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Let US Spray: Teen Graffiti Artists Get OK -- They'll Be Up Against The Wall, With Redmond Fundi

REDMOND - Redmond police Officer Bill Corson used to arrest Saul, Mike, Sean and a crew of semi-tough transplanted urban teen artists who spray-painted their names all over the city.

Now, after initiating peace talks with his former adversaries, this 38-year-old suburban cop is helping them find a place to practice their art.

The unlikely bond that's been forged between Corson and a subculture of outlaw graffiti artists, who call themselves "taggers," short for tags or nicknames they spray-paint on walls and signs, has kept Redmond graffiti to a minimum since June.

In exchange for their honoring a plea to stop tagging in Redmond, the City Council has agreed to build a wall solely for the youngsters to practice their graffiti art. It will be the only such "legal wall" supported by an Eastside city - and the very first publicly sponsored one in the Seattle area.

Seattle officials say two other cities, Denver and Los Angeles, once sponsored graffiti walls but had to shut them down because the painting spread beyond the legal area. There are several private businesses in Seattle, however, that allow taggers to decorate their outside walls.

Corson is well aware that it's a controversial solution, one that could backfire if the teen taggers get out of hand and vandalize property near the wall or return to their illegal tagging around the city. But he thinks the risk worth it.

So, too, does the Redmond council - although they didn't think so at first.

"I was 100 percent against it," said Councilwoman Sharon Dorning. "How can you take something wrong and make it right?"

But Dorning changed her mind. The teen taggers who showed up at council meetings, and Corson's faith in them, convinced her. The council voted unanimously last month to build the wall.

"I was impressed at how sincere the kids were," says Dorning, a mother of three. "They were not bad kids. Some of them had purple hair, and that's OK too."

Corson says the Redmond taggers are not involved in gangs. Most are in their late teens, come from troubled families and belong to one of two different tagging "crews" that work the greater Seattle area.

Redmond's graffiti problem began in 1991, when taggers began "bombing," or writing their nicknames, in spray paint on every surface they could reach. But the problem really took off in early spring. "The downtown business area, the park-and-ride lot - we were getting hit everywhere," Corson says.

Corson tracked them down by staking out areas where they worked, even hiding in bushes some nights. Police made about 25 malicious-mischief arrests, but the tagging didn't stop.

And Corson, who was starting to know the taggers well, began to see them as more than just a rebellious group of teens with outrageously oversized jeans cinched to fit their skinny frames. He learned their language and recognized a single-minded dedication to an art form that made him feel it was more than mere vandalism.

So Corson organized the taggers and together they went to the Redmond City Council and talked it into building a wall for graffiti art. The cost has yet to be determined but estimates range between $3,000 and $15,000.

Dorning notes that the city spends thousands of dollars each year to maintain sports fields for athletes. Building a wall for graffiti art was a minor investment, she believes - especially since Corson and the kids are trying to get local businesses to donate money or supplies.

Like Corson and like her fellow council members, Dorning was impressed by the intricate, colorful murals called "piecework" that the taggers create when they are not spray-painting their names all over the city.

The wall will be built on a vacant city-owned lot at 83rd Street and 161st Avenue Northeast, near the Metro bus station downtown, and should be completed early in the year. It will be 8 feet high by 32 feet long, and if it's a success, two additional walls will be added to give it a horseshoe shape.

It'll be a place for taggers to paint murals, which are often worked out in advance in artist sketch books by the taggers.

"Graffiti, to me, is cool because it gives me a lifestyle," says 17-year-old Mike of Redmond, who moved here from Southern California. "It's a cool scene to be in. It's a brotherhood."

Mike and the other teens have promised to stop their illegal tagging within the Redmond city limits, but they also say they don't expect to be able to resist the lure of tagging forever. Part of the thrill of tagging is doing something illegal.

"If I get caught, then, cool," says 16-year-old Sean, who has been arrested several times before for malicious mischief. "It wouldn't be any fun if the cops said, `Go do it.' "

That makes the wall something of a dilemma. Because they doubt they'll be satisfied by legal piecework, taggers say they'll probably continue to tag - to experience that adrenaline rush that makes tagging addictive, and for the fame that comes from putting a tagging nickname up all over a city.

Corson winces when he listens to talk like that.

He's arrested many of these kids before and, despite their promises, he knows there's a good chance he may have to arrest them again.

"They're going to be true to what they feel," Corson says. "It's hard for me to even begin to control that. . . . There are two different viewpoints here."

But the bottom line is that since they reached a truce in June, there's been almost no tagging in Redmond. In 1993, Redmond spent about $10,000 to clean up graffiti. Neighboring Kirkland spent about $20,000 in the same period removing spray-paint tags, and in the unincorporated area just outside Kirkland, another $100,000 in spray paint damage was done to area schools.

"I do not believe it's going to be really socially acceptable in the community," says Councilwoman Dorning of the wall. "But I think it's worth giving them a chance."

1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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