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."
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.
The latest trend for taggers is to use reflective letter stickers, the kind Home Depot sells to label suburban mailboxes, to spell out their tag names. When it's pointed out to Dems that this requires no artistic skill, he is unconcerned. "It's not about art. It's all about getting your name up." Taggers seldom paint in more than two colors, and their repertoire of words is limited to their tag name, their crew name, and maybe a friend's tag name and crew name. Over and over and over again. The scribbled letters invade billboards, walls, windows, doors, cars -- basically, any solid surface.
In the late 1990s, two of Miami's top taggers, Crook and Crome, freckled the South Florida landscape with their tags, inspiring local television and print news stories and spurring Miami police to crack down on graf kids throughout the area. Hearing the two names, Dems and Trik become reverential. "Crook and Crome? Yo, those dogs were the best! They were everywhere!" Trik says. The boys say the Miami graffiti scene is bigger and better-known than the scene in Broward, but they quickly add that there are lots of taggers in Broward. They don't know any of the Miami graffers personally but can rattle off long lists of tag names of the more active graffers. "But there's some really great writers up here too," Dems says defensively. "We're just not as well-known as the cats down there."
Dems has every reason to feel insecure; the Miami graffiti set isn't exactly effusive in its praise of its neighbors to the north. "The graffiti community in Broward is a bunch of 15-year-old kids who throw up tags," Dustin Orlando explains later by telephone. As the owner of Objex Art Space in Miami, Orlando regularly features the work of graffiti artists but says he hasn't seen much worthy art coming from Broward.
Since the late 1960s when the tags "Julio204" and "Taki183" began appearing all over New York City, tagging has been a way for urban kids to get famous. There's some dispute over whether tagging started in New York with those two or in Philadelphia, where "Cornbread" and "Top Cat" could be seen sprayed throughout the city. In 1971, the New York Times found and interviewed Taki183 and asked him to explain the phenomenon. Less than a year after the article ran, hundreds of new writers were scrawling their names all over the city. Originally, graffiti was primarily the work of black and Puerto Rican youths in inner-city neighborhoods. Today it's spread to the suburbs, where white kids like Dems, Trik, Most, and Sign mark up shopping malls and mini-marts. The four Broward taggers say University Drive is currently their favorite area to spray.
At the same time the graffiti scene was developing, hip-hop and break dancing were also burgeoning forms of inner-city expression, and the three often overlapped. At parties, one group of kids would be rapping, another break dancing, the third spraying the walls. In time, break dancing fell from favor, record companies co-opted hip-hop, and particularly talented graffitists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring found acceptance in mainstream art galleries, causing the entire urban scene to splinter. Lately, with break dancing's renaissance, the three groups have once again merged. Particularly in England and Germany, old-style rappers compete in battles of rhyme and wits, break dancers spin off on linoleum floors, and graffitists spray the walls to show off their artistic skills.
Oddly, the closest thing to old-school-style parties in Broward are events frequently organized by Christian church youth groups, which invite the kids to attend, provide legal walls for graffiti, and promise parents that the evenings will stay safe and drug free. The four Broward taggers all say they attend these events (Most and Sign say they met at one) but prefer the more renegade nature of illegal tagging.
"What these guys do is so underground," says Jason Daiagi, owner of Underground Clothing on Oakland Park Boulevard. "You never even know they're doing it, and then the next day you're like, 'Holy shit!' It's a very underground scene. The cops just play cat and mouse. The kids run, the cops chase. If a kid gets caught, the cops might hold him for a few hours and then let him out again."
Monday through Friday at 3 p.m. Daiagi's store would fill with teenage graffiti artists. Underground supplied Broward's graffers with the specific tools of the trade, like different types of spray-can caps, graffiti magazines, and hip-hop clothing. Daiagi says he's seen the Broward graffiti scene "blow up" over the past four years, with more kids than ever interested in tagging. "Magazine sales went from nothing to skyrocketing," Daiagi says. Still, there haven't been enough buyers to sustain his business; by the time this article is printed, Underground Clothing will have closed. Karma Records across the street has plans to sell the graffiti gear; the 3 p.m. crowd will likely move there next.
