“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.
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.
Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility/OAR writing contest, August 2021
I am human
I am a citizen
I am not the criminal conviction
It is with premise that I sought a way out of my dispair. A dispair due to the fact that I and many others were sidelined during the 2020 United States Presidential election because of incarceration. So, on November 3,2020 and the days immediately afterwards, an idea was spawned to create non-profit organization with the focused pledge to aid all eligible formally incarcerated citizens returning to their community exercise their democratic right to vote. This pledge would be achieved, in part, through advocacy, voter education, and voter registration.
The organization would be branded/named: The Returning Citizen Initiative ©
– We’re home, we’re voting – ©
A 501(c) non-profit dedicated to the voting rights of the formally incarcerated citizen returning to their community.
What follows is a considered snapshot of the content to be included in the formal business plan for the establishment of The Returning Citizen Initiative.
Let us concisely place this unique form of the disenfranchisement of ex-felons (the “invisible punishment”) in a historical context.
“[T]he slave went free, stood a
brief moment in the sun; then moved
back again towards slavery.”
Black Reconstruction America
In Michelle Alexander’s landmark book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she opens with a penetrating introduction to Jarvious Cotton:
“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-great grandfather, and great-great-great grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy…the freedom for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life…His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy test. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many in the United States has been labeled a felon…”
During the previous generations of the Cotton family, there were historical periods referred to as the Reconstruction Era (1863-1877) and the Jim Crow era (1877-1945). Blacks went from a time where a host of federal civil rights laws protecting the recently freed slaves were passed including the Fifteenth Amendment. This change to the U.S. Constitution provided that the right to vote must not be withheld on account of race. Then came Jim Crow (a racial caste system). It was at the beginning of Jim Crow that the criminal justice system was used to force Blacks back into a system of repression and control, a tactic that would continue for decades to come.
The National Book Award winner, Stamped from the Beginning: The definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by the Harvard University facility member, Ibram X. Kendi, artfully details how the “Jim Crow Codes” denied Blacks the right to vote through various devices including felon disenfranchisement laws.
“Blacks were disproportionally charged with felonies – in fact, some crimes were specifically defined as felonies with the objective of eliminating Blacks from the electorate – felon disenfranchisement laws effectively suppressed the Black vote as well.”
Now fast forward to the 1983 Drug Reform Act; the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, 2013 Supreme Court ruling on the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the “Big Lie,” and the current sweeping voter suppression efforts underway in several state legislatures. With this historical backdrop, The Returning Citizen Initiative’s onramp onto the stage to join with those voices crying to front the returning citizen the right to vote will be a starting point.
Aside from the required process of launching a new 501(c) non-profit organization, the mission of The Returning Citizen Initiative is to ensure the voting rights of the formally incarcerated citizens to their community through advocacy – voter education and voter registration. The vision of The Returning Citizen Initiative is to be a nimble; data-drive, and best practices organization effecting legislation and policy, first on a state level and then on a national level to the benefit of the formally incarcerated. Thereby, creating an opportunity for our brothers and sisters, who have “paid their dues; did their time” to enjoy the dignity, self-confidence, and purpose that participating in the political process – as a full citizen – can endow.
As we approach this important work, we will partner with like mind organizations and policy generators to fill any needs gaps. Armed with a plan, persuasiveness, and persistence, The Returning Citizen Initiative’s initial political lobbying will involve approaching the Virginia State Assembly to pass legislation allowing for the voting by convicted felons while still incarcerated in jail/prison.
On a final note, The Returning Citizen Initiative was born out of dispair. However, I have the unyielding hope that this organization will have an impact on bringing overdue solutions to the issues of the formally incarcerated citizens fully participating in their right to vote – to have their…”moment in the sun.”
Nonfiction, Heard/Alexandria Detention Center writing contest, August 2021
Rugged, hard and mean. Concerned, worried and confused. I have been manipulated controled and stereotyped, often judged for my actions but ain’t I a person?
Labeled and frowned upon for actions of those that came before me. Tossed to the wayside based on my appearance but ain’t I a person?
I am curious, inquisitive, worried and confused, often scoffed at when I expect a chance or a equal share, ain’t I a person?
Punished and condemed for exploits that were committed in a time of need and hunger. When I have depended on survival instincts, doing what the generations before me have done, and for that I am wrong? ain’t I a person?
I only want to achieve the American dream. Picket fences, children and a dog. ain’t I a person?
Why am I wrong for reaching for the stars wanting a house and cars? I am often reminded of morality, right and wrong. But morality is a great song that a person sings when he or she has never been hungry.
I mean yes you can walk the road of nobility but no one will remember you were a nobel person only that of what you have gained, and I am catagorized for using the method that my environment has used for generations to gain that wich I am expected to have?
so yes I have traveled down roads that are more paved just like those who rode a train to freedom that tracks were laid by the likes of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and for this I am persecuted?
I sweat, bleed, and dream, laugh and cry all the same so excuse me because yes, I am a person!
Nonfiction,Heard/Alexandria Detention Center writing contest, August 2021
Chapter 1—God Chapter 2—Pain Chapter 3—Money.
You win some. You lose some. No pain no gain. Do what’s hard, so your life will be easy. If you do what’s easy your life will be hard. What is life compared to death or death compared to life. It’s one big contradiction, but ultimately it’s fair. My life hasn’t been all good, neither all bad, it’s been what I made it & and for that I’m grateful, some people are forced into poverty, genocide, rape, adoption, hate, wealth, abundance, music, family business etc. Not all good not all bad but they all have choice, free will & decision-making to decide what will be there ultimate path.
