And the Next Space, a hollowed-out storefront on 18th Street between Locust and Cherry, was the perfect place to stage a visual battle between male and female graffiti artists. Two rooms were separated by a hallway -- all the boys' pieces would be on one side, with the whole room painted blue; the girls' work went in a pink space on the other side.
Boys vs. Girls opened the night of September 20, 2002. Artwork by eleven men and nine women was on display throughout the gallery, but the night quickly stopped being about the art -- it went from zero to party in less than sixty minutes.
Someone was passing around penis- and vagina-shaped cookies, and a stripper pranced about topless. (Strangely, though, she had no male counterpart.) Around ten, the coed members of the flamboyant performance-art band the Ssion hit the stage on the girls' side. After the group finished playing a set of its karaoke punk rock, a few DJs on the boys' side took over for the rest of the evening.
By this time, the party had overflowed onto 18th Street, along with a stream of cans, bottles, cigarette butts and plastic cups from the keg. Partygoers were coming and going so often that the people keeping track of attendance at the door stopped counting at 2,000.
It was one of the more successful events hosted by the Next Space, and organizers Newa and Randie Pants (the Pitch agreed to use their street names for this story) were thrilled -- at least until the following morning, when they got the news.
The Graffiti Fairy had visited the vicinity overnight, leaving a mark that may have changed the neighborhood's feelings toward the aerosol art form forever.
Newa's Triple Five Soul hat hides his hair, which he has buzzed into the shortest of mohawks on a dare that got him into a friend's art show for free. His hands are already twitching like twin rabbits, but he orders a cup with four double shots of espresso.
One reason he calls himself Newa is that he once spotted a mangled "One Way" sign, its o and y obscured. Another explanation is that he mashed together the names of his two heroes, Kaws and Nace, two graffiti writers and friends who influenced him in the early '90s. Nace had been his best friend, a member of the Mayhem crew. (Newa has the Mayhem tag tattooed on his arm.) Nace was killed two years ago by a drunk driver, which is why Newa no longer drinks. It's also why, in some alleys downtown, the graffiti reads "R.I.P. Nace."
Like most graffiti artists, he started at a young age, painting city walls with like-minded kids who threw up the names of their crews as well as their personal tags. But since 1997, he's been sticking billboards of his own creation over existing billboards, using a papier-mâchélike mixture called wheat paste. His billboards mock ad campaigns with a twist that usually involves sex, violence or drug use.
Five years ago, Newa put up a sign in Lakewood, New Jersey, that read: "Support Domestic Violence: If You Don't Beat Your Wife, Who Will?" Newa says people interpreted it as a hate crime against women, and a public outcry ensued. He claims that the Lakewood chief of police told him to leave town. That would have been convenient, because Newa had an uncle who was moving his heating and air-conditioning company to Kansas City; by day, Newa now works for his uncle.
Besides catching the attention of police, Newa's work has gained recognition in counterculture magazines such as Juxtapoz and While You Were Sleeping. The latter is a Maryland-based publication, the founder and former editor of which now acts as Newa's manager.
On one of Newa's older billboards, Ronald McDonald appeared with the message "Hey kids, I got a happy meal in my pants!" Recently, Newa has been in a cereal phase. The Lucky Charms leprechaun popped up on a green billboard in Kansas City -- only his version of the character wore a turban and stood in front of the phrase "Arab Bombs." In smaller letters, "The jihad is vicious" went where "They're magically delicious" might have been, in front of silhouettes of the World Trade Center towers crumbling. On a different cereal-themed billboard, the Kellogg's Sugar Smacks frog appears disheveled and apparently strung out on heroin, evidenced by the dancing syringes behind him and the words "Give your arm a good morning smack!" Newa has also desecrated Tony the Tiger, putting Frosted Flakes "of cum!" on his face and writing "Get sprrrrrrrrrayed!" instead of "They're grrrrrrrreat!"
Newa hates the way commercials co-opt language from underground culture -- his language. "Man, you can't watch a Sprite commercial without there being some dude like, 'Yo,' all pretending to be down with hip-hop and the street. I do what real ads do, except I throw it back at 'em exaggerated," Newa says. He sees his art as a kind of public-service announcement, saving people from false advertising. "I use billboards and their companies' methods, and the way my messages are delivered have more impact than theirs ever could. Like those bullshit Truth.com ads. No one pays attention to that. It's not going to stop anyone from smoking. But say I do an ad that says 'Newa Pleasure: Smoke it, fuckface.' Someone will say, 'Wow, I just got really offended by that billboard' and think again when they smoke. I redirect their messages."
