It may be illegal, but graffiti artists in St. John's say their work is too addictive to quit
(From left) Graffiti artists Game, Bird, Semy, Pope, Aser and SEone stand below rooftop Rong Crew graffiti in an alley off Duckworth Street in St. John's. - Photo by Tobias Romaniuk/The Telegram
There's six of them, laughing, talking. They can be heard before they're seen, coming into view as they walk down a concrete staircase set into a graffiti-covered wall.
It's mid afternoon on a Sunday. The sky has pulled back its grey winter curtain to shine bright light on the contrasting image of these six characters who look like they might be more comfortable under cover of darkness.
It's not the hoodies pulled over their heads - it's not that warm out. It's not the sunglasses - it's bright enough to warrant them. No, it's the bandanas and masks, dead giveaways that whatever these guys are about to do, they want it done anonymously.
They are graffiti artists in St. John's.
Meet Pope, Semy, Aser, Bird, SEone and Game, who collectively are known as RC, the Rong Crew.
"We know wrong is spelled with a 'W,' but that just makes it wrong," says Aser.
While their identities may be cloaked in nicknames, they want to get them out there. It's partly why they do this. To be known, while remaining unknown, is a big part of it, said SEone.
"You'll be sitting down somewhere and hear someone talk about, 'Oh man, you see that shit today that SEone did last night?' and I'm sitting there. They don't even know it's me; they think it's someone else," he said.
We're standing in a parking lot on Carter's Hill, just below Livingstone Street.
"I did that one, there," says one, pointing to a graffiti piece that stands five feet high and stretches across 15 feet of concrete.
"I did that one," says another.
They're telling this to a reporter they've only just met, after first driving by to make sure the meeting - set up by phone and email - wasn't a setup to have them arrested.
What they do is illegal, and if caught they could be charged and fined for painting nearly anywhere in the city other than here.
This wall on Carter's Hill is the only legal wall in St. John's. For anyone interested in graffiti, this is a must-see spot. There is other legal graffiti in town, but it's commissioned pieces on private walls.
While graffiti is considered vandalism, what these guys do is different. They're not just grabbing a can of spray paint out of their parents' garage and scrawling crude images of body parts on a wall, says Aser.
"Anyone can go out and paint a penis on a wall, you know, but not everyone can do this," he said.
As Semy sees it, they may be doing something illegal, but what they're making is not petty vandalism.
"That's not what we're producing," he said. "We're producing art."
They're artists driven by a desire to have their work seen. Committing paint to canvas, whether by brush or spray can, severely limits the potential audience. Put that same piece on a city wall, and many more people will see it, said Aser.
"With a canvas, it's not like you're necessarily going to get it out there; it's just going to hang on your wall," he said.
"But on this wall, there's hundreds of people coming up and down this street every day that are going to see it; they're going to stop and look at it."
Even though they're willing to risk being arrested for doing what they love, there are certain things that are off-limits, including churches, schools, funeral homes, cemeteries, private homes and private vehicles.
"Anything with respect to people, you know what I mean?" said Semy.
And if someone breaks these unwritten rules and tags one of these things?
It's simple, according to Aser.
"Ah, there's no respect for the person after that," he said.
On the legal wall at Carter's Hill, the artists have the luxury of time, and the work shows what can be done when guys like Game and Semy aren't constantly looking over their shoulder.
It's a good place to get a lesson in what makes a good graffiti piece.
But being the only legal wall, and in a highly visible place, it's also a highly competitive spot. Semy figures his piece and the one by Game might last another week.
It's a good piece, Semy says of Game's work, pointing out the clean, sharp lines that demonstrate good can control, and how the piece is readable, while also having depth.
But he's a little more critical of his own piece, which pops off the wall with bright, shiny reds outlined in black.
"Personally, I'd like to go over it and do something better. In my eyes, it wasn't a very good one and clean, but it's all right," he said.
Like most creative types, these artists are rarely happy with their past work and can always see where improvements could be made.
Game, for one, is not a fan of his own work.
