"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.
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.
He was giving it too. Trained under local graf legend and tattoo artist Crome, Ynot was a prodigy with the electric pen. "It was scary how quick he picked shit up," says Quake, who himself schooled Ynot on graffiti techniques: how to make your work pop with color and contrast, how to always have the cleanest paint edges. "He was a sponge. He would absorb everything you taught him, and next thing you know, he would be better than you."
Sometime before 4 a.m., Quake, Ynot, and Pucho crept from the strip club to spray dark-blue tags on the parking lot's back wall, and then they went back in. Quake wouldn't have even thought about it the next day if not for one thing: It was the last time Ynot's tag would appear on a wall marked by his own hand.
Jonathan Corso was 12 years old and no taller than a parking meter when he gave himself the first one: "One Love" scrawled in big letters down his scrawny right biceps. When Michelle Corso asked her son just what the hell he had done, he swore it was pen ink, and she believed him. But it never faded. She later found out he had used henna ink and a white-hot wire while hunched over himself in the Davie bedroom he shared with his little brother, Kyle.
From then on, she sometimes felt like she couldn't look at her oldest son without seeing some new scribble etched forever onto his body. The tattoos appeared over the years as the greasy, spiked hair became messy dreads. Eventually, as if signing a contract on his skin to never be gainfully employed, Jonathan had her first name inscribed above his right eyebrow.
"Of course, I hated it all, because I thought he was so beautiful," she says. "But I understood it." Jonathan was daring the world to judge him before it got to know him. Plenty of cops, teachers, and classmates took him up on the offer. His "scary" appearance, his mom says, was a way of weeding people out.
His father, John, had split when Michelle was pregnant. They were both unemployed and hurtling toward bottom on drugs. "He saved my life when he was born," Michelle says of her first son. She got clean and trained to become a legal secretary, the occupation she still keeps, and remarried. Five years after Jonathan, she had his opposite in Kyle, a computer geek.
Though tests showed Jonathan had an IQ of 146 — a smidgen below genius — even if his mother dropped him at the front steps of his school building, he would find a way to slip out. Instead, he liked to draw, penciling intricate portraits of his neighborhood and house, of a b-boy posing in front of a brick wall. And when he was 12 — the year of his first tattoo — police officers dragged Jonathan to Michelle's door and berated him in front of her. He had tagged "Ynot" — something of a lifelong coda — on a racquetball wall.
That was the first of seven arrests as a minor, Michelle says, and things only got worse when he hooked up with the crew of graffiti writers nearly twice his age. Though she knew them all by their real first names, they called one another by monikers — Dose and Este and Pucho — like wannabe bandits or fighter pilots. And because Jonathan was a minor, "he took a lot of raps for those boys," she says. "I hated them all. I thought they were a dangerous influence."
At age 16, Jonathan dropped out of Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines. Juvenile judges grew tired of seeing the same scraggly rebel in their courtrooms. They started throwing the book at him: First, 21 days in a detention facility. Then, nine months in an academy for juvenile delinquents, called the Bay Point School, in Cutler Bay.
Jonathan never really seemed to mind the kid-jail stints. He called the nine-month academy "camp." He was on the debate team and became the resident graffiti guru. Administrators let him spray-paint on wooden boards, and when football star Jason Taylor visited Bay Point, Jonathan taught him how to do his name in bubble letters.
Michelle was apoplectic about her son's direction. She wouldn't realize until much later — after he was gone — that graffiti, and those older friends, might have been the one thing that could have saved his life.
"They're beautiful until they're shitting all over your car," Quake, dressed in black, says as he unloads a backpack full of Clash-brand spray paint from his trunk. He's talking about the peacocks and herons of El Portal, the North Dade village he's using as a pit stop on tonight's bombing mission.
It's 3 o'clock on a Friday morning in September, and a tinny droning from his iPhone hangs in the hamlet's silence. He has just discovered Nerve City, and the band's eerie sound matches his depressed mood. "It's so... shitty," he says in something like praise. "I think Ynot would have really dug it."
