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Graffiti crew wants a place to call its own

Seeking legitimacy, Brockton taggers ask mayor for a site to paint murals

hey work in the shadows, wielding markers and spray cans and leaving behind rapidly scrawled logos and signature "tags" across walls, signs, and bridges. Sometimes one member stands as a lookout while they complete a particularly complex graffiti "piece," short for masterpiece, designed long before the crew applies that first blast of paint.

They call themselves street artists, and their work has an undeniable flair. But property owners and police say graffiti has no relation to art. It's a crime, plain and simple.

It is against that backdrop that one of the 15 graffiti crews operating in Brockton is trying to bring some legitimacy to their craft.

Hater Proof Graff, a 14-member crew of teenagers and early-20-somethings who share a keen interest in art, have asked the mayor's office to let them set up a series of walls in some public place that can be used legally. It would be a place where graffiti could be practiced in the open, and the result would, they hope, be viewed as urban art, not vandalism.

"We could have graffiti competitions," suggested 19-year-old crew member Duane Bailey. "Each of the artists could pay to enter, and the money could be used for cleaning up vandalism."

While the mayor ponders that idea, the group is making inroads into legitimacy elsewhere. Members have persuaded two Brockton businesses to let them paint murals on their exterior walls, and are putting together proposals for another five buildings.

The group's most recent work was a mural on the wall of Brennan's Smoke Shop on North Main Street, for which the group was paid. Brennan's owner, Geoffrey Yalenezian, is pleased with the result, and believes regular street taggers will not deface it.

"My opinion is, if it's pretty, they're not going to touch it," he said. "I have tagging on my other wall, and I might give them that one for graffiti, too. I feel it's part of urban culture."

The idea of legitimizing street art has worked in other graffiti-weary communities.

Venice Beach in California has its graffiti park. Street artists travel from all over the world to Queens, where 5 Pointz, a warehouse-turned-arts center, is covered with ever-changing graffiti. In Portland, Maine, taggers have one wall, provided by the city, and there are plans for another, along with a skate park.

The best-known in Massachusetts is in Beverly, home of "The Wall," a 500-foot wall covered with graffiti murals that are continuously changing.

The US Department of Justice graffiti guide states that setting up walls or boards for legitimate graffiti effectively cuts down on the illegal activity, particularly for crews motivated by artistic expression.

Brockton has tried a new approach to erasing its graffiti problem. Authorities arranged for an anti graffiti team at Mainspring Coalition for the Homeless to paint over graffiti shortly after it is noticed. The city also has set up a graffiti hot line.

The city's graffiti problem, business owners say, is not as bad as it once was. But Brockton police Lieutenant John Crowley said it's "still there" and it's "a detriment to the neighborhoods."

Manuals on understanding and controlling graffiti are used by law-enforcement agencies across the country, particularly in urban areas. One such manual, which is part of the Problem-o riented Guides for Police series put out by the Department of Justice, states graffiti can suggest to the viewer the government's failure to control lawbreakers. It often evokes fear of gang activity, since graffiti can be one method a gang might use to mark its turf.

In Brockton, a few suspected gang members are among the graffiti artists, but most consider themselves part of "crews" -- not gangs. There is tension among crews, but it's far different from the tension between gangs.

"Gangs settle their fights with violence," Bailey said. "Crews settle it with competitions. Someone draws a line down the middle, and we paint right next to each other. To me, it's more like a sport."

Hater Proof Graff member Marc Hoffman said graffiti crews operating in Brockton often try to outdo each other, and many are very talented. "One of them is a kind of Picasso with a spray can. . . . It's an honor even to be put on the same wall," said Hoffman, 17, who plans to attend art school in the fall.

While members may be interested in other forms of art, such as photography and sketching, graffiti remains the passion of Hater Proof Graff. "In all reality, we're into the 'in-your-face' kind of art," said Arron Stinson, a 20-year-old crew member who put together the proposal for the mayor.

Members of Hater Proof Graff are still waiting for the mayor's office to set a date for discussion of their written proposal. Meanwhile, they are not sitting idle. A large mural is the most recent addition to the back wall at Liberty Printing Co.

"Arron Stinson approached me in the form of a letter," said the firm's owner, Joseph Barbour. "There were a few letters back and forth. They were very professional." Barbour agreed to let them use the wall, and he purchased all the supplies. "I think it enhances the neighborhood," Barbour said. "People go by and say, 'That looks good.' To me, it's a positive thing."

Bailey said the members of the crew hope to turn their talents into a paying business "because it's what we love to do."

Stinson said: "We'd like to do a billboard about how it's not a crime. It's street art."

But the fines levied against taggers suggest it may be both.

Prosecuting graffiti artists is still the norm in many suburbs around Boston, and in some, such as Arlington, the owners of graffiti-covered surfaces are also fined if they don't quicky clean it off.

State law allows fines of up to $1,500, restitution, and loss of a driver's license. In Brockton, most youths caught are assigned community service by the court, although some crew members have been hit with fines exceeding $1,000.

To be charged, Crowley said, a tagger has to be caught in the act, spray can in hand. While most of the graffitists in Brockton aren't gang members, he said, a small portion are.

"We had one building on Warren Avenue that looked like a billboard," he said. "That was done by gangs marking their territory. But I find most of the graffiti people are the skateboarders."

John Merian, owner of a downtown store, Tuxedos by Merian, and president of the Downtown Brockton Association, said he believes business owners will be enthusiastic about the crew's proposal to do murals. Barbour said he envisions a series of murals depicting Brockton's history.

"Kids right now in their teens and 20s face a lot of problems in the city," Merian said. "If they're trying to channel their energy into something positive, I say, 'Why not?' "

Christine Wallgren can be reached at CLWallgren@aol.com.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Brockton's graffiti artists
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