The area -- graffiti writers call it "The Groove" -- exhibits the piece-by-piece product of steady hands, artistic minds and the illicit science of aerosol. Above ground, in the garages of Kansas City, spray paint means speed and sloppiness and dripping. But here, under the bridge, it means patience and crisp lines and colors blended together with glamorous ingenuity. There are backgrounds and foregrounds, cityscapes with tiny characters looming in their shadows. Most prominent, though, are names.
And with each name a twisted typography turns rectangular letters into spastic, wild style retreats from convention.
Through this outdoor hallway strolls a graffiti writer who, for purposes of this article, wants to be called FAUSSE, a twenty-something veteran of the local scene who now sees The Groove as an escape from the rest of the city.
The atmospheric Groove represents a sort of ideal to FAUSSE. In its sanctity, talented graffiti writers have left behind original, Technicolor versions of their tag names for other writers to admire and then outdo in well-considered locations throughout the city.
Just a few years ago, the pieces scattered across town on bridges and buildings were like minor versions of pieces here -- maybe not as elaborate and intricate, but still singular displays of guts and flair. Even the bombs and throw-ups -- tag names painted quickly, usually with only one or two colors -- were of a higher quality than they are now.
Things have changed. Lately, FAUSSE and other veteran writers see their ideal fading.
In graffiti, you start with quick, one-color tags (the quickly painted signatures commonly found on mailboxes and road signs), move on to bigger, more complicated throw-ups and then start painting elaborate pieces. If you're so inclined, you might start seeking legal walls to demonstrate the talent you can't always drop on illegal jobs. That's how it is, how it's always been.
Now, however, older writers aren't happy with what they see. More and more younger writers are simply producing talentless tags, without showing any interest in progressing. This disdain is nothing new in the world of graffiti. In cities around the world, graffiti writers have struggled with the unavoidable glacier that sooner or later chills any culture, no matter how renegade or underground: time. Now it's caught up with Kansas City.
Below the radar of police reports and Kansas City Star articles about faceless vandals who live to destroy property, there's now a rift. It has nothing to do with the illegality of graffiti, but with a definition of what graffiti should be.
"In a city so gray, I'd like to put some color in it," FAUSSE says. "Maybe it will make someone smile. But these people" -- the new generation of graffiti writers -- "don't know who they're hurting in the process."
That may be irreversible. Ego rules in graffiti. Humility rarely exists. And the old guard's only steadfast defense against rebellious minds is the game's first of several loose rules: You suck until further notice.
Last year,Graffiti writers of all varieties, young and old, toy and king, were surprised by the reappearance of a writer named DASE, who had reportedly left the city a few years before.
In recent months, his work has appeared here and there in town. The letters themselves, although original, don't display a particularly outrageous style. But DASE has experience painting full-color pieces, and his control over spray paint is clear even in the simple throw-ups that have recently made him the most widely respected bomber in town.
One late night this summer, DASE and another writer, ELSE, stood on a small platform above the front door of the United States Uniform Company's old building at 200 Southwest Boulevard and painted their giant throw-ups. They worked in a space of a few yards with nothing shielding them from the street and open-air but a ten-foot drop-off. DASE etched a three-color signature in off-white, outlined it in red, then outlined that in black; ELSE chalked up a blue imprint and topped it with a black and white outline.
On another night, they did the same on a billboard hovering near the traffic-heavy intersection at 39th and Broadway. Had it not been for the emergence of another writer last fall, such hits would have made DASE the unquestionable bombing king of Kansas City.
But perhaps no writer has ever attacked the city as aggressively as NOVA, whose crowning achievement came late last year when he painted a throw-up on a bridge at the crossover between I-70 and I-435; just days after the Missouri Department of Transportation removed it this spring, he returned to paint it -- bigger.
