An (ex)graffiti artist goes public
Compared with other small American cities, Burlington has a reputation for being hip and artsy. But when it comes to public perceptions of graffiti, that hip-hop-inflected, spray-paint-intensive artistic subculture — fuhgeddaboudit. At least, that’s the word from a former “tagger.” He reports that average Burling -tonians don’t have a clue about all the graffiti in their midst — where it’s done and who’s doing it, let alone what those bubble letters mean. Then again, he doesn’t really want them to find out.
By anyone’s measure, graffiti is a touchy subject in the Queen City. While it’s hard to take the pulse of an art movement that thrives on anonymity and marginality, a Burlington Police Department official suggests graffiti has become an “increasingly burdensome problem,” especially in the last two years. In fact, BPD has begun customizing its reporting procedures to better document graffiti incidents.
A short walk around downtown seems to justify BPD’s policy change: New “tags,” or hastily spray-painted letters, pop up on a weekly basis on both public and private property, almost always without the consent of city or landowners. Just this month, Burlington’s City Council passed a new “anti-tagging” ordinance that will raise the penalty for illegal spraying from the standard $50 to as much as $500.
Who’s responsible for this anarcho-cornucopia of color? Why do taggers get such a thrill from being a collective pain in the ass? And what’s the place, if any, of graffiti in a progressive, aesthetically aware city?
Just before midnight on a recent Friday, a former “writer” — he prefers that moniker to “tagger” — bikes over to the Seven Days office near the Burlington waterfront. It’s the first really humid night of the year. Swollen clouds hang over Lake Champlain, and sounds from downtown nightclubs drift down the hill. Joe (not his real name), who is in his early twenties, has agreed to meet a reporter on the condition that his personal info remain confidential. Once inside, he seats himself under a bank of fluorescent lights, as if for an interrogation. Between the sticky weather and Joe’s skittishness, the interview could almost pass for a scene from “Miami Vice.”
Since it first appeared en masse on New York City subway cars in the 1970s, graffiti has been recognized as an underground expression of anti-authoritarian, class and creative angst. According to Joe, who claims to associate with 10 to 15 writers and have an “ear to the streets,” Burlington’s graffiti scene fits that profile, more or less. For example, he says that while local writers don’t travel in aggressive gangs, they do spray in the company of artistic “crews,” or social support networks. And, while he maintains it’s difficult to generalize about the type of person who gravitates to the art form, Joe admits the writers he knows share a desire to — ahem — stick it to the man. He sprinkles his commentary with snide allusions to “rich people” and “Jersey college kids.”
Still, says Joe, writers aren’t out there just to feed an anti-authority complex or combat urban gentrification. “All the [writers] I know are interested in art as a whole and do all sorts of different things,” he avers. “Most have a history of canvas painting.” Joe himself cites such varied personal influences as Salvador Dalí, children’s drawings and tattoo art.
Sounds like writing on walls could fit right into the local art scene. There’s a catch, though: Joe insists the writers he’s referring to aren’t the ones pissing off city officials. As he describes it, Burlington’s graffiti gurus adhere to an artistic hierarchy in which seasoned writers look down on callous upstarts. It’s the new generation of renegade high schoolers, he contends, that’s been causing all the uproar.
Joe himself, who has lived in Vermont “off and on” his whole life, subscribes to what he calls an “unwritten rule.” It prohibits spraying on both private property and existing art — including murals. To hear him complain about the recent upsurge in so-called inferior tags, you’d think he was one of the very “Jersey college kids” he likes to dis. “When I see drunken, ugly messes for, like, three blocks,” Joe gripes, “I’m like, ‘What was this kid thinking?’”
To accentuate his point, he removes a CD from his bag and pops it into a laptop. A series of 33 colorful, stylistically diverse spray-paint creations graces the screen. Joe is careful to point out that he didn’t make any of them; he says he merely documents others’ work. Most of these pieces have been sprayed under bridges or overpasses, others on freight trains — semi-remote sites, far from the public’s daily grind.
Of all the pieces in this catalogue, Joe is especially drawn to an 8-foot duet job sprayed on the underside of a Burlington-area overpass. It features a parade of angular lettering. “If you haven’t seen a lot of [graffiti],” he cautions, “it’s hard to understand.” A short tutorial reveals that the bubbles are actually the artists’ code names: “Resker,” scrawled in pink and blue; and “Kaes,” in bright yellow.
Despite its expansive energy, the piece — which Joe estimates took between two and four hours to create — displays a surprising degree of creative economy. “This has a lot of detail to it, but it’s painted really well,” Joe says. “All the letters are, like, really crispy. This person obviously knows how to use a can of spray paint.”
