‘Kelly on the Freest Form of Expression There Is’ by Danny Harris

Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.

“I had a pretty tough childhood and moved around a lot. We moved to Maryland when I was a teenager and I went to Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. Back then, it was a pretty rough school. I never thought in my life that I would see a pregnant girl get kicked down a stairwell, but I saw that and more at school. So, it wasn’t the easiest place for me to be. At the time, I just wanted to burn off all of the crazy shit that was happening to me. There is only so much damage you can do to your own body with drugs, so I decided to take out my anger on something else. I wasn’t a violent person, so I took it out on walls.

“I was introduced to graffiti through a lot of hardcore shows and raves that I went to in D.C. There, I met some of the founders of the D.C. graffiti scene. They were these great and open people. It was one of the most accepting groups of people. Mind you, some of these guys were arms dealers and serious, burly tattooed dudes, but they were cool as long as you didn’t cross them.

“My first time throwing up a piece was on a wall across from a courthouse near College Park. We did it late at night and hide from all of the cars. It really got my adrenaline going, which is one of the best highs of graffiti. Turns out that piece wasn’t too great and you could barely see it from the street, but they got better over time. I met some other graffiti cats and we would go out tagging and bombing a lot. Tagging is when you write your name with a can of paint, it is usually one line and four letter. Bombing is when you have more than one color and it is larger format and in bubble letters. If you think about it like weapons, a tag is your fist. It tells people that you are here. Bombing is like a machine gun. You use it to destroy and raise hell.

Continues after the jump.

“Generally, I like to think that graffiti can make a city more beautiful. A tag can look really pretty depending on where you put it. Obviously, you have knuckleheads who write on churches and schools. But most of us have personal rules that we go by. We all know the consequences of our actions. You can’t cry at your trial and claim ignorance on graffiti. Trust me, I did all kinds of stupid shit in my day including tagging a cop car, but now I have my rules. They are:

– I don’t mess with schools and churches.

– I don’t mess with people’s personal property. But if a building becomes abandoned because someone is sitting on it waiting to make a killing in real estate, that is fair game. If they are going to neglect it, it is going to get neglected. I might as well make it prettier.

– I stay away from small businesses.

– Advertising and most city stuff is fair game.

“I am not going to tell you all of my secrets about how I get away with my art, but I will tell you a few ways that people do it. One genius way is to dress the part. If I dress like a city clean up worker and look like I am scrubbing the walls free of graffiti, no one is going to think twice if I pull out my pen. Or, go find out the owner of a building’s name and write up a fake work order for paint work that needs to be done. With graffiti, you need to think Hollywood and what is the most insane thing you can do where no one will question you. Dress as a fireman. Nobody is going to question a fireman. I’m serious, that shit works. And if people do see you, 99.9% of them don’t want to get involved.

“A lot of people hate on graffiti and vandals because they think we are destroying a place, but I don’t see it that way. Look at how much stuff is shoved down our throats everyday because of advertisements on city buses and the metro and everywhere we look. There are study groups on how to forcibly make you like something. It is ludicrous to me that we allow these messages everywhere, but we don’t let people share their own messages. I see no difference between McDonald’s ‘I’m lovin in’ and a graffiti artist who writes ‘I love you’ on the wall. Graffiti is the freest form of expression that there is. Some people want to use it to destroy and some want to use it to make life brighter. I think that it is an obligation of mine to go out and do what I do. There are a lot of people who want free art to brighten up their lives.”

See Kelly Towles’ work here.

81 Comment

  • Who knew Greenbelt had such a violent high school? Sounds almost worse than SE DC.

    Today, on the metro, saw a young girl, reading about having a baby, somehow she looked kinda stressed. Hope she doesn’t get kicked down the stairs! (or the metro escalators!)

    Most of the lame-ass graffiti between Fort Totten and Union Station on just about everything in sight sucks, and impresses how many f’in taxpaying metro riders per day (?), though advertising sucks worse for sure (?).