For this night, "Books" has prepared three stencils. A few hours earlier, he walked around the Hollywood Circle area scouting out potential spots with no police presence. Unlike the taggers, Books is not interested in making his name known to every graffer in South Florida. A lanky, hippieish 21-year-old Plantation resident who wears his long hair wrapped under a knit cap turban-style, Books says the integrity of the "piece" (short for masterpiece) is more important than how often he sprays it.
"I hate those guys that just spray their tag over interstate signs," he complains. "That's what makes us all look bad. That's why people hate graf artists." He doesn't go after billboards and other highly visible spots but is content to spray his stencils in areas where they will be seen by a few and where he's less likely to be caught. Trudging through urine-soaked alleys where the musk of human waste is nauseating at times, he finds his first potential canvas: the back door of a restaurant.
Just as he readies a poster-sized stencil and a can, the door opens and a busboy exits carrying two garbage bags. Without pause, Books hides the stencils and the paint and faces the man. "Yo, dog, I'm sorry. Me and my girl, we was just... you know." Shrugging his lack of concern, the busboy goes back inside. Still, Books decides this spot is too risky. A few blocks down the same alley, he stops at the back wall of an office building. There he sprays a stencil of two very depressed-looking children, shown in high contrast, with block letters at the bottom that read, "We Are Devouring Our Children." Books says he copied the image from a photograph. He's not sure where the photo was taken, or why, or what the written message means.
After that, he sprays a stencil of two World War II-era soldiers, an American and a Russian linked arm in arm, at the bottom of a wall. It appears as though the two soldiers are peeking up from the ground. After the soldiers, he sprays his current favorite design, a grotesquely deformed head with the words "Stop Cloning" above it. He sprays this eight times, side by side, on one wall. He will use the head stencil many times before the night is through, climbing chain-link fences and on top of Dumpsters to secure prime spots. Books says that though his works appear to be political, he's not an activist and has no particular agenda.
The next day, only 12 hours later, his stencil of the soldiers has already been covered with red paint. Shawn Rad, owner of Trend, a high-end contemporary-furniture store, says he arrived at work that morning and saw the stencil on the wall. "I don't know what it was," Rad says. "I just told my guys to cover it up. It wasn't art, so I just told them to cover it up."
Books, however, insists that he's an artist and that, using his real name, he participates in art shows and sometimes sells his pieces, the same designs he illegally sprays on buildings, under his real name. "I had two of his stencil pieces in my last show," Nina Arias says. Arias became familiar with Books when she operated LaLush Gallery in the warehouse district of Fort Lauderdale's Croissant Park neighborhood. "He would graffiti all around LaLush and sign the pieces 'Books & Films'," she says. Later he shortened his tag to just "Books," and now when Arias curates independent shows, she often asks him to contribute. "Graffiti is like any other medium: There's good graffiti, and there's bad graffiti. One of the things I really like about his work is the way he signs his pieces. He draws a box with four lines in it, like books on a shelf."
Stenciling affords Books the opportunity to make what he sees as quality art but to put it up quickly and avoid being caught. He believes that by spraying his designs, he is fulfilling his destiny. "Graffiti is the art of the people," he says as he selects a stencil from his portfolio. "Graffiti's been around longer than graf kids have, since the caves and shit. The first stencil piece ever put up was when some caveman blew pigment over his hand." Books spends countless hours at home creating his designs, drawing them on cardboard, and cutting them out in intricate detail.
