A Graffiti Crew Mourns the Loss of One of Its Own

"Can you come scoop the dukes?"

There was Ynot — all sharp, scrawny joints and ink-soaked skin — and his two boys, Quake and Pucho, and they sat inside Club Eden, a little nudie bar in Davie, commiserating alone. And even amid the distractions of neon and bouncing silicone, they were more together than with the rest of the world.

To gang-unit cops, the boys were lieutenants in South Florida's best-known and longest-running graffiti crew, MSG Cartel. To one another, they were homies, brothers, and surrogate fathers who dipped nightly, carrying backpacks full of silver, black, and red. They'd bomb the "heavens," or overhead highway signs; and "penits," the graffiti-covered abandoned buildings. They dodged cops, dogs, and nosy pimps. They headed home only when their cans were empty, their fingers throbbing, and their hearts beating out of their chests.

A "burner," or bright stylized letters, done with graffiti crew MSG.
Photo Courtesy of MSG Cartel
A "burner," or bright stylized letters, done with graffiti crew MSG.
A block-letter collaboration with inseparable bombing partner Dose.
Photo Courtesy of MSG Cartel
A block-letter collaboration with inseparable bombing partner Dose.

They drank — Ynot sucking down the usual Hennessy on the rocks — and made plans for the future, obscure schemes that only they might dream up. MSG (Miami Style Gods) would paint a gaudy Miami mural tribute to metal band Danzig. They would troop to Atlanta to catch Unknown Hinson, the schlocky country-and-western troubadour who was an obsession for the crew. And they would watch big trucks smash little cars at Monster Jam in Sunrise.

"Silly shit," Quake calls it now. Childish plans for a grown man — 28 and just laid off from a graphic design job — but that's the draw of graffiti: It's a way of forcing yourself to stay young, to not give a shit about your stretching criminal record or work the next morning or what your girl is gonna say when you climb into bed at 5 a.m. stinking of Rust-O again.

That's why it was so good having Ynot, who had turned 21 that midnight, around. He was MSG's 80-proof shot of youth. He didn't have to give a shit about that workaday routine and never woke up before early afternoon. He cared only about graffiti, tattooing, and his newborn son, Maximillian.

"Can you come scoop the dukes?" That's how the evening began for Quake, with a phone call from Ynot asking for a ride. Tuesday nights are called Fat Man's, when a dozen or so MSG members get together in a backyard to wash down massive quantities of food with domestic beer. This night, they met behind the MSG compound, three houses in Fort Lauderdale where crew members live. (There's also a warehouse in Wynwood where they tattoo, quietly draw in black books, and, when they have nowhere else to go, sleep.)

Quake, who lives in Miami, calls Fat Man's "the reckless sessions up in Broward." Everybody yells over each other instead of waiting to speak, the arguments get heated — especially when there's booze around — and the get-togethers might stretch for ten hours. The neighbors don't look forward to Tuesday nights.

This night, though, was different. Nobody really touched the relatively gourmet ham-and-potato casserole — "white-people food [that] two homies teamed up" to make, Quake explains — and Ynot was buried in a blue-lined notebook, planning a piece in memory of Sege, a graf artist who in 2003 swallowed 23 Oxys and never woke up. There's a lot of death in graffiti, but it comes with a dripping-chrome silver lining: Most bombers end up getting up more after they're gone. It's the duty of the crew to spend the next year or so littering the streets and highways with burners, fill-ins, and thousands of stickers bearing the dead member's tag.

"Yo, it's my birthday in half an hour," Ynot said at 11:30 p.m., and when his iPhone read midnight, he announced that too. He began talking about a nudie bar where he knew a couple of the strippers from his tattoo business. With his outlaw reputation, Lil Wayne-sans-melanin look, cool demeanor, and tattoo den where chant-rapper Waka Flocka Flame was forever on the stereo, Ynot was a "straight-up rock star," Quake says. Pole dancers naturally chose him to do their tramp stamps.

Quake cringed at the strip-club idea. Most MSG heads were a decade older than Ynot. For them, there are only two reasons to go out after midnight on a Tuesday: an I-95 heaven above the southbound lane, so that the Wednesday-morning commuters can't miss it, or a newly buffed wall ripe for the hitting only when the streets are empty.

But there's no denying your kid brother an inaugural trip to the titty bar. After all, for the past six years, he had killed time outside clubs, napalming the neighborhood with his trusty silver-filled Kiwi shoe polish bottle, while you partied inside.

The trip to Davie was a slow one, with them hanging out of the car windows every few blocks to plant stickers of their homey Basik's tag. He hadn't died, but he had moved to Kentucky — which was close enough.

All night, the boys brutally slapped Ynot's forearm bearing the fresh tattoo: an oozing casket with a bloodshot blue eye lying in wake. For once, the kid — whose arms, neck, and knuckles were covered in wobbly black tats that looked like they could have been done by a prison cellmate — was getting some good ink.

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