"I was out in the street every night,running from police frequently . . . I got booked and didn’t even get charged, and I was there for two whole days getting processed. That was scary as shit. I hear about police killing people, but I’ve never had a gun pointed at me.”
I am on the phone with “Brandon.” He is talking about his experiences doing graffiti—or “tagging,” “writing,” being an “artist,” etc.—in Seattle.
“I’ve seen a couple times in Seattle where the police have actually come down on the freeway in both directions to catch people, with guns drawn and everything,” continues Brandon. “It’s almost like they’re bored or something . . . ”
“In 2009 Seattle spent $1.8 million removing graffiti from city property. This does not count private property, school property, state highways, or transit property.”
I am reading the website of Chris Young, the Seattle Police Department’s full-time graffiti detective. The site goes on to describe the dress of suspicious characters: “Graffiti vandals tend to favor hip-hop-style baggy clothing. The four pillars of hip-hop are rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti writing.”
In July 2010, the city of Seattle drafted a document titled “Assessment of the City of Seattle’s Anti-Graffiti Efforts: Best Practices and Recommendations,” noting that such measures have effected an “80 percent” reduction in graffiti in Vancouver, B.C. In Seattle, the document resulted in the establishment of the full-time position of “graffiti detective,” which in turn resulted in Chris Young’s website. I felt as if I was reading an antidrug ad from the ’80s, so I called Young, who formerly investigated child-abuse and sexual-assault crimes.
“Do you ever feel weird about doing this job instead?” I ask.
“It’s a 30-year career,” he says, “so it is nice to change things up now and again.” (Young, like everyone else I meet involved with graffiti, is way chiller than I expect.)
“How many cases have you brought in?” I ask.
“I investigate about 800 graffiti reports per year, with about 50 to 100 arrests and charges, combined.”
“How many people are doing graffiti in Seattle?”
“Maybe about 12 every night, multiple times a week . . . another couple hundred less frequently.”
“Has graffiti gone down since they put you on the beat?”
“Reports say it’s holding steady,” says Young. “In 2011, we had 767 incidents; in 2015, we had 762.”
“So what’s the point of having a graffiti detective?”
“Most cities our size have one,” says Young. “But it is a luxury.”
“The detective’s website? It looks like it was made 30 years ago,” comments Best Buy. “With the ‘pillars of hip-hop’ and shit? These days, graffiti is synonymous with skating and . . . not a lot else.”
We are behind the Whole Foods in Bellevue, outside Young’s jurisdiction. Just beyond the interlocking parking lots lie abandoned railroad tracks—a “chill spot” for graffiti.
“We’re meeting three kids,” says Best Buy.
At that moment on the railroad tracks below three teens stroll by, pale of complexion, plaid of dress, ambiguously youthful, sullen, and disaffected.
“Hey, guys,” says Best Buy.
“Hey,” murmurs one. They keep walking.
A minute later, Best Buy says, “I think that was them.”
We amble across the parking lot and catch up to them.
“What are you guys up to?” I say.
“Whatever,” says one.
“We’re gonna tag Hippie Funk,” offers Best Buy. “It’s a place under 405 that hippies used to use for bonfires back in the ’70s. When it became popular, it turned into a spot.”
They turn to leave together.
“Sorry that was awkward,” Best Buy says to me. “I haven’t met those guys before, except by text and on social media.”
“So you found me on Instagram?” says Mad_oner. “Everyone’s paranoid. You’d have to be stupid not to be. Did you hear they have that graffiti cop now? It’s ridiculous. Are you him?”
“Oh, OK,” says Mad_oner. “It’s just that he spends most of his time investigating graffiti on social media. Graffiti is a secret society that’s kind of come into the digital age and is not so secret anymore.”
“I met a few taggers yesterday,” I say. “They looked like they were 12.”
