Shortly after Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a new anti-graffiti crusade, two of Seattle’s most prolific graffiti writers got caught. Eager and Satan, whose work adorns just about every corner of the city, were arrested earlier in December when police caught them red (or blue, green, yellow or potentially purple)-handed after painting an apartment building on Capitol Hill.
However, if you interpreted their arrest as a sign that Harrell’s #OneSeattle Graffiti Plan is working, think again. Two longtime taggers told Real Change that there is no enforcement effort in the world that could truly eradicate graffiti.
“It’s always been around, and it’s not going to stop. It’s, like, just something people like to do. They always have and they always will,” said the first, noting that there were still tags on walls from the days of the Roman Empire.
“I mean, it’s definitely not going to stop people from doing it,” said the other, of the high-profile arrests. “It might deter some people from doing it, which is probably a good thing.”
On condition of anonymity, the second tagger, who gave his name as “Millicent Bystander,” and the first, who we will call No. 1, offered insights into the secretive subculture, helping to explain why its practitioners are so dedicated and how it came to be such an integral part of our society.
One thing on which both agreed with the mayor is that there has been a “surge” in graffiti since the pandemic.
“Yeah, there’s a lot more, and there’s two factors. One is that people aren’t cleaning it up as much, and the other factor is the police aren’t doing anything about it,” No. 1 said.
The unique features of life under the pandemic had plenty to do with it, according to Millicent:
“There was, like, the mask mandate. First off, it was like, ‘Okay, wear a mask 24/7.’ Which, if you do graffiti or crime, that’s kind of like a slam dunk. Like, you just turn into this anonymous person, and everybody else looks the same,” he said.
Everyone staying home and avoiding interaction with one another also helped. Seattleites are naturally averse to social contact, he said, “but during COVID, it was especially like, ‘Oh, no way, I have an actual excuse to not talk to this person.’”
What the two do disagree with the mayor on is that graffiti is inherently bad.
Harrell, in announcing his plan to “beautify” the city by removing graffiti and stepping up enforcement, said, “Not only does tagging and graffiti detract from the vibrancy of our city, there are tangible impacts on communities targeted by hate speech, small business owners whose shops are defaced, and residents who rely on City signage for information and guidance.”
“I mean, there’s a history of, like, misogyny and, like, racism in graffiti, but for the most part graffiti artists are [pretty progressive] and pretty, like, anti all that,” No. 1 said. The racist graffiti, he said, was done by white nationalists, not taggers.
“They put up stickers and stuff. I always cross them off if I see ‘em and, like, yeah, there’s no place in graffiti for white nationalism or Nazism,” he said. The idea that regular taggers were putting up racist graffiti was ludicrous, in his opinion.
“Absolutely not,” he said, “it’s not even the same genre.”
That distinction also explains a lot about why it’s so hard to get rid of graffiti. The people who are doing the bulk of it are not bad actors doing bad individual acts. While taggers come from a variety of backgrounds — Millicent said he’d heard of doctors doing it — they are part of rich and complicated culture with a history that’s hard to erase, pressure washers be damned.
As an example, BTM — the crew that Eager and Satan were a part of — is nationally known, and the world-famous graffiti writer Katsu is rumored to be from Seattle. People who are not from here know and admire graffiti from here and can pick it out of a lineup. Seattle has its own style, one that is shared to some extent with San Francisco but differs significantly from the graffiti you might find in New York City or Los Angeles. Millicent described it as being dominated by tags that don’t take a long time to do and lots of them. Think short, staccato bursts of tags and pieces where the letters flow into one another, potentially all formed by one long press on a paint can’s nozzle. Millicent described it as something like street cursive.
As that obsession with quick hits might imply, criminality is baked into the culture. That’s something people know going into it, Millicent said, and a certain percentage of writers getting caught is inevitable. The risk of that happening going up or down might change how many people want to go paint, he said, but not necessarily in the way the mayor thinks it will.
“Sometimes the risk makes it more worth it,” he said. “You get away, you fall asleep that night feeling like a crazy superhero or something.”
That kind of thrill seeking is integral to the activity, Millicent said, extending to the surprisingly complex process of deciding where to tag. Walking along the shoulder of busy interstates is actually pretty tame for taggers. Millicent has been in much riskier situations, having inched out under a railway bridge somewhere off Highway 2 to catch a tag and once fleeing gunfire when he and a few friends accidentally startled an unhoused person who was asleep in a tent near where they were tagging.
Though it’s put him in plenty of danger, finding spots is one of Millicent’s favorite parts of doing graffiti, and a big part of what makes a given piece of graffiti good or not. The quality of a tag is not something you can really quantify, he stressed, but involves some combination of good spot selection, good technique, and overall aesthetic quality.
Spot selection, however, may be why the people who do it are so, so into it. “I’m addicted,” said Millicent, citing the never-ending hunt for new and more challenging spots. Graffiti will never get boring, he said, because there will always be somewhere new to catch a tag. It also provides an endless series of minor achievements, something the mobile gaming industry has demonstrated as being key to keeping people hooked.
However, beyond that, Millicent said, getting into graffiti has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for him. For starters, it offers a completely new way of experiencing the world.
“It makes you see a lot of different parts of life. I’ve definitely talked to a lot more homeless people since I started doing graffiti. It makes you feel comfortable in certain situations that typically wouldn’t be comfortable,” he said.
