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"Redd Foxx is purely a St. Louis identity. Seeing that as a tag, it spoke on the city's social situation and historical situation," says Chris Burch, whose work was featured in Screwed In. "To put this comedian out there once again but in a different way was super-dope. You don't see that happening anywhere else, where they take the local history aspect and pull something new and unique and clever out of that."
Typically Foxx's work is intricate and accompanied by cryptic messages — "Get up, get God," one reads; another says, "Redevelop or succumb to Ed Box." He has a flair for high-profile buildings; in May 2007 he painted the façade of the Roberts Orpheum Theater with his tag and the message, "Forgive People." The act was met with ire from police and public officials but drew respect from others.
"He's the motherfucker in St. Louis right now," Tolentino says of Foxx approvingly.
Ultimately, the street artists maintain, the key difference that separates their work from graffiti is the consideration they take in choosing where to place their pieces.
"There are some that are really hardcore, that don't give a fuck about anything," says Tolentino. "But for some people, there's definitely a code within it. Me, I don't write on mom-and-pop shops, people's homes, trucks that belong to local companies or anything else like that."
"I'll hit up a condemned building or a Dumpster, but I'll never hit up private property," agrees Wollaeger. "I'm associated with [taggers], I guess. Because I use spray paint, I'm put in the same category with them. But it's a fine line. I respect what these guys do, but personally I have a different motivation."
Counters Boke, whose dissed orange-and-black tag adorns the Chipotle building in the Delmar Loop: "As far as codes, I really don't fall for that shit. I don't paint over a gang's graffiti — I definitely don't paint over that. But really, there's no fucking code. I'd rather just grab a can of paint or grab a rock and throw it through someone's window. That's what gets my jollies off."
Operation Brightside, the nonprofit organization responsible for municipal beautification projects in St. Louis, spends $200,000 each year on graffiti removal. In 2008, Operation Brightside's leaders say, it removed about 5,100 graffiti markings from within the city limits.
Douglas Poynter, manager of Brightside's graffiti-removal program, says the group is only responsible for cleanup; it has no means to prevent the activity or channel it to permissible venues.
"We just basically take it off," Poynter says. "We don't have no other way of trying to prevent it. That's more on the cops and on the people in the neighborhoods."
In the past, the city favored a more proactive approach. From 1996 to 2004, spray-paint legends from across the nation flocked to St. Louis for an annual event called Paint Louis. Graffiti artists were given free rein over the two-mile-long floodwall that starts at Gratiot Street and runs south along the Mississippi River. The event was canceled after graffiti began appearing on private property in the vicinity.
"We had this great influx of great artists that were putting stuff on the wall," says Operation Brightside executive director Mary Lou Green. "Cleary they had talent, but as a part of that there were a contingent who thought they should peg everything else down on the riverfront. I think it's no fun for them to put it on a legal wall. They want their tags to be everyplace."
Even without the city's blessing, the floodwall remains a popular canvas, albeit an unkempt one. There's a knee-high border of dead grass, and some of the most interesting pieces have fallen victim to the fleeting nature of the form. Amateur scribbling has marred works from New York graffiti legends Dr. Revolt and Zephyr.
"Those guys are never coming back to St. Louis," Wollaeger says. "It's all part of the game, I guess."
Only a handful of projects are devoted to harnessing the talent of the city's street and graffiti artists and directing it toward permissible venues. Each summer a nonprofit agency called St. Louis ArtWorks teaches several hundred inner-city teens to create murals and stencil art. The organization confers with local business owners and community leaders when choosing the images kids will paint.
For another initiative, Beyond the Wall, program organizer James Clark hired artist Christopher Green to paint murals on the burgundy-color boards that cover the windows of derelict buildings in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of north St. Louis. "We've had some boards up now for two years and none of the murals have been defaced, and they're all at ground level," says Clark, adding that he wants to expand the program in 2009.
Other similar projects have had trouble getting off the ground. Last year Dana Gray, president of the Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association, tried unsuccessfully to implement a mural program. "The comment from some of my board members was, 'You'll just turn these graffiti people loose! You invite them to do that on your garage, and then all the buildings up and down that block, they'll get tagged too,'" Gray recalls.