IDLE TIME, enthusiastic friends, self-expression and notoriety lure many teens to graffiti art.
Salt Lake area teens report that "tagging" - the indiscriminate marking of surfaces - is in vogue. Yet, serious afficionados of aerosol art maintain there is a big difference between their scene and that of loosely organized gangsters.Taggers say graffiti is integral to their culture. It is an intricately expressed demonstration of presence, individual or collective - as with a "crew."
Among the gangster set, though, graffiti is more an afterthought, a tool typically used to mark territory.
Chuck (not his real name), a 15-year-old gang member, says graffiti writing isn't required by his gang. He's a two-year member of a gang of about 50 12- to 20-year-olds. He maintains that he hasn't written much graffiti.
"You don't have to do it. I guess I was bored," Chuck said. "I don't tag anymore. It's not worth it."
Chuck was "just practicing" when West Valley police and sheriff's deputies apprehended him near an apartment building in February. Although he'd already done the deed, paint on his hands was the giveaway.
He's already spent eight days in juvenile detention hall and is now serving four months probation, including 44 days of house arrest and 100 hours of community service. Chuck was also sentenced to 36 hours of night school and will take temporary ownership of the very wall he defaced.
Chuck said he didn't think about destroying other peoples' property, or how unattractive graffiti is.
"Now I do," he said. But while the quiet teenager solemnly expresses regret and declares that his graffiti-writing days are behind him, others aren't as willing.
"Graffiti is the purest form of art. The only reason anyone does graffiti is because they love it," declares Ian (not his real name), an articulate all-American type. "That's the only reason anybody would risk getting caught. It's about being a writer. As long as there's a chance I'll get away, I'll try it."
By his own admission, 18-year-old Ian is fairly new to graffiti. But during the past year that he's been practicing his aerosol skills, he's been picked up three times. He attributes this to bad luck since he knows other writers who've been tagging upward of five years and still haven't been caught. He rationalizes that his getting caught was inevitable since he went out every night while others only tag once a month or so.
"It's my life, basically," he said. "It's what I do. I never go more than an hour without talking about graffiti."
Ian's mother thinks he's addicted. "He wants us to be excited about it, but it's just very upsetting," she said. "He had to do it. He'd steal paint, sneak out of the house. Whatever it took to get out, he did it. People think you can control your kid, but you can't."
Writing graffiti - or tagging, as it's more popularly known these days - has to do with getting "props," the attention and respect of others in the culture. One does this by not only flexing one's artistic muscle but by being the most "up," or prevalent.
Some practitioners speak of the camaraderie tagging promotes. Others say the illegal and clandestine activity provides an unbeatable adrenaline rush.
Keith (not his real name), 18, started writing three or four years ago with a friend because it was "something to do" when "there was nothing to do."
Keith now considers himself retired. In February, he and a friend were caught in a warehouse with spray paint. Keith was fined $100, ordered to serve two months unsupervised probation and enrolled in the Graffiti Clean Up program, which requires him to keep the wall he defaced clean. He feels he got off easy. The friend, who was on probation for a previous graffiti infraction, tried to escape and was treated much harsher.
"(I've stopped because) it was costing a lot of money," Keith said. "I'm not saying it's good and I'm not saying it's bad. It's helped me a lot creatively.
"People aren't scared of getting caught," he continued. "You're always scared, but everyone gets caught. Basically, you do as much as you can before you get caught. Getting away with it is half the rush."
Keith lives in the Salt Lake Valley, but he says his work has appeared as far away as Park City, St. George, Tooele and North South Lake.
"I know it's bad and costing money, but it shouldn't be as bad as they make it out to be. People don't think it's art; that's what they say, think, believe. It's illegal because it's on a wall," he said.
"Tagging's all right 'cause there's thought behind it. Some kid's had to think a long time about those letters," he argues. "Most people think if it's with a spray can it's bad, it's evil."
In graffiti culture - as in any other - one ascends the ranks by illustrating how much they have learned. One usually starts off tagging (scribbling a moniker), then graduates to "throw ups" (cut out letters), "fill outs" (two-dimensional two-toned lettering) and finally "pieces" (highly stylized murals).
Mere tagging takes about five seconds. But to complete a piece, one can invest anywhere from two to five hours. An artist is lucky if the art remains unscathed for more than a week.
The biggest difference between a (graffiti) crew and a gang, according to Ian, whose crew includes six 17- to 19-year-old "best friends," is that the taggers' "spell outs" have multiple and usually humorous meanings. A gang's spell out typically has just one meaning - the name of that gang.
"For me, it's an artistic expression," Ian said. "Other crimes are hidden. Everyone has to see graf-fiti."
A seemingly gifted artist, Ian sometimes works on commission to earn money and community service hours. But he says he tires of "drawing for other people."
The high school senior also warns that Salt Lake City's tagging scene is growing and can't be stopped. He views graffiti as unattractive only when practitioners lack style.
But will he continue tagging the town when his 9 p.m. curfew ends in two weeks? "It's kinda hard to say," he said slowly and philosophically. "It's worth it."
Chuck, on the other hand, doesn't consider himself an artist, but he said there are artistically talented members in his gang. He's looking forward to the 6 p.m. curfew that ends his house arrest in another week.
Keith, who also shows artistic ability, says he has nothing to draw these days. He earned his GED last year after two expulsions. According to both Keith and Ian, tagger etiquette demands taggers "charge" the state. They'll "hit" government buildings and other bastions of corporate America, but taggers don't tag houses, cars or boats.
"With graffiti it's about fame. Even getting caught brings it," Keith said.