Overhead, cars and trucks rumble endlessly on the freeway. Next to one of the cement walls that runs along the sides of the skateboard park at Fourth and Bernard in Spokane, a teenager is shaking a can of spray paint. He steps back from a wall covered with graffiti -- painted words, letters and pictures, in styles ranging from the inventive to the illegible. All around the park, six-foot-tall names and initials collide with smaller phrases and symbols, overlapping colors with abandon. In a few minutes, he has painted a new image -- a series of letters thrown up on the wall, spelling out his handle or street name.
Like an explosion of color and expression, bits and pieces of graffiti are painted throughout downtown Spokane, appearing on pillars, walls, signs and bridges. But aside from what is found within the asphalt confines of the skateboard park, almost all of it is illegal.
The term graffiti means words or drawings on a wall. While the modern idea of graffiti as stylized public writing that is illegal in nature began to take shape in the middle of the 20th century, illicit public writings have been documented in cultures dating back to Pompeii, and examples have been found in Roman catacombs. People throughout history have used graffiti as a form of protest, using walls to carry their statement publicly and anonymously.
Today, graffiti exists primarily as an urban phenomenon, with several types present in most cities. The most common is the tag -- a quick, stylized rendition of one of the artist's street names done with spray paint or a marker. A tag's purpose is primarily to say, "I was here." Larger, more colorful and elaborate names, usually done in two colors, are called "throw ups," and serve to make a more visible statement about the writer's presence. Finally, there are larger works, usually done in multiple colors and covering a large amount of space, mixing words and images to create a type of visual poem that draws its language from the street. These are called "pieces."
One of the primary misconceptions about graffiti is that it all indicates gang activity. While gangs do use graffiti to indicate territory and communicate with their own members or other gangs, their painting is usually limited to tags. The majority of graffiti in downtown Spokane is made by graffiti writers who are not gang members. Much of it comes from teenagers trying graffiti out around their neighborhood.
According to a recent study conducted at Lund University in Sweden, a typical graffiti writer is male, 16 years old, an average student in school with above average grades in art. They do not regularly engage in illegal behavior outside of graffiti, and a greater percentage of them come from single-parent homes than most of their peer groups.
In getting to know many of the more prolific graffiti writers in Spokane during the writing of this article, I was struck by how ordinary their lives are. I did not witness any illegal activities aside from graffiti. The writers buy fast food, they skateboard and spend enormous amounts of time hanging around, talking to their friends. They play and talk about video games. They talk about the Spokane City Council, and about the potential impact of the North-South Freeway. Judging from the racial diversity of their friends, they aren't racists. Over time, I found out that among the group that was willing to talk on the record, they made up almost the entire local population of graffiti painters who are part of the two major graffiti "crews" in the Northwest, OMT and DNS. I mentioned to them that most people consider their crew markings to be gang markings, and the endless crossing out and marking over to be a local turf war.
One of the writers, who uses the nom de graf Zemek, laughed. "Any kid can go out and write on walls. There are no crews here, man, it's just us. There are some gangs here, but we're not one. Tagging over someone else, that's not a turf war..."
His friend, who uses the name Slugs, finishes his thought. "It's an art war."
"There's no battling here. Do people really think we're a gang? That makes it sound way more interesting than it actually is."
As we leave the skateboard park, Zemek points out a part of the wall he was recently working on to a younger painter standing there. "Work on this here, man. I want to see your stuff evolve."
As we walk away, Zemek explains a part of the graffiti culture that most people don't see, and most authorities rarely consider. "Instead of doing drugs, some kids come and paint. I don't do drugs -- I drink and smoke cigarettes sometimes. The only thing illegal that I do is graffiti."
I ask him why writers tag private homes and cars, and he looks at me. "We don't tag cars. If I wanted to, I would trash someone's car. But then you think, 'What if I had a car and someone did that?' and you don't do it. Most of those tags come from some kid who has a can of paint and wants to seem bad."
Despite the abundance of illegal tags, many of the artists spend enormous amounts of time working on legal pieces at the skateboard park. Like any artist, they work regularly, showing up day after day to create something new. Unlike other artists, another painting usually covers up their work several days later. But looking around the skateboard park, I realize that I am seeing more artwork done by artists in their teens and 20s than I have ever found in a gallery or a museum.
While the proliferation of graffiti-style T-shirt and skateboard art suggests that perhaps graffiti is at best commercial art, there have also been widely recognized artists who began their work as graffiti writers. Keith Haring, perhaps most famously, illegally painted trains and walls in the New York City subway, developing a distinct style and political voice that informed his more commercial work. Jean-Michel Basquiat's graffiti, which he often signed "Samo," continues to sell well at auctions. A local artist, Clae Welch, is currently working on an outdoor mural for a customer in Moses Lake. "But just the other day," Welch explains, "we were working on it -- multiple people, this whole wall, in the middle of the day -- and a woman drove up and started yelling at us that what we were doing was illegal."
"I think it's a very valid art form and form of expression," chuckles local artist Harold Balazs, when I ask him what he thinks. "I've looked at a lot of pictographs over the years, and I don't know if it's really different. There is some of it that's downright offensive, but then, I've seen that in other art as well. Some of the letter shapes and transformations are amazing; I've seen trains that I wish I had pictures of. I don't approve of actually destroying stuff, but at the same time it is an expression directly from real people, and I'm afraid that hasn't been given enough voice in our country. God knows it's more interesting than a lot of the public surfaces we have for art and billboards."
