1E: The Dangerous Life of a Graffiti Artist

Graffiti Artist at work

So you think you have what it takes to be a graffiti artist? Consider this:

–       Are you quick on your feet?

–       Can you think fast in high-pressure situations?

–       The kicker (and this is a big one): Are you willing to spend time in jail?

Not everyone is destined to be a graffiti artist. It takes a lot of hard work, practice, and skill to be a capable and respected tagger. It’s not just about creating beautiful works of spray paint (although that’s a huge chunk of it), a tagger must also be quick and nimble, effective enough to successfully evade obstacles that are thrown their way. One small misstep, and they risk getting thrown in jail for vandalism and public indecency.

There are many factors that taggers go up against every single time they step out of the door in the dead of the night with their dark attire, athletic runners, and a backpack reeking of aerosol. Taggers expect that anything and everything will go wrong during their trip. There are so many dangers that I’ve dwindled the list down to the top six most dangerous factors that taggers might face every time they set out in the dead of the night and create works of street art.

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  • Police

“The toxic fumes of aerosol disperse in frenzied billows as you apply the finishing touches to your wall painting. You look away to prevent yourself from inhaling the poisonous fumes when you hear an all too familiar sound emerge from the other end of the street. You shake the can and rush to finish the painting until you hear the sound of tires screeching as it makes the corner and emerges from view. Two sets of lights find their way to you, and with a flash you drop your cans as your survival instincts kick in and dart off in the opposing direction. As you sprint you can hear the wailing siren drown out the indistinguishable shouting voices. The place where your unfinished art remains is littered with empty aerosol cans and as the squad car pulls up, you hear the officers cursing faint softly into the distance as you dash to safety.
That was a close one.”

The police (or “Hogs” as taggers like to call them) are a tagger’s public enemy numero uno! The hogs stand as the number one obstacle to not just taggers but also street artists. Their duty is to preserve the city from vandals and they patrol the streets to enforce their laws, because of this their ideals clash with street artists who wish to use public space to express their art. The hogs are notorious for locking taggers in jail and feeding them hefty fines and community service.

Seeing as all types of public properties are a required necessary for taggers, hogs make it a point to patrol these areas with the sole intent of cracking down on these ‘vandals’. In some of the more populated cities (New York, London and Germany) where vandalism continues to be an overwhelming concern, government officials specifically instruct hogs to crack down on graffiti artists. Often, patrol units are dispatched late at night to contain and restrict taggers from venturing out.

To the taggers, these hogs stand for something greater. They represent the roadblocks standing between their ability to openly express themselves, and are the main reason why graffiti and street has become to be known as medium that attacks the authority.

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  • Environment

“It’s a slippery climb to the top of the high rise billboard, but you willingly press on. With five packs of paint in your knapsack that seems to get heavier with every step, you push through. The rain is hitting hard and your clothes are completely soaked, but you’ve come too far to turn back now. The metal rust of the ladder irritates your cold fingers as rain continues to pour on. You reach for the next step but you lose your footing and slip – but you recover just in time. You look down fifty feet from the ground and think to yourself:

Don’t – fall.”

The environment is another factor that poses a serious threat to taggers. As more art is made and space is filled up, taggers are forced to find new places to create their art. Why don’t they just write over old graffiti you ask? Well for one that’s asking for a definite ass-kicking. A code of honor is shared amongst all taggers and going over someone’s work is a sign of straight disrespect, and they will come after you! Each work must be preserved and respected. If there is no room, simply look for another place.

However, once all the building walls are inevitably filled up, taggers are forced to seek out new spots – some of them being more difficult to access. They began climbing fire escapes to reach high rise billboards, some jumped from one building to another in order to access exclusive places where graffiti hasn’t found its way in yet. It’s a very dangerous price to pay, but one that some taggers are willing to risk if it meant a new spot for their works to be displayed, or one that would instantaneously catch the public’s attention.

Unfortunately, the environment has caused many casualties – many taggers fall to their deaths climbing the high structures, and some die due to accidents caused by rainfall and other forces of nature. It’s important as a tagger to evaluate the pros and cons before setting out and putting up a new piece – “Should I go or is it truly in my best interest to stay and let the weather rest before heading out?” Be smart about the situation and always be wary of your surroundings!

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  • Gangs

In some poverty-stricken neighborhoods, gangs are very common and widespread. Gangs are very territorial and mark their territories with their own signature graffiti. When venturing into these neighborhoods, taggers must be especially wary and always be on the look out for these gang tags. When they see a wall marked, make a complete 180 and look for another wall. While it’s tempting to write on a fresh wall with lots of space, getting severely beaten to a pulp by a group of thugs is most certainly not. In America, there are certain incidents where gangs have killed rival artists who have invaded their territory. A tagger must be aware of his or her surroundings at all times, and if something feels wrong, it probably is.

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  • Pedestrians

Pedestrians are another factor that taggers must look out for during their endeavor. If a pedestrian spots a tagger in most cases they won’t say anything to confront the tagger. Rather, they’ll tip off the police by alerting them on their cell phones. That’s why in this case taggers are advised to run when they know they’ve been spotted. Also a wide group of taggers believe that most policemen go undercover as pedestrians in order to catch them in the act. With such heavy scrutiny, taggers are forced to be even more secretive and take extra precautions before setting out.

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  • Subway Trains

“You run frantically from the police as the sound of the siren indicates how closer they are getting to you. Their incessant shouting gives you a tip to you that they can’t keep going for much longer. You cut through an alley way, hope the fences and make a bee-line across a barren landscape. Then you realize it’s far too quiet… where exactly are you? Then it hits you right in the face, an almost blinding light coming out of what seems to be a tunnel… coming right at you. You finally come to the horrible realization that the shouting from the police was not of useless bickering, but served as a warning that you were entering a railroad passing. The light is getting closer, and the horn is frantically being sounded… Run!”

Subway trains pose an extreme risk to taggers, as they can cause instant death. Absolute beasts of machinery, subway trains travel in lightning speeds throughout the city. In order to access secluded spots where taggers can safely perform their craft, taggers usually jump fences in order to get to these places. However, the inherent danger with this (especially in a city like New York) is that these areas usually have trains running through them. Some routes are not protected by wall fencing, and thus at night in complete darkness taggers must know exactly where they are.  There are far too many horror stories of the NYPD discovering bodies of taggers sliced and diced on railroad tracks the morning after, this goes back to point number two, always be aware of your surroundings!

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  • Time

Time is money. An artist must be skilled when creating their piece. They must be lightning quick in their application and bolt once their work is completed. Time is valuable. Taggers don’t have the luxury to take their time with their art as other artists do due to graffiti being considered illegal. For taggers, it’s basically get in, spray, spray, spray and get the #$&@ out – and pray you don’t run into any of the other factors mentioned above on the way to safety! Tick tock… tick tock…

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Final Word

Being a tagger is no easy job. The fact is; creating great works of graffiti is only half the battle. Batting the elements mentioned above is the other half.

Don’t be so quick to judge, taggers have it the hardest. Fueled by their passion however, a new sense of respect can be attributed to these people who risk their lives providing us with great works of street art to marvel and look at.

Do you have what it takes to be a graffiti artist? Maybe, maybe not but in the mean time we all can appreciate their hard work, and give them the respect that they deserve for all that they risk to do something that they truly love.

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