By all accounts, three crews, consisting of a total of about twenty people, are responsible for virtually all of the tagging that goes on in St. Louis. In addition to Hoax's LD crew, there's "OFB" (a.k.a. "Out for Blood") and "TKO," an outpost aligned with other graffiti crews in cities across the United States. The rest of the paint either comes from "toys" — unaffiliated amateurs out to imitate what they see on the walls — or traveling graffiti artists who stop over for a few weeks, tag as much as possible, then move on.

The burning question posed by property owners, police and city leaders is why the graffiti writers, many of whom are obviously gifted artists, are driven to vandalism.

Some say it's rooted in spite, along with the rush of feuding with other crews.

For a slideshow of St. Louis street art, click here.
For a slideshow of St. Louis street art, click here.
Long-time St. Louis graffiti writer Hoax founded the LD crew.
Jennifer Silverberg
Long-time St. Louis graffiti writer Hoax founded the LD crew.


RFT Slide Show

View a slide show of graffiti around St. Louis by some of the artists profiled in this story.

"I do it for the drama. I'm not in it to make friends and be famous and meet trendy guys. I'm here to destroy people's property and beat up kids," says Boke, a leader of the TKO crew. "It's about destroying public property and pissing people off."

Hoax says that early on graffiti provided an outlet for his destructive impulses. As he got older and joined a crew, it was about putting up as many "throw-up" tags (simple bubble letters with one or two colors) as possible in pursuit of notoriety among his tagging peers. Now he mostly aims to create "pieces" or "burners," the large, elaborate, often illegible explosions of color that made graffiti famous.

"It's for myself, not for these other guys," Hoax says. "And then it's for people to say, 'Wow, that's beautiful. How'd he do that?... I hate that fuckin' guy!'"

He says he's been perfecting his style for more than a decade, working with different color schemes, adding depth and complexity to the letters and occasionally experimenting with different names, writing "Slug" or "Pablo" when he gets bored with his usual letters.

"It's fuckin' vandalism: I want it to be there, but they don't," he sums up. "It's art — but it's art that someone doesn't want there."

In August the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved a new city ordinance cracking down on graffiti, banning the sale of spray paint to anyone youner than eighteen and making any graffiti-related vandalism punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.

When she proposed the legislation that led to the stiff new law, 16th Ward alderwoman Donna Baringer says, she had no intention of making a distinction between street art and graffiti.

"Your average citizen doesn't know the difference," Baringer maintains. "When they see it, they don't know it's anything but what they hear. They think: gangs and crime."

According to the city's street artists, it's precisely that lack of understanding that poisons their relationship with their hometown.

David Langley, one of the Screwed In artists, recalls a conversation that occurred at the exhibit's gallery during which members of the public met with the artists and discussed the works.

"This lady said, 'I believe you guys should be in jail and be arrested for what you're doing,'" Langley recalls. "My only thoughts on that are: If you're doing something truly innovative, there's always going to be someone that's afraid and wants to eliminate it."

Langley and others say it's seldom difficult to distinguish street art from vandalism and graffiti.

"Street art, whether here or elsewhere, very often has social context. It's serious or humorous or political," says Screwed In co-curator Bryan Walsh. "Graffiti and street art come from very similar disciplines, but they're very dissimilar in their intention and approach."

Street artists often employ methods graffiti artists don't use. For instance, Stan Chisholm, a Screwed In artist studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, draws complex sketches of characters and animals on paper plates, then affixes them to walls with a "wheat paste" glue made from flour and water.

"Street art is much looser in structure than graffiti," adds Marc Schiller, co-founder of the Wooster Collective, a New York-based website that chronicles street art from around the world. "It can use paper and projections and metal. It's not only about a spray can. It's a much broader thing."

Still, the two mediums have plenty in common. Many of the graffiti writers and street artists are friends, and all the street artists interviewed for this story expressed admiration for "hand style," the art of graffiti lettering.

"Like graphic designers appreciate different fonts, that's what we do with hand styles," says Walsh. "People like us pay attention. When a dope piece goes up, word gets around the inner circle who did it. Later you see 'em at a party or something and you say, 'Nice job.' Then they say, 'I don't know what you're talking about.'"

Others rave about a handful of local artists who blur the line between street art and graffiti by choosing names that have social significance. In particular, they talk about an artist who calls himself Redd Foxx, after the famed St. Louis-born comedian. (The artist often shortens the name to "Ed Box.")

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