'Bomb' the streets, feed the rush

Tobias Romaniuk
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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

Click here to see the photo slideshow

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.

No distractions

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.

Ground level

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."

Gallery view

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."

tobias.romaniuk@thetelegram.com

Graffiti glossary

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.

Oceanex wall

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.

Red Cliff

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.

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: St. John's, Livingstone Street, Duckworth Street Water Street North America Bowring Park Red Cliff Torbay

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Recent comments

  • shawn
    June 06, 2012 - 00:57

    these are people who cant grow up and still vandalise, i dont care if you put your name anywhere it looks stupid and rushed, the only meaningfull place where it may possibly be shown respect is a legal wall, people on the same scene as you will see it there and remeber the name if there into it, none the artists around here are that eyecatching regardless, go check artists like revok youll see art in a very unique form there and notice a massive talent gap.

  • Jon
    April 13, 2012 - 15:57

    Graffiti murals and pieces are art, but tagging and bombing (when done properly) is art and vandalism combined.

  • Ross
    April 12, 2012 - 10:30

    Graffiti is art, while tagging is vandalism. There is a difference. Did you see the mural of Jack Leyton on Carters Hill place that was painted as a memorial? Try telling me that wasn't art when its just as much an art form as anything in the Rooms.

  • TheWiseOne
    April 10, 2012 - 17:27

    Graffiti is an amazing, unique art form to of which is often underestimated and hated upon by misguided individuals who cannot grasp the idea of what this art/game/sport/hobby really is. I find it rather sad that the haters, despite reading this article, that of which explains graffiti for the most part, and reading that these artists/vandals do NOT paint just anything and have respect for private property, the haters continue to sit in their pool of hate contaminated liquid. They continue to type and post pathetic comments. HOWEVER, in response to DISGUSTED, are you sure it was these specific writers that hit the back of Royal Canadian Legion? Are you sure it was not some lame idiot thug(s) with can(s) of paint who had no knowledge of what they were doing, let alone no respect whatsoever? In conclusion, yes, I would like to see those photos you apparently took. Because I as a graffiti artist, and individual with respect for private property, do not believe it could possibly be real graffiti writers that apparently did that indeed disgusting act.

  • DWH
    April 08, 2012 - 18:07

    I doubt that the 'artists' depicted in this article will read this, probably can't afford to buy a paper or educated enough to use a computer but you are not artists, you are vandals. If you were artists why do this stuff with lookouts watching for the police, why cover your faces for an interview?? Strikes me as odd that you are shy about showing your faces.... no pride in your work?? You 'tagged' my $3,000 new pressure treated fence with a substance that stained the wood so deeply I cannot completely cover it. Ruins the look and depreciates the property value and you did this without my permission. 'Artists' don't do that. criminals do. Grow up, wise up and get a job. Idiots.

  • DJ
    April 07, 2012 - 21:01

    Thank you telegram for giving these morons a forum to promote their vanalism. Because that's all it is. It's people's private property they are defacing. And no it is not art. It probably not cheap either to get someone to remove the crap from a brick wall either. Shame on you telegram for wasting a full page in your paper on these idiots.

  • TrainBenchKingYo
    April 07, 2012 - 20:59

    Graffiti piecing and murals are art. Bombing/tagging is an even mixture of vandalism and art. Not just anyone can do graffiti (properly). So to all the haters calling these guys punks/bums and so forth, you don't know what your talking about. They don't hit private property, churches and so on, (places that should not have illegal graffiti on them at all). These are just everyday people but ones who have a talent to express that's apparently not appreciated enough. Do more research on graffiti and then talk, because clearly many lame haters don't. This is a great article, looking forward to seeing/reading more! Finally one that shows the game, sport and art form of graffiti in a more positive light.

