“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.
By Shogua Waziri
Friends of Guest House, June 8, 2022
It all started the moment I turned 18. Well not that exact moment but you get the gist of things. I grew up with amazing parents who never skipped a beat. They were active in me and my brother’s life’s, making us a family that was close.
I redid the whole dynamic of my family the day I started using. I took 18 years of the same routine and natural life and turned it upside down and inside out. I stole somebody’s daughter, and someone’s sister the moment I started IV’ing my arms, I stole her and didn’t give her back to her family for the next 7 years.
For the next 7 years that family was going to loose their precious little daughter and their older sister to the disease of addiction. She was going to be alive but at the same time her presence would thin out in their life’s, her life wasn’t about anyone but herself and her disease for the next 7 years.
Her brothers didn’t have anything to do with her, they gave up, I mean how many times will you believe someone who comes home once in a blue moon and breaks down crying to you that they will never do what they have done, only to walk out the front door that very night again?
My disease not only robbed them out of their daughter but it robbed me from me. I was replaced with this human being that I thought I would never be, I was foreign to the body and mind I was living in.
I had nothing to show for the past 7 years of my life besides a lengthy record which marched me right out of several jobs.
I had nothing to show for the past 7 years besides some track marks and tattoos.
I had nothing and yet the drugs I was partaking in made me feel like I had everything. The drugs made me think I was whole and happy when I had them, but oh were the drugs taunting and screaming at me when I didn’t have them yearning for my arms or my nose or lips to take them in, so they could make a home inside of me.
The drugs had taken me out of my home so they could make their home inside of me.
Third place, Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility writing contest, August 2021
I can still hear Da Bronx and smell the Bronx. It’s his own world. Very different very unique very alive in spirit, in culture. All different types of races, ethnics, different flags hanging from windows, Puerto Rican, Nigerian, Cuban, Dominican, Jamaican, Ethiopian. We all from different countries but we stick together here in America, here in the Bronx. If we can make it in New York City, we can make it anywhere. I’m proud that I was born there. I still hear police sirens, honking horns in morning traffic different languages Chinese Swahili Spanish.
I hear car alarms going off and ambulance too. People screaming inside the Yankees stadium. I hear Mr. Softee ice cream truck. I can’t forget I hear the A, B and D train. Music playing through thru windows speakers blaring Salsa, Rap, Merengue, Reggae, Hip-Hop, Soka, Bachata, Danie Hull. The fire hydrant popped because it’s hot that’s all. White man pull-up in the white vans, asking for papers. Pops working late to put food on the table.
You see me I ain’t have the same luxuries I have 2 grandmothers in different countries. I’m a first generation born American I can’t say I’m going to grandmoms today she 2,000 miles away. In the Bronx I can hear families argue about eviction notice. From High Bridge, Kings Bridge, 3rd Ave. Big Brother telling Little Brother don’t be a loser be a winner.
Moms going to a corrupt church the pastor is the biggest sinner. Moms cooking food, gun shots go-off her son ain’t coming home for dinner. In the corner smells of delicious Jamaican food, curry chicken, coco bread, and beef patties and in the other corner Giovannis Italian Pizza up the block, the Chinese spot. Down the block Dominican restaurant fry plantain with everything delicious. Never mind that half the buildings are rat and roach infested, Black and Brown around here we got Big money invested. We unite U.N.I.T.Y Latinos, African Americans, East Africans, West Africans. We all learn from each other different foods, dances, languages.
This is the Bronx. We are stars. On the rooftops we look up we don’t see stars. We see Police Helicopters and the Goodyear Blimp above the New York Yankees stadium. Shout out my Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Hondurans, Haitians, Dominicans, Nigerians, Trinidadians, Asian, and Italians. The good men doing time in Rikers Island. People taking meds in the Asylum. My young youth in the street wilding. No matter where I go I represent where I’m from (The Bronx) I’m from DA B.X.
By Peter Le
Third place winner, nonfiction, Heard/Alexandria Detention Center writing contest, August 2021
Hey Babe. So I have been thinking recently. What is love? After r-evaluating everything, I am more than certain I do want to be with you no matter what. I have always loved you and that will never stop. You are my first love and best friend. Things like that wouldn’t change overnight. So I will embrace my love for you and work through our problems and differences.
When I first got locked up, I didn’t want to hold you back. I wanted you to be free and happy, but you wanted to hold me down. That’s what love is, so I respected your decision to bear my pain wit me and loved you even more for it. We first thought that I would be home in a few years, but that all changed when you go locked up 2 months after me. It hurts me more than you will ever know. I wanted you snitch on me so they would let you go, but you refused. You don’t deserve any of this. You are innocent, but the Feds thought otherwise. The think you know everything because you are my wife. So they pressured you many times and made you cry. That made me cry too. You told me not to cry and be strong. I hated myself for hurting you. Sometimes I still do. My mistakes haunt me. It is my fault that the Feds involved you. As our case developed, our relationship struggled. We started to question ourselves and our future. How strong was our commitment to each other? We still wanted to be together, however, and held on.