If all of Newa's stories were true, he'd have to be a lot older than 26. Then again, maybe he really has been a boxer, a wrestler, a shoplifter, an escape artist, a heroin addict, a prescription-pill popper and an engineer who designs commercial heating and air-conditioning systems. Maybe he really has attended journalism school, gone to Rutgers, worked legitimately for billboard companies, run a business selling stolen art supplies on the Internet, and been kicked out of high school for putting a .32-caliber automatic to the head of a kid who messed with his Cabbage Patch Kid. He really might be a genius with a 168 on his IQ test and a photographic memory. He says he's just in this town searching for a cute little Lee Krasner to go with his Jackson Pollock, to say, "You've done it, Newa. You broke it wide open." But he also claims that he's just put his Blue Springs house on the market and that he wants to leave Kansas City for good. Maybe head back to New Jersey. Maybe just get anywhere but here.
Stephen Collins lives in an apartment above the Next Space and rents out the downstairs room for plays, small music events and gallery shows such as Boys vs. Girls. A motorcycle-riding engineering technician by day and an artist in his spare time, Collins has lived in Kansas City for 25 years.
Around 18th and Locust, the brick buildings begin to trickle down to one or two stories, and the spaces between them become wider and full of concrete, pebbles and weeds. Collins' neighbor to the west is a shop called Weird Stuff Antiques, which often displays the side flank of a shiny, red '56 Packard just outside its door. Across the street is a vacant lot filled with foreign-made, used automobiles -- a sad-looking old Saab, a rusting Yugo, a turquoise truck bed, no truck attached. Just around the corner, murals of geometric shapes painted in clashing primary colors fail to mask the industrial ugliness of a power substation. In this part of the city, a name scrawled in marker doesn't stand out. It blends in.
But the morning after Boys vs. Girls, Collins' phone started ringing early. First, an investigator from the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department left a message -- something about the words "Boys vs. Girls" appearing in graffiti on another building in the neighborhood. Then it was Craig, Collins' neighbor across 18th Street, who lives on the second floor of the brick building next to the car lot. Craig had found graffiti in several places on his building. "He was pretty upset," Collins recalls. Out on the street, someone had left a trash bag full of garbage on Craig's property, which Collins dragged over and left on his own sidewalk.
Collins says he called Newa and Randie Pants and told them he was upset about the vandalism that appeared as residue from their show. They came to the Next Space within a few hours and, Collins says, "kind of made a half-assed attempt at cleaning stuff up." They brought a group of friends and painted big, red splotches over the brick that had been tagged in the alley behind the gallery. Several small garage windows that had been painted were scrubbed ineffectively. Then the makeshift cleanup crew went across the street, presumably to fix Craig's walls in the same way. But they returned moments later.
"Craig probably saw them and stopped them, and they came back here and told me that everything was cool," Collins says. "But when I talked to Craig about it later, it wasn't quite that cool. He had me come over and chewed on me a little bit. It was bad."
Until very recently, Collins had tried to discount his prices for hip-hop and art shows because he knew that other spaces like his were out of reach for young organizers. But Collins' neighbors have less tolerance for the problems associated with events where large numbers of young people spend a night partying.
"There's always only one or two venues for kids to try to express themselves, and this thing [at the Next Space] I've seen happen again and again," says Collins' friend Jeremy McConnell, who, as a member of the Flavorpak collective, organized graffiti and hip-hop events in the '90s. At age 33, McConnell has a perspective that could be considered grandfatherly. "It's like, there will be a show, and during it someone will sneak out and paint a wall, and it's youthful and fun, and it's also ignorant, and it's just them pissing in their own drinking water."
"Of course, Newa and Pants said they were totally unaware of any of it [vandalism] going on, and they genuinely acted surprised that it happened," Collins says. "But I don't know -- from what I know of Newa, he's kind of a con."
The Next Space sits on the eastern edge of the Crossroads. A few blocks to the west, art galleries and their festive, once-a-month openings have drawn attention to the once-deserted neighborhood of old brick warehouses. Many Crossroads dwellers date the area's inception as an artists' enclave to the mid-'90s, when Kansas City Art Institute professor Jim Leedy opened the Leedy-Voulkos Gallery at 20th Street and Baltimore and encouraged his fellow artists to take advantage of the other vacant buildings. Over the next few years, ten to fifteen galleries staked claims in the neighborhood; today there are more than forty galleries in the area. Florists, home-accessory shops and restaurants are slowly opening up. Developers are putting in lofts. It would appear to be the kind of creative community that might appreciate Newa's work -- after all, pop artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring started out writing subway graffiti in New York, Haring having been inspired by the rebellious, unelitist tinge of Christo's public art.
But here, graffiti isn't screwing the man. It's just screwing other artists.
"I love graffiti. I think it enriches a neighborhood," says Mike Dalena, director of the Cube Gallery at 1922 Baltimore and associate director of the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom in Overland Park. "I love walking down an alley or a side street and seeing even simple tags. They make that environment beautiful, something besides weeds growing between bricks and broken windows, something that is the mark of a human being. It shows that the area is not abandoned, it is inhabited, someone has been there. It adds something, atmosphere. You can't expect a place like this to be sterile."
What frustrates Dalena about the graffiti in his neighborhood is not that it exists but that its perpetrators aren't more selective about their targets. "We just got hit last week with the lamest, most heinous, no-style, no-class tag," he says of his gallery on Baltimore. "I'm not upset that it got tagged, but it's like, do it nice or leave it alone. I'm a huge supporter of the graffiti community, and I'm the one that defends them, and I get this no-aesthetic, first-year-tagger thing on my wall."
Other property owners are tired of having to pay for art they never asked to buy.
In 2002, developer Brad Nicholson, who by his estimate has rehabbed dozens of buildings in the Crossroads (the Pitch leases office space in one of them), decided to restore the old TWA corporate headquarters at 18th Street and Main. The three-story building, with wide belts of red and white wrapping its blocky exterior, straddles the alley between Baltimore and Main and has a total of three entrances and addresses on both streets. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the TWA building enjoyed a "period of significance" between 1950 and 1974, until the late '70s, when it was covered with a stucco "skin" that masked its kitschy '50s architecture. The 3-D TWA logo used to stand proudly on the roof beside a space-aged, rocketlike aircraft model.
Nicholson's group started by peeling off the stucco, revealing a chipped and scuffed version of the building's former glory. Nicholson says that effort cost more than $100,000. As he worked to get the building on the National Register, though, another group went through with its own plans for resurfacing the old airline headquarters.
Early in September of last year, intruders broke in one night and climbed the stairs to the third floor, spraying their names in paint as they went. Then they wrote their tags backward on the inside of each window, so that the names Poser, Visie and Elk appeared in rolling, graffiti-style letters from the third-floor windows facing Main Street. And the words "Boys vs. Girls" appeared, enormous, one letter taking up each third-floor window facing 18th Street.
It cost more than $12,000 to get the visible spray paint off the windows, Nicholson says, and that's not including damage to the interior metals and other surfaces.
"The 'Boys vs. Girls' was just part of it. There was stuff all over," Nicholson says. Amid that other stuff, one name stood out. "Oh yeah, it said 'Newa' in big letters."
Nicholson is no anti-art nazi. The still-unoccupied TWA building is currently home to "House," by artists Dana Hargrove and Colby Smith. For the past three months, the installation has lit up the first floor and is visible to people passing on the street. Still, Nicholson says, the ravaged TWA building spurred him to take anti-graffiti action. At the same time, many Crossroads property owners, afraid that visitors would mistakenly think the graffiti was connected to gang activity, have expressed frustration to Nicholson that they were getting hit, too. Nicholson started talking with developer and lawyer Butch Rigby and Birch Telecom head Dave Scott, and the trio began working within the Crossroads Community Association. The group's treasurer, Marilyn Block, says they raised $56,000 in private donations -- which the city has promised to augment -- to help neighborhood business owners clean graffiti off their walls (if the business owner has paid the association's $60 annual fee).
KCPD Detective Mark Mosbacher credits Nicholson with prodding police and prosecutors into taking a more active role against graffiti. Around the first of the year, the Kansas City Gang Squad raided an apartment at 42nd Street and Walnut belonging to John M. Griffin, a graffiti artist whose tag was "Moneystacks" or "MS 409." His moniker was so ubiquitous that the police acquired search warrants for his residence -- a practice, Mosbacher tells the Pitch, that was "uncommon, to say the least." The bust netted 650 cans of spray paint, along with five glass-engraving kits and eight bags of spray-paint nozzles, according to The Kansas City Star. Mosbacher says he hasn't seen any new tags from Moneystacks.
