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Cabbagetown graffiti showdown

Can taggers express themselves — and keep the neighbors happy?

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The man with the snowy white beard and aquamarine eyes stood quietly near the back of the room and listened as his neighbors spat at each other. The monthly meeting of the Cabbagetown Neighborhood Improvement Association is often spirited, but seldom has it been filled with this kind of vitriol. The man, Rodney Bowman, felt partly to blame.

And no wonder. The meeting produced several not-so-veiled references to what happened nine days earlier, in the early-morning hours of June 29. On that morning, Bowman, responding to the neighborhood's growing agitation about the perceived spread of graffiti, allegedly took matters into his own hands. According to an Atlanta police report, Bowman camped out in a tree and pounced on two would-be taggers.

"I'm my neighbor's keeper," says Bowman, who, at age 43, has lived in Cabbagetown for nearly half his life. That's far longer than most of the two-dozen residents who gathered for the meeting.

He arrived in Cabbagetown as a homeless man in the late '80s, when the community was firmly blue-collar, and he's seen his own lot improve as the neighborhood gentrified. A self-trained carpenter, Bowman helped his neighbors recover from the massive fire of 1999 that torched the nearby Cotton Mill Lofts, and from the tornado that touched down in Cabbagetown earlier this year. "I always get involved," he says. "And I guess that's why I'm in the spotlight now. I got involved."

Bowman "got involved" after some neighbors decided, unbeknownst to some others, to clean up the graffiti gracing a long brick wall at the north end of the neighborhood. The wall flanks the opening to the graffiti-saturated Krog Street tunnel, a dank expanse that's widely known as a "free space" for taggers to express themselves.

The same free-for-all attitude, however, does not translate to the wall, where tagging has been alternately tolerated and excoriated. Tensions over the wall peaked when graffiti-styled tags – and straight-up vandalism – began cropping up on Cabbagetown's sidewalks, trash cans and a local church.

As a result, a few exasperated members of the neighborhood association, who call themselves the Wallkeepers Initiative, decided to paint over the wall with the blessing of its owner, CSX railroad. In the process, they covered a mural by renowned Atlanta graffiti artist Totem – a mural that originally had been commissioned by the neighborhood, and later defaced by a tagger who sprayed it with the word "overproduced."

Not all neighbors supported the Wallkeepers' decision.

"I thought it was oppressive to have such a big change in the neighborhood overnight," local artist Karen Tauches said during the meeting. "Y'all did something without the greater community's support. It's audacious, what was done."

The tension in Cabbagetown speaks to the city's ongoing uneasiness with graffiti and the understandable confusion between vandals and taggers, gang signs – of which there are relatively few – and artistic expression. And Cabbagetown, with its strong contingent of artists and its shabby-chic aesthetic, is well-positioned to participate in the debate about benign vs. offensive graffiti. Tim Sullivan, a member of the Wallkeepers Initiative, acknowledged the difference: "We certainly understood that a lot of these works [in Cabbagetown] were much more outstanding than some of the tags you see around town."

Even Bob Bridges, owner of the old Dixie Seal & Stamp building on North Avenue in Poncey-Highland, is able to delineate between the tags that have hit his building recently and the city's more promising graffiti art.

"It's not terribly creative," Bridges says of the graffiti he paid thousands of dollars to remove from the Dixie building, despite the fact that it's about to be torn down. Bridges says he cleaned up the building to keep taggers from hitting neighboring businesses.

"The truth of the matter is, some graffiti is pretty interesting," Bridges says. "This is not."

Joshua Ward, a 19-year-old graffiti artist who lives in Grant Park, says there's a certain code that taggers are supposed to follow. "Most people don't hit houses," says Ward, whose graffiti moniker is "Meek." "They don't hit churches or businesses. That's just random kids."

Ward breaks down graffiti into four types, a continuum stretching from bad artwork to sublime.

"Tags are the ones that everyone hates," he says. "Those are done real quick, like writing your name. Those are the ones that people usually get in trouble for. I'll admit, if you have a building full of tags, it kind of looks bad."

Then there are "throw-ups," a more artful, though still quick, bubble-letter design. The local graffiti artist called Vomit has a bunch of those around town.

A step up from a throw-up is a "burner." "It's more than a throw-up, but it's less than a piece," Ward says. "There are a lot of burners in the Krog Street tunnel."

And then, finally, there's the piece.

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