He is anti-television and believes people are starving mentally because of it. On another night, he has a highly conceptual design planned that will illustrate this point. "People are motherfucking drones when it comes to that TV shit. Like these zombies," he explains, holding up his stencil. Sneaking through service alleyways in a residential neighborhood near Griffin Road, Books crosses over the Tri-Rail tracks. Through Hialeah and Opa-locka, the walls on either side of the Tri-Rail tracks explode with "throw-ups," a hastily drawn version of the artist's name that is more time-consuming and much bigger than a tag, and "burners," more complex and skillful pieces that usually depict a scene in violent, expressive colors. Graffers in Broward say that they keep trying to do the same types of works here but that their work is usually buffed out within a few days.
Books arrived earlier to tape two rectangles on the wall, one about six feet by two feet, and the other about three feet by two feet. He paints the areas a deep shade of red. Over the red, he paints a stencil of a rounded-edge square eight times in orange paint, at irregular intervals. He then uses another stencil to paint the abstract form of a man in the large rectangle. Another stencil is used to paint the abstract form of a television. Two more stencils, one for the man, one for the television, go over these forms to provide detail. It's a multilayered process similar to silk-screening. When he's finished, he signs the piece by drawing the box with four lines.
Stencil graffiti, despite its trendy status (American Eagle Outfitters currently has downloadable logo stencils and instructions on how to apply them available on the company's website), is gaining respect in gallery circles thanks to internationally known graffiti artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey. "Stencil work is pretty bad-ass," Objex Art's Orlando says. "It's been around for a while, and people are just now realizing how far they can take it."
Stenciling gets little respect from veteran traditional graffiti writers. "It's called can control," says Patrick Moretti, also known as Smog1. At 30, Moretti is one of the oldest Broward guys still actively spraying. Traces of a French accent escape when Moretti speaks excitedly, remnants of his childhood spent in Paris. He is lean and handsome and wears baggy denim shorts and a wife-beater tank top that shows off his well-defined arms, toned from years spent working shifts as a bar back in watering holes along A1A.
"Stencils are cheating; it's taking the easy way out," says Moretti, moving to the edge of his black leather couch to emphasize his point. "You don't need stencils to do good work. There are techniques, angles you can hold the can at, the amount of pressure you apply. I'm not dissing stencils, but just because you use spray paint doesn't make it graffiti." Moretti says that he has been drawing since he was 4 years old and that he has had some training, though the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale kicked him out for drawing on desks only a few months after he began taking classes there. He doesn't consider himself a graffitist, graffer, or tagger. "I'm an aerosol artist," he says, explaining that if he tells people he sprays graffiti, they assume he's a thug or in a gang. He says he was caught twice but got off both times. Moretti also says it's now been more than a year since he sprayed his last "illegal," a term for graffiti sprayed without the property owner's approval. Now he does pieces for friends and hopes to break into the gallery scene. "The big thing right now is 3-D, and I'm one of the best 3-D artists in the world," Moretti declares. "I paint realistic, 3-D, whatever. I freestyle everything. I'm one of the best."
As Smog1, Moretti got into the graffiti scene soon after arriving in the United States. His family moved to Hollywood, where as a preteen he started hanging out with break dancers and was introduced to hip-hop, skateboarding, and graffiti. He took to graffiti instantly and eventually was asked to join a graffiti crew. "What I did was I started painting by myself at a popular wall, and some other guys saw my work, and they were just like, 'Come paint with us.'" Moretti joined the FS crew (he says it doesn't stand for anything) where he and the other artists combined their collections of spray cans and caps and collaborated on burners and murals while attending South Broward High School. Over the years, Moretti says, most of the artists he painted with have moved on to other things, like day jobs and families, but occasionally they get together to paint, usually a legal wall in someone's home.
In terms of street credibility, Moretti's work is at the top of the heap. Highly imaginative and energetic freehand drawings and three-dimensionally rendered characters prove that he's mastered the art. And he knows it. "If those top guys in New York or Germany saw my stuff, they'd want me to spray with their crews." ("Smog1 is a little bit arrogant," Underground Clothing's Daiagi says, "but he's one of the best, so I guess he can be.")
Moretti isn't sure he can cross over into the fine-art world while living in South Florida. He's considered moving to New York, but has no immediate plans to do so.
Objex Art's Orlando believes such a move might be necessary for any graffitist with dreams of showing his work for sale. "I know some amazing artists who live in Fort Lauderdale, but they're showing in L.A. Fort Lauderdale is a bland fucking town. For art, Florida is a wasteland -- there isn't much happening here. People in Florida don't realize that artwork is not like fucking stock. The investment you make in art is an emotional one. People here buy over-the-sofa art. It's tacky."
With his gallery, Orlando hopes to bring urban art forms to traditional and untraditional buyers in South Florida, but he says that right now there's not much of a market for art of any type in this area. He believes that given a few years, South Florida will be more accepting of the art he likes to showcase and that he will be able to run Objex full-time. Until then, he works days at Colin Fisher Studio in Miami and opens Objex only by appointment and for special shows. "People still associate graffiti with vandalism," Orlando says. "They need to get past that mindset in order to accept it as art."
Moretti doesn't have much respect for the tag scene, which he considers vandalism, but he also doesn't understand why the public and the police are not more accepting of mural pieces and well-painted burners. "It's like free artwork," he asserts. "It's there to make people happy. I don't understand why the city wants to cover it up." He believes that city officials may fear that if a graffiti mural, even a well-executed one, is allowed to stay, it might inspire less-talented artists to paint in the same neighborhood or over the existing mural. "But that's not going to happen," Moretti says. "If you walk up and see a nice, big mural and no one has gone over it, you don't mess with it. Those people who do are called 'toys.' They get their fame by going over the big, beautiful mural, by being the guy who messed it up." In the graffiti community, being called a toy is the biggest insult. With that one word, the artist's skills are questioned, as well as his ethics and his loyalty to the medium. Even Dems and Trik say they wouldn't deface another graffiti writer's work.
Dems hoists himself onto a Dumpster behind a mini-mart. It's time to "rock the heavens" -- climb up on a billboard over I-95.
"You have to have nerve to do it," he says. "When the trucks go by, the sign will wobble a little bit, and it scares you at first."
Dems says he keeps climbing up to the heavens because having his tag seen is the number one priority. "If you can get up on a heaven, then the other taggers coming by, like the ones from Miami especially, they can see your tag," he says. Dems and Trik climb from the Dumpster to the roof of the mini-mart and then run to the other side, crouching and clinking the whole way. From there, they jump to grab the ladder that hangs halfway down the support pole of a billboard. Pulling themselves onto the ladder, they clamber like Spider-Man to the billboard's ledge.
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The two boys begin filling in the bubble letters of their tags. It's 2 a.m. on a Thursday and traffic is light, so they're not very worried about getting caught. It takes them longer than it should to finish; from the ground, Most and Sign begin to get nervous. "These guys are amateur and reckless," Sign says while watching Dems and Trik spray the billboard. He says he barely knew them before tonight, but when he heard they were going to be out bombing, he wanted to join the fun. Now, a few hours later, Sign is unimpressed. "They're taking unnecessary chances, staying up there too long, especially with the graf scene as hot as it is now. A lot of guys have been getting busted."
That claim's hard to verify, though. The Broward Sheriff's Office does not track graffiti arrests specifically and doesn't have a task force assigned to combating graffiti. It's not clear if there actually is an increase in graffiti arrests or if it just seems that way to Sign.
Against the billboard, Dems and Trik look like tiny dots of billowing spray paint. As their throw-ups progress, they fill in the bubble letters of their names, adding a "TBA" tag before climbing back down the ladder and retracing their steps across the roof, onto the Dumpster, and eventually back to the ground. They pause for a second to admire their work. "My 'Dems' doesn't look too good," he worries. Trik is also critical of his own name. The two worry that Most and Sign will not be impressed and that their throw-ups will not have the intended effect on taggers driving by.
"When somebody tells you they've seen your tag, it just makes you want to do more," Dems says. "The reason why I do this is to get known. To get the fame. You only get fame from other taggers, but it's like an addiction, yo."