The War of Art.
by Tracee Carter
“Street art is a vandalism deterrent and it brings excitement to the city.” -Hamilton Glass
n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)
Drawings or inscriptions made on a wall or other surface, usually so as to be seen by the public.
-American Heritage Dictionary
According to graffiti.org, the term “graffiti” derives from the Greek graphein (“to write”). Graffiti (s. graffito), meaning a drawing or scribbling on a flat surface, originally referred to those marks found on ancient Roman architecture.
Graffiti is nothing new to Richmond. There is an underground society of writers who artistically, and bravely, write on the walls the surround the city.
Rootz Uno, 27, a well-known Richmond graffiti artist of 13 years, is no stranger to the war of art in Richmond.
Throughout his 13-year career, Rootz has only been arrested once. He served two weeks in jail, paid more than $3,000 in fines and restitution to the city and the business owners and completed 500 hours of community service.
He got his start in middle school when witnessing a group of writers tag a building while he and a group of friends were out skateboarding. That encounter ignited a fire in Rootz that has been burning ever since.
“It’s kind go like a drug, it’s kind of addictive. Once you get a taste of writing your name somewhere, and you see it when you drive by or walk by, you start wanting to see it more.”
Rootz, who wears a spray cap on a string around his neck as a sign of his dedication to the craft and something he’s invested his life into, says it’s a competition.
“It’s definitely a competition. It’s power in numbers, so the more your name is out there, the more credibility you have. The more dangerous the spot, the more respect you get.”
But how far does the competition go? And who are they competing with?
“Communities that produce graffiti (as opposed to the individual “scribbler”) may target cryptic messages toward their own closed community, producing a seemingly confusing and unreadable product. The writers may not sign their real names; they instead employ the use of nicknames, codes, and symbols within stylized aesthetic systems. This type of graffiti is geared toward people who already understand the messages and may act to enhance group solidarity.” -Graffiti.org
In most cities, there are territories, but in Richmond, the city is a territory in itself.
“In Richmond there are a handful of people who do real graffiti. Those writers think they run everything. And if you don’t write with them then they don’t respect you. And if they see you putting stuff up, they’ll go over you. Because they can. It’s very territorial.
So if someone comes from out of town. Chances are people from Richmond are going to go over it.”
Beyond territorial tensions, personal conflicts are triggers for conflict between writers.
“Let’s say I have a problem with another graffiti artist. If I do something legal, they might come and go over it just because they don’t like me.”
“Graffiti is a language. Most of it is someone recognizing that this right here is crap, this is dilapidated, this sucks. City, come fix it. Come clean it up.”- Hamilton Glass
Rootz has only been tagged once. He and another artist went back and forth for a while. Rootz said it ended around the time he got arrested and changed his tag.
The going back and forth is called a battle. “It’s like in hip hop. Rappers will write songs back and forth. Graffiti artists write over each other.”
“I’ve seen a battle end violently. Someone went over him. So he found out where he lives and went to his house, punch him in the face and then tagged his front door. I’ve seen people pull out knives.”
“Murals are usually a sign that your treating it with care. And a tagger probably respects it.”-Hamilton Glass
Does tension exist between writers and muralists? Do writers tag murals?
Rootz said that a writer would only tag the work if they had a personal problem with the artist.
“Murals are the best anti-graffiti there is. I was screaming that when I first started doing murals in Richmond. It’s not a concept made by me. “It’s the history of the mural arts program in Philadelphia. They got graffiti artists to do murals to stop the tagging. Murals hender graffiti. That’s just the way it is.” -Hamilton Glass
“Thats another reason Richmond embraces street art, to deter illegal graffiti. If I’m walking by a building late at night and i have spray cans, I might be tempted to paint on it, do a tag, throw up a piece, whatever. But if I’m walking by and I see a mural, I’m not going to touch the building. Unless I had a personal problem with the artist.”