Cabbagetown graffiti showdown

Can taggers express themselves - and keep the neighbors happy?

The man with the snowy white beard and aquamarine eyes stood quietly near the back of the room and listened as his neighbors spat at each other. The monthly meeting of the Cabbagetown Neighborhood Improvement Association is often spirited, but seldom has it been filled with this kind of vitriol. The man, Rodney Bowman, felt partly to blame.

And no wonder. The meeting produced several not-so-veiled references to what happened nine days earlier, in the early-morning hours of June 29. On that morning, Bowman, responding to the neighborhood's growing agitation about the perceived spread of graffiti, allegedly took matters into his own hands. According to an Atlanta police report, Bowman camped out in a tree and pounced on two would-be taggers.

"I'm my neighbor's keeper," says Bowman, who, at age 43, has lived in Cabbagetown for nearly half his life. That's far longer than most of the two-dozen residents who gathered for the meeting.

He arrived in Cabbagetown as a homeless man in the late '80s, when the community was firmly blue-collar, and he's seen his own lot improve as the neighborhood gentrified. A self-trained carpenter, Bowman helped his neighbors recover from the massive fire of 1999 that torched the nearby Cotton Mill Lofts, and from the tornado that touched down in Cabbagetown earlier this year. "I always get involved," he says. "And I guess that's why I'm in the spotlight now. I got involved."

Bowman "got involved" after some neighbors decided, unbeknownst to some others, to clean up the graffiti gracing a long brick wall at the north end of the neighborhood. The wall flanks the opening to the graffiti-saturated Krog Street tunnel, a dank expanse that's widely known as a "free space" for taggers to express themselves.

The same free-for-all attitude, however, does not translate to the wall, where tagging has been alternately tolerated and excoriated. Tensions over the wall peaked when graffiti-styled tags – and straight-up vandalism – began cropping up on Cabbagetown's sidewalks, trash cans and a local church.

As a result, a few exasperated members of the neighborhood association, who call themselves the Wallkeepers Initiative, decided to paint over the wall with the blessing of its owner, CSX railroad. In the process, they covered a mural by renowned Atlanta graffiti artist Totem – a mural that originally had been commissioned by the neighborhood, and later defaced by a tagger who sprayed it with the word "overproduced."

Not all neighbors supported the Wallkeepers' decision.

"I thought it was oppressive to have such a big change in the neighborhood overnight," local artist Karen Tauches said during the meeting. "Y'all did something without the greater community's support. It's audacious, what was done."

The tension in Cabbagetown speaks to the city's ongoing uneasiness with graffiti and the understandable confusion between vandals and taggers, gang signs – of which there are relatively few – and artistic expression. And Cabbagetown, with its strong contingent of artists and its shabby-chic aesthetic, is well-positioned to participate in the debate about benign vs. offensive graffiti. Tim Sullivan, a member of the Wallkeepers Initiative, acknowledged the difference: "We certainly understood that a lot of these works in Cabbagetown were much more outstanding than some of the tags you see around town."

Even Bob Bridges, owner of the old Dixie Seal & Stamp building on North Avenue in Poncey-Highland, is able to delineate between the tags that have hit his building recently and the city's more promising graffiti art.

"It's not terribly creative," Bridges says of the graffiti he paid thousands of dollars to remove from the Dixie building, despite the fact that it's about to be torn down. Bridges says he cleaned up the building to keep taggers from hitting neighboring businesses.

"The truth of the matter is, some graffiti is pretty interesting," Bridges says. "This is not."

Joshua Ward, a 19-year-old graffiti artist who lives in Grant Park, says there's a certain code that taggers are supposed to follow. "Most people don't hit houses," says Ward, whose graffiti moniker is "Meek." "They don't hit churches or businesses. That's just random kids."

Ward breaks down graffiti into four types, a continuum stretching from bad artwork to sublime.

"Tags are the ones that everyone hates," he says. "Those are done real quick, like writing your name. Those are the ones that people usually get in trouble for. I'll admit, if you have a building full of tags, it kind of looks bad."

Then there are "throw-ups," a more artful, though still quick, bubble-letter design. The local graffiti artist called Vomit has a bunch of those around town.