Minutes later, he's a few blocks away, in front of a clean gray wall bordering a darkness-shrouded Biscayne Boulevard parking lot. The music is off, and he's crafting his emergency-exit strategy. "My thinking is that if the cops come in, they'll be coming with lights on and all that," Quake whispers. "So our best bet is to go over the wall. It's short."
The smooth cement wall is at least eight feet tall. Some writers are better than others at the getaway scramble — where it's every man for himself. Ynot had a tendency to go deer-in-headlights, which is why he racked up so many arrests.
Oh, Quake adds, "if we do end up running, don't ever come back to your car." Once cops know what you're driving, they'll impound the vehicle — or worse, ransack it and leave the doors flung open while you're in lockup, for crackheads and hookers to use however they please.
The hiss of his spray can seems deafening, and it leaves a little halo of paint in the air as it hits the wall. He uses nearly a whole can of white for the fill-in of a several-foot-tall Y with a sweat drop jumping off its side — one of Ynot's signature fill-ins.
When cars drive too close or a Miami-Dade police cruiser stops at the nearby intersection, Quake responds with ninja-like reflexes. He melts into a black lump, his face buried within his shirt. He calls the technique "the turtle head."
He's at the wall for probably half an hour, planting four neat Y's seven steps from one another, followed by the signature " Quake."
As he walks away from the scene, he worries that the last Y is minutely smaller than the others. "I hope that I got the proportions right," he grouses. "The boys will never let me hear the end of it."
Most members of MSG have adopted "Ynot" as their own tag these days, some of them permanently. As Quake sits shotgun in a car crawling up the desolate boulevard, looking for surfaces on which to unload the dregs of his white paint, it's clear why he's been feverishly bombing since the death more than a month ago — the same reason Ynot picked up the Rust-O can in the first place.
It's therapy. "It's a hell of a feeling if you're into that sort of thing," Quake remarks as he scans alleyways looking for primed walls. "Right now, I finally feel awake, literally and figuratively."
Before Ynot, there was Crome. He was a big Kendall kid, descended from Arabs, whose dad was a signmaker specializing in nameplates for coke cowboys' cigarette boats. Crome speaks in such a slow, eye-lolling mumble that you look around for the spoon and syringe.
But he knows what you're thinking. "I've been judged all my life for the way I look, the way I talk," drawls Crome, now 33 years old. "Fuck it."
When he was a teenager in the late '80s, Crome used to lurk around the Wall of Fame — the since-destroyed wall around a trailer park near Ives Dairy Road and I-95. It was layered with pieces by writers from graffiti crews such as MTW (Miami's Top Writers) and the Inkheads. "I was just like, 'Whoa,' " he says of studying the work. "How do these dudes get those lines so fucking clean? I know they're not using tape, right?"
Back then, New Yorkers dominated graffiti. The major bombers in South Florida were transplants from Queens or the Bronx. But then Crome hooked up with Crook, a Polish kid from South Miami. They went on a spree that changed the look of Miami graffiti — using bright, glossy colors because it was only right in a region known for sports cars and neon.
In the five boroughs, graffiti writers used subway trains as their moving canvas to reach the most commuters. For the same reason, Crook and Crome hit signs and walls along the highways harder than anybody had before. They made their straight letters large and clear enough for civilians to decipher. South Florida's graffiti has never returned to the gritty hues of the Northeast.
Local news stations heaped them with publicity. When a WPLG-10 reporter kept referring to "Crookcrome" as one person, Crome sent a lackey to the camera setup to whisper truth in the newsman's ear.
Crome even has something of a logo: a deranged nurse shark he first painted while on acid. "I'm an advertiser," he says with a shrug. "Me and Crook wanted you to see us in Homestead, then see us in Palm Beach on the same day, so you're like, 'How the fuck...?' "
In 1992, Crook and Crome handpicked a few other writers to join their new crew, MSG. They recruited writers who had high artistic ability yet also were devoted bombers.
