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Let Us Spray

All over the sprawling Salt Lake suburbs, the writing’s on the wall(s).


n n n
Know Your Graf Lingo
Bomb: to paint or write graffiti
Tag: the name of a writer—i.e., what do you tag?
Buff: to be buffed out or painted over
Toy: a young and bad writer
Crew: a group of writers who write and hang out together
Piece: a complicated and intricate, sometimes abstract, version of a writer’s name
Throw-up: a bigger version of a tag with thick colored-in letters
Crush: to defeat or destroy
Get Up: to tag or write graffiti
Rack: to steal
Bite: to steal another writer’s style
Battle: to face off against another writer
They write on any surface they can find: sidewalks, stop signs, bus stops, bathroom walls, billboards, lampposts, trains, rooftops, overpasses.

They use anything that leaves a mark by scratching, painting, drawing, sticking and stenciling their names on everything. They write their names with Sharpies, paint pens and shoe polish.

Their names show up throughout Salt Lake County: Dister, Duke, Kier, Pixl, Slej, Stem, Siva, Spade, Ego, Erups, Aster, Otra, Chew, Yeti, Yukon. And their crews’ titles, too: Always Remaining Strong (ARS), Angels of Death (AOD), Still America’s Doppest Kings (SADK), We See All (WSA), to name a few.

They are graffiti writers, and to the untrained eye, their tags might as well be in cuneiform script. They have a language of their own. Writers don’t vandalize, they “bomb.” It’s not graffiti, it’s “graf.” They don’t steal, they “rack.”
You’re not a bad writer, you’re a “toy.”

This impulsive, ego-driven outlaw culture operates on a self-regulating code, a thieves’ code, so to speak.

Part egoist, part artist, part adrenaline junkie and part cultural creator, the graffiti writer is more than he (they are nearly all male) is cracked up to be. He may be a vandal to some, but to one another, their art is their very identity.

“Writers,” as they call themselves, are a tenacious bunch. Despite pervasive and expensive efforts to stop this crime (Salt Lake County alone spends $100,000 a year), writers are not going away. It’s as big a problem as ever, says Nancy White, Salt Lake County’s graffiti program manager, tasked with painting over much of the county’s graffiti. Like a hated species society would like eradicated, the writer has not only survived but multiplied.

Often seen as a reaction to inner-city poverty, modern graffiti in our neck of the woods may seem out of place. Yet, here in one of the most conservative states in the nation, graffiti has found a place in the rambling suburbs of Salt Lake County.

Graffiti is nothing new. It can be found almost anywhere humans have lived. But modern graffiti is distinct from what came before. And since the early ’90s, graffiti—as in the vandalism that began on the East Coast subways in the ’70s—has been alive and well in Salt Lake County.

{::INSERTAD::}This is a story about a group of writers and their crew—ARS. As the longest-lived continually active crew in Salt Lake County, theirs is a modern American subculture, a reaction to the blandness of the suburban landscape just as urban graffiti was a reaction to inner-city life. It is a culture with taboos and rules as complicated and intricate as the courtship rituals of a Stone Age tribe in Borneo. While writers hope to be seen by everyone and long for the notoriety of getting away with something, they write mainly to build their reputations with one another. It is a form of rebellion on the one hand and a form of communication on the other. It has rules and limits, this vandals’ world. Welcome to SLC Graf.

{::NOAD::}Spaceships & Robot Rubble
A dry wind blows across the surface of a paint-encrusted brick wall. Clouds of aerosol grip the wall, then rise high in the air and disappear. The air fills with an acrid scent as Kier, atop a ladder, leans against the wall.

With spray can arching across the wall, he directs paint onto an image of a spaceship. The ship’s black outline is half completed and parts of it, still wet, glisten in the sun. The mural that spreads below him is an apocalyptic landscape. At the base, piles of junked robots lie in rubble. Nearby, a huge robotic head pulls bits of hardware from its skull.

Kier, a 28-year-old Salt Lake City writer, climbs down from the ladder. He walks with a limp, a remnant of an injury he suffered in a long-ago car accident. He stands 6 feet tall, his brown hair pulled back loosely under a headband. In baggy jeans and a white T-shirt, he resembles an average 20-something rummaging in his car trunk for a spare tire. But piles of spray paint cans fill his trunk. He sifts through them. “I’m kind of winging it with the color scheme,” he says. Behind him, the outline of the spaceship has the name “Yeti” embedded into it, in tribute to another writer friend of his.

