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.
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“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.