But all of those news reports were damaging egos in the Miami Police Department. In 1999, detectives raided a downtown Miami apartment and cuffed a man they believed to be Crook. His roommate, suspected as Crome, went on the lam but was eventually caught.
The cops took boxes of evidence from the apartment: spray-paint cans, black books, photos of the men posing next to Crook and Crome pieces. Prosecutors charged them with causing $800,000 in damage to highway signs in Broward and Miami-Dade counties alone — not to mention buffing and then painting over a mural that had been featured in Miami Vice.
The two — Crook, then 19 years old, and Crome, 22 — were used to spending a few days in county lockup. Now they were the target of one of the most ambitious graffiti cases in American history. Prosecutors demanded $1 million bond apiece for the two bombers — the number was later reduced to $50,000 — and each was looking at five years in prison and a six-figure fine. "I was terrified," Crome says. "I was a kid."
But the case, like most graffiti prosecutions, fell apart. Crome did get locked up on a "technicality" — he spent six months in jail for violating his probation after a DUI conviction. Crook did some time on a probation violation of his own and then fled to North Carolina to lie low. For the next half-decade, it seemed like every bomber in South Florida was afraid to pick up a spray-paint can.
In 2004, Crome was convicted of selling 1,000 ecstasy pills to an undercover cop — "fucking entrapment," he grumbles — and spent four years in prison. He ran MSG from his cell, like an imprisoned Mafia capo. He advised against a Miami-Dade/Broward graffiti beef; it happened anyway —"fucking idiots," he says. And he judged wannabe crew members by photos of their graffiti that made it past prison mail filters.
About a year into his sentence, he began hearing about two cats who were breathing new life into the tricounty bombing scene. "Yeah, they're from Broward," Crome's contacts told him, "but they're doing it just like you and Crook did."
Their tags even rolled off the tongue almost as easily: Ynot and Dose.
Their heavy bombing spree, which lasted from early 2003 to late 2005, has all melted together like a long, surreal dream in Dose's memory. Nearly three years of Ynot and Dose heading out in his "taggin' wagon," an elephantine white 1991 Chevy Caprice, every night — Thanksgiving and Christmas included — and climbing heavens and billboards by ladders and slats, hopping fences, running from cops, getting beatdowns from cops, spending nights in lockup, and then racking more spray-paint cans from supermarkets and hardware stores the next day to do it all again. They carried a notebook full of spots they already hit or had their eye on.
Graffiti writers trade their stories like currency, and Dose has a few good ones. Like the sweltering night when he and Ynot were scaling a billboard off State Road 84 (Miami-Dade sign owners are smart enough to lift the ladders far off the ground, but in Broward, they still haven't figured it out), and a cop happened to stop his cruiser directly underneath them to stake out speeders. The pair barely breathed for two hours, Dose dropping sweat onto Ynot, until the officer finally moved on. They did the billboard anyway. "We had a motto," Dose says. "As long as you get the piece up, it doesn't matter if you're busted afterwards. The job is done."
Like many graffiti writers, Dose, now 28, is not what you'd expect in an outlaw. He lives with his wife and two young kids in Broward, and he runs his own business, an engraving shop. He's clean-cut aside from one crooked tooth.
He first met Ynot around 2001. Dose was 20 years old, and Ynot was 12. He was embarrassed to be hanging out with the little snot-nose, but he really didn't have much of a choice: The kid was like an apparition of his younger self.
Dose had first started messing with crack and heroin when he was 11. By 15, he was stealing his mom's car to cop drugs in Liberty City. By 18, he was finally clean for good.
Even as a prepubescent, Ynot dabbled in every drug, but he liked coke the best, and he drank whiskey like a miniature longshoreman. "He didn't have much of a family life, to be honest," Dose says, and he became more of a father than a friend.
