Behind the Paint

Graffiti is everywhere. We talked to the people who write it, to find out how and why they do it. Think you already know who spray-paints walls? Think again.

Mililani, in the early morning hours. It’s June, the night before a Honolulu Police Department graffiti seminar hosted at the Rec Center by the Mililani Town Association. A man crouches in the dark next to a low fence by the side of Kamehameha Highway, putting the finishing touches on a huge, yellow piece of graffiti, more than 20 feet long: PHYTO, it reads.

The piece has taken him more than two and a half hours, his gift to the seminar, though it will be painted over just two days later. For this graffiti artist, it’s a job well done. Phyto’s no teenage hoodlum—he’s 27, he’s got children, he’s got a full-time job. And he’s not the only one.

There are plenty of bored junior high school kids and dropouts scrawling on bus stops and lockers, of course, but much of Hawai‘i’s graffiti is being created by otherwise responsible, productive adults. For these writers, as they call themselves, graffiti is a secret pursuit, an alter ego. While researching this story, we talked to writers who are married, have children, and even own businesses and houses.

Lt. Guy Demello, a police officer working in District 3 (Pearl City-Waipahu), says, “There is no typical graffiti writer. I’ve arrested guys from 9 years old to adults who are in the Navy and the Army. Everyone thinks it’s juveniles and high school kids, and there are those, but there are also 18-, 19-, 20-plus-year-old writers. These are the notorious ones.”

Phyto, one of Hawai‘i’s most infamous, prolific writers, didn’t start until he was 23. He found his nom de graff in the pages of a horticulture textbook while attending the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. “It means ‘to grow,’ as a prefix, like phytosynthesis. It appealed to me,” Phyto says. “I wanted to write it just so people would be curious and look it up.”

He started small: phyto in simple print letters, with an exclamation point. Over four years, Phyto has carpeted the cityscape with a thousand renditions of his name. He’s an underground celebrity in one life, a mature adult in another. “I have a girlfriend, and we have a 6-year-old kid, and another one on the way. I just bought a house for [more than $600,000]. I’ve got tons of responsibility,” he says.

Balancing two lives requires discretion. Unlike some writers who “rack,” or steal, spray paint, Phyto buys all his own painting supplies. He’s also scaled back his presence on the streets. “There are some things I did earlier, when I first started, that I wouldn’t do now,” he says.

But he’s still addicted to his dangerous hobby. “I like making people wonder, How the hell did they do that?” he says. “Nobody ever sees graffiti writers out and about, but you wake up the next day and it will be all over the place.”

Another writer we spoke with, a 29-year-old who goes by Melon, served in the United States Navy. “I signed up in September 2001. Not the 11th, but [a few days before],” he remembers. “Right out of boot camp, I got sent to Afghanistan. I was there for nine months.” After working as a firefighter in the engine room of a ship in the Persian Gulf in support of the Afghan campaign against Al Qaeda, Melon was stationed on O‘ahu, where he’s since gotten married, and has been pursuing a degree in business.

For people like Phyto and Melon, graffiti carries a bigger risk than it does for juvenile offenders. “You do have to take into consideration that, if you get arrested, it’s going to affect you,” Melon says. “Not only that, but it’s going to affect your family, your friends, everyone around you. It’s a risk, like getting married.”

Although graffiti is, in most cases, classified as a misdemeanor, with fines ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, repeat offenders may be charged with enough property damage to warrant a felony charge. Demello says, “For the bigger ones, we’ll try to go for an aggregate charge. If you’ve got somebody who’s been damaging a lot of signs, that person will be of more interest to us.”

Earlier this year, 19-year-old Webster Agudong pleaded guilty to two felony counts of criminal property damage for spray-painting two highway signs in Waikele and Waipahu. His sentence included four consecutive weekends in jail, five years of probation, $5,211 in restitution and 200 hours of community service, to be spent volunteering with anti-graffiti organizations such as the Waikele Community Association’s Taking Action Against Graffiti (TAAG).

So why write graffiti? With so much to lose, why put everything on the line to get your name on the streets?

For Phyto, it’s about getting famous. “I’m doing it for the general public,” he explains. “Just the thought of people seeing it everywhere. It’s quick fame, man. You don’t have to do anything other than that, and people know your name. Or at least your alter ego.”

For Melon, it’s a way to express himself, and to create art. “People don’t understand that we really put our heart and soul into this,” he says. The streets simply present a wider audience for his creativity.

But graffiti also offers something else: payback. Melon freely admits the satisfaction he gets from painting other people’s property. After all, it’s not like the world leaves him alone. There was that traffic ticket—undeserved, he says—for a tint job, for example. “It’s like, shit, I’m going to get my money back, I’m going to go paint something. I’m sticking it to the man,” Melon says. “We’re taxpayers, too, so we’re paying for our stuff to be buffed [covered up].”

Of course, the man doesn’t always wear a badge, and it’s not just cops who feel like graffiti writers are sticking it to them. “It’s a blight on the community, and it shows a total lack of respect for public and private property,” says Bill Williams, a resident of Niu Valley, who paints out graffiti-covered signal boxes from Kahala to Hawai‘i Kai in his free time. He’s one of many volunteers helping out the state Department of Transportation, which spends an estimated $50,000 a year cleaning up graffiti on Hawai‘i roads. “To me, those who do graffiti are no different than someone who would burglarize your home. They’re flat-out cowards,” he says.