  • Hooray for the petty criminal of the day! Thank you for making our environment that much uglier than it is already, sir. Your idea of “art” is unoriginal, and every time I see graffiti I call the city and/or the property owner and complain about it until it’s cleaned up. I suggest all Prince of Petworth readers do the same. Why not work to create legitimate murals with the permission of the property owner(s)? Those are fine!

    • +1! Totally agree. I guess it’s the illegality of grafitti that gets em going, but why not do something useful / beneficial to the community with your time? Murals are def prettier than grafitti.

      I hate how people substantiate their illegal activities. If it’s frickin illegal, just DON’T DO IT. How difficult is that to abide by?

    • +1 This kind of self entitlement just because you had a rough life drives me nuts. My father started beating me when I was one. You don’t see me breaking the law just because I can get back at the man that way. Find something productive to do with your time and stop being one more waste of oxygen.

    • saf

      Mr T speaks for me here.

    • That’s not free expression, it’s destruction of property.

      Once you buy a house or business, feel free to graffiti it. Do unto others and suffer their wrath.

    • I agree with you for the most part (or, for the most part of graffiti – the ugly stuff). But this person is more of an artist than a petty criminal. His/her stuff is pretty awesome. Check out the website – the artist has displayed work at embassies, art shows, etc.

      That Obama PROGRESS piece was also graffiti. Just some food for thought.

      • Ha, clearly it’s a dude. I just didn’t look at his photo closely enough (or at all, apparently). His pretty paintings held my attention. I’ve seen a couple near my neighborhood – the ones I have seen have definitely improved the spaces they occupy. But it is a shame that it probably encourages idiots form tagging nice buildings or personal property.

  • I have mixed feelings about this. He says, \I stay away from small businesses\ and \most city stuff is fair game.\

    Well, when does a \small\ business become a medium-sized business? If a business, no matter how small its origins, grows to a certain size because it is successful, it is now subject to tagging?

    And because city property is also subject to tagging, we, the taxpayers, are responsible for cleaning up his graffiti? City property belongs to the citizens; the government (and its buildings) may be soulless and unaccountable at times, but they belong to us. The gentlemen profiled here is, in essence, tagging my own property.

    I won’t even address the part where he says, \if a building becomes abandoned because someone is sitting on it waiting to make a killing in real estate, that is fair game.\ I’m sure he doesn’t know a damned thing about real estate, and whether somebody is \sitting on it\ or not.

  • Kelly, I love your art. It makes this city so much more interesting. You are wonderfully talented.

  • graffitti is fucking playedddd out. tags are nothing but shit.

  • Oh this is rich. What’s the first thing you see when you go to his website and click on the gallery button? A big message warning visitors not to steal his images because they are copyright protected. In other words, don’t break the law. At least not when it comes to doing something that affects his bottom line. But it’s perfectly fine for him to break the law and deface the property of those who he considers to be “fair game.” No problem with him taking money out of someone’s pockets by ruining their building (or in the case of us taxpayers, buildings our tax dollars will be used to clean) or advertisements in which an individual or company has invested money. But don’t think about doing anything that takes money out of his wallet. Got hypocrisy anyone?
    And by the way, his stuff pretty much sucks – in this person’s humble opinion.

    • Has anyone reported him to MDCP? The above is an admission that could be used in his prosecution.

  • best one of these yet

  • I like your art pretty well but your justifications, not so much. You think the graffiti on bridges along Piney Branch is OK? I say it’s arrogance to think you can improve that view. You think vacant buildings look better with graffiti? Personally I think a neglected building covered in graffiti looks like a really neglected building; but what do you say to the “artist” how thinks they look better with broken windows?

    There may not be a single major ad line that I detest more than McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it”. But when my garage door gets tagged, believe me, it’s not because someone wants to say they love me.

    Less graffiti please. More art.