We wrote letters and passed each other notes whenever we could, but maybe that wasn’t enough. Our lives were already drifting apart and I didn’t want to accept it. I couldn’t have. I’ve lost everything already, but you and my family. I could not afford to lose anything else. Eventually, I was indicted with more charges and you were sentenced to 3 ½ years. Our faith in each other started to break. Hope was bleak and only our past was concrete. You resented me and I accepted that. It is my fault for your incarceration. I failed to protect you when you trusted me. You were mad and did what you wanted. You stopped writing me and wrote other guys instead. You flirted and entertained them. Maybe you did it out of spite or maybe you enjoyed to. I was hurt and felt betrayed, but at the end of the day it was justifiable. I couldn’t resent you for that. I am the reason you are alone and suffering. Maybe you thought I didn’t love you anymore or maybe it was too much to love me. It didn’t seem likely anymore that I was coming home after a few years. You never ended things between us. You only said that you would write me when you can because it was getting complicated to send letters. Even if you were cheating on me, I couldn’t stop loving you. If it made you feel better, shouldn’t I find consolation in that? It was difficult and I was confused. After a few days of heartbreak, I forgave you and found my peace. Even though you never told me about the other guys, I don’t hold that against you. In our hearts, I know that we still love each other.
I am writing this because it is inevitable. I am sending it to you now because the sooner I address it, the better. I’ve waited and waited, but you never wrote me. But I knew I had to be the one to write you first. When you responded back and said you were doing well in prison, I was just happy and overwhelmed to get a letter from you. It’s been over a year since we’ve wrote each other, but not a day has gone by that you weren’t on my mind.
I was reading this book and it reminded me of what love was. It was a sign and I had to let you know how I feel. I love you and married you. You are the person I chose. Through thick and thin and for better or for worse. I signed up for this and will support you whether you are wrong or right. If I can’t handle you at your worst, then I don’t deserve you at your best. Because I love you, I respect your wishes. Whether you want to or not, I will always love you and wish you the best. That is just what love is. So yes, I really do love you.
Your best friend
by S. Amir Farrakhan
Nonfiction, Heard/Alexandria Detention Center writing contest, August 2021
More than 38 of my 58 years have been survived in America’s notorious prison industrial complex, commencing from the time I was 12 years old a man. An only child, I was raised by an unwed strong take no sh_ _ type of woman, whom had a very heavy hand, that was employed all to often.
I actually hated my mother, more so because of her disciplinary enforcement. I did not get spankings, I got Kunta Kentaed (the main character of the movie Roots). However, although she beat me like I was a hebrew slave, she was an excellent provider. I’ve never known hunger, had my own room, new clothing & an abundance of games & toys, I even had my own T.V.
As tradition would have it, I’ve not known the face of my biological father. He was a soldier in “ol massa’s army,” whom wanted my mother to move to Chicago & she declined & so he went on his merry way, never sending me even a can of milk. I did however see a photo of him that my mom has.
But this behavior is a common idiosyncrasy that veils Black humanity in Amerikkka & affects all of the descendants of those sacred Souls that were compelled to this land of the free, in the belly of slave ships, like the Jesus of Lebeck among many that set sail through the middle passage.
It was a common practice of ol massa to abduct the infant from its mother & sell off the father to sire children on other plantations after impregnating all the other “heifers,” as he called the Blackwoman. And there is a word that I don’t recall, but it appellates a condition of the mind that’s brought on when an experience is so atrocious, it’s engrossed in & passed down one’s bloodline from generation to generation. I believe this has a direct bearing on the Blackmale in his ability to impregnate women & keep it moving as if the child is solely the responsibility of the mother.
However, Allah did place a very beautiful man in my mother’s life, who was with her before my birth & other than Allah, is the only Father I know & is still in my corner til this day & loves me hard. And I was raised right, he only spanked me once with a cloth belt & my mother made him do that. So why have I spent more than half my life in a prison cage? Guess what? It had nothing to do with my rearing.
The so-called educated amongst us, the “educated negros” taught in the schools & universities of our open enemies, teach us that our quality of life depends on the choices we make, not revealing that choice can be manipulated, because the mind can be manipulated & controled to a great extent if not utmost.
It’s not by chance that Black folk make up only 11% of these United States, yet better than 40% of its prison system. This implies that we, the original people of the earth, the builders of the great pyramid & the greatest civilizations & whom are renowned as the Master builders & mimicked in the masonic lodges by those who enslaved us, are prone to crime. And what’s sad is that many of our own kin take the position that we are. But remember that they are educated & trained by ol massa. It’s even worse when you find those that ol massa has made into himself. During antebullem, this breed of Blacks were referred to by their peers as “House Niggers” & they have no pride nor shame. In fact, they are examples of the manipulated & controlled mind & exist right now today.
