Writing Public Spaces


Kym Cunningham


AS SELECTED BY Ryan van Meter


We see them etched into the mirror of café bathrooms—small inscriptions, completely illegible—their meanings unknown and unwanted. They stand next to larger, clearer scrawls of anarchy, of social anger, of fuck the police in heavy permanent marker. We try to paint over them, but two coats of beige cannot obscure the angry black. The scratches in our reflections cannot be buffed away. They remain, multiply, feed off one another, reminding us of what we’d rather not acknowledge.

We are forced to look at them—both the anger and the secrecy. They make us uncomfortable because we know that we are being excluded. When we see them, we feel like outsiders. Our discomfort grows until we cave, replace the mirror, paint the walls black.

There. That looks much better, we think, taping up a handwritten note for good measure: We do not write on your house. Please do not write on our walls! We add a smiley-face with a P.S. at the end: Those who do not comply will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We threaten with punishment we do not understand.

In California, graffiti causing more than $400 worth of property damage is considered a felony. The punishment for this charge can include a year in jail, a fine of up to $10,000, or probation, which itself involves a 2-year driver’s license suspension, counseling, and/or community service.

We do not think of these penalties as we double-underline Please, coughing slightly when the Sharpie’s acidity catches in our throats. We use masking tape to forget that those incarcerated for felonies or on probation are unable to vote, that we have the power to declare Those who do not comply to be less than other men. We do not understand the fullest extent of the law because we view the law as ethereal, like philosophy. We think this intangibility keeps society safe. Laws exist as ADT: our unseen protection from the physical world.

And so we are surprised when the physical encroaches on the eternal, when a week later, the black walls are marred with whiteout and the mirror lined with scratches. It feels hard not to take any of it personally. After all, we do not see a difference between the incomprehensible scribbling on the sink or the penciled-in FUCK YOUs written at the note’s corners. We see all of it—permanent marker, whiteout, knife-marks—as an affront to ourselves. We are generalizing, failing to understand that these marks carry different messages. While the meaning of fuck the police seems fairly clear, the hieroglyphs remain more complicated, in part, due to their anonymity. Most people would lump both into the category of tags, but graffiti-insiders see the anarchist and anti-authority statements as jumping off points for taggers, or writers, as they refer to themselves.

My San Jose co-worker, a self-professed writer since the late ‘90s, explained how he became involved in tagging.

“I think the first time was when I wrote Fuck you on the side of my friend’s house because he was being a bitch.”

I looked at him quizzically, and he shrugged.

“I don’t know, I guess I was just bored and young. I was kind of a heavy hellion. I think I was just looking for an outlet to express myself in an unconventional manner. It kind of stuck.”

Though many start out as simple phrases, most tags progress to carefully constructed signatures, each one a series of letters and numbers, lines, and colors to identify the writer. Identifiers place the writer in terms of culture or ethnicity.

As a “super-white dude,” my co-worker revealed that these identifiers often emerge in the midst of creative revelation.

“The first big one I remember was just random one night. I was like, I’m bored; I’m Irish. I’m going to go do an Irish Pride piece hella alone on the train tracks at three am.”

 Tags are signatures in the most encompassing sense of the word. Like handwriting, they often indicate a sense of personal identity. Notice their harsh strokes or all-encompassing curves, the differentiation in letter sizing, their location in relation to the rest of the wall or building. These signifiers can explain the psyche of the tagger, if the outside world chooses to listen.

In the act of tagging, the artist is, in a way, forcing the outside world to acknowledge the artist’s—albeit anonymous—presence. Tags are a way for individuals to mark the world; they demarcate space.

Some gangs use tags as a way to declare territory, signposts warning rivals to stay off their turf. In California, law enforcement has capitalized on this affiliation as a way to identify potential gang members and to criminalize the act of tagging itself.

In 1988, the legislature of California enacted the STEP [Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention] Act to criminalize individual involvement in street gangs. This law allowed police to track those that they perceived as gang members in a database. It also added felony punishment if a crime was perceived to benefit a gang. In the tagging world, this meant that any tag perceived to benefit a gang would result in the tagger being permanently classified as a gang member and having years tacked on to their felonious sentences.

But what happens when the cops make a mistake?

Take my San Jose co-worker for instance. A dedicated tagger to his core, he has never consciously aligned himself with street gangs, local or otherwise. And yet, if we take the first “real” tag he remembers creating—the Irish pride piece—and put it up against a database of gang insignias, can we—can he—be sure there is no overlap?

When I was 18, a friend of mine went to get a tattoo—the paired tragedy/comedy masks of Classic Greek theater. The first two tattoo shops adamantly refused: the twinned masks are apparently sigils for various Latin@ gangs. The third shop either didn’t know this or didn’t care because they tattooed his shoulder, no problem.

