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Graffiti Artists Want To Disassociate From Crime

— All taggers have a street name. Kyle Boatwright, is known as "Sain."

Sain is a shy but prolific tagger who recently served six months in jail for vandalism. When he got out, his case made headlines in the graffiti world. It took investigators 11 months to track him down, and police say his $87,000 settlement is the largest in recent history.

Sain is now taking a weekly graffiti class in a San Diego art school. He declined a formal interview for this story because he said he wants to focus on his art. He came to learn from established graffiti artist Daniel Moses, who goes by "Pose."

“By getting rid of graffiti it eliminates the amount of crime--that's the association," said Pose. "But the people that are out there doing graffiti are probably the ones that don't want to do crime," said Pose, as his students sprayed their street names on a wall caked with layers of old paint.

Pose said he believes his class challenges the idea that graffiti equals crime—and that most law enforcement still haven't warmed up to the idea of decriminalizing the art form.

"They want to create this perception of safety and they feel that with the removal of graffiti, you know, we're cleaning up the city," he said.

Bill Miles from San Diego County Sheriff’s office disagrees. He was the lead investigator on the case against Kyle Boatwright, and said the property damages caused by Boatwright were chronic, and serious.

Miles said he tries to find the connection between gangs, vandalism and graffiti. He said there’s a difference between gang graffiti and artists’ graffiti, and he encourages legal tagging, like the class taught by Pose. But if there are complaints by residents and businesses—it’s all vandalism.

"If it's going to be gang-related, they're doing it to mark their territory -- like on a corner, this is my turf," said Miles, explaining the often-overlooked distinction between different types of tagging. "Now, the difference between taggers and gangsters, is that some taggers go by themselves, they're 'oners.' They have no affiliation with a crew or anything like that."

Daniel Moses,
Enlarge this image

Above: Daniel Moses, "Pose," introduces the 1980s graffiti book, "Subway Art" to his Saturday class.

In San Diego and other Southwestern cities, graffiti is often charged as a misdemeanor or felony.  The use of digital photography and GPS technology have made it easier for police to catch suspects, find connections to gang activity, and prosecute a growing number of graffiti cases.

Josh Peterson, "Kroer," 21, said the punishment for most graffiti these days does not match the crime—especially when the graffiti is done by a skilled artist.

"It's not like we're going out and robbing a store, or harming kids or selling drugs," said Kroer. "It's putting art on gray buildings."

Kroer said he likes to work on big pieces, like the one he’s working on at “Writerz Blok”, a group that’s trying to get artists to tag on what they call "legal walls."

The hope is that by offering a safe space for taggers, aspiring artists will stay out of trouble, promote their work and even get commissioned. But whether legal graffiti at a place like this is keeping taggers from illegal graffiti still remains to be seen.

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Avatar for user 'xenozoon'

xenozoon | February 21, 2011 at 10:15 a.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

I take issue with the efforts by Mr. Moses and his students to legitimize vandalism. Some of the work by "graffiti artists" may have some aesthetic merit, but if such an artist creates his work on a surface that is not his or that he does not have permission to use, it's vandalism. Josh Peterson's contention that "it's just putting art on gray walls" is disingenuous. For one thing, the vast majority of the graffiti that I see consists of tags. By means of a tag, a vandal symbolically "claims" something that is not his (a corner, a building, a neighborhood...) and thus tagging is inherently a gesture of aggression. For another thing, that "gray wall" belongs to a homeowner or businessperson, and represents decades of hard work, education, planning, risk, and achievement.

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Avatar for user 'tanyaraz'

tanyaraz | February 21, 2011 at 11:23 a.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

That's why Writerz Blok is such a great idea, a safe place, where you can be an artist around good people and get inspired by other artists.

Yes, vandalism isn't good, but in no way should all street/graffiti artists be labeled as gang members. Tagging and graffiti seem to have taken on two different shapes. Street artists express themselves through their colors and skills, gang members don't express themselves and feel that violence, prostitution and the drug trade is the right thing to do, and is the only way out.

Street art is a much healthier alternative. I'd rather see graffiti than a guy on the corner selling dope to my kids, or selling them off for sex.

The point that this article is making, is the association that if people get rid of graffiti than crime will be less, and although street art done without permission on an owned property is vandalism, this is ultimately NOT the crime the police are after.

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Avatar for user 'xenozoon'

xenozoon | February 21, 2011 at 1:08 p.m. ― 6 years, 1 month ago

I applaud Writerz Blok (I scoped their website) from providing a safe place, where artists can be around good people and be inspired by other artists. The same opportunity is available in your own home, or studio, or school. You could even make art in a public place to which you bring your own canvas, or stage, or sheet of drywall or whatever, that you can take with you when you're done. Buskers do it all the time.

I want to make clear that I'm not equating graffiti with gang activity. When I see something sprayed on a wall or sidewalk, I have no idea if the sprayer belongs to a gang. I'm not labeling graffiti sprayers as gang members, or associating them with any other criminal activity. All associations with other criminal activities aside, painting someone else's property without their permission is vandalism, and vandalism is a crime.

I think it's a mistake to excuse vandalism because it's less damaging to society than selling dope to your kids, or selling them off for sex, for two reasons: 1) You can't just excuse one crime because it's not as bad as another. Should we excuse a government official because he solicits a relatively modest bribe, instead of a million dollars? Should we excuse a guy who sells dope to your kids, because he didn't kidnap them and sell them into slavery? 2) You're making the same association that you accused me of in your earlier post: assuming that graffitists are involved in other types of criminal activity (gang members.... violence, prostitution, drug trade). For one thing, I can't tell by looking at vandalism if the perpetrator is involved in other crimes. For another, they're not mutually exclusive. A guy would have to do an awful lot of graffiti to not have sufficient time and resources to sell dope to your kids, or sell them off for sex.

The problem I have with Mr. Moses' statements, and the KPBS piece, is that they blur the distinction between art and vandalism. I'm making the assumption that "graffiti", by definition, is performed on a surface that isn't yours. Well then, regardless of its beauty, it's a crime. The article says Mr. Moses "believes his class challenges the idea that graffiti equals crime—and that most law enforcement still haven't warmed up to the idea of decriminalizing the art form". Paint all you want at Writerz Blok, but if the "art form" entails painting on my garage door or my neighbor's patio wall or the sidewalk in front of my house, by all means keep it criminal.

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Avatar for user 'JuliusZsako'

JuliusZsako | February 24, 2012 at 4:52 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

Encourage legal tagging? If you want to disassociate from crime, don't do vandalism. You can practice your art on your own canvass. But when you place it on a stop sign, traffic control box, utility pole, my fence or my neighbor's garage, it is a crime.

Graffiti is highly destructive, devaluing property by 15% while costing us Americans $12 billion a year to clean-up. In my new book (DEFACING AMERICA - The Rise of Graffiti Vandalism) I documented that uninvited, unauthorized graffiti is very harmful to communities. Agree or disagree? Contact me at

Julius Zsako

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | February 24, 2012 at 7:09 p.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

At xexonbaffoon, neither did the "Surfing Madonna" have permission, so it's vandalism too?

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | February 25, 2012 at 8:39 a.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

I just want to point out that there is a difference between "taggers" who simply vandalize property and people who want to practice graffiti as an art form and have trouble finding legal places to do so. Here's a story I did on an artist that I first met 20 years ago and who's been arrested for painting illegally (on an abandoned railroad car not someone's home or business) and who now has a mural up at the San Diego Museum of Art through the help of Writerz Blok. Just something to consider. You can see his work here:


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