Dripping from bridges, scrawled across alleyway walls and tagged on garbage cans along busy streets, graffiti brings color and gives voice to unheard perspectives in many parts of Washington, D.C. Often going unacknowledged or unaccepted as a valid form of art, graffiti has long maintained a strong presence in the District.
Particularly in recent years, however, local government has become much more aggressive in its stance against the craft, igniting arguments about the validity of graffiti as an art form as opposed to vandalism. Today, many artists struggle to continue to make art while facing increased police scrutiny, the city’s devotion of more resources to graffiti removal and the potentially imminent implementation of legislation — the Anti-Graffiti Amendment Act of 2016 — that would drastically increase the punishments for those who create graffiti.
DC’s graffiti history
The history of graffiti in D.C. is partially rooted in the legacy of Borf, a graffiti artist who made a name for himself in 2004 and 2005. For many months, the artist managed to evade law enforcement as he covered the city with his pieces, which focused on his disdain for and disapproval of adulthood — one of his most popular pieces was of a young girl holding a sign reading, “grownups are obsolete” — and primarily featured the face of a young boy. Borf’s work was often likened to that of Banksy, the famed British street artist whose politically charged graffiti has received international acclaim.
When eventually caught, it was revealed that Borf’s real identity was an 18-year-old John Tsombikos, a Great Falls native who was then a student at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Interviews and research done for his trial revealed that the name “Borf” was a tribute to a friend of his who had committed suicide and served as the inspiration behind the face of the boy so prominently featured in Tsombikos’ work. His incarceration and the removal of his pieces represented a great loss in the world of D.C. graffiti art, a void that has yet to be filled. However, that is not to say that there are not many taggers — a term for graffiti artist — making names for themselves in the District.
The Double Down Kings and graffiti’s legacy
Many of the most well-known and respected D.C. graffiti artists found their roots in the Double Down Kings, or 2 Dope Kings — Leave All Burned, a hip-hop-based crew of artists formed in 1994. Although graffiti is the artistic heart of the group, DDK has expanded over the past 22 years to include those who work in music, dance, tattoo, film and design.
The group is run by Cory Stowers, a graffiti artist and muralist who works to support D.C. graffiti art by young aspiring artists hoping to learn the craft. DDK was founded in 1994 by Stowers — also known by his tag name, Eon2 — and DJ Mikey Vader when they were high school students. Earlier this fall, the group celebrated its 22nd anniversary by hosting a weeklong event that began with an exhibition of its members’ work at The Arts District Building in Hyattsville, Md., and culminated with graffiti workshops and music performances in a symbolic venue.
“The space where we displayed the show was directly across from the train tracks where we used to go spray paint the trains and retaining walls back in 1994,” Stowers said.
Gallery shows for graffiti are controversial within graffiti culture, as they remove the art from its typical urban context.
“There has always been the question within the graffiti community whether gallery shows are part of the culture, but since the late 1970s, people have been interested in seeing graffiti in this context,” Stowers said.
In the years since its founding, many DDK artists have risen through the ranks and made names for themselves in the D.C. area and beyond. PEAR is one of these artists. After rising to prominence through DDK in the early 2000s, his characteristic bubble-lettered tag can now be found internationally, although D.C. is the most concentrated site of his work.
Another DDK alumnus is CAVE, a graffiti artist who has distinguished himself through his letterform experimentation and tendency to stray from traditional phrasing. CAVE began writing in 1997 and is known throughout the D.C. graffiti community as not only an influential artist but an inspiring mentor to those learning the art. Wielding influence in the world of graffiti art, however, does not come without challenges.
Issues affecting graffiti artists
One of the biggest problems with which graffiti artists grapple is the labeling of their work as criminal vandalism rather than carefully considered artistic expression.
“It is the same work. The only thing that distinguishes the two is location. Anything painted on someone else’s property without their permission is illegal. Anywhere you paint without that concern is not an issue,” Stowers said.
While graffiti is certainly popular with the younger generation, there are many who find the spray-painted art to be destructive and inappropriate. As a result of this conception, in the past few years the District has begun cracking down on graffiti production and harshly punishing those caught.
Beyond the increased installment of security cameras and the continuous gentrification of D.C. in recent years, which is resulting in buildings made of materials difficult to paint on, such as glass, the greatest problems for the graffiti art community have been the increase in clean-up efforts and the proposal of harsher legislation.
When citizens call 311 with reports of unlawful graffiti, the Department of Public Works sends workers to clean it up. This effort has an annual cost of over $400,000, which is perhaps the reason that legislators have created a bill to target this problem at its source by preventing the creation of graffiti in the first place.
Currently, the D.C. Council is reviewing the Anti-Graffiti Amendment Act of 2016, which proposes, among other things, that fines for creating graffiti be increased from a range of $100 to $1,000 to a range of $500 to $2,500.
The act is a revision of a 1982 bill that expands the legal reach of anti-graffiti legislation, while also increasing penalties for those caught or intending to create graffiti.
According to the bill, it will “increase the fines for willfully placing graffiti on property without the consent of an owner… and increase the fines for willfully possessing graffiti material with the intent to place graffiti on property without the consent of an owner.”
The bill enters a gray area regarding the intent of those possessing graffiti materials, criminalizing a segment of D.C.’s vibrant arts community.
“In D.C., over $2,000 in damage equates to a felony and, by that logic, you could become a felon by walking around with markers in your pocket,” Stowers said.
The District’s emphasis on criminal prosecution ignores other options would potentially be more effective in reducing illegal tagging.
“They could easily put their resources and energy toward engagement projects with graffiti artists,” Stowers said. He continued, “It would work much better telling artists where their art can be, instead of dictating where it cannot.”
Moving toward freedom
One organization following a different course by offering artists an alternate outlet is Words, Beats and Life, a nonprofit that teaches artistic workshops for all ages. Some of these workshops focus on street art and provide students with paint, instruction and walls on which to practice.
D.C. is exerting considerable effort to try to control the creation of graffiti, but Kosi Dunn, a poet, writer and marketing specialist at Words, Beats and Life, suggests that the community of graffiti artists is passionate and tightly knit enough to overcome these increased obstacles.
“As someone who believes in hip-hop and believes in art as a means to achieve social change, I think that when laws like [the Anti-Graffiti Amendment Act of 2016] are enacted and these restrictions are placed, we usually get more students because a lot of hip-hop appeal is that it’s inherently subversive,” Dunn said.
However, there is one caveat: In order to take the class, students must sign a pledge stating that they will not create graffiti on walls beyond what is required of them for the class, unless they have explicit permission.
“We don’t condone [illegal] graffiti-ing, so as a way to give our students space we have our own practice wall and we also work with D.C. to commission murals because that’s really the only difference between graffiti and mural art — someone asked for mural art,” Dunn said.
This class enables students to learn about something they love without forcing them to do so in a way that could potentially upset citizens and local government and give young people a criminal record.
Despite restriction and retribution, graffiti in the District is a flourishing art representative of the work of inspired, passionate individuals. The verdict has yet to be revealed on the Anti-Graffiti Amendment Act, but regardless of its result, the D.C. community of artists, citizens, lawmakers and law enforcement needs to reach a point of mutual respect and understanding.
Hoya Staff Writer John Miller contributed reporting.
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