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.
If you followed Borf graffiti carefully, and there are those in this city who did, you'd have noticed that he sort of disappeared in the last few months. That's because, according to Borf himself in past interviews, as well as his mother yesterday, he was traveling in Europe, stopping off in Scotland to protest the G-8 summit. He returned to the Washington area Monday, his mother says.
Reached at home, Murphy said she didn't know her son had been arrested until a reporter called. She said he graduated from Langley High School in McLean in three years, and went to the Corcoran College of Art + Design last year before taking some time off. She said he had been avidly involved in peace marches and other protest efforts, and his graffiti appeared to be an outgrowth of that. She said she appreciated his artistic effort, though she told him that it wasn't right to deface property.
In the spring, Borf said in an interview that he was aware many people didn't understand why he'd been defacing buildings, signs and newspaper boxes all over this city. It's clear he liked being enigmatic, but he didn't like being misunderstood. That's why, on that particular day, he said he was mulling some sort of public explanation, perhaps in the form of a poster campaign.
"I've got plans," he said ominously, sitting out on U Street, eating a vegetarian burger from Ben's Chili Bowl. "Maybe like a manifesto."
He wiped veggie-chili-covered fingers on his jeans, which were dotted with flecks of colored paint, then pulled out a silver paint pen and wrote EL BORFISMO on the rim of a garbage can.
Borf would often tag things like that as he walked through the city, in broad daylight on busy streets. Because he did it openly and casually, passersby seemed not to notice. He cultivated the air of being everywhere but nowhere.
He said he liked listening to people talk about the Borf phenomenon. One time, he was in a computer lab when the women behind him started Googling "Borf." It made him feel quite powerful.
"I feel like Batman or something," he said.
If you've seen Borf's graffiti -- the stencil of the little girl who holds a sign saying "Grownups are Obsolete" or the impish face that appears throughout the city -- you, too, might be wondering what Borf's message is. Once upon a time, Borf said, he was "just, like, some liberal, like anybody," but then he started reading, and found out he really wanted to be an anarchist. He decided he doesn't believe in the state, capitalism, private property, globalization. Most of all, he doesn't believe in adulthood, which he considers "boring" and "selling out."
"Growing up is giving up," he said. "I think some band said it."
Borf recently turned 18, a fact he revealed with hesitation because "I'm against age. It's just another way of dividing people." At least until recently, he lived at home -- where exactly he would never say -- and cut cardboard stencils on his parents' living room floor. He spoke sneeringly of "rich people," though sometimes when he parked in the city his parents gave him $14 for the garage.
Borf's graffiti appeared in unexpected places -- the base of the Key Bridge, or a brick wall along a lonely, glass-strewn alley by the 9:30 club.
Some of the work is in such well-trafficked places that you wonder how he didn't get caught before. Granted, it takes only seconds to spray a stencil -- press the cardboard cutout against the wall so there's no drip, wield the can with your other hand -- but still. On pillars outside a bakery just north of Dupont Circle on busy Connecticut Avenue? On the sign over the Roosevelt Bridge? For that one, Borf had to get onto a catwalk that's maybe 20 feet in the air and spray not one but two layers of paint to make a three-dimensional half-face that seemed to have just peeked in front of the sign. The eyes danced, as if asking, "Do you really want to go to work today?"
(After a few weeks, the stencil was "buffed," which is the word graffiti artists use when someone removes their work. Borf didn't seem to get nearly as upset about buffing as he did when peers scribbled their graffiti over his, which he considered exceedingly disrespectful.)
Borf considers himself a crusader for youth; he drew inspiration from the children's author Shel Silverstein and from something called situationism, an obscure avant-garde movement popularized in 1960s France.
He said in the spring that he'd been reading a book by the situationist Guy Debord "about modern capitalism" and "how the status quo is maintained and perpetuated by a series of spectacles." Borf often finished his graffiti early in the morning, just in time to see a spectacle he despises -- rush hour. "People all heading downtown," he said. "Like, it's ridiculous if you think about it. Like, Orwellian-ridiculous. And they do this with so-called free will."
His clothes are usually frumpy and speckled with paint, and the baseball cap covering his dark hair has a broken band . He is fond of phrases like: "Property is theft, as Prudhomme says." He labels the Cosi cafe chain "boojy" (for bourgeois) and despises Starbucks. ("Instead of police on every corner we have Starbucks on every corner," he says.) He thinks young people have it really bad. He hated high school, which is why he finished early, taking his last few courses online. It bothers him that those younger than 18 can't vote, "as much as I don't believe in voting or anything." He complained that folks in stores assume "all young people shoplift," and when he's reminded that he himself shoplifts spray paint, he says that's just more evidence of how messed up society is.
He said he was an activist long before he got into graffiti. The first protest he attended was against capitalism in September 2002. It's possible he would have been arrested if he'd gotten there on time, he said, but the protest was "too early."
Borf scrupulously followed media coverage and Internet rumors about him and was pleased to be contacted by a reporter ("wow!" he typed when first messaged through the graffiti Web site StencilRevolution.com). But he refused to reveal his real name. For one thing, he feared getting arrested. He also knew much of his appeal lay in the mystique -- he is Borf, master illusionist, omnipresent but invisible. To maintain the mystery, he sidestepped questions about what "Borf" meant, if anything, and how he scaled rooftops. He offered clues and then backtracked, contradicting himself, or shrugging and saying "secret."
He imagined himself like the Zapatistas, the Mexican rebels who cover their faces. "Who I am is not as important as what I want," he said.
Some time ago, someone placed an "I Saw You" ad in the Washington City Paper, saying, "Who are you BORF? . . . Let's meet." On Flickr.com, a Web site where people share their photo collections, there were hundreds of photos of Borf's graffiti, with comments such as, "He keeps me entertained as I ride the metro. go borf!" and "Are you sick of this dork yet?"
The face is Borf's most striking signature in the District. There's a playfulness to the expression and an artistry to the image. Sometimes the face appears alone and sometimes in different contexts, like on the image of a teenager holding a can of spray paint.
Because of the very nature of graffiti, it's hard to know how much of the Borf oeuvre can be attributed to this one teenager. To bolster his claim that he's the real guy, he brought along his hand-cut cardboard stencils to Capital City Records on 10th and U streets, where he was spray-painting an installation for a street art show organized by a graffiti artist named Cory Stowers. Borf unfolded a cardboard stencil crusted with spray paint and almost as tall as his own 6-foot-1 frame. It was the Borf face on the body of Black Panther Huey P. Newton holding a rifle.
Borf claimed credit for graffiti in New York City, Raleigh, N.C., and San Francisco. He is familiar with Manhattan, he said, having lived on the Upper East Side until he was 10. As for San Francisco, he said, he and a friend took Greyhound.
Over time, there was so much of his graffiti, a Borf backlash emerged. Borf said he's not responsible for graffiti saying "Borf is gay," and he certainly didn't write "Borf hates God" on a church. In February, a 27-year-old man was arrested for writing anti-Borf graffiti on the back of a sign in Logan Circle. He got as far as "Borf is a do-" before the police caught up with him.
Borf considers this his unwitting legacy: He's democratizing graffiti. People are decorating the District's streets, even if it's just to make fun of him.
What will he do when he gets older? he was asked months before he was arrested.
"I'm not older," he said.
Staff writers Clarence Williams and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.