Serving Arizona State University Online Since 1995  Current Issue: Thursday, March 31, 2005





An art of their own

Locals find artistic outlet and name recognition with graffiti

 by Heather Wells  published on Thursday, March 31, 2005

Designed by and for graffiti artists, this special spray-paint is thicker than traditional aerosol cans of paint. /issues/arts/692663
Designed by and for graffiti artists, this special spray-paint is thicker than traditional aerosol cans of paint.
Railroad cars are a common canvas for graffiti artists.  Traveling from city to city, these artists' work can be seen by many people in different places.  /issues/arts/692663
Railroad cars are a common canvas for graffiti artists. Traveling from city to city, these artists' work can be seen by many people in different places.
This graffiti canvas resides on the back wall of Mesa Muffler just off of Main Street in Mesa.  This legal wall offers graffiti artists a way to show their art without  fear of being arrested. /issues/arts/692663
This graffiti canvas resides on the back wall of Mesa Muffler just off of Main Street in Mesa. This legal wall offers graffiti artists a way to show their art without fear of being arrested.
A graffiti art show held at Rio Salado Brewery on Mill Avenue showcases local artists' work.  This image was created by the artist known as Dumperfoo. /issues/arts/692663
A graffiti art show held at Rio Salado Brewery on Mill Avenue showcases local artists' work. This image was created by the artist known as Dumperfoo.


A skateboarder rolls down University Drive and quickly slaps a light pole with a custom-designed sticker, leaving behind a symbol of himself, his crew and his passion.

Down the street, students walk past an electrical box showcasing the names of graffiti artists who left their mark, if only for a few days.

Walk through campus or on the streets of downtown Tempe; evidence of a graffiti art scene is abundant, from a graffiti sticker on a light post to a name scribbled on a bus stop sign to a cartoon-like character painted on the abandoned gas station at University Drive and Mill Avenue.

A growing graffiti art scene in the Valley is causing growing problems for the city of Tempe and the Tempe Police Department, but members of the scene argue that it's adding culture to the Valley.

Is it art?

Art is not something Tempe Police Sgt. Chuck Schoville sees when he looks at graffiti.

"It's not art, it's graffiti," he says. "The difference between graffiti and art is that when you do art, you have someone's permission to do it. They are not doing art at all."

Schoville has worked 10 years in the department's gang unit, a unit that in addition to dealing with gang problems, addresses graffiti. All cities have graffiti problems, he says, but Tempe's is a "large" problem. Schoville says gang graffiti is rare in Tempe, but the city struggles with the amount of graffiti art on everything from electrical boxes to fast food restaurants.

"Guys will pull into the Taco Bell and scribble on the menu and things like that," he says. "It's the markers that are killing us. It's clearly not as bad as places in the Midwest or West Coast where they tolerate it, but if you get just a little bit of graffiti, it's too much to me."

Although Schoville says no graffiti is art, he says the police department does differentiate between gang graffiti and art-related graffiti because of their two distinct meanings. He says gang members do it to intimidate, while taggers do it for the notoriety.

"I was sitting at the train track a few days ago, and some guy had his name on the train going by," Schoville says. "His dream is coming true: you have a guy in Arizona reading some guy's name from Baltimore. It's amazing how much these guys try to be famous.

"It's like a band that starts out in a garage with hopes to play at a place like Cricket Pavilion. These guys want everybody in the country to know who they are."

Closing the gap

"Monster," who asked that his real name be withheld, has been decorating Tempe for about six months with stickers, usually made from blank stickers used for packing and shipping and personalized either on the computer or by hand.

Monster says he defies a common misconception people have about graffiti art -- that it can only be done with spray paint. The amount of stickers popping up around Tempe is increasing because they're easier to put up and easier to hide in pockets or bags.

Monster, 22, says he has been drawing his entire life and started getting into graffiti art in high school.

"There was something that just grabbed me," he says.

Although he painted illegally in the past, he says he tries not to do it too much anymore. He says that's because he thinks the image of the monsters he creates looks better than traditional paint graffiti. When he first started out, he says he didn't put up his art consistently, but now does it as often as possible.

"I do it as much as I can when I'm walking around," he says. "It definitely takes up a big chunk of my time."

Plastering the streets of Tempe with stickers is a good way to get known in the scene, but he says he mainly does it for the people.