"I find you never really like your own graffiti," he said. "I'd rather look at other people's than my own, because there's always something you'll pick out that you don't like."
It has to do with the missing pieces that no one else notices, said SEone.
"People don't know what the original sketch looked like, but you do. You'll see what's missing," he said.
There are different types of graffiti, which Semy breaks down.
"You got your legal walls and piecin', then there's going out bombing, which is going out on the streets. That's when you're going out at like 4 and 5 o'clock in the morning, walking around with a bag full of spray paint."
One of those bombs can be seen from much of Duckworth Street. It's on the roof of a tall abandoned building across from the former CBC building.
Across North America, trains are a favourite target of graffiti artists because of their mobility. But in a province without any trains, the focus here is on height.
The white letters and black outline of Semy's bomb can be seen at the top of this building. Getting it up there was an adrenalin-fuelled stealth mission, he says.
"You got one person looking for a car while you're climbing up something. When somebody comes, like when you're on a roof, you got somebody on the ground, and when a car comes along, you lie down and they won't see you."
Now that it's up, he figures it will likely remain for a while, since the spot is fairly difficult to get to.
Sidewalk-level walls are far easier to access, and the walls in the Bar None alley off Duckworth Street are covered in graffiti.
A large white RC in bubble letters overlooks the alley, a challenge to other artists. Bird put it up not too long ago, and there's a good chance someone else will paint over it, he said.
It's places like this, on the street, where getting caught becomes much more likely.
Most of the crew has been caught at least once, with Game even defending his actions in court. He was given an absolute discharge.
Semy hasn't been taken to court, but he has sat in the back of a police car. That brush with the law was enough to make him think about quitting. But he didn't.
"I was sitting in the back of a cop car, and I was like, 'I'm done.'" he said. "The cops didn't find the paint. ... A half-hour later, me and SEone went back and got the paint. All day I was walking around like, 'I'm done, I'm done,' then that night I was back out again. It's addicting."
Standing at the top of a fire escape above an alley, Bird looks out over Water Street and toward the harbour. He points to a covered staircase exit at the top of a parkade.
There's a flower painted there that he put up nearly two years ago. Closer, overlooking Water Street, a window is outlined with BIRD, the letters stretching for metres across the windows of the rooftop patio.
From this vantage point the rooftops along Water Street are visible, and so is the graffiti. With a view that stretches for blocks, Bird, Semy, Aser, SEone can all see their names. And they know they won't last forever. Eventually, they'll stop writing on walls and transition to other mediums.
The crew has already ventured into screen printing, and they make stickers, too. Producing T-shirt designs is a real possibility.
There will likely come a time, when they refer to themselves as graffiti artists in the past tense. But there will always be graffiti.
"Picture a city with no graffiti," said Semy. "It would just be plain old grey walls. It would be boring."
Writer: A person who does graffiti
Tag: a quick scrawl of a name with a marker or paint. Also the name a writer is known by.
Throw: A quick painting, usually bubble letters, and usually done in highly visible spots in under five minutes.
Piece: Something with some more time put into it. These usually look better than a throw.
Bomb: Similar to a throw. A quick hit to get your name up.
Getting up: The act of getting one's name on a wall, or painting something on a wall.
Legal wall: A wall on which artists have permission to paint. These can be city owned or privately owned.
Highlights of the tour:
Carter's Hill at Livingstone Street
This is the only legal wall in St. John's. Because it's legal, artists have the time to create quality pieces here. A good spot to see some decent work.
Bowring Park, the underpass
The city cleans this wall occasionally, but as of late March it had some decent pieces as well as a variety of bombs.
Bar None Alley
Accessed off Duckworth Street near McBride's Hill, this alley is a popular spot with writers and is often hit by visiting writers when they're in town.
Off Water Street, the Pitts Memorial overpass reaches over the Oceanex dockyard. Off the sidewalk is a wall that local writers say needs to be seen.
This abandoned Second World War military installation is now a graffiti gallery. It's also a popular spot with paintballers, so don't get shot. The former military station is on the Torbay portion of the East Coast Trail.