You can begin in one destination & end on the next, that is what makes unfair Fair and Unjust, Just. God is Great, Merciful, Kind, Forgiving & Loving. So why would he allow man to suffer such fate at it’s own hand? Me personally I’d rather be just a humble servant of the Lord. Why give a choice to choose evil & not only that but give us satisfaction when doing it. Now Im not saying thats all I have done was be a servant, but I rather not have the choice to do anything else but be a humble servant. I feel it would be for the greater good. Life is a constant Push-Pull Give-Take & in the end it becomes more about how much you can withstand and keep going. Rather than dodge the blac itself sure you can dodge certain events & manifest destiny but it’s constant pain and suffering whether you like it or not, good or bad, outlaw or inlaw we all fall short to the glory of God. I love life & life is love & like I said before I’m grateful for the life given to me, family etc. I’ve made decisions in my past thus creating a certain future, a future that is mine and mine only but those decisions have brought wisdom & discernment that must be shared with others, so that they not suffer the same fate or misfortune. I will break everything down in the following chapters. Just keep an open mind & spirit. God bless you.
God is good all the time & all the time God is good, depending on what you believe in this thought may differ for you but nonetheless he still is good to you whether you share that thought or not. There is no such thing as creation without creator, Son without Father & Daughter without Mother. There is a delicate balance to the Air you breathe in & let out, you do not tell your heart to beat or hair to grow. Things are all put in place by something much greater all to your benefit. Like a raindrop in an ocean you must start somewhere, religion distorts the facts, a culture put in place by man to get closer to God, but backfired & we’ve been dealing with it ever since. Now when I say humble servant & rather not have a choice let me break that down. To serve a being so great that it has made you & I two uniquely different people but of same flesh would be an honor, to be of service is the ultimate show of gratitude for an example your phone is of importance to you (for some people their entire lives are in their phone). It provides you a tremendous service in multiple aspects, in return you pay a bill faithfully to keep the relationship between you and the phone provider in good standing. Me personally I would like to just serve without the option to betray such a debt, giving free will & the choice to choose. Bad is a blessing & curse, some can’t control Temptation, Envy, Lust, Greed, Pride, Hate & fall victim to themselves. If you exercise self-control and steadfast you will be fine, but in a world design to test you & your faith, design to break you, design to make you a savage or die. I’d rather not have a choice to choose wrong. Just let me be of service to the one who serves all, but he is so good he allows us the freedom to sink or swim. There is a cost associated with this freedom it’s called PAIN. Saint and Sinner must pay the cost no one is exempt as long as you live you’ll have to endure. Makes a little more sense to just serve, but God is good all the time & all the time God is good.
No pain. No gain. Pain is constant throughout your journey especially the more accomplished or sucessful you are. If your life is carefree you’ll have the pain of seeing others succeed. If you’re fortunate enough to succeed, then pain is inevitable, how much & how great depends on God. Good decision making can help a great deal you want to avoid trouble and dysfunction at all cost. Trouble will find you no need to go looking for it & pain is the result of thge last two I named. Pain humbles the unhumble & has made wise of the unwise. Never be envious of others because you do not know their pain, it’s easy to wish for a better life much harder to make one. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” You don’t truly know life until you know pain. Here’s a little cheat code so things won’t seem so down, Pain is 93 Premium gasoline in the car of life. The smartest use pain to fuel them & take life to new heights, since it is so constant and keeps with relentless intensity it makes for a great source of energy. As long as you live Pain will come so see it as another obstacle to overcome, a building block. As I said there is a price for free will & to live a life according to your own rules. God doesn’t miss a beat, he is the beat and the beat maker so try not to be in debt give much praise and be grateful for everything even the small stuff. If he inflicts pain & it is feeling unbearable rest assured it could be worse. That’s one thing about life’s pain, it could always be worse, create a pain tolerance & try to endure every bit you can because eventually it will get better it has to it’s the law “What goes up must come down” (universal law) like inflation in the economy. Ever lost “Money”? Now that’s pain, but you’ll get it back. It won’t be the first or last time it happens. Speaking of money let us begin!!!
Money is the currency of the world this energy exchange from person to person, generation to generation has established dominance for centuries. A social structure put in place by mankind that has lasted ages. See in our society “Money isn’t everything but having it is” What are you in this world without money? Or better question Who are you when you have it? Pride. Greed. Lust & Envy. All are manifestations of money. So is money the root of all evil depending on who you ask you may get different answers. Nonetheless, it’s still essential whether you’re a pastor of a congregation or a Vicious Dictator of a nation your regime is funded with money. So how could good and evil have a fundamental base they both share, how could a piece of paper dictate the balance of life & death, good & evil, right & wrong. (Birth & burial, church & politics, school & prison). It’s the energy that makes money so powerful. It’s just wax paper but we the people give it the value, to the average person “Money” is their God. They idolize it, chase it, & worship it all their lives, wrongfully so. Money should be just a tool in your utility belt to make life easier. Money has only the value you set for it. You tell yourself a $100 bill is worth $100. Therefore it is. Don’t believe me? Give an infant a $100 bill. They might tear it because it has no value to them. They see it as a paper nothing more. However you give them a toy they will play with it & you can buy toys with money. See life is a big contradiction. Money is no different. Don’t be fooled with the illusions of grandeur. See no amount of money can buy time. So money lost has nothing on one wasted. We will continue time in the next book. Be safe. M ay God bless you.
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