“This year’s my 20th year I’ve been writing,” says Mad_oner, win his 40s. “When I’m doing graffiti, it’s when I’m doing good . . . not doing drugs, not committing crimes. We’re gonna spend $210 million on a new juvenile jail; anything you build, you’ll fill it. This is a prime example of what King County and Seattle are willing to put their money into; Seattle has no legal wall, or public-art space, where anyone, were they so inclined, could do their creative graffiti endeavors.”
Mad_oner continues: “In San Francisco, there’s a well-known case of a guy getting killed [for writing graffiti] . . . the guy went out and murdered the kid. It is that kind of climate. In this kind of society, when you put property above human life, it’s gonna happen. The climate towards graffiti is directly related to property values.”
“Directly related to property values?” says Young. “Makes sense to me. If you paid $700,000 for your rambler, you don’t want it to get tagged. But do you do time? Nah. You get charged with ‘malicious mischief’ or ‘property destruction’—to be a felony, the damage has to be greater than $1,000, which is hard. I see people tag huge walls, and the bill comes back and it’s maybe $300 worth of damage. There’s this big myth that graffiti is gang-related, but these are not hardened criminals.”
“Why do they do it, then?”
“Because they’re bored and have nothing better to do,” answers Young.
“What about putting in a wall where everyone can do their creative graffiti endeavors?”
“ ‘Creative’? Maybe one percent of graffiti is artistic, if that’s what you mean. Besides, it doesn’t actually help curb illegal graffiti.”
Mad_oner says: “Graffiti is counterculture—it’s taking all the accepted norms of society and turning it on its head. Graffiti at its best is a political statement, against ownership, property, and the raping of the earth. It’s meant to turn a mirror on society, all the feelings it evokes.”
“Graffiti is a ‘political statement against the raping of the earth?’ ” says a man who calls himself Talpa. “Nah, man, that’s some silly shit. It’s just for fun.”
We are at Talpa’s house in the Central District, a few blocks behind the vanguard of gentrification.
“How many people are doing it in Seattle?”
“The police estimate 20 to 30, but it’s more like 75 to 150.”
“Nah, man, not many. A few crews, DFS, BTM, 3As—I knew this dude who for his initiation had to kick the shit out of someone. MS13, they tag and murder people.”
“Going over someone is the worst thing you can do,” answers Talpa. “There’s this dude, Kodak, who has a hella similar name to this other dude, Codar, so Kodak went over the ‘c’ and the ‘r’ in ‘Codar,’ so there was hella beef, until Codar kicked the shit out of Kodak, so there was no more beef.”
Talpa concludes: “Graffiti beef is the stupidest shit in the world.”
“Coming out with us tonight?” I ask.
Best Buy volunteers: “I’ve got a fire extinguisher.”
“Gnarly!” says Talpa. “It’s fuckin’ gross! It sprays, like, 40 feet high. You can get a tag done in 10 seconds. But that shit’ll get all over you.”
We head to Bellevue, to mix the spray in Best Buy’s parents’ driveway: 1.5 parts paint, 1 part water, half a part air.
“The preparations are hella extensive,” says Talpa. “Otherwise, you get paint all over everywhere.” He looks down at his clothes. “Yep, I got paint all over everywhere.”
At a gas station, we fill the extinguisher with compressed air and grab two garbage bags. Then we park behind a movie theater and vault a fence leading to bike paths and infrastructure I didn’t even know existed, right next to I-90.
We walk farther down the dark path, Best Buy lugging the massive metal extinguisher. I see Kodak on the rail bridge above. Or is it Codar?
From the path I watch them slide down a hillside, crouch beneath an off ramp, then advance, as in trench warfare; then they gain the spot and spray their tags in letters 20 feet high. On the way back they walk more slowly, admiring their handiwork; it’s taken over an hour of prep to shoot their load for 15 seconds.
It’s hard to dispute Chris Young’s assessment of graffiti’s artistic value.
“Can you peep it?” says Talpa. I can kinda peep it from there. “You can kinda peep it from here,” he says.
“That was too fun, man!” says Best Buy. “Too bad it cost 20 dollars.”
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