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Urban Scrawl

Call it blight. Call it rebellion. Taggers cost the city millions of dollars in damage each year, tattooing neighborhoods and unsettling residents with their feverish writings. We peek inside their secretive world

Photographs by Robert Yager

Bare walls, lampposts, plate glass windows, billboards, buses, freeway barriers, murals—for taggers, the city is a never-ending canvas. For almost everybody else, taggers are a pox. They're rarely seen in action, yet their looping hieroglyphics are everywhere. Gangbangers may mark their turf or call out enemies with spray paint, but most of the writing that covers the city is from taggers who simply want to get their nom de graffiti out in public. There are taggers who work alone and taggers who work in crews. Some consider themselves artists, though many settle for ubiquity over finesse. In 2008, a mechanic who confronted some taggers was shot and a boy received a faceful of paint, but crews usually leave the violence to gang members. Their scrawl has been labeled the cry of the marginalized, a victimless alternative to gangbanging, even a stylistic form of self-expression. Just don't tell that to the shopkeeper who has to continually open the till to repaint her storefront or to the landlord whose windows have been etched or to the home owners who have to touch up their exterior walls again and again.

The City of Los Angeles spends about $7 million a year to paint over or remove graffiti. That number doesn't include what Caltrans spends for the same task on freeways, what Recreation and Parks devotes to cleanup, or what it costs the Army Corps of Engineers to erase the jumble along the area's concrete riverbanks. "In the early '90s, graffiti started becoming really bad," says Detective Ramona Findley, who leads the LAPD's new Graffiti Task Force. "We painted out about 2.5 million square feet. In 2008, which is the last figure that I have, we painted out almost 32 million square feet. So, looking back at these figures, is this making any progress? We realized that no, that is not working." Last year Los Angeles established an ordinance enabling the city to sue taggers for damages (this on top of filing criminal charges) when it pays to remove graffiti, and by state law, if a tagger racks up at least $400 in costs to the city, he can be charged with a felony. As of 2008, cities can require taggers to remove their own handiwork.

Not that the threat of being caught is such a deterrent. Evading police, placating turf-minded gangbangers, risking everything to scale a freeway overpass—the tagger seeks a glory of his own making. Drawing back the curtain on their shadow world, photographer Robert Yager tracked local taggers at work. Traveling throughout the county at all hours, he followed members of a small crew called DMP (short for "Destroy Metro Property") as well as guys from KOG ("Kings of Graffiti"), a loose-knit group of 35 men ranging in age from 20 to 40. "They would consider themselves an 'art coalition,' " Yager says. "They tag, do graffiti, murals, design T-shirts, show in galleries."

The assignment for Yager, who has spent extensive time documenting L.A. gangs, was to follow along but never to encourage. While trailing the crew, he was attacked by bees, detained by police, and stood nearby when a gang member pulled a gun on some DMP members. There are those who will argue that to photograph taggers is to reward taggers. By that logic, war photography causes wars and crime dramas cause crime. "I would prefer that it get attention," says Detective Findley, "because it needs the community's attention, too, to help us with this battle. Nothing I have found, nothing affects people more on a broad basis than graffiti."

ALSO: Read Postscript: Urban Scrawl by Robert Yager