"I'm trying to bring something to the people instead of just writing my name," he says. "I'm trying to bring together the gap between graffiti and people. They are just supposed to be goofy little things to get smiles out of people."

"Lerks," a friend of Monster who asked that his real name be withheld, says his passion for graffiti art started when he was around 12 years old with the support of his parents.

"My parents used to buy me spray paint, and I would spray paint on a wall in the backyard," says the 25-year-old ASU alumnus.

The passion for paint turned into one for stickers, which he says he puts up around the city every day.

"I think it looks funny seeing a goofy sticker in a random spot," he says. "I'm just trying to decorate the cityscape, make it pretty."

Lerks says he doesn't think graffiti always looks pretty, though. Those artists who don't set boundaries, he says, give graffiti artists a bad name.

"I think it (graffiti art) gets a bad rep because a lot of people who are really into it, like writers, just want to put their name up everywhere," he says. "In a city, I think it looks cool, but in the suburbs it doesn't. You have to respect the boundaries. I think it should be everywhere it should be."

Both Monster and Lerks agree that putting it "everywhere it should be" can be difficult in Arizona. They say there are a lot of walls in Arizona, but not a lot of urban space.

"Everything is really spread out, and graffiti is taken down really fast; cities do a good job of that," Monster says. "You can't effectively do it like you can in other cities. It's an interesting challenge. Other cities are different. Europe has kind of embraced it. In Los Angeles, there are so many people doing it that they can't paint over all of it fast enough."

Lerks agrees. He says Arizona's graffiti scene is really underground.

"For someone to stay up constantly, it would be their full-time job," he says.

Schoville, the Tempe sergeant, says stickers, or what he calls "slap art," are anything but pretty. The use of stickers is increasing, Schoville says, especially on Mill Avenue, presenting Tempe with more of a problem than paint does.

"It's worse than paint because it's harder to get off," he says. "The paint is easy because you can get paint removers and take it right off. The stickers, you have to pry at them."

Even with a growing amount of graffiti and stickers popping up, Schoville says catching graffiti artists is very difficult, and if they are caught in Tempe, they only face a misdemeanor, which usually leads to a fine.

"If we can show that it's tagger stuff (in their possession), we can charge them," he says. "So if you get a guy that has a whole bunch of magic markers or stickers, and you can tell that that's what he uses it for, then you can charge him.

"But you almost have to know where they are going to be. You have to be up at 3 or 4 in the morning. They (graffiti artists) are like nocturnal creatures."

Cleaning up

While Schoville says Tempe has experienced an increase in the amount of smaller pieces of graffiti such as stickers, bigger pieces, taggers and murals are on the decline.

"The city is so good at getting rid of it (graffiti) that people don't want to paint a great big wall and use all that spray paint and then have it taken down the next week," he says.

According to Schoville, Tempe's graffiti hotline gets about 30 calls per month. Workers are usually sent out within one to two days of receiving a call.

"If you allow graffiti to remain, then whoever put it there will feel like they can continue to do it," he says. "Then other people will think that they can do it, too."

Tom Lopez supervises graffiti cleanup for the City of Tempe. He says graffiti is cleaned up on an as-needed basis.

Graffiti, he says, is more prevalent at certain times of the year.

"When school is out, we see a rise, and around the holidays, we see more graffiti out there," he says. "After a weekend, we probably get six to 10 calls for tagging. One guy will spend about half a day in a truck going out and painting."

Although the city receives paint -- a mixture of gray, brown and white -- for free to cover up graffiti, Lopez says the city still has to pay for other supplies, and graffiti cleanup accounts for about 1,040 hours of labor per year.

The city has employees who are responsible for getting rid of the graffiti, but it also relies on the help of volunteers.

"We get a lot of volunteers from church groups and things like that that help out for really large projects," Lopez says. "We provide them with the materials, and they knock it out for us."

Graffiti doesn't just cost the city.

Jan Koehn is Tempe's Neighborhood Enhancement administrator. She says if graffiti is allowed to stay, it has the potential to lower home values and reflects poorly upon homeowners.

"It has a derogatory effect on the neighborhood," she says. "It would lend to the appearance that the people aren't maintaining their property; that there is illegal activity going on. Even if it's art-related, not gang-related, it still has the same effect. It's graffiti whether it be art graffiti or gang graffiti. It is still unsanctioned."

