Anthony Matlock hates graffiti. One day last year, he was working with a group of kids from Seattle's Juvenile Detention Center cleaning up graffiti in Cowen Park. In broad daylight, he spotted a 16-year-old tagger holding a can of spray paint. "I turn the corner and there's a kid painting on the wall," Matlock remembers.
He snapped into action. The kid, realizing he'd picked the wrong spot to tag, dropped his can and began to run, wearing a backpack full of spray cans. Matlock—a wiry, excitable 53-year-old African American—chased him. He caught up to the kid and held him until the cops came. "It was a knee-jerk reaction, something I never should have done. But I'm fast, baby." Matlock laughs. "I may be old, but I'm fast."
Matlock has been the manager of Seattle Public Utilities' (SPU) Graffiti Rangers team for the last 10 years. The Rangers—a six-member cleanup crew assembled in 1994 to clean up public property—scour the city, buffing out, blasting off, and painting over thousands upon thousands of illegal tags: small, quickly scribbled pieces identifying and advertising artists by their name or "tag"; "throw-ups," which are larger, more finely crafted statements; and big pieces, like the sharp-fanged, googly-eyed monsters by "PG" that regularly appear around town.
Every year, the city spends $1.25 million on graffiti cleanup—and that's just for city-owned property. (Private business owners are required to clean their own property.) In 2006, the Graffiti Rangers cleaned up 300,000 square feet of graffiti in Seattle, only to see it pop back up days—and sometimes hours—later.
Today, Matlock is taking me around the city to show me what the Rangers are up against. As we walk through Cowen Park, just north of the U-District, Matlock eyes tags that have popped up on retaining walls, a community-center window, and several trees. They've all appeared in the last week. He stops by two orange-vested Rangers rolling dull gray paint over the brightly colored, swirling ciphers—like "HOMEZ" and "MALE HOE MAFIA"—spray-painted under a bridge.
Matlock knows that I'm a fan of graffiti art, and a bit of an apologist for taggers. "Don't worry," he says to me matter-of-factly, looking down the bridge of his nose over a pair of stylish sunglasses. "It'll be back."
While it appears the city's fight against graffiti is unwinnable, the Rangers are unflinchingly dedicated to their mission. As the Seattle Police Department (SPD) sees it, the Rangers are the city's last line of defense between a civil society and anarchy, protecting property rights and preserving our way of life. One officer told me that if it weren't for the work of the Graffiti Rangers, the city would plunge into chaos. "[Graffiti] would be everywhere," he said. "Somebody might put it on your back as you walk up the street. It would get way more out of control."
This apocalyptic vision of a graffiti-filled future keeps Matlock going. But he insists it isn't personal. "I'm not for or against [graffiti writers]," he says. "I have a job to do."
While Matlock would never admit the Rangers are losing the war on graffiti, it's clear he has grown frustrated with the constant battle. The Rangers certainly have their work cut out for them. Every day, complaints come in to the Rangers' main office—the average is about 200 a month—and the Rangers are given their marching orders. They spread out across the city, their beats broken down into six sectors: north, northwest, east, south, southwest, and central. They buff the same spots week after week, using paint primer, citrus-based solvents, and medieval-looking wire brushes.
The Rangers aren't allowed to clean up graffiti on private property due to liability issues, so SPU's other job is to warn businesses that they'll face $100-a-day fines if they don't clean up their property. "It hurts my heart to get calls from these small businesses [who have been tagged]," Matlock sighs. "I have to send them this nasty letter and as soon as they clean it up, they get tagged again."
According to one SPD officer who deals with graffiti—and asked not to be named—the city isn't doing much to stop it. "We don't have a graffiti unit in the Seattle Police Department," he told me. "Nobody's out there looking for graffiti thugs. We're out there looking for drug dealers [and] prostitutes." The officer estimates his precinct only makes a dozen graffiti arrests every year.
"When graffiti started, there was a higher standard," says Toby Campbell, better known as Seattle DJ DV One. He's something of a local graffiti historian. He remembers seeing it in Seattle as far back as 1984. "Back in the day it was hiphop cats. Now you have hipsters running around tagging stuff." In Campbell's opinion, the city's fresh-coat-of-paint solution may actually be encouraging graffiti by providing writers with fresh canvases. He said, "Doesn't that just invite people to do it again?"
Are the Rangers preventing graffiti, or is the city's reactionary approach only perpetuating the problem? Arrests aren't going to scare off dedicated graffiti writers anyway. GOSA, a 26-year-old semiretired graffiti artist, received a two-year sentence for graffiti, but it didn't deter him. "When I was on work release, I tagged my locker. When I had an ankle bracelet, I tagged that too," he laughs. "I stopped because I ended up making more kids than I did pieces."
Besides, GOSA says, "If you're an adult and you're trying to make sure an 18-year-old kid is going to jail for graffiti, something's wrong with you. It's [a personal] style, man. Some people dress really nice. Some people do music. When an advertiser's putting up ads, they're trying to get attention. That's me. I'm trying to get your attention."
Taggers and graffiti artists certainly have gotten the attention of local business owners. Rosebud owner and city-council candidate Robert Sondheim, sore about the city's reticence to police graffiti, has made it one of his top campaign issues. "I think the city does a fair job [cleaning up graffiti]," he says. "I don't think they do a great job. I know what I don't care for is the tagging of the parking meters. I called the city about that, and it took them three tries and about two months to deal with that."