Aided by a now-defunct message board on a Web site documenting Kansas City graffiti art, NOVA's name circulated among younger writers wowed by his risky hits: a billboard at 17th and Broadway; an exit sign for Penn Valley Community College; next to the highways underneath Bartle Hall, with nothing but cars rushing by on either side; on top of a West Bottoms warehouse visible from the 12th Street Bridge. What NOVA lacked in skill -- his throw-ups rarely changed in style and his lines were often blurry -- he made up for with the one quality that endears many younger writers: balls the size of Hondas.
But he wasn't everyone's hero. While DASE attracted respect from writers of all stages, some older writers knocked NOVA for artistic sloppiness.
"When NOVA started out, he did pieces. Then he got noticed and got lazy," scoffs one veteran writer. The result, they say, was more throw-ups, the type that would only encourage younger, even less-skilled writers to follow in NOVA's footsteps.
Last winter, new tags and throw-ups exploded throughout Kansas City. Usually by February, young taggers who had adopted graffiti as a summer hobby tended to find the Siberian cold of 4 a.m. a dulling atmosphere for rebellion. But if anything, they multiplied. New, blurred throw-ups covered back alleys downtown and the sides of Midtown businesses. Tags spread across newspaper bins and storefront windows.
Besides sloppy spray-paint skills, two toy traits surfaced everywhere: "spot jocking," when a writer sees a piece and then puts one of his own next to it, letting the first, probably better, writer attract attention to the second writer's name; and "biting," when a writer rips off someone else's style.
The latter wouldn't be such a problem, older writers say, if kids were getting better by biting more ambitious styles, if they showed some willingness to learn, if they were interested in more than instant fame, and most important, if they really noticed the difference between DASE and NOVA.
"DASE is hitting the right spots: these bridges and abandoned buildings," says SCRIBE, a longtime Kansas City writer who no longer paints illegally. But the problem, he adds, is that new writers only see the name, without considering what makes one spot better than another, what makes DASE better than NOVA.
Although writing on walls dates back thousands of years, graffiti as it's now known originated in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and then New York in the early 1970s. What started as a tagging spree throughout the five boroughs quickly became a mass competition in style, scale and stamina. No longer able to earn recognition simply by sketching their tag names thousands of times over, writers were forced to spray paint their names bigger and better than those of their competitors. They added outlines, then more color and finally the individual lettering styles that made graffiti its own art form.
As is the case with coastal trends, it took nearly a decade for this new underground art to sneak its way toward the center of the country. But by the mid-1980s, two Kansas City teenagers who called themselves GEAR and KRIE brought Kansas City up to speed with their own take on east coast styles they'd seen on television and in underground magazines.
At the time, neither one knew the other, but in 1989 a Chicago writer named EAST moved to Kansas City and changed everything. Famously cocky, EAST derided his few fellow writers for lame styles and poorly chosen spots. But he also took them under his wing and taught them technique and style; before long the three formed ATT, widely considered the city's first graffiti crew.
EAST didn't just bring the skills to teach others; he pushed the mentality that if ATT writers were going to risk painting illegally, they should produce full-color pieces, each one outdoing the one before. "If I got busted," GEAR explains, "at least I got busted doing something worthwhile."
ATT, which in typical graffiti fashion stands for a number of things (Aerosol's Tuffest Team, Authorized to Terrorize, Abstracting the Typography) snuck around at the time of night reserved for stray cats. Its members were the city's first ninjas, leaving behind no evidence of their presence except sprawling signatures that took four to eight hours to complete. That meant scouting new spots, figuring out how to reach the top of a building, sign or tower, planning an escape in case they needed to run -- how to get away with a messenger bag full of paint slung over a shoulder. They got to know the scaffolds of buildings, the crevices of downtown, the ins and outs of train yards. They defiantly constructed five-foot-tall paintings with the threat of arrest breathing down their necks.
In 1993, a Boston cartoonist named SCRIBE arrived in Kansas City to attend the Art Institute, and ATT gained a talented caricature specialist to highlight its productions. With the addition of a few more up-and-coming writers, by the mid-1990s its had created a graffiti anomaly: a city with more full-color pieces and showy throw-ups than tags. "Kansas City was called the land of milk and honey for graffiti," SCRIBE recalls, "because pieces outnumbered tags."