The Gang Squad has begun keeping files on particular taggers to help build cases against them that could lead to felony charges if they're ever caught, Mosbacher says. In the past, he adds, minor acts of vandalism, treated individually, would go to municipal court, where the charges would likely be dropped. But when police keep a file, those minor acts can become a federal offense if they add up to $750 or more in property damage.
"We never used to make a big deal about graffiti crime," says Denise St. Omer, head of the Community Justice Unit at the Jackson County Prosecutor's office. "People didn't used to want to bother with the criminal process. They'd rather just clean it up and write it off as an operating expense, part of the cost of owning a business."
But those costs went up in July when the City Council passed an ordinance imposing fines on property owners who failed to clean up graffiti on their property within fifteen days. The ordinance also makes it a crime for retailers to sell aerosol paint to anyone under age eighteen and prohibits minors from possessing the paint without adult supervision. Councilwoman Deb Hermann, who sponsored the ordinance, says it represents a clear message aimed at "ending graffiti and raising the standard for property maintenance."
Now, there's a warrant out for Newa's arrest.
Bob Fessler, the general manager of Lamar Advertising, remembers that Newa hit his billboards in the spring of 2001. At the time, Lamar owned billboards at Fifth Street and Beardsley and at 25th Street and Troost. The Beardsley billboard was Newa-ized into a Tommy Hilfiger logo, with "Newa Hill" and "Jesus Was a Player Hater" written on it. The billboard on Troost became a logo for a fictitious fast-food joint called Newa's Chicken, "Where Bitch's [sic] Get Served."
Newa was never caught, and Fessler sold those billboards to Viacom Outdoor Advertising in August 2001. This past spring, Newa used three of Viacom's billboards as frames for his cereal series. The Smacks frog, Tony the Tiger and the Lucky Charms leprechaun earned Newa a felony charge each at Third Street and Beardsley, 718 McGee and 1812 Baltimore. The charges allege that Newa "knowingly damaged billboards" by painting them over and marking them "with sexual content, drug-related [messages] and terrorism and the name 'NEWA.'" The warrant cites damage amounting to more than $750. Tracy Holmes, the general manager of Viacom Outdoor Advertising, declined to comment.
"In these situations, more times than not, you never find who did it," Fessler says.
Newa is driving his Kia down the dark, Edward-Hopperlike alleys and side streets downtown, a Tootsie Pop clenched between his teeth, a Mountain Dew in the cup holder and a can of spray paint rolling around his backseat.
"Most of this stuff in the Crossroads is garbage," he says gravely. "It's just defacing things for the sake of putting up a tag, and graffiti breeds graffiti. There's two types of graffiti we're working with here. You've got graffiti artists, people who do pieces and spend a lot of time on beautiful work, taking the time to show off their talent. Then you've got the taggers, trying to catch tags. It's not the same at all, and that's the Catch-22: People doing these beautiful pieces probably started off catching tags, like me in 1985. People whose hearts are in it won't ruin someone's private property. With art, you just don't do that. Alleys, poles, bricks, mailboxes -- those are always open. But not windows, not active businesses. If something's vacant, it's free. But a car? No. A house? No. And people just don't know, and they're writing on everything, and that will ruin it for everyone. There's two sides to this coin. You can't have the chicken without the egg, and you can't have Kobe Bryant without him raping a girl. The good and the bad, well, they go hand in hand.
"That Blockbuster sign? I see Cockbuster," Newa says, looking at a billboard. "And RadioShack, I'd change that to Radiosack."
Newa parks his car in the alley behind Y.J.'s Snack Bar, where there's an intricate garden, and stairs lead down to a lower parking lot. There, the walls glimmer with paint, and the corners seem alive with crawling things -- one-dimensional tags, complicated pieces and cartoon characters of robots and waifish, Japanese-anime-type girls.
"If you give people a place to paint and tell them not to do something, they'll respect it," Newa says.
So if he agrees with the idea of painting only legal, or "permission," walls, then who tagged the TWA building? And why did it say "Newa"?
"That's called 'dick-riding,' and people who do that are what we call a 'toy.' It's an inexperienced writer, a moron. They write another guy's name on a wall, thinking it will make you happy. It's as bad as groupies for rock bands, except it's only guys on other guys. We're talking about kids in the sixth, seventh, eighth generation of graffiti. Newa, he's the third generation," Newa says.
Despite Newa's claims to the contrary, other writers in the graffiti scene find it hard to believe that he has renounced illegal graffiti and that he had nothing to do with the graffiti on the TWA building.