    Props to PoP for posting this though.

    • The graffiti on the bases of bridges along Piney Branch and Beach Drive is heartbreaking. I don’t think the Park Service can keep up and they’ve taken to painting over it rather than removing it. The beige paint looks kinda sad too.

  • This is too funny. This is some sort of prank, yes? I recently moved into the district but people aren’t really this cliche?

  • Eleanor Roosevelt High School was “rough” in WHAT days exactly? When did this joker graduate? 2000? 1995? It wasnt rough then, now, or as far as I remember, EVER.

    • My brother graduated from Roosevelt in the 80s. It’s only a rough school if you’re a punk ass bitch, like 99% of taggers are.

  • What is it about this site that draws the most unhelpful, vitriolic, and negative comments? The guy is sharing a story about graffiti. While I don’t respect his craft, I can hold back from attacking his character.

    You all are pathetic.

    • It’s not this site, it’s teh internets.

    • What this punk-ass vandal does effects us, so by putting himself before us we are all entitled to have a go at him. This boy needs help. He is a blithering idiot. Freedom is not the rush you get by breaking the law.

    • What if his trade was dealing in drugs to children – some think that is ok… gets him a better life but at what cost to the community.

      Crime is Crime…

  • Bahhh.Haaa Haaa. Dude what size is that t-shirt? A childs medium? Lay off the PBR man your spare tire is bigger then the wheels on that hippster one speed. Wow i hope you look back and laugh at how you thought you were art because you’re not.

  • Paint on your own property it’s art…paint on someone else’s property it’s vandalism…love your site PoP but these vandals are craving attention and you’ve given them what they want…call the city and request this art be removed as soon as you see it in your neighborhood…graffiti removal is one thing DC is pretty efficient in accomplishing…

  • It’s art, it’s life in the city, it’s beautiful. Happy Wodensday!

  • Oh wow, he/she so tough! So cool! Awesome, dude, you are illegit to the bone!

  • Hey, Hey! Look at how non conformist I am! I don’t care what anyone thinks, because Ive got a chip on my shoulder and Im taking it out on “the man!” I’ve only got a vague idea of who the “man” is that I picked up from eavesdropping at Busboys and Poets and listening to anti-flag on my Ipod, but I’m gonna give it to him good! I hate McDonalds, and Walmart too! They make me so mad, I think Ill go blog about it on my MacBook pro!

    Then Im going to drink some PBR because it’s gritty, just like me! I grew up in a middle class suburb that was majority black, which gives me mad street cred!

    Hey! How come no one is paying attention to me anymore?

  • I appreciate Kelly’s honesty and his bravery for standing up and telling his story. I love these posts and appreciate hearing where folks are coming from. And if he or someone else tags or bombs the vacant house in clear view from my deck, I’m going to do everything to stop you and/or paint over it ten minutes later.

  • +1 I had the exact same reaction.

  • I truly appreciate street art in what ever form it comes. Kelly, I love your stuff. However, tagging and bombing are litter for our city. Scribbling your name across a wall or bus stop and claiming it is art is total BS. It’s crap like tagging that destroys street art. There used to be a great mural of Obama with his sleeves rolled up on an alley wall right by Patty Boom Booms on U st (North side btwn 13-14). It was fabulous, until some jerk decided to “punch” it.

    Street art is art and makes our city beautiful. Tags and bombs are trash.

  • Interesting story – pisses me off too. Tagging city property is ok Kelly? Who’s going to pay for the clean up? Me, my neighbors, other tax payers.

    Buildings are ok as long as you think they are abandoned or you believe someone is going to make some money on them? Really? That makes them fair game for vandalism?

    Kelly, you are committing a crime. You can justify it all you want but you are a criminal. I hope you get caught and sentenced to a bazillion hours cleaning up graffiti around town.

  • It’s an interesting story. I think that’s more the point than deciding whether or not we would vote him off our island.

