Graffiti may have first taken hold on New York City's subways, but it wasn't too long before tarted-up versions of urban scrawl appeared in Manhattan art galleries. The '80s art mafia swooned when Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring made market-ready graffiti, turning out canvases filled up with scribbles and doodles. Oh, those naughty, naughty boys! Basquiat plastered his tag, "Samo," outside Manhattan's toniest galleries, and power dealer Mary Boone gave him a show.
Washington graffiti never got so hot. The style emerged along with the city's music scene -- hip-hop and go-go, in the first half of the '80s -- and remained at street level.
"Starting out, it was just kids writing their names," says Roger Gastman, a 23-year-old self-styled graffiti historian (you can't learn this stuff in school). Metrobuses, a favored target back then, "were destroyed inside and out," he says. But the crack cocaine epidemic killed or otherwise occupied many of the go-go scribblers, and it took the early '90s hard-core music scene to rev things up again. That's when Gastman got on the vandalism bandwagon and started writing under the name "Clear."
Yes, writing. Don't call graffiti artists graffiti artists. It's a media label, they'll tell you. These guys are writers. And when you want to know what their tag is, don't ask, "What's your tag?" That's a put-down. The correct query is "What do you write?" (Rules of etiquette do apply, even as city laws get broken.)
The kids have their own language, too. There's "tagging" (quickly writing your tag), "bombing" (tagging everything in sight) and "piecing" (painting elaborate designs using multiple colors and flourishes -- a time-sucking task best reserved for police-free zones). "Throw-ups," it turns out, have nothing to do with nausea -- they're tags written in bubble letters.
In case you need a glossary for all this, Gastman -- who is publisher of the babes-and-skateboards glossy magazine While You Were Sleeping -- has brought out "Free Agents: A History of Washington, D.C., Graffiti," a compendium of essays, interviews and photos of the people whose canvases were Metro trains and retaining walls. And for the show of the same name, now at MoCA in Georgetown, Gastman turned the gallery into something like a rebellious teenager's bedroom, plastering every available surface with photos and art by graffiti guys from back in the day -- most of them Gastman's buddies, who are mainly in their twenties. The more senior writers, who came up in the '80s, Gastman says, are either dead from drugs or AIDS, or serving prison terms for crimes more serious than vandalism.
So there was some trouble. But if anything, Gastman's collected images, plus Dave Schubert's photos documenting the pierced, platinum-haired kids themselves, prove that rebellion sure looks sexy. These kids appear, at least, to be having a great time -- leaving aside the ODs or black eyes or jail time. (Gastman himself is "straight edge," meaning he doesn't smoke, drink or do drugs; not all his buddies share his worldview.)
Alongside those snapshots, there's a shrinelike wall dedicated to the legendary Cool Disco Dan, this city's most prolific spray paint scribe. Gastman managed to score an authentic piece of the maestro's work: a slice of plywood riddled with staples and remnants of frayed go-go concert posters that has Dan's loopy white scrawl painted right on.
The rest of Gastman's show reunites about 20 guys from the old days, many of whom flew in from as far away as Los Angeles to show off their latest -- legitimate -- forms of self-expression. That includes everything from canvases that might make good Pantera album covers to a portrait of every prankster's beloved: a can of Rust-Oleum.
That Rust-Oleum piece is by Cycle, whose real name is Chris (no last names, please). He wrote in Washington between 1989 and 1993, when he was a George Washington University student. Now he lives in New York City and works as a graphic designer. As for graffiti, he doesn't do it much anymore. Says the ex-offender, "I'm an old man now -- I've got bills to pay. An apartment." Cycle is 30.
So how does a teen rebel's pastime mature into legitimate artwork?
Well, it looks a lot like graffiti. He signs all his work with his tag. The canvases themselves look weathered and rough, like the surfaces he painted on the street. He spray-paints them, sticks on stickers, and marks them up with pencil. He also references art history: "Sacred Heart" features a stenciled black "5" that looks a lot like American Modern Charles Demuth's classic "Figure 5" paintings, or Robert Indiana's pop art sendups of them. But things never get too snooty with Cycle. He serves up low culture, too: His figure 5 floats alongside a red heart wrapped in a crown of thorns that looks to be copied off a tattoo parlor wall.
You can't get much lower than marked-down paint from Home Depot, which Richard, aka Ever, uses to make his cartoonlike figures. Seems suburban shoppers don't want baby blue or pale yellow or pink, the colors he paints over big sheets of gessoed paper or go-go concert posters -- just as he did in his graffiti days. His latest efforts are painted with a precision that he didn't have time for when turning out quick scrawls as Ever.
Richard says he's not bombing much these days, citing the responsibilities that go with being a 24-year-old art student. He has only fond memories of the old days, though. Says Richard, "It beat being one of those kids who sat around watching TV and eating junk food."
Free Agents: A History of Washington, D.C., Graffiti, at MoCA, 1054 31st St. NW, Wednesday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m. or by appointment, 202-342-6230, through June 26.