-- Written on King Belshazzar's Wall by the hand of God
Daniel 5.25, The Bible
any of the graffiti writers I spoke with are driven primarily by the sense that illegally writing their names on public walls gives them a degree of power and identity. The writers see the intrusion of their names, painted in bold colors and elaborate styles on public walls, as a violation of society's complacency, a reminder that despite corporate logos and economic infrastructure, creativity still thrives -- that the viewers inside their automobiles and offices can't ignore the life being lived out on the street. The larger the tag, and the more visible it is, the more successful it is considered to be.
"Just so other people look at it," Zemek explains.
Slugs adds, "You have to look at it."
"We want to be seen, and known. And it's sort of a competition between us, to see who can get up the most."
"In the craziest places."
"See who has the best style, and who evolves faster."
"It's like saying I've been there. Telling the city and everyone that I was there."
Among the writers themselves, however, the ultimate act of defiance is crossing out or writing over another person's tags. When I ask if there is any one writer or crew who does this the most, the answer is unanimously, "the city."
Since 1996, the city's COPS department has run the Paint Over Graffiti program, covering the graffiti on city property and homes or businesses that are unable to deal with the painting. The program is not funded by COPS, but it did receive almost $5,500 in donated paint in 2000 and was coordinated by a single volunteer.
Compared to a city like San Francisco, which spends more than $10 million annually to combat graffiti, Spokane commits relatively few resources to graffiti prevention. But the ideas behind the two programs are almost identical. "It's an eyesore," explains Marilyn Saunders, director of COPS, "and it shows a community that doesn't care. The majority of the graffiti is tagging -- monikers or street names -- and the rest is harmful gang communication. We don't want to incite that, and by covering it up, it diffuses that tool."
However, the idea that painting over graffiti makes any difference on who is actually on the street, and how safe those streets are, begins to seem absurd as I walk past walls painted over by the city with several of the graffiti writers whose work used to be there.
"We're still here," laughs a writer who asks to be called C. "Whatever they think they've accomplished by painting over my tag on this wall, it hasn't taken me away. It may look like they've cleaned up the street, made it safer, but it's still the same street. And they've just given me a nice clean wall to paint over again if I want to. They think they can take me away just by covering my name up. It's like another writer crossing me out, only the writer is the city and their tags are ugly."
I ask C if he would stop tagging places illegally if the city had more legal space available for painting. He thinks for a moment, then smiles. "That's not the point. Part of the point is that it's illegal. I live here. They can't ignore me. I have to put up with the cops harassing me, I have to look at business billboards and advertisements on buses. Part of writing is making them look back at me the same way."
Despite their tendency to talk about the thrill of illegal graffiti, most of the artists I spoke with admitted to doing the majority of their painting at the skateboard park, where painting on the walls is allowed. "It's just easier," C explains. "You have more time, you don't have to be looking over your shoulder. You can actually make something that's good."
"Graffiti is part of the skateboard culture," observes Taylor Bressler, the parks operations manager responsible for the skateboard park. "I hate the term 'gritty and urban,' but it's a recognized art form with skateboarding. And after the skate park opened almost four years ago, it happened immediately. And the cops didn't care for it. And so I said let's make it acceptable if you do it in the confines of the park. Of course, we still deal with profanity, and fascist statements. And they tend to get into tagging wars, especially this time of the year. But I still contend that graffiti in downtown has decreased."
According to COPS, in 1996 the Paint Over Graffiti program covered up 1,138 incidents of graffiti. For the year 2000, there were 199 incidents. Most of the downtown graffiti writers admit that they've probably done less illegal work since the skateboard park allowed graffiti.
"But it pisses me off that the only place I'm allowed to do my art is in some Cracker Jack box stuck under the freeway," says C. "That's the only place that the city allows graffiti -- that's the only place the art I do is accepted. It makes me want to go out and tag a hundred parking meters. If the city can pay for those murals downtown, that have nothing to do with my life or my friends' lives, they should be able to handle me finding my own space to paint."
I asked Karen Mobley, director for the Spokane County Arts Commission, if the city has considered devoting more space to legal graffiti art. "I have kind of mixed feelings about it frankly," Mobley answers. "The money for our work is targeted at graffiti abatement and community improvement. Clearly there are kids who have good skill. But I also spend a lot of time dealing with the same painters defacing artwork downtown. I look at how many of our resources we spend just looking the same, rather than directing them toward something new. So I don't believe I would encourage a place in our community where these subgroups work out their social issues on the wall and the area around the wall. And I don't believe that this is purely an aesthetic issue; I don't think that the people who vandalized my car were making an artistic statement. I personally know people who come from the suburban areas who are frightened by the downtown community. I think that's an obstacle to the businesses that would bring in young people."
It's a difficult position for a city like Spokane to be in, wanting to be an urban center without necessarily looking like one. For someone like C, it seems absurd. "Spokane says that it wants to attract young people, but it looks like some place from the '50s. Or else it looks sloppy and run down. I don't want to look around me and see meth labs and crack houses, and malls and fast food. I want to see artwork and paintings that I like. So I paint them. They don't have anything to do with selling drugs, killing people, or taking money. That's what the meth labs and malls do, not the graffiti."