  • Does anyone know where this guy lives? If so, please publish. I think anyone who has been victimized by graffiti (my property has, repeatedly) should drop by every week and spray paint crap all over it. He’ll certainly have no cause to complain about our “art”!

    I’m glad that so many of the wonderful artists in DC are channeling their energy more productively, to create the many fantastic public murals that are highlighted on this blog. Spray painting your name on someone else’s property is not remotely equivalent to art.

  • Plus one, that is absolutely hilarious. I actually like his art, I think he is talented. But yeah, it is the very definition of chutzpah for him to ever cite copyright protection, or any other property right. His view is clearly that there are no property rights, and he should live by that in regards to his own work.

  • Great story! I love hearing personal perspectives from the people who make DC home. Thanks Kelly! And thanks for posting PoP.

  • This is good entertainment for a slow Wed. morning!
    I will say his art is pretty cool, but at the end of the day it’s a crime and a blight to the community. Nothing says urban decay more than a building that is tagged up. It’s an eyesore. I remember most of the “writers” back in the day (early/mid 90’s rave/hardcore scene) were just a bunch of suburban kids from potomac and points beyond, wasn’t Borf from Great Falls??

    But I think the person who pointed out the hypocrisy was spot on. It’s ok to destroy your property, but don’t you dare to take my image without my permission and proper compensation…give me a break.

    Talk about peter pan syndrome…someone needs to grow up.

  • I guess most of you can’t read. He said he dosent tag peoples personal property. I think your garage is safe from him.

    • Whatever he is tagging, someone owns it and has to clean it up, whether a business owner, property owner, or taxpayer. And how does he know what is or is not “personal property”? Does he do a detailed title search before he engaged in tagging, or does he just get to decide what “deserves” to be defaced?

    • Dude, I guess YOU can’t read.

      He tags buildings – buildings are personal property or “city stuff” (property paid for by the taxpayers).

    • In Kelly’s best case, ALL of graffiti in the city is the product of taggers who have, or eventually will have, rules — like he does. But what good is that? In the interim they’re still “knuckleheads” doing “dumb shit”, same as Kelly did. And there’s a never-ending supply.

      The bottom line is that even if you accept “good graffiti” vs “bad graffiti”, there’s no way to get the one without getting the other. Kelly think’s that’s OK but I don’t.

  • If you don’t like to look at it on the streets, then go back to IOWA! This is a city, and cities have street art.

    • ahh I was waiting for the typical “go back to…” remark.

      Hey Street art is one thing, but I hardly consider a city building or a bus with a bunch of tags art. Tagging is what really bugs me. No skill involved in running around with a Fat tipped magic marker and defacing property.

    • Defacing public and private property is NOT street art.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t Kelly Towles just publicly admitted to committing multiple crimes? Can someone please call MPD and now have him arrested?

  • i think a lot of you are missing the point… Kelly knows what he is doing is illegal, that’s the main reason he does it — the rush. all of you saying “its not art its a crime” are wasting your breath — he knows it is a crime, that is part of the “art” in his mind. I’m sure if he got caught he would enjoy the rush of getting caught, and happily pay the fine.

    the biggest problem i have with Kelly is when he claims that “tagging” his initials can look pretty “depending on where you put it.” That’s BS… 4 scribbled letters in white paint looks like crap everywhere.

  • I miss COOL DISCO DAN!!

  • If he’s so “brave”, he oughta show his face instead of hiding behind a mask. I’d love to kick him in his nuts!

  • Not worthy of my time in writing, but I will, and here goes:

    Uses his pretty tough childhood, life at Eleanor Roosevelt High and having witnessed a pregnant girl kicked down a stairwell all as some kind of a crutch to somehow justify the sorry life he’s chosen.

    Sorry excuse of a low life.

    Yes, here we have one stellar upstanding member of our community who brings so much to contribute positively to our city life here in our nation’s capital.

