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.