Tagged

Art or Vandalism? Either way, for graffiti artists, it's all about getting your name out there.

Spray cans clink every time "Dems" takes a step, the pellet in each tapping with his every move. His sagging, desert camouflage pants droop with the weight of his loaded pockets, and his shoulders slump under the heft of the gear in his backpack. Darting back and forth across East Oakland Park Boulevard, the fast-talking 18-year-old with a barbell through his chin and a black stocking cap covering his unwashed brown hair sounds like a maraca.

He stops, pulls a can of black spray paint from one of his pockets, and unleashes ten seconds of concentrated fury on the unsuspecting, previously unmarred concrete side wall of an auto repair shop. When he is finished, his name screams out in spidery scrawl. With his best friend, "Trik," Dems then runs across the street to mark up the Lowe's parking lot. Earlier, about 11 p.m., Trik, a 17-year-old with rectangular framed glasses, braces, and spiky blond hair poking out from under his black visor, sneaked out of his father's west Broward County townhouse, padding his bed with pillows, in order to meet up with Dems at a bus stop on the corner of Hiatus Road and Broward Boulevard. Dems, who lives with his mother in an apartment off West Oakland Park Boulevard, took the bus to meet Trik.

The two are often limited in where they can tag because neither has a car. "We go out on bikes. We're, like, riding bikes down the highway and looking for heavens," Dems says, using the graffiti slang for billboards. "If we see a nice heaven that hasn't been hit yet, we'll leave our bikes to the side, climb up, and hit it. But ours are trick bikes with skinny seats, so it really hurts when we stay out all night." Trik nods his head and laughs, saying, "Yo, one time Dems, he was walking like a penguin when we were done, yo."

Shades of graffiti (clockwise from top left): Books makes his getaway; Dems  rests under his tag; Books' TV drone and his two soldiers; the handiwork of  another Broward tagger
Shades of graffiti (clockwise from top left): Books makes his getaway; Dems rests under his tag; Books' TV drone and his two soldiers; the handiwork of another Broward tagger

Before the Oakland Park spree, Dems and Trik met up with "Sign," a brown-haired, olive-complexioned 16-year-old, and the 17-year-old "Most," a tall, skinny, boy with buzzed blond hair. Most and Sign are friends. Most says that before tonight, he had never met Dems or Trik, though he'd seen their tags around. At first, Most hesitates to tag at all, insisting he's on probation and shouldn't do anything that might get him in more trouble. Later, he relents and tags with the others.

In fact, all four teens say they are currently on probation for graffiti. Dems boasts that he has been arrested twice. None of them sees problems with the law as reason enough to stop. Hours before they will climb a heaven high over I-95, the four boys tag around Oakland Park Boulevard. Walls, curbs, windows, even the side of a parked moving van -- nothing is sacred. Trik and Dems tag the moving van in full view of drive-through customers at a neighboring Wendy's. After their names, the two boys scribble "TBA," the name of the crew Dems says he started.

"TBA, it stands for To Be Announced," Dems explains later. He says he realizes the name is not very creative. "The letters looked cool together, and I couldn't think of anything else for it to stand for." Other crews, though, have more original names. Locally, WSB (West Side Broward), 7S (Seven Skills), and FUS (Fucking Up Shit) are said to be big crews. Crews are loosely assembled groups of graffiti writers but usually not street gangs. The members rarely engage in illegal activities other than putting up graffiti. Being a member of a highly respected crew is critical to achieving the underground fame graffiti writers crave.

The two more experienced graffers, Most and Sign, are both leaders in popular crews: Sign in 7S and Most in WSB. Dems and Trik consider it a big honor for Most and Sign to tag with them tonight, and they listen rapt to the experienced taggers.

"Here's a tip, guys," Sign says. "Don't carry all those cans with you. You only need one or two." At one point in the evening, Dems and Trik pass their black books -- sketchbooks of blank paper cherished as autograph books -- to Most and Sign for them to tag.

Dems lives graffiti. He knows the names and crew affiliations of South Florida's top taggers, and he wants every graf artist, everywhere, to know his name. He says he'll do whatever it takes for that to happen, even if it means climbing shaky ladders to reach his goal: the ultimate heaven.

Graffiti artists get famous two ways: by being good and by being everywhere. Dems is a tagger, and taggers don't paint colorful scenes and eye-catching characters. They don't even try to be artistically proficient. Instead, they scrawl their tags everywhere, a practiced way of quickly writing a made-up name, using paint and markers. Taggers call themselves graffiti artists, but in the hierarchy of graffiti, they're at the bottom. The other artists, whose fanciful scenes cover whole walls and require hours of planning, practice, and application, consider the work of taggers to be little more than simple vandalism.

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