It’s hard to imagine Seattle, or any other major American city devoid of graffiti. But up until the late 1970s, there simply wasn’t any. It took the urban hip-hop movement, which began in the big cities of the mid-Atlantic like New York and Philadelphia, to catalyze Seattle’s graffiti scene. And when it did, it exploded like a cultural bomb.
“It was everywhere,” says Specs, a graffiti writer (as most of those who paint graffiti prefer to be called) who began as a kid in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood in the early 1980s. “We knew we were starting something, we just didn’t know what it was at the time.”
Graffiti is one of the four main pillars of hip-hop culture, the others being emceeing (or rapping), DJing and break dancing. Specs, who still writes graffiti, puts out albums and is generally regarded as one of the pioneers of Seattle’s hip-hop scene, broke into all of it at the same time. But graffiti spoke to him loudest. “I was annoyed by advertising all over the city, and all these messages that had nothing to do with me,” he says. “It was this mysterious, physical language that just floored me and I took to it right away. I became addicted.”
Graffiti spread throughout Seattle’s poorer, more industrial areas and eventually throughout the city itself, even throughout downtown and in the historic neighborhoods.
But even in the 1980s reactions were varied. “Some condemned it right away, others wanted it only in certain places, and then there were those who embraced it and advocated for it, mostly because it was kids,” says Specs in his Capitol Hill group house apartment. “Mostly they condemned it.”
The city’s policy towards graffiti was largely fluid until 1994, when the Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance was signed into law. This legislation required property owners to remove graffiti from their premises within 10 days of a report or face fines of $100 a day up to $5000. Small business and residential property owners started to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in clean up costs and became partners in the fight against graffiti, which started to get eradicated or “buffed” from many up-and-coming neighborhoods. Then, in 2001, Seattle started offering $1000 rewards for information leading to a graffiti arrest, leading to a number of large-scale busts that resulted in jail time. But writers continued to voice themselves.
Baso Fibonacci, a Seattle artist, began writing around this time. “I loved graffiti from the moment I saw it,” he says. “The combination of artistic creativity and anti-establishment statement appealed to me.” Baso, now in his 30s, wrote all over the city and honed his painting skills, before an accident in the mid 2000s changed his life forever. He was writing a tag on a bridge in the city when he lost his footing and fell. He is now paralyzed from the waist down. But his artistic endeavors — and his love for graffiti — have continued unabated. Even as the city has moved to crack down on the illegal practice even further.
In 2010 the City Council voted to create a full time graffiti detective position within the Seattle Police Department. In 2011, Detective Christopher Young, a former sexual assault and child abuse detective with the department (and detective of the year in 2007) took the job. Since then he’s tracked many of the most notorious graffiti writers in the area and made a number of key arrests and convictions.
“The majority of graffiti vandals are not artists,” says Young. “The vast majority of them aren’t concerned about art in the least. They’re online on forums sharing pictures of tags and having a competition with their buddies as to who can ‘get up’ (get their name up throughout the city) the most. Today’s graffiti is done mostly by white males, their average age is about 22, and they’re doing it for a rush, for some excitement, and for their own self aggrandizement. Not for art.”
Young says he fields about 800 reports of illegal graffiti a year, a number that has stayed fairly consistent since he first began investigating the practice. “I pretty much concentrate on the 10 or 12 most egregious vandals,” he says. “I catch them in the act or find out who they are and then I convince them to stop or leave the city.”
According to many of Seattle’s graffiti writers, some of the most active are indeed leaving the city, going to places like Detroit where the climate is a bit more tolerant and there is a lot of property to tag that won’t be cleaned up right away if at all. Since Detective Young started, Seattle has avoided the major uptick in graffiti being felt in many cities from San Francisco to Albuquerque, and has been able to keep it away from the most economically important parts of the city.
“People like to come to these places to work, to go shopping, and if they see graffiti everywhere, they’re going to think it’s gang warfare on the streets of Seattle, even if it’s done mostly by harmless kids,” says Young. “Perception is reality and we have to take these perceptions into account. It’s bad for business.”
But new writers have continued to tag throughout the city. A local writer whose tag name is “Snoman” avidly practices his craft at his rental house coffee table in preparation for a nighttime hit. He says graffiti isn’t about a rush or fulfilling an addiction as many non-writers claim, but a direct response to societal norms. “It’s a product of me and my environment,” he says. “Today in America it’s all about being famous; it’s all about me, me, me. So as a tagger it’s your way of getting your name out there and making people take notice, but still staying secretive and underground. And maybe it shakes people up a bit. So you figure out a quick way of getting your name out there in a simple tag. That’s why people think it’s ugly ... we’re putting it up as quick as possible a lot of the time.”
Tonight, Snoman paints a large mural on a public wall beneath a railroad. He’s able to take his time, adding three colors and 3D outlines to make the name pop. And then he slips back into the night. Two days later his tag is already buffed. But he’s not fazed. “Just another canvas for us now,” he says.
Some organizations in Seattle are trying to get beyond this antagonism. “We want give people second chances, tap into their talents and get them paid,” says Kathleen Warren, Director of Urban Artworks, a 20-year-old non-profit based in Seattle’s International District. Urban Artworks works with youth who have gotten in legal trouble — many of them for trespassing and vandalism offenses stemming from graffiti — to create public works of art throughout the city. Many of their contributors are small businesses who would rather pay for legal murals and other works of art than for graffiti clean up.
“There’s a light switch that goes of in many cases,” says Warren. “We tell them we’re going to paint this piece of art and get paid for it and it’s going to stay up. ‘Why?’ they ask. Well, because we asked permission.” The organization has put up more than 100 murals and other projects throughout the city, many of them in places where graffiti removal has been especially costly.
“There are too many negative aspects to Graffiti,” Warren says. “From being arrested and getting into the court system to costing small businesses money. I don’t want to get rid of it — in fact I think it adds character and layers to any city — but if it’s ruining kids’ lives and costing business owners money, it’s better to channel that energy into something positive.”
Some local writers have been able to make the switch from graffiti tagger to paid artist, but Detective Young doesn’t see places like Urban Artworks as solutions to the most egregious offenses. “That assumes they’re doing it for art. Which they are not,” he says. “The graffiti vandals who actually have artistic talent are rare.”
On a rainy January afternoon, Baso Fibonacci leads us to a mural he recently conceived on the west end of Capitol Hill on the side of the Fred Wildlife Refuge building. It’s a huge image of three colorful flowers that stands in stark contrast to the grey façade of surrounding buildings. A closer look reveals that it’s painted entirely in spray paint. “See,” says Baso. “Spray paint can be used for a lot of things. Not just ‘ugly’ graffiti. A lot of the writers out there have lots of talent, and a lot of them become artists, tattoo artists and sign painters after their career in graffiti’s done. Through their exposure to graffiti they contribute to society in meaningful ways. Even though it’s not the way that society wants it to happen.”
He pauses a moment to reflect on the work, which permanently bears his name, and then turns his wheelchair to the next street over and rolls away.