“Chasing Faith” was retitled “Why I Write Graffiti” and published in Arlington Magazine in January, 2019
By Shane Mills
First Place winner, non-fiction, Arlington County Detention Facility/Heard Writing Contest, July 2018
Behind me fluorescent lights of the skyline fade in and out through the smog. Behind that, millions of stars and the moon provide the only light required for this act of creative destruction.
I stop for an introspective moment and ponder the timeless open-ended questions: “Why are we here?” “What’s the purpose of this life we’ve been gifted?” I snap out of it and get back to the answer I’ve come to know best – my personal pursuit of happiness, here among the abstracted topography, the animated characters of vibrant colors.
A perfect balance of anticipation, exhilaration, satisfaction, and bliss. Whatever the meaning of life is, I can’t be too far off. If only I could bottle this concoction and share it with the world, because in this moment I am truly free.
This is a story about, as Paulo Cuelho in his classic “The Alchemist” states, following your “Personal Legend,” finding your true passion, and never letting that fire inside burn out.
The topic at hand touches on mine, but it’s also more universal that that. So, I implore you to find whatever it is that you love, that makes you tick, and never let it go.
No, I’m not in Disneyland. We’re under a bridge along the train tracks running through a seedy section of the city, because with gentrification encroaching, this is the last stronghold of a pure living, breathing urban art form. I’m here doing my part to keep it alive; I’m here with my cans communicating presence.
What started, some would argue, during the Great Depression with train hobos signing their monikers on boxcars as they travelled across the country and some even developing a following through the compulsion, and essentially the rudimentary beginnings of what is now termed “fame” or trying to be “up” as much as possible (both terms being lingo for prolific repetition and overall quantity of that moniker on surfaces far and wide (Bozo-Texino), has morphed and poly-morphed into a worldwide underground art movement now with different genres and sub-genres each with different societal acceptance and cultural respect).
Like most crafts, hobbies, interests etc., there will always be the opinionated ones to comment on legitimacy:
- The classic Porsche enthusiast who detests anything other than manual transmissions
- The street skater who lives and breathes to kick, push, and coast around the city will claim Tony Hawk is a sellout.
From surfers, hackers, musicians, and everywhere in between, every scene has them, the detractors from within the structural confines of that culture, their scene, who might argue that when you take something you do for pleasure, for pure, organic enjoyment and try to capitalize on it, to monetize it and turn it into a commodity, you are a sellout. You have lost the true meaning of what got you there in the first place, that not all things in life should be viewed as potential income, and when you capitulate to the outsiders, the mainstream, the corporations, you’re an accessory to cultural appropriation and you’re part of the problem.
But I’m not here to argue semantics this time around. I’m here to give a window into the true essence of why we do the things we do, the passion behind it, and the deeper, profound meaning to this alter-ego we create for ourselves.
I’m here to get to the root of what it truly means to be a graffiti writer or street artist. The compulsion, justifications, rationalizations, that come with it. From the selfishness of writing on what isn’t ours to the selflessness of creating free public art.
Didn’t ask for it? Well we didn’t ask for presidents’ faces in mountains, or McDonald’s billboards crammed down our throats either.
Graffiti in its current iteration began in New York City in the 1970s on the subway trains. The city was in shambles, and near bankruptcy. For a lot of the youth the trains were an escape, a stress outlet, a form of communication.
These artists also know 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 only their clique to paint in. 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 some that respect was alluring. Surrounded by blight, drugs, crime, and poverty, the opportunity to step into this pseudonym and have respect, celebrity status, fame, a sense of purpose, and belonging can be all to intoxicating.
Although I didn’t grow up in a burnt-out, apocalyptic Bronx I know a thing or two about seeking escape and searching from some kind of meaning, of 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, first being my name with money comically coming out of the back of it in a culvert pipe when I was 11, and the at 13 spraying “Ride BMX ‘03” in a tunnel off of a concrete storm ditch we used to ride. Little did I know how it would shape my life for the better and for worse years later, or the profound passion it would subconsciously ignite in me.
What started as an anarchistic, rebellious sense of expression over the years has taken on so many additional meanings: catharsis, therapy, creative outlet, social medium, instant gratification, self-satisfaction.
What began with no artistic intention has turned into 30 color murals executed with ladders and scaffolding and walls painted at the Kennedy Center events. But it’s here, on the Red Line in N.E. DC that I am in my true element. This slice of the city at 3 am, while you were probably sleeping. 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 egotistical aspects or the overall existential crisis playing out every time I paint a new spot, after all, this is the equivalent to a boiled-down, in-real-life social media profile where 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…
But aside from how we want to be perceived on the outside, that doesn’t explain the cause for the emotion it evokes within, why for 12 consistent, consecutive years I’ve spend multiple nights a week in otherwise unsavory areas or all day on weekend out 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 on Google Maps on street view mode seeking rooftops or following train tracks on satellite view til the tracks dip under roads or run past abandoned looking buildings. I’ve even gotten good at spotting walls from above and knowing if they’re tall enough by the shadows they cast.
An unquenchable thirst to be everywhere. I want regional saturation, then national. I want it all. What I want is an omnipresence! But that in itself is the unattainable end goal. Everything along the way means just as much as the finished product.
The missions with friends, the exploration of forbidden, often long-forgotten places, mutually finding the beauty in urban decay. The laughs and collaboration with the eclectic group of individuals I’d never have gotten to know.
Racial, social, musical, and political lines were 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, just as much as crossing the finish line. I’ve embarked on this great adventure, somewhat unknowingly, with my outward manifestation of an inward escape, building a nationwide network of like-minded people keeping this art form alive against all odds.
So as long as I’m breathing, and this fire keep 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.