Pretty soon, Ynot learned what Dose had already discovered: Graffiti, if done with enough abandon, hit the same adrenaline nerve receptors as cocaine. "It was our new addiction," Dose says.
In 2005, the duo headed to Atlanta on a five-day graffiti business trip. They slept in the taggin' wagon, lived on McDonald's and Mountain Dew, and feasted on the city's untouched walls.
Dose fell in love with painting on brick and cement. He was sick of the stucco and pastel walls of South Florida. So a month after the bombing trip with Ynot, Dose packed up his belongings and headed back to Atlanta: "I moved to further my graffiti career." For the next three years, he'd bounce between the two cities before finally returning as a newlywed and starting a family.
That year, Crome emerged from prison and surveyed the damage left by the new überbombers. He was impressed. "Me and Crook did it first," Crome allows. "But, yeah, Dose and Ynot did it bigger and better."
On their drive back from a tattooing trip to North Carolina, during which Crome and 20-year-old Ynot each had made several hundred dollars a night, the young bomber began planning how he would blow the loot: a chain, a diamond pinkie ring —
"No, you're not, you stupid motherfucker," Crome boomed back. "You're going to get your [driver's] license, and you're going to start a bank account."
More and more, the crotchety 33-year-old ex-con had become Coach Crome to Ynot. They had met soon after Crome had been released from prison, and he had eventually put Ynot and Dose down with MSG. The older bomber had fallen in love with Ynot like the rest of them had, especially because he was such an eager and quick learner. "I was jealous of Ynot," Crome says. "It all came easy to him."
Ynot borrowed Crome's needles before saving up and buying his own. After a couple of years of practice, he was already rivaling his mentor for business and charging $300 for an hour of ink work. Crome pushed Ynot about graffiti too: He wanted the kid to ditch the black and silver paint and get with the Miami color scheme, and he wanted him to develop a character, some type of cartoon that could be easily replicated and recognized.
Ynot never did get that bank account, though, and he ended up having $1,700 stolen from under the mattress where he had stashed it.
He was on a bombing trip to New York City with Crome and Dose when his girlfriend, an 18-year-old named Angel Kelly, called to tell him she was pregnant. Ynot was despondent at first, spiraling into a Hennessy binge.
He was in danger of replicating his father's failures. "I would get at him every night, saying, 'Dude, what are you doing? Come on, man, you got to shape up,' " says Dose, who by then owned an engraving business and had two children. "I was getting so angry that my wife had to remind me: 'Hey, he's 20. What were you doing at that age?' "
Then, a few months before Angel was due, some beacon of manhood flicked on in Ynot. He put down the cognac, began planning for the baby, and was there when Maximillian von Corso-Kelly was born in March 2010. Even as he feuded with his girlfriend's parents, he doted on his son. "He started talking about how he could bring Max over here to play with our kids," Dose says, "and how we could all have this really good life."
"He just looked different" after the baby was born, says his mom, Michelle. "He looked like a man. He had a purpose."
Ynot had never been in a fight in his life. Whenever there was an argument, he always shut down and walked away. So when Quake, Pucho, and another friend saw him outside the strip club in the early-morning hours of his birthday, puffing up his chest and talking back to two large men who were jawing at him, Quake's first emotion was pride: "Look at little homey go."
Then one of the men spat in Ynot's face, and as the writer's friends rushed to his defense, a brawl exploded. The fight probably lasted five minutes — it's hard to tell when you're in the fray — and was serious enough to leave one writer with his punching hand in a cast.
"There were a lot of punches thrown," says one of Ynot's companions, who asked not to be identified, "but then we thought the fight was finished." So they headed back to their car.
That's when one of the men ran to his parked Cadillac Escalade, started it, and accelerated quickly in reverse, Ynot's friends say. The back end of the SUV smashed into the head and side of one of Ynot's friends — a big guy, weighing more than 200 pounds — blowing out the rear window and sending him flying "15 feet."
