Smooth Criminal: Urban Artist DOSE Takes Graffiti from the Street to the Museum and Beyond

It's painfully early on a weekend morning in the 'hood, and Phoenix graffiti artist DOSE and his homie FOES head south through streets filled with homeless crack- and meth-heads. The scene looks like something out of a Rob Zombie flick, with undead hookers and addicts plodding aimlessly from one side of the street to another.

The doors on DOSE's sleek, black sedan are locked and, anyway, it's not as though the pair are looking to score rocks. They pass through the area around Madison Street and Seventh Avenue and seek out the train yards farther south and west. DOSE drives through the yards, then follows the train tracks via back roads, going even farther west, looking for freight cars to tag.

"There's not anything in the yards right now," gripes DOSE. "Because the economy is down, there are no trains to fuck with."

They finally stop in an industrial area that looks suitably abandoned, jump out of the ride, and get busy. FOES disappears behind a train car — one of the few they see that day — standing alone on a side track. Although DOSE has a palette of spray-paint cans in the trunk, he opts to tag with custom-made markers filled with ink he mixed himself. They're quicker to hide should cops or private security roll up.

Light poles, fences, buildings, the sidewalk, you name it — they all become a blank canvas for urban hieroglyphics. FOES returns from tagging the side of a car and tells how he startled a bum lying under some plywood.

Suddenly, DOSE spots a rent-a-cop parking his security vehicle on a side street near the trio. Rather than wait for the inevitable, DOSE boldly strides toward the guard, engaging him in pleasantries. When he returns, he says not to sweat it. He told the guard they had stopped to take a leak and would soon be moving on.

"The worst thing anyone can do is run like a little girl," says DOSE, easing back in the car. "If you run right off the bat, they're gonna know you're doing something wrong. So I speak to them before they speak to me."

The day bleeds into the afternoon, and DOSE and FOES end up where they started, at a hideout doing bong hits, drinking Arrogant Bastard Ale, and jawboning about — what else? — graffiti.

Life's a ripe plum for DOSE right now. The veteran Phoenix writer (what graffiti artists call themselves) has been steadily increasing his fame over the past few years, helping to form an art collective called Forever In Control, which has sought out legal walls in spots across town, from the so-called "graffiti alley" behind stores on McDowell Road between 18th and 19th streets to the cinder block walls of Miranda's Custom Cars in south Phoenix.

Graffiti alley garnered the attention of ASU's Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts and heavy-hitters like former Herberger director of community engagement Joe Baker. This led to collaboration with established Phoenix sculptor and painter Hector Ruiz.

The products of the Ruiz-DOSE collaboration are wall-size canvases filled with social commentary, humor, and regional symbolism — explosions of color and visual references that critique the hypocrisy of modern American society, its racism, and its ruthless pursuit of the dollar. The canvases have caught the eye of Phoenix Art Museum modern-art curator Sara Cochran, who has included them in an ongoing exhibit of Latino artists called "Locals Only." Major local collector Treg Bradley has begun snapping them up. And Bentley Calverley, owner of Scottsdale's Bentley Gallery and Downtown's Bentley Projects, is representing both DOSE and Ruiz and is planning a major exhibition for both artists in November.

It's the kind of recognition that would make an art-school grad salivate. But DOSE didn't go to art school. That's to say, his art school has been the graffiti world, and it operates by different rules. That's why he still tags, even though he's in his 30s (relative old age for a graf writer) and on the verge of mainstream success.

"I keep tagging," DOSE says, "to let the other writers know that just because I'm doing gallery shows doesn't mean I'm sleeping on the streets or sleeping on the roots of what started it."

DOSE is cagey about his past. He has to be. Graffiti (or "criminal damage," as it's defined by Arizona Revised Statute 13-1602) could get a writer charged with anything from a class 2 misdemeanor to a class 4 felony, depending on how much it costs to clean or "buff" the damage.

DOSE claims he's never been caught, and he plans to keep it that way, though as his fame increases, keeping his real identity and his DOSE persona separate will become increasingly difficult.

"I don't care what anyone says," DOSE remarks. "I'm successful at graffiti, and I'm going to keep doing it. Am I going to stop because of the mere fact that it's illegal?"

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons