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Sunday, March 18, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Marking Their Words

FREMONT BUSTLES at its odd Bohemian-yuppie pace, but Tom Dobrowolsky, a University of Washington graduate student rapt by how we communicate in, and with, public space, stops to regard a metal door. Set back in a foot-deep alcove, it has become a temporary bulletin board, a chat room of sorts, of spray-painted scribbles we call graffiti tags.

These marks can't be confused with graffiti art. They are labels, brands, and unreadable to those outside the subculture. It's a private conversation in public, like that cellphone yakker on the bus.

Who left marks on the door? Which came first? Do they reply directly to one another? Are they part of the same group? How long have they been there, and why are they still?

"The city is a library," says Dobrowolsky, who co-directs the UW's Urban Archives project, which catalogs examples of ephemeral street communication. "Buildings are like books. We annotate with addresses and signs. Graffiti, well, that's like the scribbling you maybe shouldn't put in the margins, but do."

Like it or not, the marginalia we call graffiti is a fact of city life, and academics like Dobrowolsky and his partners believe it's worth documenting for research.

It is human nature to want to be noticed somehow, somewhere. We have something to say sometimes. Why else would bumper stickers exist? Or vote-for-so-and-so yard signs? Ever notice those stickers on the backs of street signs? The odd stencils? It all washes on the sea of official street texts pointing you here, warning you not to park there or nudging you toward what to buy.

Unofficial street signs are part of the public conversation, and graffiti represents a particularly heated debate. Seattle city government, other agencies and private property owners reply to it with millions of dollars worth of erasing through paint, power-washing and simple human scrubbing. Private property owners get fined if they don't buff the damage done to them.

Mayor Greg Nickels especially hates it. He subscribes to the "broken windows" theory, which essentially says a graffiti tag left unbuffed invites more graffiti, and a lot of graffiti eventually tells the public the affected area is unsafe.

Despite the constant buffing and aggressive prosecution, graffiti remains ubiquitous. It is vandalism — the act meaning as much as, if not more than, the writing on the wall. The majority resembles the scribbling of a 2-year-old wielding a crayon, but some shows stunning creativity and talent.

Mostly teens and 20-something men, writers give all sorts of reasons. Some say it's about the art, or self-expression, or protest against a corporate ownership, or society's imbalance, or all of the above. They say government-gray blank walls are oppressive and public advertising is manipulative.

Ultimately, they say, tagging means I exist, I'm here, and I've got a place in the public forum. I, too, can advertise.

This vandalism matters because how a place is structured determines how we relate to and behave in it, sociologists say. Graffiti is one of those unsanctioned layers that adds context. How we react to it varies widely. Some of us fixate on it, burning up the city's anti-graffiti hotline several times a week, if not daily. Others find it too mundane to even notice.

Dobrowolsky says studying and noting it does not mean you like it. Just that it's happening in the public square. Once you start looking, however, it seems to be everywhere. Across the street from the doorway collage is a big, black squiggle on the side of a rundown market. Two doors down, behind some leaning pallets, are two-toned bubble-letter "throw-ups," around the corner . . .

WE'VE BEEN WRITING on walls since cave-dwelling days, and literal texts from "Eat the Rich" to "Kilroy was Here" have shown up on walls ever since. Modern American graffiti began on the streets and in the subways of New York and Philadelphia in the late 1960s. Almost immediately, it became a subject of extreme polarization and serious sociological study.

The subculture speaks of "bombs" and "bites" and "burns" — to write, to copy, to excel. It purports to possess a code of rules and a hierarchy of sorts that separates "toys" (know-nothings, punks, beginners) from "kings" (talented artists). It has its own way of hurling insults and dismissing.

Hollywood and Madison Avenue have co-opted graffiti designs for campaigns that communicate both hip and slightly dangerous to sell just about everything from movie tickets to expensive sneakers. In the real world, most street graffiti consists of tags scribbled on poles, walls, trash cans, doors and railings. Even a tree gets hit once in a while.

There is very little gang graffiti in Seattle, authorities say, but it all involves, to a degree, marking territory. Taggers use property, both public and private, as a medium. It's part political statement, but ultimately they want to be respected by peers and noticed by the public. A 30-year-old Seattle visual artist, who sprayed elaborate pieces in California until he was 25, says he began as a teenager as a way to literally and figuratively leave his mark. He could communicate and find acceptance from others who thought like he did.

"The general public lacks the recognition that there is a certain segment of society for whom there is no real means of self-expression," he says. "Protest was certainly a part of it. I was a child then, and I needed approval. But after a while (facing constant governmental erasing and the threat of prosecution) it no longer was worth the risk."

A 22-year-old Seattle woman says she began writing graffiti at 13. She noticed it while skateboarding, met some writers and learned about the culture behind it.

"It all deeply sparked my interest, and it felt natural to want to contribute to the urban landscape. It became a positive outlet when I needed to get away from the turmoil at home."

She began with tagging, but over time and with practice her style and ability improved. So did her aim. She decided to leave small businesses alone because she knew of the fines they could incur. She focused her elaborate pieces on train cars and cement walls and under freeways and other places she thought only other writers would care to look, like garbage bins and alleys.

"Advertisements are like corporate graffiti," she says. "No one asked to see them but they are everywhere you look. Graffiti is in some ways a personal advertisement that is not selling anything but can get you recognition. It can be artistic, political, social, even aimless. It's expression. There is a freedom in graffiti."

She and other writers say Seattle deserves its reputation for being tough on graffiti. She got caught awhile back in Fremont and charged with property destruction (of property that was already destructed, she calls it). She received two years' probation, which includes, among many conditions: 200 hours' community service within one year, monthly proof of employment or schooling and no possession of graffiti paraphernalia. Others can get time in juvenile detention or jail.

Assistant Seattle City Attorney Edward McKenna has handled many graffiti cases, charging one suspect with 26 counts. Another defendant found tagging so addictive that despite losing a leg while painting a train, he kept doing it, after getting a prosthetic.

"From my experience, in Seattle, it appears to be middle-class males under 25," says McKenna. They often have substance-abuse problems. They all have low self-esteem. They all seek positive reinforcement from others who recognize their piece."

Perhaps no Seattle tagger was as prolific (or as caught) as Max Dornfeld. He was expelled from high school for graffiti in 1995, when he was 15. At last count, he had tagged in three countries and four states. He had been arrested 48 times, charged 74 times, convicted at least 29 times. He caused thousands of dollars in damage. He picked a tag particularly hostile to police. Sometimes they had to chase him. Once, he jumped out a bus window trying to escape.

He finally got sentenced to a year in jail before apparently leaving town.

Enno Tianen, 27, who says he often tagged with Dornfeld, left Seattle because he was facing a six-month sentence. He moved to San Francisco and then New York. Tagging became an addiction, he says, just like his alcohol dependency. He wants to return, but not if it means serving time.

"It's a crime. I'm not trying to justify it," he says. "But in Seattle they treat it like you're selling crack or hurting someone. I just wanted to get to the point in Seattle where everyone would know my name, even if they didn't want to."

GRAFFITI WRITERS use the side of a West Seattle overpass as a constant canvas. It gives them a measure of night-time seclusion, a good surface and a display for their finished products from a stretch of Alki Beach below.

Each week, the 50-foot-long, 8-foot-tall wall is plastered with work representing various styles, abilities and maturity levels. The grassy shelf on which they stood is littered with aerosol and beer cans.

Stacy Frazier, painter crew chief for the Seattle Public Utilities' Graffiti Rangers, and co-worker Houston Bradley make no artistic judgments as they arrive early one morning to erase it all. They start on opposite ends, each toting a roller and a bucket of cement-gray paint. Twenty minutes later, they meet in the middle and the slate is wiped clean.

It will be marked up within a week. The rangers will return to buff it clean. Taggers come back. Rangers buff again. A tit-for-tat conversation, you might say.

"Prompt removal is the key," says Frazier. "They will test you over and over again, but we keep it up, letting them know we'll be back. Hopefully, they'll get bored someday, grow up and find something else to do."

Bigger work waits just down the road, where intricate, multicolored designs, known by graffiti writers as pieces (for masterpieces) take up tiered slopes beneath another overpass. Rangers will need special equipment that can lower them down and beneath the bridge deck to remove the graffiti.

Finding difficult, sometimes dangerous spots is a way for writers to show off for cohorts, telling them how clever and brave you are. But mainly, the tough spots help the work last longer. Unlike the writers, the city must worry about safety and sometimes diverting traffic. Last summer, crews climbed 80 feet to remove a piece slathered on the underside of the Aurora Bridge. The same spot was hit twice in two months.

The rangers work primarily on the city property the agency manages. Calls collected on its hotline (206-684-7587) are routed to the appropriate agency. The school district and various other governmental agencies must buff their own property. The north end of the city gets hit hardest — or at least that is where most of the calls come from. The state Department of Transportation cleans up 10,000 square feet of graffiti a day in the Seattle area.

Just as graffiti encompasses a range of effort and ability, the spots the rangers have to buff — usually in direct response to citizen complaints — vary between big and small. After erasing the West Seattle piece, Frazier and Bradley cruise through the Central Area. They mop dark brown paint on tagged wood poles. They spray and wipe clean various markings on utility boxes. They obscure stickers on a trash can by painting it a new coat of dark green. One complaint turns out to be about a one-inch crayon scribble on a residential street hydrant.

"If you don't remove the tags, it sends a message to the vandal that it's not important enough to respond," says Vic Roberson, a Seattle Public Utilities manager who oversees the city's graffiti hotline and cleanup crew.

"Ignore it and you invite them to come again. We're telling them you come and we'll wipe you out."

Spending millions erasing tags only to see them quickly reappear seems an expensive reaction, but the fast buffing and prosecution are the best response officials have, taggers say. Eventually, it no longer becomes worth the risk and effort.

Many companies grudgingly accept graffiti cleanup as the cost of doing business, to the tune of between $300 and $1,000 a month in the SoDo District, says Mike Peringer, president of the business association there.

One SoDo building served as a memorable battlefield for Roberson. After several back-and-forths, the tagger gave up, but not before leaving one memorable parting shot, "My (expletive) tag won't burn here anymore."

Now that's communication. And as he recalls it, Roberson smiles like it's Christmas morning.

IF IT IS ALL ABOUT being seen, what do you make of a tree-shrouded wall along the east edge of the Woodland Park Zoo? If nothing else, it's a sampling of the various graffiti types: tags, bubble and shadow letters, two dominant pieces of mural quality, and simple declarative statements like, "freedom is free."

Like Dobrowolsky, Irina Gendelman and Giorgia Aiello are graduate students and co-directors of Urban Archives. They peruse the 25-yard-long by 15-foot-tall wall and regard the space, styles and intents.

Gendelman, herself a muralist whose master's thesis was titled "Communication Outlaws: Graffiti Control in Public Space," points out evidence that straight-edge tools and perhaps an aide or two were used to make one of the big pieces. It strikes her as a possible practice wall, a secluded place where the talented have time and the beginners can improve their style. She can imagine kids working away amid the smell of animal dung and roar of Aurora Avenue traffic below.

"A wall like this is a kind of communication that reveals social relationships that couldn't be seen or heard in any other way," she says. "As scholars, we look at this and gain some understanding about people trying to interact. Here, you can see the artists, the imitators and beginners. It's an open discussion on a secluded wall that no one would otherwise use."

The three grad students united from different disciplines but the same interest in unofficial communication. They began the archives project in 2004, and in addition to amassing images, they direct students who work for academic credit by documenting all sorts of public communication, including yard and car art. One student study surveyed bathroom-stall texts.

The project's site is www.urbanarchives.org, which contains a link to a searchable database of images. Graffiti accounts for about half of the site's 4,000 images from here and elsewhere. Many would just like it all to disappear, but Aiello emphasizes that their task is not to judge whether graffiti is good or bad but to consider it and other unofficial street signs as part of the dialogue.

"We think it is important as historical record," Aiello says. "How do people out of the mainstream communicate and shape culture? It's important, because where does a researcher go to find an alternative record?"

While the site's goal of attaching details to images sets it apart, there are now many graffiti sites with more samples. In fact, the Internet has altered the world of graffiti, as it has communication in general. Writers still seek the right spot and surface, but now they photograph their work and give it a longer life and wider audience on the Web.

But place still matters. Graffiti gets most of the attention, but the here-today-gone-tomorrow record of unsanctioned street communication goes well past that. Dobrowolsky pays attention to stencils and harvests stickers pasted on parking signs. Some are overtly political, some mysterious.

He stops in mid-step near the graffiti door after noticing a different rendering of a ubiquitous sticker on the back of a parking sign. He sees it all over town, but this marks a new version. He peels it off, explaining that all street text disappears soon enough anyway.

A week later, while walking near the Pike Place Market, he discovers that the sticker is from a company too small or cheap to pay for advertising. He appreciates the little-guy attempt to find advertising space, but acknowledges that it is basically graffiti-for-profit, which seems to be about the lowest rung on the ladder.

"A little disappointing," he says. "I was hoping that it was some person or some crew pumping out gratuitous street art and, instead, it is basically viral marketing."

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at rseven@seattletimes.com. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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