The Writing on the Wall
By Jeff Berg
Graffiti has been around for centuries, but has almost always had a negative reaction from its accidental audience. It has had messages of all kinds, from political to advertising. And now a video game is out that allows anyone to participate, sort of.
Officer Rob Peterson of the Las Cruces Police Department, whom we met in the November 2005 issue of Desert Exposure, is one of the people who deals with graffiti on a regular basis. Peterson, one of several police officers who serve on a special unit known as TNT (Targeting Neighborhood Threats) was one of the law-enforcement officers interviewed for an article about gang activity in southern New Mexico.
At that time, Officer Peterson casually mentioned his "obsession" with graffiti artists, or "taggers," as they are sometimes called. At one point he said, "I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about those guys."
After recovering from a recent bout with appendicitis, Officer Peterson, who now sports a cool-looking "TNT" logo tattoo on his right leg, was able to share a lot of information about the folks who wield cans of spray paint (or, on other occasions, implements such as marking pens, and even house paint for big fill-in jobs) in the wee hours of the morning.
"Kids doing this look at it as street art, while we see it as vandalism," Peterson says.
He personally took an interest in graffiti when he noticed that there were problems at the Las Cruces Skate Park, a facility set up for skateboarders to use legally and without being hassled. "There was graffiti on the surface at the park (in the area used by the skaters), and it made problems for the kids that were using it. The parks and recreation department took care of that problem, but I took it upon myself to become more interested in what graffiti was about.
"Although the graffiti problem has died down some recently, it was a huge problem in 2005," Peterson adds. "TNT was assigned to the problem, and Officer Mike Brookerson got into it."
And Peterson again confesses, "I was spending sleepless nights thinking of how to deal with it."
He began reading up about street art/graffiti on the Internet. With the help of some friendly taggers, most of whom had given up the craft, Peterson was soon learning about the language and mannerisms of so-called "street artists."
Among other things, Peterson learned that there is a huge difference between street gang members who "throw up" (a quick marking) a gang sign, and the subculture of mostly young men who create their own brand of street art. "Gang tagging is simply someone marking their territory," he says—similar to a dog peeing on a bush, "which amounts to a form of criminal damage."
But Peterson has developed a healthy respect for the other type of graffiti that is called street art—just not where the artists do it. "These guys are using their art to represent themselves. The more times they get their name and work out there, the better they are known or respected by their peers. It is definitely a subculture itself.
"Some of them will do what is called a 'bombing run,' where they
'throw up' their moniker all over town. The person who is able to do
that the most is then 'the king.'"
Peterson relates a story about a young man who called himself "Bonsai." In 2005, Bonsai became Las Cruces' first person arrested for a felony graffiti case. "We were chasing this guy everywhere. He was out tagging two to three hours a night, and we were dumbfounded. He would work two to three hours at a time, considering that the challenge (for him) was the size of his letters and the space he was working in."
But eventually Bonsai slipped up and was caught after someone called about a tagger who had done some work on a dumpster.
"As it turns out," Peterson explains, "this guy was a concert-style pianist. He had a baby grand piano in his living room. He was an artist, and very bright, very educated. He is from an affluent family, but he had an alcohol problem. When he drank, he felt that he needed to show off his work."
Alcohol and drugs, especially meth, often have a hand in the work that street artists do. Peterson has noted that a number of the arrests that have been made also involved drugs.
"Their brains are going 100 mph while they are on meth, so they will go out and tag," he says.
And, as you may have already guessed, most graffiti artists are male. Peterson adds, "Most times they are adults and often they are art students." Locally, there are probably not any women who partake in this sort of handicraft or mischief, depending on how you look at it.
Despite his issues with their chosen "canvas," Peterson is impressed with the work of some of the locals. "They are accomplished artists. Incredible artists. I admire their art and ability, but it is definitely a menace to the community."
There is a good mix of Anglo and Hispanic when it comes to cultural background. Although larger cities often boast a lot of African-American taggers, Peterson is not aware of any in Las Cruces.
Often the graffiti artists will be kind of rebellious, and don't usually fit in with other crowds. "They can be misfits with a talent that they don't know how to express in other ways," Peterson says.
Peterson also recalls two other busy taggers whom the TNT officers tried to catch for quite some time. "Ask" and "Defect" were a couple of major players in the Las Cruces world of graffiti, he says.
Peterson found Ask particularly hard to catch until one night: "We could not catch him, and did not even know who he was. One night when I was off duty, I woke up at 2 a.m., and got dressed and went out to Spruce and Telshor."
Sure enough, Peterson's hunch was accurate, and he was able to follow
Ask to his home. Further investigation revealed that they had their man.
Peterson is also quick to point out that Ask was not a drug user.
In spite of Officer Peterson's respect for what the taggers do, it is where they do it that remains the problem for him and most everyone else in the community. "Bonsai," whose early-morning work had kept TNT on their toes for quite some time, was given a five-year deferred sentence. Since then, Peterson can recall only three or four other collars and convictions of would-be street Rembrandts.
Like all artists, taggers strive to be all that they can be among their peers. They all want to get better at it, says Peterson.
