Tagging Tales

A night inside Tucson's street-art community

The sweet, acidic smell of spray paint surrounded us like a cloud. Two graffiti artists--"Kai" and "Exit" are their tag names--made letter outlines for their bombs, large names and graphics, in a 30-foot-wide wash under the midtown Padre Kino statue.

I realized too late that I should not have worn a white sweater.

The route to the wash was adventurous. We walked fast along a towering chain-link fence to a place where Kai and Exit often painted. The fence separates a well-kept residential park from the large wash, useful for graffiti art and excess water during monsoon season. Without a flashlight, we warned each other about low-lying obstacles and spiky branches. Some 200 yards down, we found a hole in the fence--no more than 4 feet in diameter--and went through it.

We immediately discovered a steep concrete hill--the bank of the wash. Kai, Exit and my colleague Fernanda cautiously spider-walked down the embankment, quickly, soundlessly. I stayed at the top, afraid of tumbling down the 20-foot concrete embankment and breaking my camera.

Kai came back up and walked me down--slowly. I screamed when I misstepped, and they yelled at me: "Shut up!" Any excess noise might have attracted negative attention from the neighbors, bringing the police to arrest us all for vandalism and trespassing.

It was 10 p.m.

At the bottom, the tension was high. The moonlight danced off our bodies, and Fernanda and I looked around nervously, jumping at every sound and new shadow from the bridge above. Kai and Exit put on rubber gloves.

I just hoped the cops wouldn't show up.

"You wear gloves so you don't get spray paint on your hands. If a cop sees paint on your hands, he will know you've been painting," said Exit.

He looked goofy in his outfit, somehow out of place with his Shaquille O'Neal high-tops, excessively ripped jeans, black leather jacket and Japanese flag-printed bandana tied around his neck. He looked like he belonged at an art gallery in 1980s New York; instead, he was in a huge wash painting "Exit Only" with purple Montana-brand spray paint.

Under the bridge, with cars zooming past high above, Kai and Exit, both 24, unloaded their backpack full of spray-paint cans in many colors. Both started with pink and purple, Exit's favorite colors because of the way they make graphics "pop."

They outlined their stylized letters and designs with a darker color, then painted over them completely with the lighter shade, creating a solid color background. They finished by redefining the letters and designs with the darker color. The whole process took 10-15 minutes in sheer darkness.

I wondered how they could tell what their graphics said. Only if I stared at the words for a while could I make out the letters: Kai wrote "Fernanda," in celebration of my colleague, and Exit wrote "Pen 15" and "Exit only," his tag names.

Earlier in the evening, we received our own tag names. "You are called 'Calle Moves,'" Exit told Fernanda, a petite Mexican native who looked at him sheepishly. "And we call you 'Diane Sawyer,'" he told me.

Then there's the other side of graffiti.

"We got tagged," explained East Coast Super Subs owner Brandon McDowell, speaking of the three tag lines on his bright blue building on Park Avenue. "I feel like graffiti is worse than defacing a ride in Disneyland."

McDowell is understandably angry, because he now has to spend money to clean up the spray paint--for the second time in two years.

Andrea Ibañez, deputy director of the city's Department of Neighborhood Resources, which deals with the graffiti cleanup program, calls what Kai and Exit do "vandalism."

"It's horrible and costly. It's terrible. I hate it," said Ibañez. "Graffiti makes things look trashy and costs the city 18 cents per square foot to paint over. I've never heard any homeowner say they like it. We don't have anyone in town selling the idea that graffiti is art or muralism; it just looks like a bunch of little scribbles."

Make that a lot of little scribbles. According to the city of Tucson, the amount of graffiti incidents--or, in legalese, criminal damage/intentional vandalism--is up this year (see Crime Search). From Jan. 1 into December, there were 2,669 incidents of criminal damage, up from 2,325 incidents in all of 2005.

For Kai and Exit, the safety of the wash allowed them to stay as long as they wanted to finish their pieces; neither has been run out by police or other graffiti gangs.

In the wash, their work is out of sight from much of society, making them well known only in the graffiti community.

"I would like to try and show my art in a gallery," said Exit, as he showed me his sketchbook with pages of dynamic illustrations. "I would like to get down to just producing art, but it takes a lot of time."

With a music career as Dank Stunna, producing his and others' music, and lifeguarding at year-round pools, free time is a commodity Exit doesn't have in abundance.

The Tucson art community is not closed to the idea of graffiti as art.

"I certainly think there is a place for street art," said Hannah Glasston, an associate at the Etherton Gallery. "Some of the most famous artists have come from street art."

Kai, however, is hesitant to show at a gallery; therefore, he continues making his art on illegal mediums like buses, trains, washes and buildings while also branching out into the legal side. "I've made nearly $30,000 in the last couple years selling sketchbooks, canvases and graffiti memorabilia on eBay," said Kai.

Like Kai, many graffiti artists are changing their ways and focusing their creativity on canvases and legal walls around town.

"I love graffiti art! It's the most hard-core art form," said 22-year-old Ryan Troncoso. "I did not stop writing graffiti. I just don't do it illegally. I've made over $1,000 selling canvases of my graffiti art--mostly pieces, at shows that I have with my band."

A member of Tucson hip-hop crew the Jivin Scientists, Troncoso--known as "Phen"--has sold canvas for as much as $100 to people while on tour, setting up impromptu art galleries at venues across the Southwest.

"I've sold the most in Albuquerque," he said.

When asked if he would show his work in a real gallery, he responded: "No, probably not. I'm not motivated enough."

To escape from the wash, you need to make a running start and propel yourself up the steep embankment. If you lean too far backwards, you'll tumble down. Kai helped me out--again--and we quietly followed the fence back to the car. Exit took my camera, cautious of any newly parked police cars. Fernanda and I ran for the car, jumped in and swung around to pick up the men.

We then drove to another residential area, where Exit showed me an intricate, multi-colored piece, running along the back of someone's midtown brick wall. "It's been here for a year or two," he said. I'm impressed that it has not been covered up; many outside the street-art community feel that when graffiti infiltrates a residential area, it becomes less artistic and more of a nuisance.

"I view graffiti as an art form, but it's vandalism if on the wrong place," said University of Arizona art professor Charles Hitner. "I've seen some beautiful stuff on the side of trains and on buildings that I would call art. Is it smart to do? No. Do I think it should be encouraged? No."

Graffiti as vandalism is also plaguing other parts of town, including hospitals and neighborhoods. "Graffiti is not a good thing. No. 1, it makes the building look like it's in the middle of a gang area, and No. 2, it's offensive. It makes people feel unsafe," said retired Realtor Floyd Graves, who now works as a security dispatcher for Northwest Medical Center.

"People don't want to come to the hospital for treatment if the walls are covered in tags, and they don't want to buy a house if mailboxes and walls are marked up with graffiti."

Back at Exit's house, Exit and Kai talked about the history of Tucson graffiti art over vodka drinks and bong rips.

"I started in sixth grade," said Exit. "I liked to draw, and I smoked a lot of weed. My first bomb is still running in a wash under this grate, but I can't get into it, because I'm too big now." I flipped through his sketchbook and pages of slides of his work. After they finish anything, they take a picture with their digital camera.

If caught by police, they said: "We erase all that shit fast."

"I used to make graffiti, because I got bored in school," said Exit. "In high school and middle school, I would do graffiti, and kids would see it around and see that I was getting big. They would associate the tag names with me, because they saw me practicing in school."

Graffiti at its core is basically a huge popularity contest within the confines of this tiny underground movement. Both Exit and Kai spoke candidly of past and present crews with which they have been associated. Kai is president of UK, an illusive and expansive crew with many meanings to the name; my favorites are "unleashing kans," "ugly kids" and "usurping konkrete." Exit belongs to UBS, DEA, UK, MS3 and D6 (see the sidebar), all of which he had to be let into or start.

"I've drawn constantly for 10 years," said Kai. He got started at a young age because his brother, who was in TSK, took him along when he went tagging. "Graffiti culture is for drunk, egomaniac degenerates," notes Kai, ironically. "It brings together all races; everyone is united by a common element."

I asked why they still wanted to do graffiti: Why had they not outgrown it or moved on to something else? There was no answer.

Kai took another hit from the bong. He went on to explain the history of graffiti battles.

"When someone crosses over your tag, then they want to battle you. In the old days, you had a 'get-up battle' where you would see who could get the highest, literally, on a building or train. Now, because of egomania, when people cross other people out, they fight, shoot or stab each other," Kai said.

Some choose to "cover up," or paint over others' artwork. "People cover each other's bombs way more than back in the day," said Exit. "Now, when crews battle, they go over each other's shit all the time."

Because of the violent shift in the graffiti community, stabbings and shootings are more prevalent than old school get-up battles.

Apparently high from the spray paint fumes and a bit of marijuana, Kai and Exit spoke of the past kings of Tucson and the well-known artists who died, such as "Skeez," who was hit by a train while trying to paint on another.

"'Mean' is the king of Tucson, but you can't talk to him; we don't know where he is," said Exit. There aren't that many kings of Tucson now, but all the old rulers are still here, they said, citing of a well-known past king who serves up drinks at Che's.

"To become a king, you get up the most and stay up everywhere. You are the best of everything: bombs, pieces, rooftops tag lines; you win get-up battles, explained Exit.

"All the kings of Tucson are parents now, regular people," said Kai.

"Heart was the only queen of Tucson," said Exit. "She was the only girl graffiti writer that got up a lot, but that was in the old days." There isn't a queen today.

Some, like the king of Philadelphia, still keep up with the subculture. "The king of Philly has been working for 20 years. He got busted when he was 18, then again when he was 38. He said he hoped he did not get caught for another 20," said Kai.

At this point in the conversation, it was nearly midnight, and more big names within the graffiti crew--who you would not link to graffiti if you saw them walking down the street--showed up. "NAWX," 26, who was "killing rooftops between 2000 and 2001," talked of his Art Farm crew (AF).

"Every three days, we would do a rooftop on the Fox Theatre roofs. At 3 a.m., we would climb a fence up to a rain gutter, follow that to the wall of a downtown rooftop, jump the gap separating buildings (a three-story plummet), then paint a 'burner,' a graphic bigger than a bomb but smaller than a piece with three to five colors," he said, drinking vodka. "Once, the whole downtown police department was shining the big search light on me on the Fox Theatre, but I've never been charged for graffiti."

It's the fear of legal problems that drives some people away from graffiti.

"I did graffiti in high school, but it is more of something you do when drunk or (when you) feel the need to be stupid," said 22-year-old Matt Meko, an art major at the UA. "Society does not consider it an art form, but I don't like to make judgments. I like brushing paint better, and I don't like the idea of getting arrested."

Two weeks later at downtown's Vaudeville Cabaret, about 30 people were dancing. The crowd was waiting for local favorites DJ Element, and in the background were two canvases on easels with two artists creating "live art."

One artist, "Saber," was writing his tag over and over in the bottom left corner, then blurring the lines with black paint. From afar, it looked like the top of trees in a night sky scene of an electrical aorta, an artistic take on stars in the sky. It was beautiful. The second artist, "Be Bop," was creating a flying teapot-stove scene with a man in the foreground waiting for his drink with cup in hand.

This is the beginning of live art in Tucson, Troncoso said, yelling over the loud music.

"We are going to start doing this every weekend," he said. "They are already doing it all the time in Phoenix."

The canvases looked like professional quality, part abstract, part surreal; friends and strangers looked on with curiosity. The real reason for this live art experience was to promote a December graffiti battle, offering a $1,000 prize.

This continued commercialization of graffiti art angers some people. Wheat pasting--the art of pasting graffiti posters to walls with wheat glue--"has been co-opted by the commercial industry," Kai said bitterly, because businesses now pay people to hang their advertisements in this way, while it was once only done as street art. All over, there are more and more signs of the commercialization of graffiti, from the popularity of English street artist "Banksy," who recently had an art show in Los Angeles, to advertisements featuring graffiti.

In the end, there are a million opinions. Is graffiti art? Vandalism? A commercialized way for businesses to reach a younger, hipper target audience? Regardless, the Tucson street-art community is continuing to grow and change, as does every art movement.

As I left Exit's southside home, I wondered where these graffiti artists will be in five years, and if they would still refer to me as "Diane Sawyer."

I hope not.

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