Even though it's a clear, warm day, Cowen Park is nearly deserted. The Rangers visit this park at least once a week. As Matlock and I walk through it, not far from where he chased down the 16-year-old tagger, Matlock wraps his arm around my shoulder to direct my attention to the painted scrawl on the backboard of a tennis court. Next to intricate scribbles, which spell out names like "CRAZE" and "SALT," someone has scrawled the words "fuck u haters" in bright blue paint.
Matlock looks at the words and laughs. He thinks they might be directed at him. Matlock says taggers have left hostile notes for the Rangers before, such as "You don't like my fucking art" or "Fuck the establishment." (The practice of graffiti removal and the debate over whether graffiti is art are parodied in Matt McCormick's 2001 short film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal. See DVDs, page 81.)
Matlock, a longtime Seattle resident originally from Indiana, lives with his wife in Madrona. When he's able to get his mind off work, he hones his craft as an award-winning barbecue master ("I'm a ribologist," he proudly tells me) or he goes for walks with his iPod ("the greatest invention ever"). But even on his days off, Matlock is usually still working. "I have my BlackBerry and I'm always reporting graffiti," he says. "I'm one of the city's biggest reporters." He says he phones in a report every other day.
When Matlock isn't reporting graffiti in his spare time, he's out cleaning it up. He wheels a red Radio Flyer wagon around his neighborhood, wiping out tags and picking up trash. "My family thinks I'm far too involved with this graffiti business," he says. This is how he earned his family nickname: Mr. Neighborhood. "No matter where I go, I see graffiti," Matlock says. "I was [on vacation] in the Redwood Forest. I couldn't believe how much graffiti I saw down there. I can't understand why anyone would graffiti a 1,000-year-old tree. If I could have removed it, I would have."
After our walk through Cowen Park, he tells me he wants me to see the human cost of graffiti, and takes me to meet a business owner whose building has been plagued by vandalism. As we drive up East Olive Way on Capitol Hill, Matlock points out red, black, and blue hieroglyphic tags on most of the buildings at street level. "The story is in your own backyard!" he says. He points to a man who's sandblasting a tag off an apartment building. "Do you know how much that costs?"
We get to All Seasons Cleaners, at the corner of Harvard Avenue East and East Olive Way. In the last four months, All Seasons has spent $9,000 to paint, repaint, and buff out tags all over its building. It's in a highly visible spot, a block off of Broadway East on a well-traveled arterial, which makes it a prime target for taggers. As soon as graffiti is painted over, it comes back. The owner keeps taking a financial hit, and keeps getting letters from SPU, but the tagging doesn't stop. "Every business on the hill gets tagged," Matlock says. "It's where you want to be seen. It's where you get your points."
Matlock says 90 percent of the complaints SPU receives come from the University District, Capitol Hill, and Ballard. Matlock believes the majority of taggers are 14- to 25-year-old middle-class white kids. He estimates less than 10 percent of tagging is gang related and claims graffiti was almost nowhere to be found in the Central District until it gentrified. "When it was a minority community, it was never a problem," he says. "People like to say [graffiti] is a minority thing, but it's not."
Two weeks ago, after Matlock sent All Seasons' owner a letter about his "nuisance property," he stopped by All Seasons to offer them free paint. The owner wasn't happy. "He screamed, 'You've come here to fuck with me!'" Matlock says. It's not unusual for business owners to take out their frustrations on the Rangers. "I let them get their rant out," Matlock says. "After they've been victimized a number of times, I totally understand that."
The same dozen taggers have hit All Seasons week after week. 3A, a graffiti crew that's slowly gained infamy simply by inundating downtown and Capitol Hill, have left several shiny gold splashes on All Seasons' east wall. Matlock looks at 3A's work. "I call them 'three assholes,'" he grumbles.
But Matlock's attitude toward taggers and graffiti artists isn't all contempt. He says he wants to get inside their heads and figure out what drives them. "I just want to know what [graffiti writers] have to say," he says earnestly. "Are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you lacking something? I would like to think it's because they're reaching out for help. But I bet the majority of it is just plain vandalism. If you've got something to say, I want to help you say that, but when you affect my quality of life, we have a problem."
There is no gray area in Matlock's world. He says he raised his four children to have respect for other people's property, and those values have been passed on to his five grandchildren.
"I love my city. I grew up in Indiana. People in Seattle need to understand how beautiful this place is. I'm just trying to give back. I'm not against the people who do the tagging. It's nothing personal. Let's find a way that doesn't hurt people." Matlock says he'd rather see the $1.25 million in the Rangers' budget be put toward education. But for now, he'll field phone calls from angry business owners and cranky community groups complaining about graffiti and, on the ever-so-rare occasion, someone who's sad to see a piece go. "Two years ago, an older lady called," Matlock says. "There was a piece she thought was particularly beautiful, and we'd removed it. That's one call in 10 years."
Wherever illegal graffiti pops up—no matter how beautiful it is—the Graffiti Rangers will eventually show up to take it down. "I can't straddle the fence on this," Matlock says. "I'm a soldier. It's what I am."