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."
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.