Asad Walker remembers how he used to take one last look around before shaking his Krylon spray paint can hard. The ball inside would knock about, shattering the quiet night. With a friend standing watch, Walker would paint his tag, “Ultra,” in big letters on a wall.
It was more than scribbles. The multicolored script seemed to pop from the surface, and he tried to place it in perfect view of morning pedestrians on the street.
Walker was a graffiti king in the District during the 1990s. His tag was found in thousands of places. His crew, KGB, often referred to as Krazy Graffiti Brothers, was one of the most feared among vandals at the time.
The crew is still organized and remains one of the oldest in the District. But, “yo, s--- has changed!” the 52-year-old Walker recently said.
In much of the city, traditional graffiti has given way to street art, a more tamed, often legal version of the activity. Crews like KGB have evolved, former members said. They’re more likely to come up with designs for murals or crafting canvas art than “bombing,” a term for blanketing an area with tags. Or as one current member and muralist put it: “Everyone softens up when you get older.”
Walker is of an era represented by some of the city’s legendary figures. There was former mayor Marion Barry (D), go-go godfather Chuck Brown and NBC4 news anchor Jim Vance, all of whom have died in recent years. Even the graffiti community lost a major hero with the death of Cool “Disco” Dan, well-known among taggers and one of Walker’s close friends.
He’s not proud of everything he did in his time on the streets and does not play down crimes from his past, saying he “should have been buried under the jail.” Today, Walker is different. He makes a living teaching art and has become one of the area’s foremost authorities in graffiti-style art without the intent of vandalism.
“I started painting on the street in the early ’80s,” Walker told one of his classes last year. “Now, with my life, I just do art.”
The oldest of three, Asad Walker was born John Holland Walker in Baltimore. When he was a child, his family moved to the District, where his brother and sister were born. He described his home life as unsteady, becoming more so once his parents separated.
As a kid, he often ran away or sneaked out of the house at night to wander. Eventually, his behavior landed him with a relative in New Hampshire who Walker says physically abused him. When Walker turned 16 years old, he said he ran away from there too.
But it was on train rides between New Hampshire and the District that Walker saw graffiti splashed on the tunnels and walls, piquing his interest. As a teenager, he toyed with tagging while frequenting downtown clubs. After trying out various names, he settled on one stemming from the Japanese science-fiction superhero “Ultraman,” which he said he watched on Count Gore de Vol’s show on WDCA Channel 20.
Walker has only been arrested for graffiti once. But over the years, he built a long rap sheet: trespassing, theft and assault with a deadly weapon. A police profile said he was prone to violence. Some people he crossed paths with more than 20 years ago recall times he attacked them.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, Hugh Carew, a former D.C. police detective, took an interest in taggers while investigating robberies and assaults. But he said law enforcement had more pressing crimes than destruction of property. “I don’t think the city took it real seriously in the beginning,” he said.
Many involved in graffiti took advantage. They covered neighborhoods with monikers like R.E. Randy, Scratch Master Kyle (SMK) or Joker and ran with crews with names like Dot Com, Hoodz of Art (HOA) or Furious-Fighting Crew (FFC).
“Maybe he was my fiercest competitor,” said Martin Castro, a member of Walker’s crew who went by “Cast.” Both worked at the Safari Club together, now closed. He admired Walker’s knack for placement. “His spots had to count, so he made his spots count.”
Some crew members said they recognized that Walker, who converted to Islam in his 20s, was more artistic than them despite his tough demeanor. They described his work as “clean” and free of unnecessary “wiggles and squiggles.”
In KGB’s heyday, the District was home to underground punk, hard core, hip-hop and go-go music scenes, all with their own taggers. Walker had connections with everyone. By the time he was locked up in Lorton prison in Virginia on a 1997 gun charge, he had left an indelible mark on the city’s tagging culture.
“Ultra is that one guy who transcended every major subculture movement in D.C.,” said Joseph Pattisall, who directed the documentary “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” which featured Walker. “Ultra is this guy who took it so far for so long and it’s incredible,” he said.
But after five years behind bars and on parole, Walker said he wanted to take a different approach for his kids. He had six children and knew he hadn’t always been a positive role model.
After his release, he began to use his talent for legal work in studios, open walls and event spaces. A fan of airbrushing, he adorned clothing with his favorite superheroes. He also found his way to canvases, but his abilities with aerosol really got his fellow artists’ attention.
“I would say [he’s] masterful with his use of spray paint,” said Alex Goldstein, owner and operator of the Fridge art venue on Capitol Hill. Walker once worked as the associate gallery director for the space, running day-to-day operations and curating shows.
“His work is very, very bold and aggressive,” Goldstein said.
These days, Mazi Mutafa, executive director of Words Beats & Life, a Washington-based hip-hop nonprofit, employs Walker to teach classes, do art installations and paint murals around the city. “Asad is a D.C. graffiti pioneer,” Mutafa said.
Jasmin Martinez, a 17-year-old from Southeast Washington, loves to draw. Two years ago, she enrolled in a class Walker taught at Words Beats & Life.
She emerged with this takeaway: Never erase. Move forward and incorporate mistakes.
“Fix it. Make it work. Make it fit in,” she said. “And I’ve done that a lot and it’s helped me become better.” The lesson seems to pull straight from Walker’s days scribbling on walls, where the pressures of tagging required quick thinking.
As a teacher, he lectures on the mechanics behind aerosol paint, describing the inner workings of a can, with its balance of gas and liquid. He ties street art and graffiti to other types of art, like calligraphy or comics. He even tries to open students’ minds to gallery management and curating shows, his old responsibilities at the Fridge.
In the classroom, Walker works to create a safe space for students to learn and express themselves without judgment. Former pupils have said he is kind of a goof or a big kid, but he inspires them. “Keep your art eyes open,” he told one of his fall classes.
Francis Wells, another former student, recalled Walker’s lessons going beyond art. He focused on “becoming more aware of the variety of ways that you could sort of push yourself into different directions to do things maybe you wouldn’t immediately thought of doing,” he said.
Parents are aware of Walker’s background, the kids say. Any concerns are outweighed by his ability to stoke his students’ passion for art. “It just shows the fact that, you know, everybody makes mistakes,” Martinez said. But “he’s teaching us how to do [art] legally and get paid for it.”
Today, bushels of black-and-gray hair flow from Walker’s head and the tattoo on his wrist of Cambodian script is fading. He lives with three of his children and is often seen with his youngest son, Ethan, at his side, at street art events or comic book conventions. “I love little kids, man. I really do,” he said.
The city has changed and it’s hard to find an Ultra tag on the street anymore. But Walker’s content to see a different kind of Washington.