By the middle of the decade, the Kansas City graffiti scene had blossomed, as new writers such as DASE, AERO, NYSE, FEMME9, MEAT, PURE, CELT, KESO and BEE appeared throughout town with different variations on their own tag names.
Inevitably, however, division grew in the city's graffiti ranks. Some of the new writers were guided and taught by ATT, but others started to resent the influential crew and set out to do their own thing. Already a scene that cared for authority and popular opinion as much as it did for watercolors or still-lifes, the fuck-it attitude of Kansas City graffiti writers reached its first apex with the winter 1996 appearance of TUF crew (The Unstoppable Four, The Unlikable Fucks), a set of writers uninterested in whom they pissed off, whether property owners or fellow writers.
"I was drawn to the fact that in a way, you're committing a crime, but no one is getting hurt," says TUF's SHAME. "Am I stealing the paint and taking food out of someone's mouth? No. Will the business fall apart just because I did something colorful on the side [of its building]? No. In fact, if someone looks at my piece, then they will be drawn to the business more than if it was just a plain brick building that they wouldn't have even looked at twice. In some fucked-up way, it's sort of like advertising for the building, but I could get jail time if I was caught, and I would have to pay some outrageous sum of money and bow down to a judge more so than if I was drinking and driving, which could kill some people."
Meanwhile, the city's own attitude toward graffiti took an aggressive turn. In 1994, police nabbed SCRIBE for painting on a Brush Creek bridge, and then-Jackson County prosecutor Claire McCaskill made an example of the Boston native. The ATT writer spent a few days in jail and eventually received three years' probation. For the first time, the city showed it would strike back hard against graffiti.
The city's second shot hit writers where it hurt most: Workers painted over a much-revered graffiti spot along a flood wall on the south side of the Missouri River. The River Wall had become a phenomenon even to graffiti enthusiasts outside the city, many of whom saw the absurdly extensive amount of work and its quality and concluded -- wrongly -- that the city must have granted permission for writers to paint there. There was no way, many onlookers agreed, that so many writers could spend so much time to create so much art without it's being sanctioned. "It was so amazing that people would come up to us and ask how we got that legal wall," SCRIBE says. "People would get on the Internet and argue whether it was illegal or legal."
"The River Wall was the hall of fame for Kansas City graffiti," SHAME says. "We used to walk along it learning from it. To me, it was amazing."
By buffing the full-color pieces that had turned the blank concrete into a colorful, far-reaching palette, the city stung all graffiti writers, regardless of inter-crew squabbles. By 1999, Kansas City graffiti fell into a lull. Writers -- including EAST and DASE -- moved to other cities to escape the dwindling scene.
But last fall, for better or worse, the lull ended.
In a dim, crowded Mexican restaurant, five plain-clothes police officers with shiny badges dangling from their belts sit around a table for an early lunch. Across the room, SHAME and WIZDOM of TUF crew sip beers and eat tacos and enchiladas. Many graffiti writers are attracted to the scene by this sort of nonencounter with police or the public -- the complete anonymity that somehow, paradoxically, comes with a craft in which the object is to paint one's name as large and as often as possible.
"It is always about getting up," says 21-year-old SHAME. "But not in the 'destroy everything in sight' kind of way like the public thinks. A dope hit is when a writer finds something that has never been hit before -- throws up a tight piece, comes off clean, gets away with it, and then when daylight hits, no one can miss it. And then graffiti writers hit themselves and think, 'Why didn't I think of that spot?'"
SHAME hasn't always come off clean, though. Police busted him in the winter of 1998 and he wound up serving a year of probation. A later conviction for a nongraffiti crime got SHAME another three years' probation, something he does not wish to relive. Now he has a new perspective -- and reluctance -- toward writing. Besides, he and WIZDOM have things like real jobs to concern themselves with now -- working at a daycare for WIZDOM and managing a Plaza hotel for SHAME. That aside, their opinions about graffiti, about the recent wave that has breathed new life back into Kansas City, have not softened.