When Joe gives a run-down of how the painting process works, you’d think he was describing a Vermeer. The first step, he says, is outlining a “basic skeleton” of your letter shapes. Then, decorate the “fill” and add “shine” — slivers of white paint that give letters a “plasticky” look — before laying down the “drop,” or shadow. Finally, add an outline to make the letters stand out.
No wonder he’s riding such a high horse when it comes to the recent tagging controversy. “The people I’m talking about aren’t the ones out fucking up our town,” Joe stresses. “I mean, they are, to a certain extent — but they’re not the reason why our town is so ugly right now. I’ll put it that way.”
This former writer’s ambivalence expresses itself in an artistic doublespeak that could be emblematic of the Burlington graffiti scene. While Joe decries the recent tagging epidemic as shameless vandalism, he also admits graffiti is “a rebellious thing by nature” that will never please “40-year-old soccer moms.” True to that spirit, one of his photos immortalizes a tag that was sprayed atop the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf on North Winooski Avenue. The tag’s neon-green bubble letters read, “KAESR” — apparently a variation on the “Kaes” signature. Joe guesses it probably took 20 or 30 minutes to create, under cover of night. Then he suggests that publicly sanctioned murals, or “legals,” are just for posers. “Legals aren’t really graffiti,” he scoffs. “Even if there are letters, it’s still a mural.”
Joe’s attitude wouldn’t please the city residentswho put considerable time and resources — an estimated $50,000 in 2006 — into cleaning up unwanted graffiti. Since tagging can be done so quickly and on such anepic scale, any successful effort to curb it will probably have to win the approval of the culture jammers themselves. That hasn’t happened so far. Case in point: Last year, three city-sanctioned panels painted by former taggers at the corner of North and North Union streets, in Burlington’s Old North End, were vandalized by taggers.
According to Angie Spong, an AmeriCorps-VISTA worker at Burlington’s Center for Community and Neighborhoods (C-CAN), BPD processed 32 graffiti violations in 2005 and 2006. Thirty of the sprayers, she says, were over 18 — a number that suggests the problem isn’t just a teenage fad, as Joe claims. A BPD official confirms that general trend. Of last year’s violators, Spong notes, four participated in C-CAN’s Restorative Justice Program. Four new offenders have alreadyentered the program in 2007.
But Spong sees some light at the end of the overpass tunnel. Since August, the 26-year-old AmeriCorps worke has been trying to find ways to beautify the city without alienating its underground “offenders.” Spong’s organization, a division of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), played a major role in drafting the recent anti-tagging ordinance. But its mission isn’t just punitive: In May, C-CAN helped erect 12 new graffiti panels at the corner of North Street and North Union, a third of them sponsored by its Restorative Justice program.
A local art studio is also doing its part to help nurture B-town’s graffiti scene. Julia Roth is co-founder and director of Kriya Art Studio, which she describes as an affordable “art networking” and “creative” space. She’s promoting a graffiti art contest at her Old North End quarters on July 28, when interested artists will have the opportunity to paint on a blank wall in the studio parking lot. Winners will earn the privilege of painting on another, as-yet-unannounced wall, which will eventually become a rotating exhibition template for local talent.
Roth, 27, says she wants to see more emphasis placed on the “artistic side” of graffiti. For instance, she thinks the city could do more to promote painting on sites such as electrical boxes. “There are things like that all over the place,” she notes. “Why not paint them? Why not make them pretty?”
Meanwhile, Spong continues to walk the line between aesthetic appreciation and public duty. She appreciates the controversial art form — when it doesn’t break any laws. “I think a lot of graffiti art is really awesome,” says Spong. “However, when it’s just a dirty word across the side of some old lady’s house? That’s tagging, and that’s very, very different. I think that’s really offensive and unnecessary, and I think people who do that should have to pay the consequences for it.”
What does Joe the ex-tagger think of the various efforts to revitalize Burlington’s public spaces? “I think that’s cool, definitely. It’d be cool to have more murals around, of all sorts,” he reflects, adding that he thinks the new fines will probably help deter tagging. He also wishes more private businesses would help out by offering sites for painting.
But in the end, Joe cautions, many writers will paint wherever they want, no matter what the stakes. Graffiti “would happen anyway; you’re not going to be able to stop it,” he claims. “I think part of the reason that people do it is because of the risk of getting arrested. They’re doing something illegal, and they’re beating the system.”
If Spong is an uncommonly open-hearted official, then Joe ranks as one of the most civic-minded ruffians in the pantheon of subcultural revolt. As he collects his belongings in the Seven Days office, he puts one final, oddly considerate touch on the portrait of a complicated situation. “I like graffiti, but I don’t really like what our town looks like right now,” he observes. “I think it’s a problem, and I wish there was some way we could steer the younger generation in a better direction.”