Tag This One Tough Battle for Chief Bratton

Tag This One Tough Battle for Chief Bratton
LAPD faces an entrenched subculture as it fights graffiti. ‘It’s about respect,’ convicted vandal says.

By Geoffrey Mohan
Times Staff Writer

April 14, 2003

Fame got Toomer into graffiti, and fame did him in.

Back in the mid-’90s, you couldn’t slide a security gate over a store on Broadway without confronting his big spray-painted bubble letters. They were on the river. In the Belmont Tunnel. “Toomer” was up everywhere.

Now, the 27-year-old’s 15-year career in hard-core graffiti has been interrupted by the latest in a string of vandalism convictions.

Few who have battled graffiti, and calculated the millions of tax dollars used to buff it out, will be sorry to see Toomer go. And Toomer doesn’t particularly care. He chose the lifestyle back in 1988, when he formed TKO (for Technical Knockout, The Krazy Ones and TaKing Over) as a hedge against gangs trying to “jump” him into their lifestyle.

“If you’re not a gang-banger and you’re not a tagger, you’re nothing,” he explained. “The cops mess with you just as much, so you say, ‘The hell with it, I may as well be as bad as I can be.’ ”

“Bad as he can be” earned Toomer cult status in the graffiti underworld and respect on the streets. All of which was good for Toomer while it lasted. “I don’t want to seem like I’m glorifying it, and I don’t want to apologize,” said Toomer, who asked that his real name not be published, for fear of jailhouse retribution.

As Police Chief William J. Bratton presses his war on graffiti, convicted vandals like Toomer offer a glimpse of what L.A.’s top cop faces. They are a savvy and defiant subculture with their own rules, marking up the bare walls of the urban core with a running dialogue among themselves. They speak their own language, revel in tweaking the nose of authority, brag about their deeds on the Internet and have formed allied groups in distant cities.

In street vernacular, Toomer is a “piecer,” a devotee of elaborate, and mostly illegal, graffiti productions on the open spaces in the city. He’s not a tagger — that primitive scrawl, he says, is the work of “toys,” the undisciplined neophytes of the graffiti subculture. An artist? That’s for yuppies on Melrose Avenue, Toomer said with a laugh.

“I don’t need to explain to others,” Toomer said. “It’s for us. The graffiti that’s on the walls, it’s for us. We never intended it for Joe Schmoe…. I’ll tell you what graffiti is about: It’s about respect. People write graffiti for respect. People write graffiti for fame. People write graffiti to mark territory, or for the rush. It’s those four things, or a combination of them. That’s it.”

Academics and activists who follow the graffiti scene say those simple motivations don’t make the battle against it easy. In New York, the city where Bratton last was police chief, three mayors spent an estimated $250 million in 15 years to eradicate illegal painting on 7,000 subway cars.

“It’s enormously expensive, a whole lot of work, and at any time it opens [police] up to becoming fanatics,” said Joe Austin, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University’s Popular Culture Department who wrote a book on the New York City graffiti campaign, called “Taking the Trains.”

In New York, Austin noted, officers often drew guns on unarmed vandals, threatened to kill them, staked out homes and arrested established graffiti artists at gallery openings. In the most notorious case, Michael Stewart, a 25-year-old arrested on charges of writing graffiti in a subway station, died in 1983 of severe trauma suffered while in police custody, provoking a long and racially charged legal battle that ended in the officers’ acquittal.

“How much is the city of Los Angeles willing to pay to get rid of it, and is it really worth the price?” Austin asked. “You’re basically going to have to arrest 80% of the kids.”

Bratton takes aim at graffiti — along with aggressive panhandling and prostitution — as part of his “broken windows” campaign. His philosophy is that reducing petty crimes can discourage more serious illegal activity.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” said Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell. “Even if you don’t have anything going on in a neighborhood, graffiti can still take it down.”

Exactly how the LAPD will tackle this scourge of scrawl is still being worked out, McDonnell said. But he said one goal of the program is to raise graffiti on the agenda of anti-gang squads and patrol officers.

“Graffiti is just a symptom of a bigger problem,” he said. “The bigger problem is the gang culture of Los Angeles.”

Los Angeles is home to at least 250 graffiti crews and hundreds of hard-core gangs, which use graffiti to mark turf. Still, investigators know there are criminals, and criminals.

“I don’t think you can paint them all with a broad brush, that they’re all gang members or that none of them are gang members,” said Capt. Bryan Acee, head of the California Highway Patrol’s graffiti squad who arrested Toomer and fellow TKO crew members.

Toomer insists TKO is strictly a graffiti crew. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “Every time someone disrespects you, you fight. But we’re not a gang.” Acee isn’t convinced. Among the items confiscated through search warrants was a photo of the crew posing with a Tec-9 semiautomatic handgun and a shotgun. And Toomer was charged with possession of ammunition — a single cartridge — though authorities found no gun.

