Penis Man, and who is trying to kill him. This all may be connected to the city or even Senator Kyrsten Sinema, he claims.
Regardless of Shomer's theories, police confirmed to Phoenix New Times that Shomer was not, and is not, the only person spray-painting things with this naughty name. Other, unidentified suspects remain at large.
The Legend of Penis Man
Whenever the first tags began, chatter about them on the internet shot up in December.
It became the talk of the Maple - Ash - Farmer - Wilson Neighborhood Facebook page for a while. Some folks tweeted about it. On December 31 it hit the airwaves as an ABC-15 News story by Zach Crenshaw, which went viral on social media. Tempe maintenance crews had already cleaned up 38 instances of the tag by that time.
Users on Instagram, Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter shared posts about the vandal as well as numerous actual photos of Penis Man tags. As the ABC-15 piece explained, some people "think it is hilarious and champion the unnamed vandal online."
Indeed, championing Penis Man, as the tagger became known, was quite popular online. Often, the praise seemed tongue-in-cheek. One maxim tweeted often in early January was, "We are all Penis Man."
As Twitter user "Haunter" posted on January 5, "Penis man is not one man, it is simply a name, it stands for something because we are all penis man."
Penis Man was transformed into a "hero" in the words of social media users:
"Not the hero we want but the one we deserve..."
"When I was in college, I created a comic book hero called Penis Man. He lives on in Tempe, AZ apparently,"
"Penis Man is the hero I've been waiting for."
On January 6, freelance journalist Nathaniel Kennon Perkins published an article on Medium.com entitled, "Penis Man: An Exclusive Interview with the Viral Tempe, AZ Graffiti Artist."
"The internet seems to be entertained by the crass absurdness of the name itself, which was a main purpose — grabbing the attention of the inner 12-year-old inside each of us," the alleged Penis Man tagger was quoted as saying. "But new theories have been surfacing in comment threads and message boards among the web, and a few of them are spot on."
Interest dropped off for a few days on Twitter and Facebook. Then came the explosion of graffiti on January 19 and 20, in which multiple buildings and structures were painted in Phoenix and Tempe around Arizona State University. Dozens of tags showed up suddenly that weekend at Tempe City Hall, the historic Hayden Flour Mill, the "A" sign on Hayden Butte, the pedestrian footbridge crossing University Drive, a construction site, dormitories, the Galvin Playhouse, ASU's Music building, the Hayden library, porta-potties at the Town Lake, and other sites. In Phoenix, the tagger hit the Arthaus building, Curaleaf dispensary, and Arizona Democratic Party headquarters.
Shomer put up a couple of tweets on January 22 that would be noted later in a police report.
"We are all Penis Man. Black spray paint is 98 cents a can at Wal Mart," he wrote. Shomer added: "There is a new legend coming and coming, but not necessarily to town. His name is Penis Man! Check it out. WE are all Penis Man!"
Penis Man's Big Adventure
In spite of the numerous tags in late 2019, police claimed they weren't actively seeking the tagger in early January.
"We have no reports of actual calls for service for it," Tempe Detective Natalie Barela told New Times on January 6. "We can only make an arrest on a related call for service."
That changed in the early morning hours of January 19, when Uber driver Cristian Moreno-Flores called police to report that he was following Penis Man's vehicle after catching him in the act.
Moreno-Flores had just finished a stop at ASU at about 2 a.m. when he saw a silver Honda SUV stopped on Sixth Street near Veterans Way, reports state. He stopped about 20 feet behind the vehicle and could see a white man with shoulder-length hair spray-paint the words "Penis Man" on a construction fence canvas. Moreno-Flores yelled at the man. The tagger, holding a can of spray paint, then hopped back into the car and drove off, eventually turning onto Rural Road. Moreno-Flores followed him and saw him pull into a T-Mobile parking lot and spray-paint the side of the building. At some point, Moreno-Flores called police and told them he was following the SUV, for which he gave a license plate number. Police instructed the Uber driver to stop following the vehicle when it turned onto the freeway.
That night, at about 11:30 p.m., someone spray painted "Penis Man" with black paint on the Chick-Fil-A building at 25 West University Drive and a van owned by Chick-Fil-A. Surveillance video later showed the suspect took photographs of his tags when he was done. Someone called Tempe police about 10 minutes later, saying a white man with shoulder-length hair had just spray-painted "Penis Man" on two stop signs.