  • Staci
    April 07, 2012 - 16:55

    In no way is this NOT beautiful artwork. I'm the sister of one of these boys you are calling "bums" and "punks" and I am pleased to say that we come from a long line of artists. My grandfather is a paid artist, and has artwork on canvas all over this province, including inside The City Hall. But just because my grandfather puts his art on a canvas and my brother puts his on an abandoned bulidings, billboards, etc doesn't make it less eye appealing. We might all have different opinions on graffiti, but just as much time and effort is gone into creating these pieces. I've been watching them work for years on their stuff. They do practice on canvas', and paper but like they said it just hangs on their walls. If you were talented at something, would you want the world to know it? Or hide it? I doubt you'd hide it. And maybe your talent isn't illegal but so what? If they love it, why stop it? I'd like to see the ones bashing on this article give up something that makes them happy. THIS IS A FORM OF ART. It's bigger in bigger citys of course because like said there's trains, and more ramps and bridges to do this art work on. Even if I wasn't related to one of these ARTISTS I'd still think this ART is a beautiful way of expressing yourself. So what if their tags are their nicknames? If an artist painted it's dog would it be less of a piece of work because it's their dog? NO. I know all these artists and I know that they all are wicked people. I can't wait to see them all and give them a highfive for this!

    • Disgusted
      April 09, 2012 - 20:28

      I happen to love art work but being a walker I have seen a lot of the 'art' done by these people, however yesterday I was totally disgusted to see Aser's piece of 'art' on the back of Royal Canadian Legion on Blackmarsh Road. They gave a list of buildings etc in the article that were off limits. I suspect the the Royal Canadian Legion is not quite up to their standard. Absolutely disgraceful as well as disrespectul of those who gave there lives for us. I would like for them to stop for a moment to think about that. I took pictures as proof of this and would be happy to share them if you don't want to bother to see for yourself.

  • Anonymous
    April 07, 2012 - 16:29

    Yes now Mary , these bums ahah let's see you pick up a can of paint and even do half of what these young adults can

  • Anonymous
    April 07, 2012 - 15:34

    These guys are not punks, you may even know these guys and you wouldn't say anything like this about them if you knew it was them who are painting, graffiti is what makes the city interesting. Obviously not the random scribbles people put on walls or buildings but if you were around the art and seen the pieces, it's truly amazing what some can do. Congrats on making the paper Aser and the rest of RC! They will keep it up even if they didn't make the paper so congrats on making your work known!

  • Alexis
    April 07, 2012 - 13:37

    In addition to my previous comment, I just saw some of "Remy's" tags, specifically downtown and one in Logy Bay on the over pass. This is no artist. Writing your name in messy block letters in the exact same fashion on different walls IS NOT ART. These guys claim to be artists but all they're doing is tagging, which is spray painting their name as quick as they can, everywhere they can. Don't quit your day job Remy, you're as talented as a Grade 8 girl practicing block letters in her exercise book.

  • Alexis
    April 07, 2012 - 12:15

    I've seen their work and it's not very good at all. You see beautiful art in other cities like Toronto where people apparently have real talent, like where Rick Mercer does his rant. It leaves you in awe because the colours and themes are so good. These guys must be scared to be caught because it looks like they put less than a minute into their tags. They are random, ugly and messy. You'd think they could create a nice mural instead of doing small bad tags everywhere. By the way people don't see the tag and think of the artist's name, because no one can read it! The only thing I liked about this article is the respect for schools, churches, etc. So find a wall somewhere and make real graffiti art. Carter's Hill is amazing but it's the exception, not the norm for the graffiti scene here in town.

  • William Murphy
    April 07, 2012 - 11:51

    Please, please, please! Don't let this continue. To call someone a graffiti artist is oxymoronic-as a matter of fact illustrating one's name on a public place is the lowest form of graffiti, known as "Moronic Graffiti. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA, the first generation of Newfoundland immigrants. I saw this so-called art turn our city into a trash heap. I come to NL every summer to revel in the natural beauty of your (my) island. Give them a one-way ticket out.

  • JeffS
    April 07, 2012 - 11:28

    Great job glorifying these bums. Next week go behind the scenes of other illegal activities like drug dealing or armed robbery. Time for Birdbrain and Semy Educated to get real job. In fact, the Telegram has an ad for Graffic Artist wanted this week.