Despite SHAME's contention that there is a distinction between dope spots and lame spots, he also believes in the necessity of hardcore bombers who put up graffiti regardless of whom it pisses off. There was a time when no one did this better than TUF crew, the writers of which concerned themselves with just two things: getting up and watching out for fellow crew members. Everyone else -- cops, business owners, civic leaders, neighborhood leaders and other writers -- didn't count, except maybe to inspire even more writing of the same sort.
Unlike some of their contemporaries, they now see the value of what the new generation is doing.
"I'm not ... one of the older writers who used to fuck everything up when I started doing it and then tells others not to because it just pisses people off and I can't get any legal walls and all sorts of whiny shit," SHAME says. "Fucking Jesus, I understand that we all grow out of it sooner or later, but let people have their space to learn the game on their own."
On 15th and Walnut there,s an outline of the name ETHIC on the pull-down garage door of a Goodyear auto shop. It's a large tag that, even in the earliest hours of the morning, would have demanded a certain amount of gumption. Even though it lacks style -- it's just a black, bubble-letter outline of "ETHIC" -- it's as blatant and exposed as possible.
Two blocks to the east, there's an outline of NOVA's name, another quick, conspicuous tag -- but not as visible as ETHIC's on Walnut. Again, it's just a black outline that looks like it was painted hastily, and the spot offers no cover but an empty parking lot. But now there's a rectangular style that, though simple, carries some originality.
One block to the east of that, there's hissing. It's early in the afternoon on an equatorially hot day, and the sound of deployed spray paint can be heard from around the corner. Here is the antithesis to black-outline tags: Colors. Patience. Daytime. Legal.
Between two Oak Street businesses, four writers and a few onlookers convene. A building owner has given permission for the writers to decorate an exterior wall. With cans of spray paint spread across the ground like crayons in a playroom, each writer takes to the wall, vision in mind, and slowly builds layer after layer until a name stands out like 3-D credits.
QUISP's piece looks like his classic-style lettering has been squeezed to a breaking point, then tied back together with an electric-pink ribbon. MINES' looks like the glitzy, golden handle of a fairytale sword. STUN's piece is a version of his yellow, red and black lettering heated carefully and then left to stretch outward on its own. And PHEM's writing looks like a funky, slanted, futuristic take on the design of a mint-condition 1970s conversion van.
Running behind the four pieces is a series of blue, green and purple rectangles; eventually SCRIBE's anthropomorphic rhinos, rabbits and fish will float across the wall as the finishing touch on another Kansas City production.
Together, SCRIBE and GEAR have ditched writing illegally on buildings and bridges to concentrate on the sanctioned work that allows them to use their talent. Throughout Westport, their art covers the fronts, sides and backs of tattoo parlors, nightclubs, retail shops and restaurants. On the Plaza, SCRIBE's "Trojan Cow" stands outside Houlihan's.
(Despite the prevalence of their work, SCRIBE and GEAR say they still don't make money painting. Occasionally a job will pay, but most of the time it provides nothing but a canvas.)
Compared with the bubble letters and relatively plain throw-ups that have spread in the past year, the wall on Oak Street looks like another form altogether. But then it's also legal. And many writers believe what GEAR and SCRIBE are doing -- particularly when it's painting up a fiberglass bovine -- is something other than graffiti.
"If it's not illegal, it's not graffiti," repeat several writers, almost on cue when the subject comes up. If you're not out there picking your spots, planning escape routes, sweating it out as you paint, then all the aerosol in the world doesn't connect you to the nightly risk others take to get their work up.
It's a harsh belief, and an interesting inverse to the doctrine of graffiti-haters -- that for something to be art, it must be legal.
It also ignores the fact that a writer such as GEAR was painting illegally while some of the younger writers were still just decorating their diapers. "When I did illegals," GEAR says, "I was standing there for four hours. Kids tell me, 'You don't know how they do it.' Yeah, I do. Yeah, I did these [two-color] throw-ups, but it was boring. The real risk was painting full-color pieces four or five feet from the street."