It also makes his life a lot more interesting. He’s a skateboarder too — there’s a ton of crossover between the two cultures — and compared the way he looks at places that would be good for graffiti to the way skateboarders scan every set of steps, handrail and bench as a potential “spot.” It’s like seeing the world with a visual overlay, essentially, but one that makes otherwise boring walks, drives or bus rides through the city a lot more interesting.
“It’s like an excuse to walk down a random street that you’ve never walked down before,” he said. “And then you can walk down the next street and the next one and so on and forever.”
To further cement his addiction, there’s the added element of respect. Getting good at graffiti and being recognized feels good, he said. Knowing he got to a more difficult spot and put a more interesting piece there than the next guy is a source of great satisfaction for him.
Or girl, perhaps. On the topic of people who are good, he lists one of his favorite Seattle writers as a trans woman who tags Masel.
“The queer scene is already prevalent in the punk scene and skateboarding, and so it makes sense that there’s people that would probably enjoy both of those subcultures that would pick up a third being graffiti,” he said. He noted that she and her crew, HRT, which stands for everything from “Harrell ruined town” to “home recking twinks” (and obviously “hormone replacement therapy”), are up everywhere. “Up everywhere,” meaning having a lot of tags in a lot of noticeable spots.
“I just think it’s cool that she’s going that hard,” he said. “And she’s, like, putting on for the community.”
Some other ones to watch, he said, with the caveat that it was by no means a comprehensive list, were Droolio, the ICUP crew, 1 + 1 = 3 and Flaccid.
No. 1 agreed with Millicent on Flaccid: “He’s hitting the highest spots and hitting just random crazy spots.”
While Millicent has lots of favorites, he also has lots of writers he dislikes. Laughing, he said that graffiti is very much a “hater culture.” Not knowing and respecting the history of graffiti leads to bad graffiti, in his opinion. Conversely, good graffiti is in constant conversation with the history of the art, harkening back to old styles and inventing new ones around them. While a layperson might see some scratchy, ugly tag on a mailbox and think, “That looks terrible,” it could very well look that way on purpose. As the kids say: if you know, you know.
The intensity of opinions in graffiti culture can, of course, lead to conflict. While critics of the practice often associate graffiti with gangs, and gangs definitely do graffiti to mark their territory, most people doing graffiti as a hobby operate under a loosely organized system of crews. You can get “put down” on a crew, Millicent said, but that just makes you an associated act, really. That said, rivalries abound, which is why fighting is fairly common between writers and their various crews. Just as in the rap game, that’s called beef.
“I’ve always found it ... kind of ridiculous, you know? But it’s interesting, I’ve seen some interesting graffiti beefs. And a few legendary ones,” No. 1 said.
Crossing someone’s tag out or going over it is seen as an insult, and while it frequently happens without malicious intent, it happens just as frequently with it.
Millicent’s done it plenty of times, he said, but mostly because he’s such a critic. If he doesn’t like a tag and doesn’t know the person who did it, he doesn’t give a second thought to going over it. The feeling is that he can do better and can put the spot to better use, so why shouldn’t he?
Certain tags are sacred, like ones in memorial of a writer who has passed away.
“You’re probably going to get your head stomped in if you go over it,” he said. “If it’s a tribute, it’s just like, why would you go over it?”
There are some other unwritten rules about what kinds of places you do and don’t tag, but they’re not hard and fast.
“Fools definitely violate that shit, like tagging people’s house fences and stuff. I typically try not to do that just because it’s, like, kind of childish,” he said.
However, while in his opinion serious graffiti writers should avoid private residences, he saw no problem with the plethora of tags that have appeared on the sides of several Capitol Hill apartments.
Murals were also a bit of a gray area.
“It depends on the quality of the mural,” he mused. “Like, if it’s blatant, like, fucking gentrification street art, that’s a go. If it’s a picture of some lady’s face with weird purple shading and just dumb colors. That trying to be weird kind of thing.”
Millicent did say it was “fucked up” that small business owners and residents had to pay fines if they failed to clean graffiti up quickly enough. The city’s Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance requires property owners to remove graffiti within 10 days of receiving notice that their property has been identified as a nuisance or face fines of $100 a day, with a $5,000 maximum fine. While the mayor did specifically call out small business owners as being impacted by graffiti, he did not propose any plans to stop levying such fines.
No. 1 conceded that getting your work instantly or incessantly buffed reduces the appeal of a spot, and doing more buffing is a big part of the mayor’s plan. Ultimately though, neither No. 1 nor Millicent thought that more enforcement would mean less graffiti. Getting harried by cops makes things harder, Millicent said, but anyone with decent awareness can evade them easily.
He recalled one situation where cops knew that he and a friend were tagging the roof of an abandoned apartment building by Westlake Center. The cops circled the building, shining flashlights up at them, but couldn’t make the climb to actually catch them. It was a long three hours on the roof, he said, but that’s all it took to get away scot free.
Ultimately, Millicent said, even if more cops could kill the graffiti scene, it wouldn’t be good for the city. Blank walls and bad murals are unappealing and actually kill the city’s energy, in his opinion. Furthermore, he argued, part of the appeal of Seattle has always been that it’s a bit weird and a bit grimy. You might even say grungy.
“If you moved to Seattle for that ‘Nirvana City’ shit,” Millicent concluded, “leave the graff alone.”
Read more of the Dec. 28, 2022-Jan. 3, 2023 issue.