Ynot fell, and the massive vehicle's rear right tire plowed over his torso, resulting in a stomach-turning sound later compared to "a 30-pound slab of beef that's really wet being slammed on tile."
Then the man shifted the SUV into drive, Ynot's friends say, and ran over his unconscious body. One of the writers gave him CPR but couldn't revive him. The driver of the Escalade drove to the club's entrance and spoke to security guards, who had finally emerged.
"He tried to tell a tale like they were victims," Quake says. "Meanwhile, I was holding my boy while he's fucking dying."
When cops arrived, they detained the two men — who have not yet been publicly identified — for questioning and took statements from Jonathan's three friends and two other witnesses. It's unclear whether the incident was filmed by one of the club's many surveillance cameras.
"At this time, we don't know what we have — an accident or a homicide," Davie Police Sgt. Rob Choquette told reporters the day of Jonathan's death. The department did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.
Graffiti writers are buried like pharaohs, their coffins filled with their favorite markers and paints to bomb the afterlife. Jonathan's open casket was also littered with "Ynot" stickers, a Gucci bucket hat of Pucho's that he had always envied, and a hundred-dollar bill for the "strip club in the sky." The Davie ceremony was packed with 200-plus people, including more than a few ex-girlfriends. Angel, with Max in tow, put them in their place by standing up and announcing, "I had his baby!"
More than six weeks later, an impromptu shrine in the Club Eden parking lot — including Rust-Oleum cans, paint rollers, silver markers, and Jonathan's pair of baggy black Karl Kani shorts — has become weather-beaten. There still have not been any charges filed related to his death.
The waiting game is just more anguish for Michelle, who is also undergoing bone-tiring chemotherapy in her second bout with breast cancer. Jonathan's brother, Kyle, a dedicated student, has been too grief-stricken to sit through a day of classes. Michelle sometimes worried she'd get a call that Jonathan had fallen from a highway overpass he'd been defacing. "But I never thought I'd get a call like the one I did get," she says. "It's just destroyed my entire family."
It has also led her own mother, a "soccer grandma" named Virginia, to get a tattoo on her arm: a big, bright rose with script reading, "In memory of Jonathan 'Ynot' Corso, love you forever, G-ma," his nickname for her.
Grandma is not the only person who's had skin marked in his honor. Crome has been offering free "Ynot" tattoos to anybody who wants one, as have a couple of other artists. So far, at least a dozen people have taken them up on the offer.
For three weeks after the death, Dose ignored phone calls from clients seeking engraving work. He could barely climb out of bed, much less etch a sign for some lawyer's new office. "The problem is, I can't stop thinking about him," he explains over the phone one day. "I need to get back to work for my family, but I can't get him out of my head. He was my son."
Then one night, before his brain could process what he was doing, Dose stuffed a backpack with spray cans and pointed his car toward I-95. He painted walls and climbed heavens, got grimy and sweaty just like he had on those bombing nights with Ynot, and the trusty adrenaline rush flowed. He wrote their tags and fill-ins side by side — "just like we used to," he says.
Since then, he has rarely missed a night. He comes home at 4 a.m., head swirling with fumes, and wakes five hours later ready to work. He hasn't bombed this hard since he became a family man.
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In late August, Dose was driving around Fort Lauderdale, putting up "Ynot" stickers, when a squad car, misery lights strobing, appeared in his rear-view mirror. The cop enjoyed informing him that he had watched him slap a sticker onto a street sign. He ordered him from the car and searched his trunk, where he found a box of newly printed T-shirts. "The shirts bore the same symbol as the stickers," the cop later wrote in his report, and were confiscated as part of a criminal conspiracy.
Dose had been selling the T-shirts for 20 to 30 bucks a pop to set up a trust fund. There went $1,000 for Ynot's son down the drain.
In cuffs in the back seat, he began weeping. The officer couldn't quite fathom why this perp, toting a sheet full of graffiti-related priors, was so distraught over a misdemeanor vandalism charge.