The tagger hit another construction site at 650 North Scottsdale Road, a future Macayo's restaurant now being remodeled. "Penis Man" was painted on the building five times in black paint, and on a nearby fence three times. Video recordings showed the culprit wearing a hoodie and driving up in a small "hatch back vehicle."
That same night, the tagger also hit other building walls and fences on Scottsdale Road. He painted the water tanks and "A" sign at Hayden Butte. And he painted on Tempe's City Hall, plastering "Penis Man" on the front door, the windows on each side of the doors, and "City of Penis Man" on a concrete structure near the door.
Tempe police scrambled on the morning of January 20 to assess all the reports of damage. That's when they found out ASU police were looking for a spray-painting culprit in a silver Honda who had tagged 16 different locations on the university's Tempe campus overnight.
"Rents down, wages up!" read one tagging on the Music West building's lobby windows. "PENIS MAN fuck venture capital up!"
Police tracked the Honda SUV to Shomer's Phoenix condominium the same day and soon got a warrant approved to install a GPS tracker on it. They put their investigation together over the next three days, collecting video recordings and finding Shomer's social media and mobile phone information. Following a subpoena, they received a list of recent locations from AT&T that showed Shomer's phone had been in the tagging locations on January 19 and 20. Moreno-Flores was brought in for a photo lineup, and he picked out Shomer's photo.
On January 23, police used the GPS tracker and AT&T records to determine that the Honda was at Shomer's residence. They were ready to take on Penis Man.
Caught with Wet Paint
The world found out about the police raid two days later when Shomer wrote about it on Facebook, and New Times and other media confirmed the arrest with police.
"I just spent the last 24 hours in Tempe and Phoenix police custody for spraying 'Penis Man,'" Shomer wrote on Facebook on January 25. "They raided my condo and vehicle and swarmed my entire complex in west Phoenix with 25 heavily armed SWAT officers, and pointed a silenced assault rifle in my face."
In a later interview, Shomer walked back his assertion that there had been 25 SWAT officers on the scene, but insisted there were a few. He said about 25 police officers total had been involved in the arrest, and that for a moment, he had an assault rifle pointed at his head.
Besides Shomer's complaints, many news readers also found the police response excessive.
"We should all be Erection Guy and tag everything in sight to protest the insane militarization of local police. Are we really pretending Tempe had 0 unsolved violent crimes? No rapes? No murders? Penis Man was the prioroty?!" wrote Twitter user Jordan Lorts on January 26, to quote one example of the tweeted outrage.
Police wrote in court records after the arrest that Shomer had a "history of resisting arrest, anti-government beliefs."
Shomer later admitted to New Times he was once arrested in California while trying to report a missing person.
An officer "didn't take me seriously and pulled his taser," he said.
Tempe Detective Greg Bacon, a spokesperson for the department, said a "SWAT" team wasn't really sent to Shomer's condo. However, a "tactical response team" of four officers did take part in the raid, he acknowledged. And they had a K9 officer standing by, if needed. Bacon denied 25 officers took part in the raid, as Shomer claimed, and said he'd be surprised if it was more than 15 officers.
The four tactical officers wore helmets, and at least one carried a rifle, Bacon said. Tempe has not yet released bodycam video of the raid, but Bacon said he's reviewed the video and that it's unclear whether the rifle was ever pointed at Shomer's head. Most likely, the officer had the weapon at "low ready" the whole time, he said.
The officers did threaten to break down Shomer's door, but that's because Shomer initially locked it when police arrived. After being warned, Shomer unlocked the door, stepped outside, and was detained without consequences, from the cops' perspective.
"He was really cooperative," Bacon said.
At the condo, police seized a backpack "with wet paint inside." They also seized a black trench coat and black pants, Shomer's laptop and phone, a spray-paint can and a "paint sprayer." Several signs with "Penis Man" sprayed on them were found on a bedroom floor. A license plate with "Penis Man freshly painted on it" was found on top of a washer and dryer, along with a paint can and bowl. Police also found gloves on top of the refrigerator, one with the letter "P" painted on it, the other adorned with the letter "M."
"Not the original"
Shomer remained affable and confessed to police that he had indeed painted "Penis Man" on many of the things police said he did, and that he was the man in the video making the tags in the previous few days.