It's clear that Schoville is not a fan of graffiti art, but even he admits that once in a while, some of it impresses him.

"Maybe once, twice a year, you'll see something and you'll think, 'That person is wasting their talent; they need to get involved in art,' " he says. "But 99.9 percent of the time, there's a reason that they're doing graffiti: they don't have any artistic talent."


Those who say graffiti art isn't true art haven't met Dumperfoo.

Dumperfoo, aka Dump One, has lived in Arizona on and off for about 23 of his 34 years, going back and forth from Arizona to Los Angeles, San Diego, Illinois and Wisconsin. He has turned his illegal graffiti art into something that brings in a regular income, selling his legal art for anywhere from $40-$300 and sometimes even for thousands.

Art comes naturally to Dumperfoo, who asked that his real name be withheld. He won his first art contest in kindergarten after copying some art his older brother did.

"I've been into art since birth," he says. "It's a gift handed down through my whole family."

Dumperfoo went from winning kindergarten contests to doing illegal graffiti art. He says the graffiti scene in Arizona was pretty small when he started getting involved in it in 1984. Although he thinks the scene here is still nothing like it is in the more developed scenes of New York and Los Angeles, he has seen growth.

"I didn't see too much of it (graffiti), which made me wanna do it a lot more," he says. "I was hittin' it hard for a while there with my crew, KVC, having a good time being a crazy kid. My shit was toy as fuck, though, back then. Looking back, my style has changed a million times since those days."

Dumperfoo says he has given up illegal graffiti, for the most part. He's more lured by making money doing graffiti art legally than possibly going to jail for doing it illegally, which he has come close to many times.

The choice between risking arrest and doing legal art freely may not seem like a hard one for most people, but Dumperfoo says it all has to do with fame, getting one's name out, known as "getting up."

"It's an addiction," he says. "It's hard to really describe it. Everywhere you go you, you wanna get up, or you're looking for that spot, driving around seein' people getting up, makes you wanna get up more. It's an adrenaline rush."

To channel his passion for the art, Dumperfoo has gotten involved in charity work around the Valley. He shares his graffiti art with charities and schools without art programs, such as the Thomas J. Pappas School for the homeless. He and his friends recently did a show there for 300 students.

"It was great," he says. "And the kids and staff really enjoyed it."

He also tours with the hip-hop group Drunken Immortals and various Valley DJ's doing "live art," creating up to 10 pieces a night on the spot while people watch.

"I'm in the public eye a little to much to be fuckin' around," Dumperfoo says. "I don't have the time. I'm trying to get my fame in another form and getting paid bank doing it. I'm just an old fart. But I still mess around when I can."

Fame is nice, but Dumperfoo says his art has done more for him than get him recognition.

"It has definitely made me a real person," he says. "I met some great people on the way."


"Talent has nothing to do with the art being legal or illegal," says SlowPoke, a local graffiti artist who asked that his real name be withheld. "Talent is talent, and it doesn't come from what surface you paint on."

SlowPoke could be any 20-year-old. He stresses about work and school and says he has "awesome" friends who support him and his hobbies.

But one thing definitely makes him stand out. As part of the Midnight Mischief Makers crew, he plasters his graffiti art and stickers, usually of his name or cute and funny-looking characters, around the Valley, a place he says has a good graffiti scene with a lot of "big namers" and people trying to prove they are better than the others.

"You just pick a part of the city you wanna walk around and fill your pockets or bag with as much materials as possible and just go wander around until you are out," he says. "I bring some friends and just talk about the usual day-to-day dramas."

SlowPoke's interest in graffiti art started when he would walk the tracks by his home in the Midwest. Since then, he has begun doing both illegal and legal art, such as sketching, painting, graphic design and screen-printing.

"It's always fun to express myself through art," he says. "It keeps me entertained, and makes my drive around town more enjoyable when I see [my art] up. I've made a lot of friends, traded work with people halfway around the globe. Graffiti helped me find my more artistic side and learn how to fully express it."

To him, his illegal graffiti art is like a business logo -- he wants people to be familiar with it and hopes people will get a smile and a laugh out of it.

"Instead of trying to sell some dumb product to the public, I am just making a funny little character that might make you smile while you are walking home," SlowPoke says. "It's just to get in your head, and when you see it all over town, you recognize it just as you would a Coke ad."

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