MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We move now from the messages that Metro is trying to send to the sorts of messages you might see as you're riding Metro, especially if you're whizzing past all those high concrete walls between Silver Spring and Rhode Island Avenue on the Red Line. We're talking about graffiti, a common and, yes, controversial method of communication for young people in the District. Reporter Jonna McKone wanted to learn more about the people behind the graffiti so she headed out with one D.C. teen to investigate this secret subculture.
There's three sides that you can get in from this spot. One side is slippery, one side is too steep, one side is just right, but it has glass and material that you cannot step on. It's real dangerous.
MS. JONNA MCKONE
That's Fame, an 18-year-old graffiti artist from Southeast D.C. He asked me not to use his real name because his graffiti pieces are mostly illegal. We went to see some of his work, walking from the Fort Todd and Metro stop at an opening between two commercial buildings on a road that dead ends into forested land. The building to our left is covered with graffiti tags.
Well, it's like factories around here. There's a bridge and I think we need to go in now.
A fence takes us through an opening that looks out onto train tracks several yards away. There are walls covered with what appear to be generations of graffiti tags. No one's around. We trudged through a field of wild flowers and overgrown weeds. Walking here with Fame, I can see why he keeps coming back to the line, as graffiti artists in the District call it.
It's all graffiti around here, yeah. That's what I did. In the back, you see that little blue? That was my name, but this dude came over here and dissed it so.
By a graffiti artist standards, this wall is easily accessible. One reason Fame's work was covered up...
Well, I had at least three of them right here. I kind of stopped coming back to the line and just started going more out in the street. I've been coming back recently because I've missed it.
We are walking right along the tracks now toward an overpass. It's not as accessible. I stay close behind Fame. He seems both excited to show me what's ahead of us and worried for my safety. Should I go first? Okay.
My freshly new one is right there.
We look out at his graffiti name, Fame, under a bridge. It stands at what looks to be four feet high and seven feet wide. Black, silver, shades of green, orange, pink and white.
How long did that take you to do?
Three hours, just about.
When did you do it, like, late at night or?
Yeah, like, around 12:00. Come on.
Fame and many other people who write graffiti in D.C. see much of what they do as art. But many residents dislike these public markings and think of them as a sort of visual pollution. Government, neighborhood councils and community groups have worked for years to get local artists to translate their skills into legal murals.
MR. CORY STOWERS
Most of the writers that I've taught, most of the children that I've taught have already been actively writing graffiti.
Cory Stowers, the art director of the non-profit organization, Words, Beats and Life works with young people like Fame to try to channel graffiti tagging into useful skills.
When they're coming into my classes, we're refining the skills and increasing the knowledge and the culture, but also trying to impart some sort of social responsibility aspect connected to that.
The kids in Stowers classes spend time sketching on notepads and creating their art on a set of practice walls in a Columbia Heights alley. They've also helped design and paint a few murals and other art pieces around D.C.
It's one thing to say that we are taking back space where advertisements have been thrust in front of us or blank walls that have not had any visual activity on them, but it's a complete other thing to say that we got together as a group and we decided this is what we wanted to paint and then to execute that.
Stowers has written about and documented the long history of the legal name writing in the U.S., from signatures on the Oregon Trail as Americans moved Westward to homeless men marking their nicknames on freight trains around the turn of the 19th century. He says these early name writers and the graffiti artists today have the same motivation.
Whether you're talking about a name or you're talking about an image, which is primarily how people would classify street art, it is about having the recognition.
That's why Fame says he paints.
We don't get that much of attention so we reach out in a way of writing our name and all that. It goes in real deep and you feel like you rule the world sometimes because you're name is forever to be known.
And for some, this could even be the first step on the path to a career in art.
Most graffiti writers I know, they're professionals now. What they learn on the street, what they learned painting really helped push them to that next level.
As for Fame, he says he wants to eventually go to college and take up graphic design. So maybe someday, one of the artists who made the work you see as you're whizzing by on Metro may in fact end up achieving the fame he's already taken as his name. I'm Jonna McKone.
You can learn more about Words, Beat and Life and see imagines of Fame's graffiti on our website, metroconnection.org.
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