Questions abound: Was the tattoo shop at fault? Was my friend? If my friend got caught tagging a building and cops saw his tattoo, would he also have been slapped with the gang enhancement charge? Would it have made a difference if he were Latino instead of White?

If my co-worker had been caught while finishing the orange accents of his Irish Pride, could he have been tagged with a white supremacist gang affiliation in the STEP database? Do we—do cops—racialize Neo-Nazis, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the Aryan Brotherhood in the same way we racialize, say, the Mexican Mafia or the Latin Kings? Or are they just groups, radical factions ranging from, according to the Florida Department of Corrections, “innocuous religious sects to [the] openly militant, even violent?”

In California, we like to think of ourselves as progressive in comparison to the more conservative states to our East. Of course, we think, there have to be some white gangs. And there are: Public Enemy No. 1 (PEN1, for short), whose main crimes include identity theft and meth sales. But for the most part, white gangs are referred to as “groups,” in the same way that Dylann Roof’s Charleston church shooting was deemed a hate crime but not domestic terrorism. Classifications are, of course, as much a matter of perspective as diction and syntax. So I’ll shift perspective.

A few years ago, I tutored more than ten hours a day at a Boston charter middle school. Administrators cautioned our tutoring cohort to monitor for signs of “crew activity”—local terminology for gang involvement—so that we, as adults, could “take control” before things “got out of hand.” The school had a “Zero Tolerance” policy for gang activity.

I almost laughed. Few of the students made it up to my shoulder, half of them had twigs for legs, and the oldest kid turned fifteen that year. They were middle schoolers. They were children.

Fast forward to January, when it was discovered that a group of students had been scratching and sharpie-ing NDP onto boy’s bathroom stalls and the tops of plywood desks. It didn’t take much sleuthing to find out that NDP stood for Niggas Don’t Play and from there, the names of the handful of seventh and eighth grade boys involved in this self-professed “crew.” The students were called into Parent-Principal conferences; they were admonished, berated, forced to clean the bathrooms as punishment. One student ended up leaving the school, but entirely of his own volition. No legal recourse was taken.

“It’s dumb though,” a female student said. “They just hang out and smoke weed. That’s all.”

It is important to note that despite this school’s “Zero Tolerance” gang policy, Massachusetts does not have a STEP Act; being in a ‘gang’ or a ‘crew’ is not illegal like it is here in California. Tagging is still illegal though and, if it results in enough property damage, can be considered a felony. But there can be no added gang-enhancement charge to the conviction.
What would have happened if these boys lived in California, if they were from Oakland instead of Boston?

Make no mistake, these are boys I am talking about—12, 13, 14. Some still cry when they get into trouble; some of their voices still crack even though they try to be hard. These are not adults—they are children.

But if these children lived in California, their teachers would be required, by law, to report their actions—the tags, the “crew” affiliation—to the police. They could be charged with felonies, shipped off to juvenile facilities or put on probation: thirteen years old and already a part of a system. To get out of the system, they will spend the rest of their lives convincing teachers, police officers, even parents that they’ve turned over a new leaf, that they’ve changed. Or else they’ll allow the negativity to wash over themselves like a flood; they’ll start acting as bad as the-powers-that-be seem to think that they are.

If they go this latter route, these boys will be dead or incarcerated by the time they’re twenty-five. Second chances only count if kids have a first to begin with.

It is impossible to speak of tagging without speaking of gangs or crew affiliations, as outsiders believe most tagging to be committed by gangs. But this is not necessarily the case. Apart from the group of middle school “crew” members, I have never met a tagger who was affiliated with a gang, suggesting the “tags-as-gang-signs” justification for tagging’s increased criminalization to be biased if not just plain wrong.

I would argue that the reason for the increased criminalization of tagging is not because the tags themselves are dangerous, but because we, as outsiders, feel endangered by their very elusion and anonymity. The fact that we are on the outside of something makes us uncomfortable, and so we seek to criminalize this unknowable behavior, lumping it together under the legal title of “vandalism.”

But all tags are not created equal, as my coworker pointed out. “Every city and borough has its own lingo,” he explained, “to differentiate themselves from other places. But there’s always a kind of hierarchy as far as tags go.”

He clarified the terms learned growing up in a small town outside of Half Moon Bay: “A throwy is all one continuous stroke, something you just throw up on the wall as fast as you can.” He shrugged, almost embarrassed. “Hence the name. Some people also call it a bomb.” Throwies or bombs can be hollowed—open letters constructed using one can of black paint—or filled—standard, colored letters similar to those on luminescent business signs for Safeway and 7-Eleven.

“So are filled throwies just hollowed bombs completed by another artist?” I asked, trying to get a feel for the lingo.

He was silent for a moment, staring at me, eyes weighted with glacial gravity. “You never touch anyone else’s work. That’s completely against the rules.”