Kier and fellow writer Stem are busy working on the mural when Yeti arrives. Straight hair falls across Yeti’s brow. He wears a T-shirt illustrated with a space shuttle blasting off, not unlike Kier’s mural. “There’s going to be blue streaks coming out of it,” Kier explains to Yeti, pointing to the ship. Then Kier begins adding yellow and orange flames at the tailpipe.

“I gotta have some big engines,” Yeti says, as he gazes up at Kier.

The mural on this Taylorville wall on July 4 is a collaboration among several writers who have been painting in Salt Lake County for nearly 15 years. In their late 20s, the writers have been on the graf scene since adolescence. They have jobs and families now, yet they persist.

Friends before they took up writing, Kier, Yeti (both in ARS) and Chew have left their marks for a long time and by extension, so has ARS. Unlike almost every other area crew in the past two decades, ARS has managed to stay tight. “Family first,” Kier says.

Whatever it was that drew them to graffiti when they where teenagers has kept a hold on them. They embraced a world of abandoned alleys, decrepit buildings and concrete overpasses—surroundings that few notice. This intimacy with the urban environment and their reaction against suburban stultification was what drew them to grafitti.

{::NOAD::}In the Beginning
Modern graffiti hit Salt Lake City like a smack in the face. Nancy White, Salt Lake County’s graffiti program manager, says there was little graffiti here before the early 1990s. But, for over a decade, White and her crew of two have been busy covering up every tag that finds its way on to buildings and signs in the county. Her tactic is to paint over graffiti as soon as it goes up.

Despite spending countless hours combating this crime, White has come to see it as more than simple vandalism. “If you’re involved with it, you see everything,” she says. She knows the difference between gang graffiti and, say, Kier’s graffiti. She recognizes certain names and tags. She seems to have developed an uneasy respect for writers and has even appeared recently with writers on a KRCL 90.9 FM radio program. “There’s a culture to graffiti,” she says. “They seem to have ethics. I think I hadn’t thought of that.”

All the same, graffiti remains a crime. Most view it as vandalism degrading the environment, and it’s been White’s job since the program was initiated in 1993 to clean it up. “The one thing about graffiti is that it’s such an emotional thing,” she says. “If graffiti shows up in a neighborhood, people have, all of a sudden, moved to the wrong neighborhood.”

Modern graffiti came to town with two writers named Slej and Ego. Their style differed from what anyone had seen previously. They tagged their names in fonts of their own design. And they did throw-ups—big colored-in paintings of their tags and pieces. Before Slej and Ego, graffiti in Salt Lake City mainly consisted of bad gang tags and run-of-the-mill graf. After Slej and Ego, nothing was the same. They were Salt Lake City’s first kings.

“You ask anyone,” Kier says. “Slej is the triple OG.” Indeed. Slej is currently serving jail time for a stabbing. Ego, according to Kier, has dropped from sight and is nowhere to be found.

On a wall around the corner from Kier’s spaceship, one of the county’s earliest throw-ups crumbles like ancient history. It may be the longest-running example of this type of graffiti in the county. A fairly simple painting, its thick letters cross over one another with a subtly abstract effect. It is nothing compared to the murals around the corner, but for the time it was like nothing else.

{::NOAD::}But Why Here?
“When you go to New York City, you see why graffiti was born,” Yeti says. For the marginalized kids in New York City who started graffiti, it was a means of demanding recognition. So, while those along the Wasatch Front may say that graffiti doesn’t belong here, Yeti argues, “Here, we’re impoverished in another way.”

The suburbs that Yeti and many writers like him hail from—Murray, West Valley City and Taylorsville—have no hard-and-fast limits. They run into one another in a blur of freeways and sprawling subdivisions. Graf writing was a way to stand out in this landscape.

Another way to understand graffiti’s growth in Salt Lake County—and in suburban America in general—is to see it as another form of teen angst, a reaction to the contradictions and hypocrisy of the adult world. Teens compare what they are told of the world by their elders (do your work, obey the law and everything will work out) with what they find in the real world (a place of soulless suburbs and commercial culture, peopled by adults with empty, work-centered lives). The two versions don’t match up. So, before they are sucked into the monotony of adulthood and responsibility, they rebel.

But, instead of starting a band or growing a Mohawk, writers join a subculture whose purpose is to point out the world’s hypocrisy. Graffiti constantly reminds us that, despite America’s unabashed optimism and its rhetoric of triumph, things are not all right.