“There’s a complete distinction between what a gang does and what a crew does,” said Man One, an Alhambra graffiti artist who left behind clandestine street art to produce museum-quality pieces. He has since spent time trying to coax the artist out of the vandal.

Man One’s roots are similar to Toomer’s. “When I started, I got into graffiti because I didn’t want to be in a gang,” he said. “You had two options: You were a gang member or a graffiti tagger. I would run into a gang and they’d say, ‘What gang are you with?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t bang. I write.’ They’d shake my hand and walk away.”

Fears Violence

But Toomer says he has been stabbed and had a baseball bat cracked over his head by gang-bangers who didn’t appreciate the law enforcement attention his handiwork brought to their neighborhood. He worries that the LAPD’s new campaign against graffiti will spark more violence among gangs and graffiti crews.

For strictly graffiti crews, battles range from piece-to-piece competition, complete with a panel of peers to judge a winner, to neighborhood-wide challenges to see who can get his moniker up the most. Either one, Acee noted, is tame fare compared to the homicides that have resulted when gangs cross out each other’s graffiti. Unlike hard-core gangs, graffiti crews generally don’t have a turf, and their membership mingles — Toomer, for example, wrote for three.

One popular spot Acee checks regularly is the southbound Pasadena Freeway overpass near the Los Angeles River. There, writers, often using paint stolen from a nearby Home Depot, leap from a pedestrian walkway to a freeway girder, then edge out along it to scrawl their letters some 70 feet above a railroad right of way.

“The bottom line here is these guys want the recognition,” Acee said. “For you and me, going to work, driving down the road, we don’t even notice these things, but the kids going to school, they see it and they notice.”

Such fame once traveled slowly. “In L.A., it was all just word of mouth,” Man One recalled of his start in the 1980s.

Soon, underground magazines began publishing color photographs sent in by graffiti writers. “They’d take a picture of one piece and mail it to all the magazines, in New York, in Paris, and it would suddenly show up and you’d have all this fame, all of a sudden,” Man One recalled.

Then came the Internet: “It was instant,” he said. “People were doing something in Germany and the day after, I’d see it. It was instant fame.”

On any given day, Internet surfers can check the work of CEA in Hong Kong; or the West Side Outlaws in Sydney, Australia; of “Esnce” in Tehran; “Etik” in Oaxaca, Mexico; “Chorao” in Sao Paulo, Brazil; or “Yo Clan Posse” in Zagreb, Croatia. Several popular sites offer supplies as well as on-line opportunities to “battle” other writers with graphics programs.

One site, In:Graffiti, lets users choose from seven New York City subway lines and mark up a car with a graphics program. Another provides an exhaustive list of L.A. crews, along with which ones had “beefs” with others.

Internet Savvy

Police check the Internet as much as graffiti devotees. “I spend a lot of time on the Internet,” Acee said. “I can’t tell you how many Web sites there are. They send out mails: ‘Check out the Belmont tunnel…. Did you see the Dodger Stadium tunnel three?’ ”

When investigators got close to TKO, Toomer told his crew to stay off the Internet and stop taking pictures. Investigators nonetheless confiscated a treasure trove of digital cameras, videotapes, computer disks, magazines, negatives, and sketches that have forced defendants into guilty pleas.

Unit, a graffiti writer who runs a popular Internet site, www.50mmlosangeles.com, receives hundreds of photo submissions every week. “We always take pictures,” he said of his crew, CBS, for Can’t Be Stopped.Unit has never gotten caught — in part, he says, because a 30-year-old white man in subdued garb doesn’t fit the urban hip-hop stereotype. “I don’t think they’re really going to be able to crack down on guys like me,” he said. “We have too many resources. Just from my experience, I was always able to outsmart the cops. Maybe now that it’s a felony, I’ll think twice.”

Unit, who did not reveal his real name, is even more blunt on his message boards: “The cops out here are on the move,” he wrote to one posting. “That’s their job and that’s what seems to make graffiti so exciting, the fact that, for the most part, the cops have been ineffective. That’s what keeps [us] writing.”

Toomer, for his part, swears he’s no longer willing to take chances. His arrest, he said, was caused by defending the TKO letters against an impostor who was putting them up. “My ego got me in trouble, my ego worrying about someone who put those three letters up,” he said.

He stood in front of one of his legal works, a massive L.A. with a cityscape, low-rider car, skulls and Pagliaci clowns, on a Garey Street wall known as the Wall of Fame. “I’m retiring because of people dying around me and because I’m tired,” he said. “I’m tired of being the guy they go to when one of my boys does something stupid. I’m tired of seeing my friends throw away lives.”

Toomer searched for another way to say it, then held up his hands as if framing a new tag: “I’m tired!” he shouted. “Big capital letters!”

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