Wizdom, a Kansas City native who claims to be familiar with the city's post-1980 graffiti scene (the year he was born) and writes with the crews TUF and BU, says he respects Newa for his work. "I've seen his graffiti around, his writings, his wheat pastings, his whatnot. That's cool. I like it when people write on things. It's like a heads-up for everybody, whether it's a message or just somebody's name, like, obviously somebody who wants some kind of attention. Some of that shit is like shock value or whatever, in my opinion, but if you're going to put your artwork in the public, out on the streets, I'm gonna criticize it."
Is it possible that someone else is tagging Newa? Wizdom bursts out laughing. "Who the hell would want to tag Newa? What does it mean? If someone else is tagging his name, what for? Is it some kid who wants to be him, and if so, how old are they? How fucking dare you, as a graffiti writer, say you don't do something when you did? How are you going to act like 'I'm a good graffiti writer?' That's an oxymoron. There is no such thing."
Be it by his hand or "someone else's," Newa's name did appear in the West Bottoms gallery area in the late summer of 2001, to the dismay of the then-owner of the Kelvin Gallery at 1317 Union. (The Kelvin has since closed, and its owner asked not to be named.) The Kelvin owner says he liked one of Newa's designs, which featured Gary Coleman's face, and that he planned to put up one of Newa's pieces in a gallery show. He calls Newa's work "seriously fucking amazing." Significantly less amazing was the fact that two days before the show was to open, someone scrawled "NEWA" in dripping, light-blue paint directly across the street, on the building housing Doc's Caboose Inc., a screen-printing shop and model-train store at 1400 Union. The Kelvin owner pulled Newa's work from the show.
"Some people called me a hypocrite, saying I should understand the nature of graffiti work, but it's hooliganism and makes legitimate graffiti artists look like assholes, and it was a black eye on my gallery. So to make it clear that I wasn't condoning what he did, I pulled the piece," he says.
Newa says the tag was done by another graffiti writer who didn't want him in that show. When his piece got booted from the Kelvin, Newa says, he took it down the street to the Dirt Gallery (also now defunct), where his friend Dalek was showing his own artwork. He brags that he sold the piece for $2,000, though it had been priced at only $200.
Davin Watne, former owner and director of the Dirt Gallery, calls this claim "absolutely untrue."
"Newa is an example of someone pissing in his own backyard," Watne says. After the giant Newa tags appeared in the West Bottoms, the more conservative retail business owners and neighbors cast a suspicious eye on his gallery and the Kelvin, Watne says, blaming the vandalism on their graffiti-art shows. Frustrated, he says he wanted to report Newa to the police. But "crazy rumors" made him afraid to take any action, he says. People told him that Newa might come down to his gallery and put a brick through his window. "He has this vengeance against authority, which can be a cool youthful spirit that we all have, but he doesn't pick and choose his battles well, and to attack a burgeoning art scene just seems like he's shooting himself in the foot."
"They've completely shut me down here," Newa says, referring to the KCPD as he chews on a red Tootsie Pop. "If I drop this lollypop wrapper on the ground, there'll be a cop here in two seconds, like, 'Oops! Littering! Add that to the rap sheet, boys!'"
But something else is shut down, too.
On September 27, Stephen Collins held his last youth-oriented, counterculture show at the Next Space.
Those shows never made Collins much money anyway. He hosted them out of the kindness of his heart, the part that remembered being young and rebellious and desirous of a place to vent. He'll still rent out the space for quieter, safer events, but from now on, he vows, no more graffiti shows, no more hip-hop or punk rock, no more events that will draw a potentially young and destructive crowd and leave him with aftershocks to absorb and apologies to make. The Boys vs. Girls show was part of it, and the complaints from his neighbors were another part, but after graffiti showed up as a result of the most recent hip-hop show he hosted, Collins' patience simply ran out.
The Hip Hop Disciples and the Human Cropcircles, both on the progressive, experimental end of hip-hop's spectrum, had drawn as many as 75 people to the Next Space. Nobody served alcohol, but attendees brought enough of their own that the empty cans filled a 50-gallon drum, Collins says. And the morning after the show, ominous messages appeared outside.
Behind his studio and apartment, remnants of the words "Someday you will die" are still visible, though Collins has tried to scrub them off. A few more "you will die" messages are scattered around the alley. Collins surveys the scene with a tired glance, gently touching the walls where no amount of soap or baking soda or elbow grease could remove the stains.
On one wall, a single stroke of white spray paint reads "You are very pretty." He hasn't made a move to take it off yet. He'll probably just let it be. "I kinda like that one," he says, smiling.