For Yeti, who now teaches art, little has changed in this regard. “Professional life is really boring,” he says. “I still feel the drive to do this destructive thing.”

Tristan Manco in his 2002 book Stencil Graffiti says that writing is an act of destruction but also a rejection of the official view of the world. “As high-tech communications have increased, a low-tech reaction has been the recent explosion in street art. The street is a unique and powerful platform; a frontline on which artists can express themselves, transmitting their personal visions directly to the public at the same level as official messages. No other art form interacts in this way with our daily lives using our urban space as its surface.”

{::NOAD::}Toy Crews
Kier and Yeti started noticing graffiti while they were in junior high. All they had to do was walk down the road. It was everywhere.

For Kier, it started one day walking home from school in West Valley City. Kier saw a tag he’d never seen before. “It was completely different. It had more style to it. It wasn’t typical gangster graffiti,” Kier recalls. The gangster graffiti he describes has changed little. Rarely done artistically, its crude, almost digital-looking letters are all the same.

Skateboarding led Yeti to graffiti at age 12. “They were bedfellows,” he says. “As a skateboarder, you are always sizing up the city, and you do the same with graffiti. The only difference is you don’t apologize for graffiti.”

After their first exposure, it only took a little courage and a pen, and they were tagging themselves. Since there was no one to teach them how to tag, theirs was a culture of “make it up as you go along.” It wasn’t their fault they chose goofy names or that they didn’t know tagging from piecing. Their first tags and crews were comic. Kier first wrote “Fingz” because he was good with his hands.

But it was the rush that really made writing exciting. “You get this rush and the rush feeds that experience,” Yeti says. “You’re like a fiend, doing it every chance you get.”

Getting caught didn’t deter them, either. The penalties were paltry. Chew got caught and only had to pay for the paint authorities used to cover his graffiti.

With every passing day, Kier and friends learned more of the rules of tagging. The more you “got up,” the more respect you got from other writers. It wasn’t about territory so much as quantity and quality.
They learned the difference between “throw-ups” and “pieces.” Throw-ups usually consist of simple, large block- or bubble-letter graffiti with a single color fill-in and a single color outline. Pieces, on the other hand, are much more intricate, often abstract and multilayered productions.

At the time, the scene was going crazy, so they had lots of inspiration to spur them on.

They say the most memorable tagging battle in the history of Salt Lake City might have been the face-off between crews SADK and TM in the early ’90s. No one remembers how it started. The battle took place on the fringes of Interstate 215. Each crew took a side of the freeway just south of downtown. It lasted for weeks. TM did all sorts of tags and throw-ups. But SADK did them one better: SADK did large multicolored, faded and even 3-D murals, or pieces. “They just crushed it [as in, ‘They crushed TM like a bug.’]. It was phenomenal,” Kier says. “Amazing.” And that was that.

By the mid-‘90s, Kier says, the scene mellowed out. Writers like Kier and his friends who stayed around went from catching tags to painting throw-ups and then to pieces.

By 2000, the city began a serious clean up in preparation for the 2002 Olympics. Nothing “ran” for long. Writing had all the risk but little of the pay off. “All that buffing really got a lot of kids’ spirits down,” Kier says. So they found a new outlet.

Trains have been “rocked” since the early days of Slej and Ego. Painting trains was a whole new scene, independent of city writers. It was national; writers from across the country could see what was being done in Salt Lake City and vice versa. It was all there on the tracks painted on the boxcars—writers call them “holy” rollers. “Most writers that are known from here are train writers,” Kier says.

A glimpse through the pages of the Salt Lake City graffiti magazine All Nation is a tour through the freight-graffiti world. Pages of photos show triple-colored pieces and throw-ups, some painted more than a decade ago, running along whole boxcars like out-of-place cartoons. All Nation’s pages are filled with graffiti from across the country: Philadelphia, San Jose and Salt Lake City.

But, like city bombing, too much of a good thing can be its undoing. If too many people paint trains, too often, the authorities clamp down which ends freight bombing. Thus, says Yeti, there have to be rules to keep spots mellow so everyone can keep painting: Don’t go to a yard and leave empty cans around. Don’t paint when a train is coming through. Don’t paint a yard that belongs to another crew. And don’t make a spot “hot” by painting it too often with too many people.

Some writers even avoid painting over train ID numbers as a sign of respect, says Kier.

