KIRO 7 INVESTIGATES: Inside the graffiti subculture

by: Chris Legeros Updated:

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For property owners, graffiti is like a plague. Spray paint suddenly blankets buildings, truck and trailers. You can find it on bridges over Interstate 5 in Seattle and on concrete columns underneath the highway. 

It costs the state and private property owners millions of dollars to clean it up each year. Why do people do it? 

One graffiti writer told us, "I think mainly it's a thrill." He would only agree to talk to us if he could wear a mask to conceal his identity and not use his real name. He called himself Lil Bruh Bruh, or Skeeze.

Skeeze said, "Once you get into it, it's very addictive in a way." He agreed it is attention-seeking behavior. 

Skeeze said, "Every graffiti writer is an egotistical maniac, not necessarily maniac, but they're definitely egotistic. They want to be famous for something." In his case, something is a tag, a personal spray-painted signature, "Skeeze."

The mission of this graffiti writer is simply to put his mark, on highly visible places, without getting caught by the police. 
Skeeze said, "Being able to walk away scot-free from a graffiti situation, from an illegal graffiti situation is one of the biggest rushes, one of the greatest natural highs ever." 

The police call it something else, malicious mischief or destruction of property.

Detective Christopher Young investigates graffiti full time for the Seattle Police Department. He said, "At any given time there's about a dozen guys who are kind of incorrigible, who keep doing it, and they come and go." 

Detective Young reviews about 800 Seattle cases each year. He said, "One of the biggest myths of graffiti is that it's all gang-related." 

Young estimates only 1 percent of the graffiti in Seattle is done by gang members. The vast majority is written by young men in their late teens and 20s who are looking for a thrill. The novices are called "toys." 

The more experienced writers are called "Kings." Some Kings are even sponsored by spray paint companies. 

Young said they take it very seriously, and for a lot of these guys, "It is their life." He told KIRO 7 many graffiti writers buy their supplies at Art Primo. It's a small store tucked next to the Industry Lounge on East Marginal Way. Art Primo is only open on Friday nights. 

KIRO 7 tried talking to employees but they didn't want to be interviewed. The store sells its products online globally and even offers video tutorials how to use them to create "revolutionary artwork." 

The penalties for painting on someone else's property can include fines of up to $5,000 and up to a year in jail. 
Many receive just a day in jail or a sentence of community service. 

Detective Young said, "It's a deterrent to a vast majority of people who do this." 

Many graffiti writers simply grow out of their hobby. 

A former vandal told us, "I wanted to be taken seriously as an adult." He didn't want to give us his real name either, but asked us to call him Jay Gatsby. He said, "I just wanted to do something that more people could relate to and feel good about myself doing it, and be able to not have to hide." 

Gatsby is now going to college and writing a fiction blog about growing up in Seattle, with references to his graffiti past. Here's a link to that blog: http://acuriousstrainofweakness.wordpress.com/ 

Gatsby said, "I think that most people who write graffiti would like to be able to get paid for some sort of creative endeavor eventually." 

Lil Bruh Bruh, or Skeeze, has no desire to quit writing graffiti, even though he's been arrested in the past and served both jail time and community service. He said, "Basically what it teaches you is to be slicker next time, don't get caught next time." 

Skeeze said if he can get away with it, he'll write graffiti for the rest of his life. He'll do it until the day he dies.