  • John
    April 07, 2012 - 11:02

    vandals plain and simple. nice job telegram guess the next article will glorify drug pushers or domestic violence.

  • Carly
    April 07, 2012 - 10:44

    we are making parts of the bronx look good? lady, are you crazy? the bronx new york... st johns newfoundland. jeez, it seems like the holy land compared to this city. ya know, with all the murders and violence we have. "oh dear, look at all these beautiful, eye catching displays of artwork all over our city. lets move to the bronx. sounds like a sweet place" get OVER yourself lady. they are certainly not contributing to society by going to work in the mornings or school either for that matter... what a thing to say. these people could be your sons, or daughters. what, you think these people go out and do this so they must be terrible meaningless people who will never amount to anything in their lifes? makes sense to just come up with these completely foolish stereotypes. i suppose i could come up with one for you .. Suppose that Leonardo, Picasso, or any of the recognized artisans of Western European culture were alive in the present day. Then, suppose that one of these famous artists decided to paint a masterpiece on the side of your house or on your front door or on a wall in your neighborhood. Would Picassos markings be graffiti or art or vandalism or graffiti art? No lady, youd take a picture and send it to all your friends saying how artistic your cirty is and how beautiful it is. "Oh come visit st johns! the artwork is much more tasteful then that garbage in the bronx" i could comment on so much more that you said but i'll just leave it at that.

  • Bucka Bucka
    April 07, 2012 - 10:43

    Nice piece! Its too bad that most people will never see any value in graffiti art. All across Canada beautiful pieces of art can be found in back allies, on trains etc. In Lisbon Portugal graffiti art/ street art has become quiet popular. There is actually a street art museum. Its called "The Ephemeral Museum” which is located throughout the streets of Lisbon. You can go online and download maps and audio tapes to guide you to the exhibits. This is progressive thought. To the woman above you says she likes art, I ask when was the last time you went to the rooms. When is the last time you created art. I'll bet its been awhile and your appreciation of art is limited and narrow minded.

  • Squish
    April 07, 2012 - 09:35

    This article sheds a good spotlight on the art form of graffiti. I have lived in New York and and other parts of North America, where graffiti is more socially acceptable. Even though this form of art is considered illegal, it is an art form! If the city had more "legal" walls for these artist to express themselves, then you would see the true art form of graffiti with out bias. Some of the work that these artist's create is absolutely amazing. I have seen a piece on Living Stone St. by the Choices for Youth building, a piece in memory of the late Jack Layton. The detail, pride, heart that went into this is not that of a "vandal". For those narrow minded Newfoundlanders, you need to go to other parts of the world to understand the art form and what these "artists" are trying to create! Sure you have kids out there doing vadalism, BUT not all these "artists" are like this. As stated in your article these "artists" don't paint on people's private property , schools or religious dwellings. In my opinion it truly is "an art form"!!!!!

  • barney
    April 07, 2012 - 09:19

    These kids will look back at this 20 years from now and realize how juvenile they were. The crappy gaffiti makes the place look like a slum.

  • David
    April 07, 2012 - 08:11

    Nice Job Telegram, give the illegal grafitti guys the spotlight, and encourage them to do more.

  • Mary
    April 07, 2012 - 07:51

    These bums should be charged, followed by security hired by the city and exposed for what they are. It's disgraceful to see all over the city and it's getting worse. If this is how they vandalize under the cover of darkness, they are certainly not contributing to society by going to work in the mornings or school either for that matter. I love art but this is degrading and we are making parts of the bronx look good.It's certainly not appealing to tourists. Our city should be kept historical not defaced by filthy junk. The city are cracking down on garbage and litter, what do they call this horrible grafitti all over our city, mailboxes, aliant work stations, utility poles billboards etc etc.It must be that it is legal all over the city as there is nothing done strict enough to crack down on these punks.