Let Us Spray 

All over the sprawling Salt Lake suburbs, the writing’s on the wall(s).

n n n
Know Your Graf Lingo
Bomb: to paint or write graffiti
Tag: the name of a writer—i.e., what do you tag?
Buff: to be buffed out or painted over
Toy: a young and bad writer
Crew: a group of writers who write and hang out together
Piece: a complicated and intricate, sometimes abstract, version of a writer’s name
Throw-up: a bigger version of a tag with thick colored-in letters
Crush: to defeat or destroy
Get Up: to tag or write graffiti
Rack: to steal
Bite: to steal another writer’s style
Battle: to face off against another writer
They write on any surface they can find: sidewalks, stop signs, bus stops, bathroom walls, billboards, lampposts, trains, rooftops, overpasses.

They use anything that leaves a mark by scratching, painting, drawing, sticking and stenciling their names on everything. They write their names with Sharpies, paint pens and shoe polish.

Their names show up throughout Salt Lake County: Dister, Duke, Kier, Pixl, Slej, Stem, Siva, Spade, Ego, Erups, Aster, Otra, Chew, Yeti, Yukon. And their crews’ titles, too: Always Remaining Strong (ARS), Angels of Death (AOD), Still America’s Doppest Kings (SADK), We See All (WSA), to name a few.

They are graffiti writers, and to the untrained eye, their tags might as well be in cuneiform script. They have a language of their own. Writers don’t vandalize, they “bomb.” It’s not graffiti, it’s “graf.” They don’t steal, they “rack.”
You’re not a bad writer, you’re a “toy.”

This impulsive, ego-driven outlaw culture operates on a self-regulating code, a thieves’ code, so to speak.

Part egoist, part artist, part adrenaline junkie and part cultural creator, the graffiti writer is more than he (they are nearly all male) is cracked up to be. He may be a vandal to some, but to one another, their art is their very identity.

“Writers,” as they call themselves, are a tenacious bunch. Despite pervasive and expensive efforts to stop this crime (Salt Lake County alone spends $100,000 a year), writers are not going away. It’s as big a problem as ever, says Nancy White, Salt Lake County’s graffiti program manager, tasked with painting over much of the county’s graffiti. Like a hated species society would like eradicated, the writer has not only survived but multiplied.

Often seen as a reaction to inner-city poverty, modern graffiti in our neck of the woods may seem out of place. Yet, here in one of the most conservative states in the nation, graffiti has found a place in the rambling suburbs of Salt Lake County.

Graffiti is nothing new. It can be found almost anywhere humans have lived. But modern graffiti is distinct from what came before. And since the early ’90s, graffiti—as in the vandalism that began on the East Coast subways in the ’70s—has been alive and well in Salt Lake County.

{::INSERTAD::}This is a story about a group of writers and their crew—ARS. As the longest-lived continually active crew in Salt Lake County, theirs is a modern American subculture, a reaction to the blandness of the suburban landscape just as urban graffiti was a reaction to inner-city life. It is a culture with taboos and rules as complicated and intricate as the courtship rituals of a Stone Age tribe in Borneo. While writers hope to be seen by everyone and long for the notoriety of getting away with something, they write mainly to build their reputations with one another. It is a form of rebellion on the one hand and a form of communication on the other. It has rules and limits, this vandals’ world. Welcome to SLC Graf.

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Jonah Owen Lamb

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