"Dustin was also shown various photographs obtained from the graffiti database going back to September through December and he stated those were not done by him," a report states. "Dustin stated he is not the original Penis Man and does not know who he is or where to find him."
Shomer denied doing any interview with Perkins, the freelancer, though he admitted he'd seen the Medium article and others about Penis Man. (New Times contacted Perkins about this, who said Shomer's not the person he interviewed.)
Shomer "claimed he originally heard about Penis Man through friends at a get together party which influenced him to want to write graffiti throughout the city," the report states. "Upon asking, Dustin explained that writing PENIS MAN all over the city was about starting a movement against the investors and developers who are moving into Tempe and Phoenix and causing housing and rent that is no longer affordable."
He said he targeted City Hall because of his "anti-government beliefs." Writing graffiti might not stop the developers, but Shomer told police he thought "it would upset them and help his cause which he referred to as a movement."
Meeting for an interview at New Times' Phoenix office last week, Shomer appeared nervous, if not jumpy, as he had on several phone calls. He was friendly, describing himself as an "unemployed slacker and musician" who was fired from a customer service job a month before the MLK-weekend tags, and who previously lived in Germany for many years. But Shomer was deeply worried about things that seemed to have no explanation.
He got the idea for Penis Man from an old high-school friend at a bar in Tempe, he explained. That individual, who may be the original Penis Man, Shomer said, "coerced" him into doing the tags by making him think it was for a good cause.
"I thought it was a leftist political statement — it's really all bullshit," he said. When he began talking to the police about the man's involvement, the man's ex-girlfriend showed up at Shomer's home and tried to plant drugs on him, Shomer said. Shomer's neighbor's car also mysteriously disappeared after the arrest, then showed up a couple of days later.
"People from my childhood are trying to kill me," Shomer said.
He posted something about these ideas on Facebook,
Shomer wonders whether the city or various politicians are behind Penis Man. He's been calling Tempe police and the FBI to get them to listen, but they don't seem to care about the greater issues, he said. He told New Times he's getting help for mental health issues, but that services in the Valley are terrible.
Bacon confirmed that Shomer contacted police after the arrest to inform them, again, that he's not the only person spray-painting "Penis Man." Police contacted Shomer's old friend but couldn't make any associations between him and the graffiti, Bacon said. Police let both men know how to file an injunction against harassment.
Yet Bacon said there's no reason to believe Shomer is wrong about being a copycat.
Other Penis Men?
"We do believe there are other people" doing the spray-painting, Bacon told New Times, adding that one or more other suspects were involved in the Penis Man tags. "We have not identified any other suspects," he said.
The other Penis Men, whoever they are, would be well advised to lay low. In theory, Shomer faces a possible 24 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Police say he caused $8,000 in damage, but that includes tags they can't pin on Shomer. The unemployed musician has no major convictions on his record and may or may not be sentenced to jail time. He was released from jail with an electronic monitoring device and is still in legal hot water. Fortunately for him, nearly 200 people have donated to his GoFundMe account, giving him over $3,200 for legal expenses.
New tags may have appeared since Shomer's arrest, judging by social media reports. An anonymous person behind the Twitter site @FansofPenisMan has posted what appear to be recent Penis Man tags found online, but tells New Times it's tough to tell if those tags are really new or not. A video posted by Twitter user @LushSux on February 11 that has garnered 100,000 views shows a masked man who doesn't look like Shomer painting Penis Man on a wall. But it's unclear where that vandalism took place.
One way or another, it looks as though the story of Penis Man in Arizona will continue.
"I just saw new penis man graphiti," Twitter user H & R Bloccboi (@ImDaRealMVP) posted on February 15. "We are all penis man. You can’t incarsorate [sic] an idea."
Below: More posts about Penis Man, including possible recent sightings of the tag.
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I feel like after the Arizona Penis Man was arrested he passed down his Penis Man title to someone else, Tony Stark style— Eon EMP ?????????? (@Eon_EMP) February 12, 2020
Free the penis man bruh, the other penis men gotta rise up! pic.twitter.com/ttdkxczuLc— aprille (@joshapril9) February 12, 2020
Penis Man just put the city of Tempe on notice ???????????????? pic.twitter.com/Zm33ZUb28l— bill d. ???? (@BillDarcangelo) December 6, 2019