A step up from a throw-up is a "burner." "It's more than a throw-up, but it's less than a piece," Ward says. "There are a lot of burners in the Krog Street tunnel."

And then, finally, there's the piece.

"Pieces are the ones that everyone likes," Ward says. They're big, sprawling affairs that typically take hours to paint. And in Atlanta, the holy trinity of piece artists is Hense, Sever and Totem – all of whom are regularly paid for commissioned work and have generated a national following.

There's an etiquette that goes along with the continuum, too. You don't go over a throw-up with a tag, Ward says. And you never, ever paint over a piece.

"If you're a real graffiti artist who knows the whole game of it all, you do not go over Totem, Sever or Hense. If you want everyone to hate you, then you'll spray-paint over them."

Ward says that on June 29, when he and his friend Jesse Jaeger pulled up to the wall near the Krog Street tunnel, they were planning to put up a few throw-ups.

He says it was his belief that the wall, like the tunnel a few feet away, was a free space. What's more, the wall was freshly painted. Aside from a few tags that likely went up earlier that night, it was virginal.

"We've painted out there before in the middle of the day," he says. "Even cops have rode by and not said a word."

He and Jaeger were about to raise their spray-paint cans to the wall when they heard a thud behind them. Someone fell out of a tree. Ward thought it was another graffiti artist, aiming for a higher vantage point. He turned his attention back to the wall, and then heard someone shout, "I told you motherfuckers!"

"And right when I turned around," Ward says, "he just hits me."

Ward says he fought off the sucker-punch from the man, who had a long white beard, and that he and Jaeger turned and ran. Ward and Jaeger circled the block before returning to Jaeger's truck, which was parked close to the wall. He says they found the same man who hit him going through the vehicle. They called the cops.

After asking all three men for their version of events, police ticketed Ward and Jaeger for defacing a building. Bowman was cited for disorderly conduct.

More than a week after the incident, Bowman maintains that he has nothing against tagging. It's just that the tagging in Cabbagetown got out of hand.

"I liked what was up there on the wall," he says of Totem's mural. "But when you tag my sidewalk, you tag my trash can, you tag the street signs, you tag the church, well, there's got to be a stopping point somewhere."

He called the situation at the wall "unfortunate."

"Looking back on it, it could have been handled in a different manner," he says. "But the boys are not really that bad of boys. Kids are going to do things. The thing is, we can all learn from this experience, and try to move on."

Sullivan, of the Wallkeepers Initiative, proposed during the neighborhood meeting that the community begin to take "a more proactive role in what goes up on the wall." The meeting-goers then voted to form a steering committee. Until that committee comes up with recommendations, Sullivan said, neighbors have volunteered to keep the wall clean, daily, until October.

Several neighbors said they'd support a wall that's a free space for graffiti artists – perhaps one that's buffed out every so often to allow a rotation of artwork.

Ward says that would actually help quell the spread of graffiti to other places.

"If you have somewhere free to do it, where you're not going to get in trouble, of course you're going to go there before you go in the street," he says.

The Atlanta graffiti artist known as Never says that neighborhoods and businesses who appreciate and encourage graffiti art often find that the artists take pride and ownership in what they paint – and that they'll continually paint over offensive and amateurish work.

In fact, a block north of the Krog tunnel, a property owner commissioned a piece by Never on the side of a warehouse. "He liked what I did because I kept people from tagging his building," Never says.

Yet Never's preferred canvas is an abandoned warehouse in a neglected part of town that nobody cares about. He explores the city to find such walls, and he prefers to paint inside the building (which he checks to make sure is abandoned and not just vacant). That way, other "writers," as he calls them, won't descend on his spot.

Never says he's best able to unleash his creativity in secretive venues, and he likes that his massive, intensive pieces, often political in nature (portraits of crackheads, a depiction of Zell Miller with "Tyrannosaurus Rex arms"), might sit unnoticed for months or even years before someone stumbles onto them.

"When I'm painting somebody's building and they say, 'Do whatever you want,' it's still not the same as going out and finding some spot I'm not supposed to be at," he says.

As for Cabbagetown, Never says he's grown discouraged from painting there. The area can get oversaturated. Plus, there's too much drama.

"That wall has always been tagged to hell and back, and it always will be," he says. "Nobody hiding up in a tree will stop that."

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