A good example is in “corrections” or law enforcement. My grandmother was amongst those Blacks that marched, got beat with clubs & sprayed with water hoses & had flesh eating dogs sicced on them, as they protested for Blacks to be given jobs in law enforcement, to ensure that we would be protected, treated justly & fairly while in jails & prisons. However most of them hired could not have gotten that notice. But there are a very small few, whom are not under subjugation of the badge they proudly wear over their most precious organ, (the heart). Its image is a tyrant, (hermaphrodite) standing on a vanquished Black king. This is the concept, the foundation of this state & it’s fed to every employee in subtle increments, (Sic Semper Tyrannis) this is the aim & purpose of this state Virginia. Look up the word tyrant, & you’ll see what we are under (overt oppression) enforced by the now children of the slaves, “remarkabal!”
I grew up in near abject segregation, programed by white supremacy at every angle, in school the book they started us on was titled, The Little White House about a Caucasian family with a dog named Flip whom said, “Bow wow,” On T.V. the only serious character that looked like me was Bill Cosby who played a Black spy for ol massa. Black folk in this era were still trying to assert themselves, & in the hood there was not alot of positive influences. People for the most part were as Marvin Gay sang, “Trying to get over.”
I fell victim to the gangster shows on T.V. & whole heartedly embraced Al Capone. I wanted to be like him, thus I was fascinated with guns & crime of which is prevalent in poorer hoods & easily accessible, (which is all by design). So the only heros I had who looked like me where I grew up were the athletes & hoodlums & I had my choice made for me by circumstances & conditions which chose for me. The sure rout[e] was crime.
The conditions in & of any community can be & are manipulated. When institutions of employment, businesses, commerce, etc. are removed from a community, a chasm of depletion is created & what follows is poverty which changes the orientation of the mind, making it more susceptible to sugestion, especially subliminal, which is done through music & vision, esp. television “programing.” So when one is put in a sink or swim situation is there really a choice being offered, better yet, if I tell one that I’m going to kill you, pick which gun, a 357 or 44. Is that really a choice? And out of said conditions which imposed on my thinking, boredom sets in, then depression & I turned to older guys in my hood whom fed that chasm with criminal ideas & thus I began my “so-called gangster.”
As a result, reformatories & prisons have been a major part of my life, of which has taken a heavy toll on my mother’s & caused me to be absent in my own children’s lives, so there has been a snowball effect. But what it has done is brung my mother & me closer. Since 1994 she’s been the greatest mother & my very best friend.
However, it’s no secret that we, the Blackman, woman & child are an endangered species, we are not equal citizens in this country & white folk demonstrate this each second, we are still oppressed, exploited & abused. Understand that citizens do not need civil rights, even those of my kind whom have been employed in his systems of government, to him & his constituents in & of the ruling class in & of the higher echelon of society, are merely “things” to be used to help him advance & to maintain control of the common folk not on his team.
This is too Black to win this contest. It might anger ol massa!
Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility writing contest, August 2021
Growing up and living, being a black person can be hard and stressfull because nine times out of ten you get stereyotyped. Sometimes I find it hard to believe their are still racists people in the world.
Not liking a person for a specific reason is one thing but to hate a person for the color of their skin is outrageous to me. I never was the racist type. I myself have white friends. That’s like saying I hate white people because they inslaved my people.
I don’t understand why more white people are still and openly racists. Black people as a whole got over it so why can’t they? Nowadays a lot of people will say life is what you make it but I have met so many people who was booked up of the first crime they committed and either did jail time or labeled a felon or a criminal. A lot of times, to me it don’t make sense and I’m sure a lot of people would agree. The fact is there are more black people than whites incarcerated. Theirs no way around the truth.
Then you have racists police officers who swore an oath to protect and serve but ran racists gangs inside of the system who abuse authority. They are shooting and killing my brothers and sisters dead in the street. My people get locked up for anything instead of the help they need and I don’t think it’s right.
A lot of people don’t get the help they need until it’s to late and most of them are dead. Growing up I watched my brother die do to street violence and drug overdose because they had no guidance or help.
Going to jail doesn’t make it any better, its called being institutionalized. Jail causes stress and leads you downhill.
I know jail is for criminals but just because someone commits a crime doesn’t mean they are a criminal. Everyone makes mistakes plus the law is unfair. A lot of people who never been in jail are categorized as an inmate may read this and say of course jail isn’t fair coming from someone incarcerated but if the shoe where on the other foot I bet they would agree.
Growing up in a certain neighorhoods are most of the times is hard and can lead to a lot of trauma and stress.
Like watching your loved one die in front of you, fighting for your life, and even getting into street fights.
Hearing gunshots, getting shot is another example that can lead you down the wrong path to a stressfull life. I know because I lived it and I am currently at my breaking point. A lot of people also deal with being bullied, which can be worse in some situations, it can go beyond stress and lead to suicide.
I never had a person bully me but I was a quiet person you can say antisocial most of the time. I didn’t talk so people would test me a lot and press my buttons which gave me no choice but the defend myself
Bullys are a real thing in school, neighborhoods, jail, outside and even in work, professional environments. On top of what the average person deals with on a daily basis that can be stressful having to deal with bullies.
It’s a scientific fact that being bullied can cause stress [which] can shorten your life span.