{::NOAD::}How Rules Make Sense
It was the older heads who taught Kier respect. “When I got brought up, they taught me the rules,” he says. Only do throw-ups over tags, pieces over throw-ups. If there is a battle, keep it in the graffiti world. Don’t do a horrible piece over a great one. Don’t disrespect elder writers. Don’t snitch and don’t “bite” other writers’ styles.

It may sound odd that a group of rebels conform to such strict rules. But these conventions—of conduct and style—define the community. While graffiti is an act of artistic expression, writers must work within a system if they want to be accepted by other writers. Graffiti styles can be abstract and wild and even unreadable by the average person. But they can’t go too far outside the norm. If so, no one will understand.

“In some ways,” Yeti says, “graffiti is very conservative. It’s weird because, on one hand, it’s all about rebellion and not obeying the rules but, at the same time, you have to obey internal rules to stay in the crowd.”

These rules of style are the mechanism that defines the language of graffiti writing, allowing this subculture to talk to itself. Like French or English, graffiti’s survival relies on distinct communally understood rules.

The rules of conduct are another story.

In 2000, a little beef turned personal. The “pyramid wall,” one of Salt Lake City’s few legal walls, is a small concrete building on a side street west of Interstate 15. Just north of 500 South, its four walls are covered in colorful, abstract pieces.

One day, two writers, Spade and Erups (both now in ARS), were painting at the pyramid. Erups ran out of paint and wrote “not finished” on the wall, indicating that no one should paint over his piece when he went for more supplies.

When they returned, Erups says, a writer named Otra, from another crew, had gone over Erups’ unfinished piece. It was in blatant disregard of the rules. “I was kind of pissed, but it wasn’t that big a deal,” Erups says.

When Erups returned a few days later, he saw his competitor’s message: “I finished. What would Jesus do?” This was a diss on several levels. Erups is a Christian and has gotten a lot of flack for it, hence Otra’s Jesus remark. Plus, by writing “I finished,” Otra was rubbing Erups’s face in the fact that he had painted over him. So, Erups did a throw-up over Otra’s piece, slapping Otra back. Erups wrote: “The destroying angel came. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. When laws are broken, consequences come.”

They soon did.

At first, says Erups, he called Otra and asked him to settle the beef, but Otra refused. Otra paid the price. Everyone in Erups’s crew started crossing out or painting over Otra’s graf, especially his trains. Spade was doing a good job of covering up Otra pieces—too good. Otra got so angry, he wrote Spade’s name and address on a train for all to see.

Luckily for Spade, someone in his crew painted over his name. After Otra broke this taboo of taboos, he was hounded like an animal. “We just took it as narcing,” Erups says. Erups’s crew tagged Otra’s front door; they waited outside of his work. It got so bad, Erups says, Otra packed his bags and left town.

Otra had broken the cardinal rule: Don’t snitch. In a world of rule-breakers, where all you have is your reputation, that was a big deal. “Rules are everything,” Kier says. “Respect.”

Now, Otra lives out of town. He changed his name. It’s Mud, really.

{::NOAD::}Across the Tracks
Kier’s small sedan bumps over the long metal tracks that cut through Salt Lake City. A slow train stacked with shipping containers rolls by—no graffiti here. On this early July afternoon, Kier’s eyes roam across the landscape like he is part sniper looking for good cover and part hobo looking for the least conspicuous way through town.

Passing along the north end of the yard, he looks across his dashboard at the laid-up trains and keeps moving. This yard is too hot, says Kier. No one paints here anymore. He crosses the tracks again, passes scrap yards and overgrown lots, then heads south. He is looking to see who had gotten up.

Finally, a long freight train covered in graf rolls north beneath the freeway. Kier looks on from his idling car. Almost every boxcar has throw-ups plastered like neon advertisements on their weathered sides. Bold letters and thick outlines make the names jump off the dirty freight cars. Kier points out the names of people he knows, where they live, their reputations—freight kings who own the train lines, writers like King 157 and Jase.

Kier looks out the window of his car at a scene he knows well. But it is something he now only appreciates voyeuristically. Kier doesn’t paint illegally anymore; he can’t run from the cops with his bum leg. While he’s still involved in the graffiti scene—painting and getting to know younger writers—he doesn’t bomb anymore. You can see he wants to as he looks longingly at passing trains—trains he will never paint again.

But he can be comforted by the fact that there is no shortage of kids to fill his shoes. If they stick around for long enough, they may be kings one day, too.