By Sonia Moghe
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
NEW YORK -- Cave Tirado shakes a can of orange spray paint and begins to emblazon his name on his first American wall. He is not looking over his shoulder or worried that the police might catch him.
Tirado, 19, traveled to New York from Spain, partly to see the city, but mostly to leave his mark on the walls of an old Queens warehouse where graffiti is legal.
"I always write my name," he said in Spanish, while wearing a graffiti-style shirt that also bears his name. "To represent your name -- that's what graffiti is to me."
The warehouse, called 5 Pointz, has become a haven for artists in a city where graffiti has flourished for decades and where officials have waged a seemingly endless battle to keep it out.
The idea behind 5 Pointz was to give people a legal outlet to spray-paint as much graffiti as they like on the five-story building -- without ever having to worry about getting busted.
"The purpose of this building isn't to eliminate graffiti and to be a cure for the graffiti problem," says Jonathan Cohen, 34, who runs 5 Pointz. "It's a place where you can take what you do and push the boundaries to a point where you're doing something that there's no way you can do illegally because you have plenty of time."
Otto Munoz has made graffiti illegally, but he now comes to 5 Pointz to practice drawing and to soak in other styles of graffiti that have made their way here from around the world.
"It's not worth the risk to go out and get two throw-ups [pieces] and get arrested for five years, and that's five years you can't be painting," Munoz says.
There are different types of graffiti: "Bombers" quickly paint simple, two-toned messages, generally their names, onto walls; "writers" make more elaborate artwork.
The writers convene on most weekends at 5 Pointz and paint pieces with bright colors and sharp or curvy shapes on the walls. But as Cohen notes, the walls change every week.
The best view of 5 Pointz is from the subway, where the entire edifice emerges as a patchwork quilt of spray paint.
New York City law prohibits people between the ages of 18 and 21 from possessing "graffiti instruments" unless they are in locked containers. The law also made it mandatory for certain property owners to report graffiti postings on their properties to the city so that they can be cleaned up. Artists have taken the city to court over the law.
But, as Cohen notes, time spent at 5 Pointz is time spent off the street.
"The time that someone spends here . . . working on the building, painting on the building -- they aren't going out and destroying the city, which is a benefit toward the city," Cohen says. "But . . . if someone wants to do something illegally, they're going to do it illegally whether or not this place is here."
Tirado has done graffiti both legally and illegally in Spain, France and now the United States, and says he frequently runs from police.
"We're not killing anyone, nor are we robbing. We're not doing anything," he says. "We're just filing the world with color."