MAX ERNST DORNFELD, THE 18-YEAR-OLD GRAFFITI tagger sentenced last week to a year in jail for "property damage" and "obstructing justice," lopes into the visiting room with sloped shoulders and a neck straight out of an El Greco painting. One of Seattle's most prolific taggers--he's known as "Flare" to businesses all over the city--Dornfeld has been held at the North Rehabilitation Facility for almost two months, as part of a sentence handed down by King County Judge Theresa Doyle. "It's obvious you have some artistic abilities," she told him, "but you cannot go around imposing your art on the community."

Dornfeld's been painting his tag across town since being thrown out of Garfield High in 1996 for repeated graffiti offenses. Either solo or with members of his crew, he traveled day and night from one end of Seattle to the other, spray cans and markers in tow, leaving his signature on any surface he thought was asking for it: buildings, signs, fire escapes, rooftops. He's not good at explaining why he does it. When he delves deeper than your basic "it's cool" or "it looks good," he stumbles on his words. "I grew up with it and I thought it looked cool," he says. "Every day when I was walking to school I'd see graffiti all over the place and I'd like it. It represented--just people--I don't know. It's complicated, I guess."

The tag that landed him in jail seems petty. He was arrested in November for writing on a wall in the parking lot behind Pistil Books, on Pine Street in Capitol Hill. "It was just an ugly parking lot," he says. "It looked way better with graffiti than with gray walls." When the police showed up at the scene, Dornfeld ran west on Pike, making it as far as Harvard before being caught, cuffed, and transported downtown. He pled guilty to the misdemeanor charges in March. And thanks in part to prodding from the city's Anti-Graffiti Coalition, he received a stiff sentence.

But his tag, Flare--which stands for Fuck the Law and its Representatives--hasn't disappeared as friends and supporters continue to paint it. And since he was jailed, a second tagger, called Metroe, has also been arrested, leading to an anonymous call to action via the Internet. "Let's show these All City Bombers some love and see some FREE METROE and FREE FLARE up around the city," wrote John Doe at the Seattle Graffitiwebsite(www.afterlyfe.com/graffiti). "These kids have been bombing your streets for years, so all you kings, piecers, bombers, and tags show them the respect they deserve!!!!"

The city's response to graffiti has become more stringent and more ridiculous over the years. Even businesses that don't mind a tag or mural are forced to paint over them or risk being cited under the Seattle Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance. The city's Anti-Graffiti Program hands out free paint and rollers to business owners hit by taggers, and coordinates volunteer "paint-outs." The Downtown Seattle Association does its part as well, hiring work crews to sweep through the retail core each morning and paint over all unauthorized markings. The DSA even offers rewards to snitches who help arrest taggers.

Anne Michaelson, who used to run Cafe Paradiso, recalls that just a couple of years ago the wall behind the cafe was considered a "free wall," meaning you could write or paint or draw there without getting into trouble. There used to be free walls throughout the city--on businesses like the Comet Tavern and the Vogue--but those days are gone, and not likely to return anytime soon. Michaelson owns property in the heavily tagged neighborhood around the Comet, and spends her share of time repainting walls. But, she says, "For some reason graffiti has never really bothered me. I don't take it personally the way a lot of people do. I certainly don't want to see a kid sentenced to a year in jail for graffiti. That's ridiculous. It's like throwing skateboarders in jail."

Clamping down on graffiti artists just makes some of them want to do it more. Though it's hard to drag any sort of overt political philosophy out of the group of taggers that make up Dornfeld's circle--they praise him as a "tagging animal" with a "phat savage bomber style," and consider graffiti "the best thing ever," the perfect way to "put your name up in lights"--they unwittingly reveal their motives. Napalm, a 17-year-old from Dornfeld's KFM crew (for Kung Fu Masters), laments, "They took away the Comet wall, they took away the Vogue, the wall by the Greyhound station.... It makes it worse. It makes kids just want to destroy shit."

But the truth is, even if there were free walls, kids with markers and spray cans would want to hit non-designated surfaces. "You're not a writer if you don't go out and bomb," says Metroe, another of Dornfeld's pals.

"It's natural to want to write on things," Napalm adds.

Dornfeld, who was raised in a middle-class white family, has been in trouble with the law before, having spent six months in a juvenile detention center for petty theft, vandalism, and graffiti. He admits that he likes running from the law: "I've run through people's yards for miles," he says. "It's fun. It feels like you're a kid again. I guess I never really stopped behaving like one."

Statements like that worry his mother, who argues that her son is no folk hero. "This is no cool, counter-culture artist, okay? This is a fragile life, an 18-year-old kid who is in deep trouble. He has hurt himself grievously. He has no future--none--if he doesn't make some changes." She places much of the blame for tagging on a society and school system too busy punishing and vilifying teens to offer them any real help. "Teens know they're generally not wanted," she says. "They know there are a lot of people who feel threatened by them. They respond to that in destructive ways."

Dornfeld is being held at the North Rehabilitation Facility rather than King County Jail because he's being treated for a marijuana addiction he says he doesn't have. "Drugs have nothing to do with my crime," he says. In addition to the one-year sentence, he'll have to put in 120 hours of community service, painting over graffiti for the Downtown Seattle Association. He doesn't look forward to the task. "I don't want to do that shit," he says. "I don't want to go around with some jerks who obviously hate me. I seen them in court, laughing at me when I got a year."

He says he has no desire to write graffiti right now either. He just wants to get out of jail and see his friends, munch some edible food, and listen to some good music. He says he's not mad at the people who put him away. In a way, he sees where they're coming from. "They think that Seattle can be this perfect city, where nobody smokes crack or shoots up or writes graffiti. So they're trying to control everything. They're going too far. Maybe they need to find out what the cause of it is instead."

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