While such pieces were every bit as illegal as a small, one-color tag, writers like GEAR claim a higher ground. Since pieces took more time and effort, there were fewer of them and if there were fewer of them there were fewer pissed-off people. And since these pieces were more creative, they got respect and, arguably, added something of beauty to an otherwise industrial landscape.
"Most of the stuff that's around town now is boring," GEAR says. "It's boring and has no backbone to it. It's something anybody can do."
Not far from Westport Road and Broadway, where SCRIBE and GEAR have fashioned a sort of outdoor art space, the words ETHIC and SECT ride twelve feet above street level on the side of a building visible to drivers headed both north and south on Broadway.
The same tag names appear in similar form on several buildings along I-70, on the rooftops of downtown buildings and on the backs and sides of Midtown stores and businesses. Almost without fail, ETHIC appears in marshmallow-like letters, with a black outline and white filling, and SECT looks like a rubbery string of letters squeezed from a giant tube of toothpaste. ETHIC says he's been writing for a year; SECT says he's been writing for a few more. But to a large number of Kansas City graffiti writers they're viewed as new guys, and in a subculture where you're worth only as much as the credit you're given, perception rules.
"Kansas City is run by the ATT, and I don't really care about the ATT," ETHIC says. "They try to tell us where to hit. Most of them probably push the art side of it. Graf to us isn't about the art side. To me, it's more about getting out there."
SECT and fellow FYT (Free Yourself Tonight, Furious Youth Team, Fucking Young Tits) writer NAZE agree. Of the three, only ETHIC believes that in four or five years -- roughly a generation in graffiti -- he'll still be painting the town. "At this rate," he says, "five or six years from now, I'll be really good."
SECT's graffiti career, on the other hand, will be short and furious. "For me, to be honest, I probably won't be doing it. You kind of have to grow up. I know I don't want to be 25 or 30 and still doing it. It's really a youth thing. But it influences what I do. Graf is always going to be with me."
That some veteran writers consider them to be the type of new writers who are ruining graffiti in Kansas City doesn't bother ETHIC and SECT. Such a view is emblematic, they say, of writers' getting old and trying to rewrite the rules to suit their situations. But graffiti is about breaking rules, causing havoc. It's about getting up, and that's what the older writers tend to forget. They can seek out all the legal walls they care to paint, beautify the city all they want, but just don't come down on the writers who are still out there bombing the city.
"Really, graffiti is an art," SECT says, allowing the elder writers their due. "And I respect them for that. But then they think they're big shots. There's always going to be the kids out there bombing, and there's always going to be kids piecing. Just roll with it."
In New York, where graffiti began on the subway system, writers have always been cautious of the third rail -- the line that powers the trains. If a careless writer were to touch the third rail, he or she could be electrocuted. Several have died.
In Kansas City, there is no third rail, literally or figuratively. The dangers that plague other cities, such as the turf war that has become part of the ultracompetitive Los Angeles graffiti scene, do not exist here. Writers don't get electrocuted or get shot by other writers; at worst, they get caught and arrested. Only recently has the ugly trend of painting over other writers spread, despite the fact that Kansas City has more than enough empty warehouses and alleys to go around.
Nonetheless, the city may no longer be "the land of milk and honey" for graffiti.
"I don't look for anything better to happen," laments FAUSSE, who's hiding from the sun under a massive bridge, quietly surveying The Groove's open-air gallery. In the distance, a train appears and in moments roars by. Every so often, a flamboyant piece of graffiti appears, stretched across a car like a web, before moving down the tracks to Lawrence, Topeka, Denver and points west.
"Painting trains is like the best thing in the world," FAUSSE says when the last car passes. "You have to give up so much. You paint it, and it's gone. Maybe you get a picture."
This is one of the lessons graffiti teaches to those who stay in it long enough, who care about it enough: loss. Create something, nurture it, and sooner or later, someone or something will come along and tear it down. "You build things up, and then they get destroyed," FAUSSE says. "It's the way of life."