Why I Write Graffiti
It's a culture, an art form and a worthwhile risk, says this award-winning essayist.
These artists, also known as “writers,” could gain respect from their neighborhood and potentially other parts of the city by controlling or “kinging” a line with as many stylized “pieces” as possible. Some crews of writers claimed whole train yards for their clique to paint in exclusively. The more trains your name was on, the more different lines you had kinged, the more property your crew monopolized, the more respect your alias carried.
For many, that respect was alluring. Surrounded by blight, drugs, crime and poverty, the opportunity to step into a pseudonym and have celebrity status, fame, a sense of purpose and belonging was all too intoxicating.
Although I didn’t grow up in a burned-out, apocalyptic Bronx, I know a thing or two about seeking escape and searching for meaning—wanting to find common ground when home life was anything but common. A desire to relate through the unrelatable.
My angst usually kept me involved in what I’ll call “fringe activities”: BMX, punk music, smoking weed, and through those, my first introductions to graffiti. I can remember my first two instances of tagging something—when I was 11, painting my name, with money comically coming out of the back of it, in a culvert pipe; and then, at 13, spraying “Ride BMX ’03” in a tunnel off of a concrete storm ditch we used to ride. Little did I know how graffiti would shape my life, for better and for worse, years later, or the profound passion it would ignite in me.
What started as an anarchistic, rebellious form of expression has since taken on many additional meanings: catharsis, therapy, creative outlet, social medium, instant gratification, self-satisfaction.
What began with no artistic intention led to 30 color murals, executed with ladders and scaffolding. I was commissioned (along with several other artists) to paint walls at the Kennedy Center for an event commemorating the 45th anniversary of hip-hop.
But it’s here, on the Red Line in Northeast D.C., that I am in my true element. This slice of the city at 3 a.m., while you are probably sleeping, is where I find my peace. I feel like I’m the last person in the world and I’m proving I still exist, if only to myself.
I’m busy being born.
I’d be lying if I denied the ego trip that plays out every time I paint a new spot. After all, this is the equivalent of a boiled-down social media profile. We curate how we want others to view us…bright, funky colors and loose letters for the hipster, maybe; or dark colors with jagged sharp letters and a gangster hip-hop character with a gun so they know I “go hard”; or a philosophical quote so they know I’m deep.
However I want to be perceived, that still doesn’t explain the emotion it evokes—why, for 12 consecutive years, I’ve spent multiple nights a week in otherwise unsavory areas, or all day on a Saturday in a secluded section of woods underneath a highway, painting walls.
I’m locked in a perpetual race to nowhere. When I’m not painting, I’m mapping other cities. I’m walking around Google Maps in street-view mode, seeking rooftops, or following train tracks on satellite view till the tracks dip under roads or run past abandoned-looking buildings. I’ve gotten good at spotting walls from above and knowing if they’re tall enough by the shadows they cast.
I have an unquenchable thirst to be everywhere. What I want is omnipresence! But everything that happens along the way means just as much as the finished product. The exploration of forbidden, long-forgotten places with friends. Mutually finding the beauty in urban decay. The laughs and collaboration with an eclectic group of individuals I’d otherwise never have gotten to know. In their company, racial, social, musical and political lines are blurred. Doesn’t matter. We’re brought together because we write graffiti. We are street artists who have a shared perspective on our cities’ tunnels, train tracks, rooftops and alleys.
Sometimes, the destination is the journey. I’ve embarked on this great adventure, building a network of like-minded people, keeping this art form alive against all odds.
So as long as I’m breathing and this fire keeps burning, I’ll be following my “Personal Legend.” I’ll be expanding my legacy, leaving pieces of me scattered around like hidden treasures for when I am no more. I’ll be pursing infamy.
I’ll be chasing faith.
Shane Mills, 28, was born and raised in Northern Virginia and has spent the past 18 years between Falls Church City and Arlington. He has been involved in the D.C. graffiti and urban art community for 15 years and is currently serving a sentence at the Arlington County Detention Facility (ACDF). This essay won first place for nonfiction in the July 2018 Heard Writing Contest, organized by the ACDF in partnership with Heard, a nonprofit program of the Del Ray Community Partnership that brings creative arts to underserved populations. Mills is scheduled for release in the fall of 2019. He would like to send his love and condolences to the family of his best friend and artistic collaborator, Sam, who recently passed away. #RIPSnek. This essay has been slightly edited for length and clarity.