    Last month, the side of my building got tagged twice. So I’m out there having to paint over the second time with a special more expensive paint that allows me to wash it off.

    I can’t describe in polite society or on this forum what I’d do to this two bit creep if I catch him even near my property with one of his spray cans after I tear off that cloth hiding his sorry face that looks like some South American narc gangster.

    He, if he is a he, should be taken out to the woodshed for what his father, if he ever had one, should have done years ago.

    Good post. Thanks. Take a good look, because I well have.

    Yes, here’s the product of our modern day “it takes a village” creed of sloth and deceit.

  • Graffiti art ?

    I’ll give you some graffiti art you miserable, rag-headed, heathen, miscreant bastard.

  • You know threating someone with violence is a crime. Think about that one interweb tough guys.

  • Jesus, I almost mistook this comment string for the Gallery Place Metro. I am glad nun yuz are there right now. There would be a grafitti riot. Kelly I can still see your little dudes from the condos down the street and it makes my day every day. Thanks for your story.

  • Haha wow. My brother and quite a few of my friends went to Roosevelt – its actually the best public school in PG county. Let’s see… my brother is a programmer, my friends are in scientific research and engineering… yeah, its THAT rough… I don’t know he overcame.

    I went to Laurel High, which is considered far worse. I’m LOLin at this.

    • Roosevelt has a great science/tech magnet program. The rest of the school is not so great.

      I also went to Laurel.

  • What is with you pithy emo-tards? The next thing you’ll do is bitch sbout some chicken painted in the alley behind Whole Foods and have them paint over it! OHHHHH you already did that too.Th next time I see you dinks I am gonna tag your Lincoln beard and $1000 glasses. Maybe tonite.

  • sometimes i read this blog and hang my head in shame. for such a progressive city, there certainly are a lot of squares around here. This guy bares all and all you do is laugh, say call the cops and tell him he’s a scum derelict.
    What makes you so much better than him? What gives you the right to pass judgement on him? maybe this guy did have a rough childhood. Maybe he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. IT DOESN’T MATTER! You all seem to think that the LAW is the bottom line, and that breaking it automatically makes you a menace to society, and it simply isn’t the case. morality and worthiness of a person are not determined by whether a person stays within the confines of the law. True, it’s a dick move to mess up someone else’s property. I do not condone vandalism against a person’s property under any circumstances, and if i caught him tagging the side of my house, i’d probably have to pin him down and call the cops. That said, grafitti is indeed a fantastic form of expression. It’s guerilla art at its finest. I personally am a HUGE fan of the grafitti along the redline trains from NY ave towards silver spring – namely because it’s neglected space, belonging to the city. I FULLY support people decorating that part of DC because it makes my commute looking out at urban decay of our nations capital a whole lot more exciting.

    You all want to sit here and judge someone’s worth by what they give back to society. You are the most judgemental bunch i’ve encountered, the kind that make me hate living in this city. Worst of all, you guys are getting so riled up that you’re THREATENING VIOLENCE (kick him in the nuts? honestly?) against a guy who probably hasn’t affected your life in any way shape or form. Communicating threats is a crime, so by your own standards, you’re lowlife scum as well now. If you’re so much better than him, why resort to violence? why resort to empty threats (because lets face it, if you saw that guy in a back alley and it looked like it was gonna go down, i’m pretty sure most of you would pee yourselves and run away). It’s astonishing to me that you guys want to snitch on this guy who just shared his story, admitted that the rush is based on breaking the law, but NOT that said rush is based on harming a person’s private property. You’d be locking up one of the more talented artists in the area, leaving you with dumb kids tagging their psuedo-crew names on corners and in alleyways. Personally, if a grafitti piece stirs emotion based on it’s aesthetic qualities, let it stay (4 letter word scrawls, no thanks). The world is a drab place and we need some more damn color on the streets!

  • Perhaps he’d do well to read this book, it clarified lots of these issues for me…


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