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Tag, You're It

It may be a practice dating back to ancient Rome, when primitive drawings announcing "Mongo was here!" decorated the walls of caves, but The Bird says "Beware!" to local graffiti artists and taggers: Our cultural wasteland isn't your canvas so much as a dragnet waiting to drop on your spray-paint-stained heads.

Okay, so taggers have always known that it's illegal to adorn public buildings with their designs and slogans. But a new crackdown by Maricopa County Attorney Andy Thomas and company will see those adorning public and private property get handed hefty fines, jail time, and -- worse yet for young would-be gangstas living in our car culture -- suspended drivers' licenses.

Seems the County Attorney's Office set up a 60-day sting targeting taggers and graffiti artists, eventually snagging four Phoenix juveniles who'd adorned a construction trailer and a couple of exterior walls at Brophy College Preparatory School on Central Avenue with their multicolored murals. The sneaky cops behind the sting set up a fake office on Central Avenue, then distributed fliers claiming they were making a documentary about graffiti artists in the Valley. The poor slobs who responded got hauled in and will -- if Reichsführer Thomas has his way -- have their young lives ruined. Two were charged with misdemeanor counts of damage by graffiti; the others with multiple felony counts of criminal damage. All of the kids are under 18, but Andy reportedly wants to transfer them to adult court to ensure that they receive ridiculously severe punishments.

The Bird could understand why Thomas would want to lay the wood to these cherubs if they were Mexican immigrants, because as reported frequently in these pages, the only county resident of Hispanic heritage he seems to revere is his own lovely wife. Even though Thomas comes across as the sissy you beat up on the playground, he's played redneck-pleasing racial politics to the hilt by doing everything in and out of his power to make Hispanics look like benefits-sucking scumbags.

Now the pasty prosecutor's attacking kids with spray-cans with the same vengeance.

"There's nothing cultural or artistic about defacing public and private property," Thomas announced at a subsequent press conference. "Graffiti vandalism represents a threat not just to property but to society as well. . . . Graffiti challenges our sense of order, and to the extent that you let people graffiti property, you're sending a message that other members of the criminal element can get away with worse."

Right, Andy, hardened criminals consider kids with baseball caps on backward as role models.

Andy's especially pissed that these dang delinquents had the nerve to deface Brophy Prep, because it's a Catholic institution and therefore God resides there. "Anyone who would deface Brophy High School to the tune of $5,000, that's a serious matter," Andy told the Arizona Republic.

When Andy talks tough, it gives this feathered fiend goose steps (uh, bumps).

But the joke's apparently on Andy, because the guys who got busted are what's known as "toys" in the world of graffiti artistry. That is, they aren't even respected by "serious" graffitists, the majority of whom around here (unlike places like Los Angeles) are hardly gangbangers themselves. See, part of the game's not getting caught, and these rookies have no cred among those who are really into putting art on buildings. (The graffiti artist's code is to only draw on public buildings or private ones that house schools or businesses. Brophy would qualify.)

"The whole bust is shady," declared Age, a local graffiti artist of some renown. "They cornered kids who aren't even part of the scene, really. Anyone who responded to this Hollywood movie scheme was going to get nailed. And the people who are bombing the city with graffiti wouldn't touch something like that with a 10-foot pole unless it came from someone with inside cred -- someone we know and trust saying 'this movie thing is real.' And, anyway, the people who do real graffiti don't want to be known. It's not about fame, it's about anonymous art."

The bogus movie sting cost county taxpayers $8,000, not including investigators' salaries.

Ken Lynch, spokesman for Phoenix's Neighborhood Services Department, admitted to this pesky pecker that treating taggers like felons doesn't work.

"The allure of tagging is that it's illegal," said Lynch, whose office had nothing to do with the recent sting by Thomas' people. "That's what makes it glamorous. The most effective way to eradicate graffiti is to just keep painting over it, which frustrates the taggers."

Lynch swore that, since January, his department's Graffiti Busters group has seen "an explosion" of civilians who want to be trained to use the "cover-it-up" paint sprayers offered by the city for graffiti cleanup.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela