The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington is fighting graffiti artists — but it loves the graffiti aesthetic

D.C. graffiti artists Cory Stowers and Eric B. have given up illegal graffiti and now use legal murals to recall the city’s past. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

The music is blaring, the air smells like paint fumes, the bricks are splashed in red and now here comes a cop.

The heads in the alley turn.

“We’ve got a guest,” somebody quips, but nobody runs.

Seven artists are hanging out in a U Street alley, where a vacant building is covered in elaborate graffiti. A guy in a fedora who goes by Viceversa is perched on a ladder, filling in his name on a wall already painted with the words MIZTA, GONG and R.I.P. DABS. Cory Stowers, president of the graffiti crew Double Down Kings, walks up to the officer.

“I was just checking to see — if you were concerned about what’s happening?”

“Oh,” the officer says, shaking his head. “Mm. No.”

He turns to the wall, just admiring it.

This is how mainstream the graffiti aesthetic has become in 2016. Everyone wants big, beautiful murals these days — city officials, real estate developers, coffee shop owners — to make the District's corners and alleys look authentically urban-cool. This cop just assumes that because it's 3 p.m. on U Street, Stowers and his friends were asked to paint here.

They weren’t, but they’ve been painting this wall for years, so the owners hoping to redevelop it don’t mind; a little graffiti splatter might make the neighborhood appeal to hip retail tenants.

If police had found them painting at night, Stowers knows, this scenario would play out much differently. Because although murals are more popular than ever in the city, the art form they started from — illegal graffiti — is being quashed.

Former graffiti hot spots are now outfitted with security cameras. In nearly every neighborhood, popular walls have been replaced by new buildings, often made of steel or glass, which are harder to paint. Art Under Pressure, the city’s only spray paint store and artist hangout, closed its doors last month to reinvent itself as a skateboard shop: Paint sales weren’t paying the bills. And if two D.C. Council members pushing new legislation get their way, the minimum fine for illegal painting will rise from $250 to $2,500, with jail time of up to 180 days as a possible penalty as well.

There’s less at stake for artists such as Stowers, 38, or Viceversa, 42, now both established artists who get paid to create murals. But graffiti is where they started, and they wonder how the next generation will have the chance to navigate an art form that is reviled as much as it is revered.

Just put a stop to it

When D.C. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) drives down Georgia Avenue every morning, he doesn’t see art. He sees vandalism.

Each time, he dials 311, the information hotline that will file his complaint to the Department of Public Works, which spent $447,000 removing 6,606 graffiti sites last fiscal year. “Graffiti can have the potential to breed crime,” he says. “It’s unsightly. It doesn’t make people feel welcome or safe in their community.”

That's why he and fellow council member LaRuby May (Ward 8) are pushing for tougher penalties, via the Anti-Graffiti Amendment Act of 2016, currently under council review. D.C. police don't keep track of how often graffiti artists are caught. But, Todd says, he doesn't want to see them arrested, anyway. He wants them to stop.

“I want this bill to be a deterrent,” Todd said. “I don’t want people to get fined, I want people to look at this fine and say, ‘You know what? Putting this graffiti up isn’t worth the potential that I’ll get fined $2,500.’ ”

Meanwhile, graffiti-style murals are flourishing all over the city. There’s the provocative George Washington with a gag over his mouth at 15th and U. The young boy screeching into a tin-can telephone down an alley in Columbia Heights. The sultry Elizabeth Taylor who has gazed over Shaw’s Dacha Beer Garden for a couple of seasons — cousin to the Marilyn Monroe who has cooed over the intersection of Calvert and Connecticut since 1981.

They may have paint and brick in common, but the people who do murals mostly operate a world apart from the people who do graffiti. There are graffiti artists who become muralists, but many muralists who work in the District have never painted illegally and only started using spray paint when murals became popular.

“You can go up and paint a certain thing on a wall with aerosol paint and do it in a certain style, but a graffiti artist will be able to look at it and say, ‘That guy has never done graffiti in his life,’ ” said Asad Walker, a member of one of D.C.’s oldest graffiti crews, KGB.

Art takes hold in one of downtown’s last gritty spaces — but only for a while

Walker, 50, has been arrested for graffiti, and he’s also had his work shown in galleries. He got his start at 16, writing his name on trash cans along popular bus lines — the path to exposure for most budding graffiti artists. Some of the teenagers and 20-somethings whose names are painted along bus lines today want to be respected muralists someday, too. But to be good enough, that means they have to practice — illegally. Skip that step, graffiti artists say, and you won’t be respected in the graffiti culture.

“Imagine, for example, you’re interested in collecting stamps or coins,” explains Roger Gastman, director of a documentary about one of D.C.’s original graffiti writers, Cool “Disco” Dan. “You inherit a load of money from your uncle. You spend a few million dollars, and you have this incredible collection. . . . The people who have been in the culture for 15, 20 years, the people who have worked to learn things, to discover things at estate sales and whatnot, they’re going to say: ‘Who the [expletive] are you?’ ”

The search for the next Borf

For many Washingtonians, graffiti’s outsider culture is still personified by the artist once known as Borf.

His quirky spray-painted stencils covered the city in the mid-2000s, most strikingly the face of a young boy on a highway sign over the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. He made graffiti cool at a time when the notable graffiti artists of the '80s and '90s had all but disappeared in a rapidly gentrifying Washington. Like famed British graffiti artist Banksy, Borf's allure was being everywhere and nowhere all at once.

But in July 2005, Borf was arrested, and it turned out he was 18-year-old John Tsombikos, a kid from suburban Virginia. The little boy’s eyes were power-washed off the highway, and Borf’s traces began to disappear. To the dismay of some and the joy of others, the District was left without a patron saint of graffiti.

Eleven years later, the wait for the next Borf continues. Graffiti connoisseurs note that Washington seems to be falling behind even its smaller neighbors, such as Richmond and Baltimore. There’s certainly new graffiti being painted in the city, just nothing that has garnered much attention outside of it.

Alex Goldstein, who shows graffiti at his Capitol Hill gallery, the Fridge, blames the city’s national security culture, with surveillance cameras, federal infrastructure and overlapping police forces squeezing out the available places to scribble.

“Writers know where it’s okay to go and where it’s not, and there are just fewer places to go,” he said.

There are legal options for young people who want to become graffiti artists — if they promise to completely give up illegal art. The nonprofit Words, Beats & Life provides free graffiti classes to kids in the city, but students must sign a pledge that they won't practice without permission outside of class.

The city runs a program called MuralsDC, which paints a half-dozen murals on approved buildings every summer. Launched by former council member Jim Graham in 2007, its goal was to channel young graffiti writers into sanctioned art rather than illegal tagging.

But to persuade building owners to lend their walls to the program, the murals have to be good. So younger artists are hired only as “apprentices.” Lead artists must be older than 18 and have a portfolio of large-scale work — and no criminal record.

From illegal tagging to Instagramable murals: Graffiti in D.C.

WASHINGTON, DC - Mar. 12, 2016: Artist Cory Stowers photographed next to a graffiti tagi along the Red Line between Rhode Island and CAU- Brookland metro stations. (Tamon George For The Washington Post)

‘I can create anything’

The back of the alley looks as though it’s come to life in the few hours since the police officer left. Five artists who have come to watch Viceversa paint are now itching to pick up cans themselves.

Among them is a 26-year-old IT guy scribbling his street name — “Mizta” — on a plastic trash can with a blue Krink paint marker. “Let me have fun,” he begs Stowers.

So Stowers grants him a few feet of brick near the vacant building’s back door — a spot that will rarely be seen except by people from adjacent buildings taking out the trash.

Why bother? “It just zones me out. I don’t have to think about anything else going on in the world. It’s just me and the wall,” Mizta says. “In that moment, I’m — well, I won’t say God. But I’m kind of like a god, because I can create anything.”

And he’ll keep painting, even if he could be fined $2,500 for it.

His friend, an artist who goes by JAH-ONE, agrees. “If anything, they’ll get more validation from it because people will look at it like, ‘Wow, you’re risking 2


grand every time you step out to paint, and you’re still doing it.”

With no cops or security cameras to bother them, the paint keeps flowing for hours. They have left their mark — at least until this old building makes way for a forthcoming luxury apartment complex. When the new building is completed, a real estate broker said, they might hire someone to paint a mural on its side.