If they aren’t much loved by the public, writers can always turn to each other. Where Williams sees malicious scrawling, graffheads see proof of a daring stunt, flawless technique, a chance to critique each other as a community of artists.

Writers’ reputations are based on how much they “get up” around town, and how well. Original style and clean linework is respected, as are mastery of finer details such as letter structure, color techniques, shading and perspective. “You learn as you go,” says Phyto. “It’s like an art class, and every canvas is different.”

Wanna be a writer? Get ready for some hard work and practice. An aspiring graffiti artist starts simple, but there’s a lot to learn.

The most basic form of graffiti is the tag, or handstyle: a quick, one-color signature done with either a marker or spray-paint, usually in a stylized cursive script. These are what you usually see in bathrooms and at bus stops. The next level is the throwup—still quickly written, but larger, with bubble letters and often two colors of paint for better contrast. Throwups are the staple of bombing runs, the daredevil sport in which writers go out and put their work up in as many high-profile locations as possible in a single night.

The final and most elaborate class of graffiti writing is called piecing. Writers create elaborate works of spray-paint art to showcase their sheer artistic talent. A single piece (short for “masterpiece”) can take hours to complete, and can include as many different colors as the writer can carry in his backpack.

Ironically, because writers generally piece—it’s also a verb—in secluded spots where they’re in less danger of being caught in the act, the best, most intricate graffiti is rarely seen by the public, except for legal productions commissioned by graffiti-friendly businesses such as Quintero’s Restaurant, on Pi‘ikoi Street, and Mister 3, a surf shop on Kapahulu Avenue.

Graffiti can be classified into different categories: 1. throw-up 2. handstyle 3. sticker 4. stencil 5. piece.

Tags, throwups, pieces—the best graffiti writers master them all. Another graffiti writer we spoke with, Bies, points to Asalt as a good example of a well-rounded artist. “He can piece, he can bomb, he has really good hand styles, he’s been out for awhile and he still goes out. If you’re that kind of person, you get a lot of respect,” Bies says.

There’s a lot to learn, but writers don’t have to go it alone. Loosely organized groups of writers called crews reinforce the culture and pass down knowledge. The crew names—generally composed of two letters, such as AF, TE or EV—stand for many things; AF, the crew to which Phyto belongs, can mean “Aloha Family,” “Almost Famous,” “Aerosol Fiends,” “Always Fresh” or just about anything else its members think up.

Make no mistake: Crews aren’t gangs. It’s not about drugs, or territory; it’s about artistic collaboration. Writers often have their individual rivalries and spats, but it’s rare for an entire crew to unite against another.

Many writers even claim a code of ethics. No painting on churches or schools, no gratuitous capping (covering up) of other writers’ work, no snitching on other writers, no dropping spots (revealing secret painting areas). But, as Bies likes to say, this is art, and it’s ultimately up to each individual writer to control themselves. “There’s no magic number for anything we do. There’s no set rules or schedules,” he says. As with any subculture, it’s often the “toys”—the inexperienced newcomers to the graffiti scene—who make the worst impression on the general public.

Graffiti writers also network and collaborate at hip-hop shows and events called writers’ benches, where people get together to show off their notebook sketches and exchange drawings with other writers. And, because it’s the 21st century, graffiti culture has gone online. Just about everyone’s got a MySpace page, and forums such as allow writers to post graffiti flicks and discuss each other’s work. The Internet can only do so much, though; many writers shun 12oz as a playground for toys, flame wars and police surveillance.

Not everyone belongs to a crew. Some aren’t experienced or good enough, but others simply choose to do their own thing. Beak03, for example, has made a name for himself by creating colorful, handmade stickers of birds—many with funny touches such as googly eyes—and pasting them all over town. For Beak, his stickers are less about trying to fit in with the existing graffiti culture than trying to subvert it. “I wanted to bring freedom and humor to the streets,” he says. “Birds, to me, are one of the best representations of that. I wanted to give viewers something they were not getting just from tags.”

A 30-something, self-described “full-time living artist,” Beak loves the intrigue of crafting separate personas and secret identities. For him, it’s almost an art form in its own right. Beak surfs and skates. He creates “legitimate” art—sculptures, paintings, furniture, ingenious found-object constructions—which have been exhibited locally under his real name. In addition to his bird-themed Beak03 street art, he also puts up a wider range of stickers and art installations under an entirely different street name. “It’s fun to put a mystery out there,” he says, with a grin.

Beak’s dream is to start up a company to sell his creations, maybe do some graphic design. It’s common for graffiti writers to think about their futures. Many writers are older, after all; it’s hard to stay up in the streets year after year. The stakes always get bigger, and the late nights and rough terrain that come with writing graffiti can be physically demanding. “I’ve got a lot of injuries through painting,” says Phyto. “I’ve had sticks through my hand and sprained my ankle and we’ve had to run a few times. Physically, I don’t think I can be in this game forever.”

He thinks that he’s built enough of a reputation as Phyto to be successful as a legitimate artist. “If I could transition and get paid for my art, not ridiculous money, but enough for the time and money I spent on it, I’d be all about it,” he says.

But can a graffiti artist leave the streets without losing some essential part of his identity? Melon is making the transition himself, selling many of his canvases, but he says there’s nothing like painting on the streets. “It’s a rush, man. It’s better than drugs. It’s a natural rush, with all the adrenaline.”

“You can’t really say that it’s not art,” Melon says. “Because it is art. And you can’t really say that it’s not vandalism. Because it is vandalism. So it’s art and vandalism at once.”