Correction to This Article
A July 14 article on the graffiti artist known as Borf incorrectly described the site of his arrest. Police identified the location as Seventh and V streets NW, but Seventh Street becomes Georgia Avenue a block south, so the intersection is Georgia Avenue and V Street. The article also misspelled the last name of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who said, "Property is theft."

The Mark Of Borf

The graffitist himself, albeit disguised, next to one of his tags on U Street.
The graffitist himself, albeit disguised, next to one of his tags on U Street. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 14, 2005

The mysterious, ubiquitous and eminently destructive graffiti artist known as Borf was arrested yesterday after waging a months-long campaign that may have been intended to enlighten Washington, but mostly just confused us.

The man primarily responsible for Borf is, it turns out, an 18-year-old art student from Great Falls named John Tsombikos, according to D.C. police inspector Diane Groomes. He was arrested along with two other young men in the wee hours of yesterday morning after officers received a tip that graffiti artists were spray-painting at Seventh and V streets NW.

Approached by a reporter at D.C. Superior Court yesterday, Tsombikos refused to comment. One of the other men arrested, Richard Lee, 18, said, "Borf is dead."

Well, yes and no. According to Tsombikos's mother, Kathleen Murphy of Great Falls, Borf was the nickname for a close friend of her son's who committed suicide about two years ago. The Borf face featured in his graffiti -- which many who've walked through Dupont Circle would recognize, and which looks somewhat like TV actor Jerry O'Connell -- belongs to that young man. Murphy suggests that for her son, the Borf face and moniker came to stand for all that he felt was wrong with the world.

Many who saw Tsombikos's graffiti -- including a huge five-foot-high Borf face that appeared on a Roosevelt Bridge sign this spring, and a 15-foot "BORF" above a Dupont Circle cafe -- might suggest that, far from making the world better, he cost the city of Washington a lot of money.

Dennis Butler of the D.C. Department of Public Works said the Borf tag prompted almost daily phone calls to the city call center. "He's just all over the inner city," Butler said.

"Citizens are ecstatic about him being caught," Groomes said.

Tsombikos was arrested with Lee and another man who has not yet been identified, though Groomes says she believes Tsombikos is the primary Borf culprit. Leah Gurowitz, a D.C. Superior Court spokeswoman, said that Tsombikos and Lee were charged with a misdemeanor for defacing public or private property in connection with yesterday's arrest.

Over the past year, Borf graffiti became a touchstone for the city. Following the graffiti became a kind of urban Easter egg hunt. People took pictures of his work and posted them on Web sites. Bloggers speculated on the culprit's identity and his motives. Was he man or woman, one person or many? What did Borf stand for?

Some people were enraged and others were cheered by that mischievous Borf face and by the whimsical sayings like "BORF IS GOOD FOR YOUR LIVER," or "BORF WRITES LETTERS TO YOUR CHILDREN." (Borf seemed quite conscientious about matters of spelling and punctuation. )

In four interviews over several months, a young man claiming credit for the Borf graffiti spoke extensively about why he did it. He did not give his real name. The Post was able to ascertain his identity as John Tsombikos independently, but did not publish a story because the man's condition for granting interviews was anonymity. He agreed, however, that if he was arrested or his identity became public, The Post would be released from this condition.

Over and over, the man who wanted to be known simply as Borf said his identity was not important. What was important was his message -- an earnest though sometimes muddled mix of progressive politics filtered through a lens of youthful optimism.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company