"Part of what they seek is notoriety," he explains. "Sometimes that comes with the difficulty of the location in which the work is done. Some guys hang off of bridges." (Indeed, on a recent trip to Washington, DC, I was aboard the subway and noted a number of different "props"—tag names—on the side of a railroad bridge that crossed the Potomac River.)
Peterson goes on, "In larger cities, sometimes they will hang on to the back of a bus while working. One guy in El Paso was killed when he fell while climbing up to a billboard. They get more respect from within their community that way. The network might know who they are, or they might not know. It could be the guy standing next to them."
Many taggers will also keep a "black book," which they have others of their ilk sign, especially if it is someone whose art they respect.
Graffiti has become so widespread that there are even places that sell specialized graffiti tips for spray cans, with Krylon being the preferred medium. Rustoleum remains popular, too. One brand of paint that is made in Spain is especially for graffiti artists. The pecking order among the taggers has become such that anyone who uses the regular tip on a spray can is not respected by the pros, dismissed as "toys."
Their preferred local "canvas" often is a wall covered with "sto," which offers a surface with a rubbery feel. Says Peterson, "Stucco is easy to replace, but sto cannot be matched and often means that the whole building needs to be resurfaced."
Other prime targets are railroad cars. The "writer" (tagger)
who makes his mark on a boxcar can be assured that he will soon have
his own traveling art exhibit.
But not all graffiti artists are out to make their mark on society by committing a crime. For example, Travis McNiel used to do a little bit of tagging, but only in discreet places.
"For a certain element, getting your name up is a big thing," says McNiel, whose "tag" is "Chek."
"I never wanted to destroy anything," he adds. "I am a homeowner myself now, and I don't want to wake up one morning to find that someone has done that to me. I just never got into it."
McNiel, a quiet, pleasant young man whom one would not imagine being on the street at 2 a.m. with a can of paint, is a Las Cruces artist and graphic designer who has also lived in Santa Fe. Besides his mural-type work, he also creates fine art, and has some of his work on display and for sale at Sol Imports in Mesilla, where he recently sold three of his works. His wife, Courtney, is an elementary-school teacher.
And he is not a drug or alcohol abuser.
But his main interest lies in doing mural-type work. To that end, McNiel has taught classes in the past for students at the Alma d'Arte Charter School in Las Cruces for those who had the urge to start graffiti work, via airbrush.
"The classes probably had 50 percent boys and 50 percent girls. The girls were better and more persistent. I have never really noticed any lines with painters. There are 13-14-year-old kids, and veterans who are in their 40s. But they are all very passionate about what they do."
McNiel observes that most of the younger taggers have embraced the hip-hop lifestyle.
Much as Officer Peterson does, McNiel admires the work of street artists, but does not support it per se. He would rather see it done in legal ways by helping to procure places where the art could be done and appreciated by all.
"So many walls would look better with art," McNiel says. "We worked with the city codes department in the past to have a 'dumpster day.' The city brought out a bunch of dumpsters, and we all went over to Club Fusion and painted all day long. We tried to do it as an educational program, to show people how these guys actually do it. But there wasn't that great a turnout," McNiel adds with a hint of frustration in his voice.
The second time an effort was made to allow people to learn about graffiti art, Irene Oliver Lewis of Alma d'Arte made arrangements for the students to work on a house near the school. Some panels outside Las Cruces Court Youth Center have also been done in street-art style.
"The kids were experimenting, and the neighbors came unglued," McNiel recalls. "People have a negative reaction and a negative connotation of graffiti."
Graffiti is nonethless a form of art, McNiel feels, and in 50 years could be seen as the next big "movement" in the art world. Some local businesses such as Oasis 7, a tattoo emporium, have been supportive of graffiti as art. When Oasis 7 held a graffiti show, McNiel says, people came from Albuquerque and California to see it.
When he lived in Santa Fe, McNiel knew of a church on the south side of the city, Calvary Chapel, which would donate a whole wall (termed a "free wall") for graffiti artists to work on. They all understood that their work would be covered up by others, and there were other venues in Santa Fe back then.
But McNiel warns that without similar outlets or venues, communities can count on seeing more illegal tagging.
"These guys have real talent," he says. "They learn how to roll their wrists and stuff. A piece can take four to five hours to do, and the blending of the colors can take another hour."
"Flow" pieces, those without a preplanned outline, are also popular. As with any good artist, the idea is to get your message across.
And graffiti art is evolving, Officer Peterson notes. After rattling off several sites around Las Cruces that are noted homes to street art, Peterson mentions his first and recent encounter with "stenciling," a form of graffiti that is very popular in Europe, where graffiti is prominent and much more political. Stencil graffiti is often much more pictorial, featuring images of common items, but in a unique stencil design, whereas tagging is most often lettering or a freeform type of drawing. Check out the book Stencil Graffiti by Tristan Marco.
"Do you know where Don Roser (Avenue) is?" Peterson asks. "There is a blue (stencil-graffiti) image by the underpass on Triviz."
After a recent slowdown in graffiti art, McNiel
sees a fresh upsurge in interest in it now. "The 'writers' really
slowed down after the 1980s. There were lots of painters at that time.
Now it is younger kids, and there is a resurgence in it. It is time
for those young guys to carry the torch."