He paused for another moment, letting the severity of his statement sink in. He wanted me to know that there was honor among vandals.

He continued: “After your throwies, you got your burners, which are at least 3 separate colors, and generally take one-to-two hours to finish. Then above that, you got your piece, short for masterpiece.”

Unlike throwies/bombs, burners and pieces are constructed of complicated letterforms, heavily relying on extensions of the letters as evidence of the writer’s distinctive style. However, the distinction between burner and masterpiece does not seem to rely solely on the amount of time expended on the individual work, but rather on the amount of experience the individual has with tagging as a whole.

The transition between burner to masterpiece takes time. “It took me ten years to be decent enough to do something good,” he acknowledged, and then smiled, voice a mix of wonder and pride. “Some of my pieces are still running on CalTrain.”

And here’s the answer to the question we—the outsiders—all want to know: “No, I never got caught. At least, not for that.” He smirked, and his voice took on an unheard Southern twang. “I mean, I been to jail for a minute. But not for tagging.” He doesn’t offer on-record clarification, and I don’t push it.

“I did almost get caught once, in 2008. I was tagging the side of a freeway, and the cops pulled up. I had to climb a fence, but when I got to the double-pronged wire at the top, I ripped myself open.” He lifted up his shirt to reveal a jagged four-inch scar that cut through his hip. He shrugged. Flesh was a small price to pay for freedom.

Because that’s what my co-worker always seems to come back to when he talks about tagging: this desire, this need to be free. This want to be released from perceived shackles permeates his speech, his descriptions: “One of my favorite pieces was on the wall of the Tech Museum. I climbed up to the roof of it and spent almost the whole night up there, silent and free. It was fucking gorgeous.”

Then he shook his head, squinting in pained memory. “It only lasted a day before someone came by and covered it up.”

In the past five years, the city of San Jose estimates that it has “spent upwards of $4 Million on graffiti eradication efforts, [….] making San Jose [sic] a beautiful place to live.” These efforts include rewards of up to $1,000 for people who turn in “graffiti vandals,” as well as the man-hours and supplies necessary to paint and power-wash sections of downtown.

Despite the city being in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history, government officials still allow and even encourage water to be used as a method of graffiti cleanup.

Potentially more interesting is the prevalence of murals on downtown street corners. These murals, such as “Barbershop Dreams” in the East Santa Clara business area, are being used for “a multi-cultural/diversity beautification, street art initiative designed to showcase the area’s rich vibrancy and potential.” What this double-speak means is that the murals are meant to act as an aesthetically-pleasing crime deterrent; the more beautiful a place is, community-members imagine, the less-likely it is to be vandalized, bringing in more revenue and “revamping” the community as a whole.

The underlying belief at work here is criminology’s broken windows theory. For readers unfamiliar with this theory, it suggests that the best way to prevent serious crimes from being committed is via heavy policing of small infractions—i.e. vandalism, public intoxication, loitering, etc. The maintenance and monitoring of these smaller (and notably youth-centric) infractions then creates an environment of lawfulness and order in which larger crimes do not exist. Since the 1980’s, this theory has been the root of many major law enforcement initiatives, including the now-controversial stop-and-frisk.

Of course, the reason that this theory, and all of the legal offspring therein, are so controversial is that in order to enforce this as law, police officers must expect, or rather, suspect all citizens to be capable of committing small infractions. In this environment, the people are presumed guilty; they must work daily to prove their own innocence.

From here, it is not difficult to understand the alienation that arises in this kind of environment; the individual feels criminalized, always under the assumption that s/he does not belong.

And so our tagger becomes obsessed with freedom from the shackles of Foucault’s Panopticon. He looks for some way to lay claim to these places that society tells him are not, and cannot ever be, his. And so he goes—with innocence still bound in the curls of his hair—into sewers and under overpasses, spraying paint in a flash of color and frustration, to prove that he exists, that he matters, that everything his cell light touches can be considered his, too.

But he does not remain innocent for long. How could he, when adult disgust at his sleepless nights and hours of labor surround him? When he is told that he is not Banksy, that his masterpiece is not, and never will be considered, art? How could he be anything but our misanthrope when he watches publicly-funded “street-art initiatives” violate graffiti’s golden rule? He discovers there is no honor to be had among outsiders.

And so it would seem that we—these dishonorable outsiders—are responsible for the very scrawl we spend so much time and effort attempting to erase. In matters of graffiti, it is we who are to blame.


Kym Cunningham received her MFA from San Jose State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry.  She acted as the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi.  She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in Claudius Speaks, Switchback, Caesura, Santa Ana River Review, South 85 Journal, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, The 3288 Review, Drunk Monkeys, Zingara Poet, and Reed. Her writing is forthcoming in Helen. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.