Looking out the window of a Red Line train running through Northeast Washington, the graffiti flashes by, a blur of brightly colored bubble letters, cryptic tags, bold stencils and fading stickers.
“Get well yoyo.”
“Happy birthday Cow!!”
Saaret Yoseph watches with a careful eye. She is a student of graffiti in the District and the founder of the Red Line D.C. Project, an artistic venture that examines the public perception of the graffiti.
The stretch of the Red Line that cuts through Northeast is Yoseph’s studio, and this weekend, a documentary about her project is being screened at the Our City Film Festival at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
In the film, Yoseph interviews people who have created some of the city’s graffiti and those who experience it as a backdrop to their daily commute.
Graffiti is commonly viewed as nothing more than a crime or a nuisance. The Red Line project aims to take a deeper look and to foster a conversation about how graffiti is perceived, Yoseph, 27, said.
“We can use graffiti as a window into everything else,” she said. “We can use it to revisit the aesthetics of everyday space and as a sign of change in the city.”
The project comes at a time of renewed interest in Washington’s graffiti culture. “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” a film about the D.C. graffiti artist, was released last month, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art is hosting an exhibit called “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s” on the decade’s graffiti, go-go music and punk scene.
Along the Red Line, the graffiti that shadows the track is constantly changing. Space is limited, access can be complicated and competition can be fierce, said Cory L. Stowers, co-owner of an art shop in Petworth and a former graffiti artist who has helped Yoseph understand the graffiti subculture.
These days, like the graffiti along the Red Line, the neighborhoods of Northeast Washington rarely look the same for very long. Once-desolate lots are now home to luxury lofts and upscale grocery stores. Commissioned murals, some painted by graffiti artists, have replaced other graffiti along the Metropolitan Branch Trail, an eight-mile bike path that runs between Union Station and Silver Spring.
“The changes in the graffiti are, in many ways, reflective of the changes across D.C.,” Yoseph said.
Born and raised in Northeast Washington, Yoseph grew up riding the Red Line. She started the Red Line project three years ago as a Georgetown graduate student. She wanted to explore the significance of graffiti to building owners, graffiti artists and commuters.
Many people ride the Red Line largely oblivious to the graffiti that marks the route. Yoseph said she wants to pull them out of their typically passive riding experience by asking them to think about the graffiti along their commute. Riders are encouraged to send in videos, pictures and links about graffiti to the project’s Web site.
“I no longer see the issue as black and white,” she said. “The more the project has progressed, the more I’ve been comfortable straddling the lines and ideas of what is good and what is bad.”
If any work of graffiti in the District is likely to be universally accepted, it might be the piece that sits across from the Brookland Metro platform. Outlined in gold and red, filled in with white paint, “SEAN 21 TAYLOR” commemorates the Redskins player who died in 2007 from gunshot wounds. It remains untouched, a testament to the respect it has garnered from the graffiti community.
D.C. graffiti writer Cert, who painted the Sean Taylor piece the night the player died, is among those interviewed in Yoseph’s documentary.
In a community where true identities are often shrouded, Cert’s appearance in the film is remarkable, offering a window into a different world and a chance, Stowers said, to take a different view.
“Whether or not you agree with the fact that people are sneaking onto train tracks at night to paint graffiti on a wall is not a concern for me,” he said. “But understanding why they do it is the concern for me. Because then you start to make some sort of connection with it.”