Off The Wall

A tagger gone legit struggles to pay for his past art sins

Up-and-coming visual artist Tony Bones is looking forward to his next show at the Webb Gallery out in Waxahachie. Things have really started picking up for the 23-year-old in the past several months, with various incarnations of his trademark character—a stick figure with droopy hands—making appearances at local art galleries. The trouble with the Waxahachie show, however, is that Bones cannot legally attend it.

It's the stick figure's fault. The line drawing that's now gracing indoor walls across Texas was once more commonly seen on the sides of buildings, garage doors and warehouses. Bones spent his teenage years tagging Dallas with his signature style, and last year, it finally caught up with him. Arrested in a citywide tagger sweep just a couple of days before Christmas in 2005, Bones got three years probation for his spray-paint-fueled antics. As a result, it'll be 2009 before he's technically allowed to leave Dallas. So, what about the Waxahachie show?

"I guess I'll have to send my evil twin," Bones grins, shoveling a forkful of the lemongrass beef lunch special into his mouth at Mai's Vietnamese in East Dallas. Nowadays, Bones is reformed—several thousand dollars in legal fees and a curfew every night will do that to a man. But the bills don't pay themselves, even with a blossoming art career. That's where Deep Ellum's Kettle Art Gallery comes in. This Saturday night, proceeds from a one-night Kettle Art benefit show featuring artwork donated by about 20 local visual artists, including Bones, will go to the former tagger's legal fund.

Kettle Art owner, painter and mural guru Frank Campagna acknowledges that a benefit show for a graffiti artist is a strange move for a legit gallery.

"I don't endorse illegal artwork," Campagna says. "I know people don't want it on their buildings." But Campagna's been working with and mentoring Bones for years now. The Deep Ellum tunnel mural brought the two together: Campagna, as the project's supervisor, and Bones as a scrappy kid with a signature stick drawing he wanted to paint on the tunnel walls. When Campagna first saw Bones' work, he says, "I remember saying, 'This is fantastic!'"

So when Bones' mom approached Campagna at a Kettle show last summer and told him all the trouble her son had gotten into—he's featured on the Dallas police Web site as an arrested tagger, photo and all—Campagna decided something had to be done. Bones' work, some of his first non-graffiti art to be shown in Dallas, was a big hit at that show, and Campagna didn't want to see Bones' efforts to become a legitimate artist overshadowed by his legal troubles. As far as making a good name for oneself goes, Campagna says, "fucking up people's property is not going to make it happen."

Dallas has historically been known for its lax attitude toward graffiti, something that's changed drastically in the last couple of years. City council member Angela Hunt is the city's lead crusader in the new fight against tagging, citing lowered property values and increased crime rates in areas with graffiti.

"It's the broken windows theory of crime," Hunt says. "If an area looks rundown, it's a signal to criminals that it's open season in that neighborhood." Hunt has organized a $196,000 per year graffiti-eradication program to start in 2007. Based on the city of Phoenix's model, the Dallas program will employ three people who will be on call to clean up any graffiti reported by residents. Right now, says Hunt, if a resident's property is tagged, they'll be fined twice if they can't afford to clean it: once for the graffiti itself and again for not cleaning it up in a timely manner. Next year, the city will just come clean it up for free.

Bones, who used to tag under the name "SOLER," wasn't part of a gang or, as he says, "a big ring of terror." He just liked drawing, and in the ninth grade, when paper didn't do the trick, he moved on to school desks and bathrooms. Eventually, it "just snowballed into this all-consuming thing," he says.

Arrested several times over the years, Bones had a months-long trip to India planned when he was "popped" back in December 2005. Travel plans fell through, and Bones will be forced to wait out probation thanks to the many thousands of dollars in damages he's likely caused over the years. Fellow former graffiti artist Sergio Garcia, who organized the benefit with Campagna at Kettle Art, says he knows just what Bones is going through.

"I've had to deal with it too," says Garcia, who spent time in jail for tagging. The 29-year-old now airbrushes motorcycles and wanted to help Bones move on from his tagging past and into the art world. Part of the Kettle Art mission, according to Garcia and Campagna, is to bolster the careers of unknown and unusual local artists, be they painters, tattoo artists or, like Bones, former graffiti artists. The relentlessly humble Campagna insists that the Bones benefit is mostly about paying goodwill forward.

"I lucked out because older artists pointed me in the right direction," he says. Campagna, who's been painting artist portraits on the side of the Gypsy Tea Room and other murals on Dallas buildings for years, says he wouldn't be where he is today if somebody hadn't given him a leg up as a young guy.

"That's the way real artists are," Campagna says. "They help each other." But it's a delicate balance for Campagna, who says he "doesn't want to be known as the graffiti tag artists' best friend." He has to stay respectable with "the establishment" as well. But he doesn't like it when underground artists aren't given the respect he thinks they deserve.

"The fine art world is so isolated and stuck on itself that no artist stands a chance unless they're willing to kiss ass," Campagna says. Soft-spoken and oozing boyish charm, it's hard to imagine Tony Bones not sweet-talking even the most stuffy of gallery owners into putting his work on display. Even for all the trouble it's caused him, Bones looks back on his graffiti days fondly.

"[Graffiti] reminds people there's life in the city," Bones says, "not just ads and commercialism." Bones only spent one day in jail—he didn't even get a jumpsuit, he jokingly laments—but the experience taught him a lesson and forced him to concentrate solely on creating legal art. The Kettle benefit, which features donated work for sale by Guy Reynolds, Mark Nelson and Kate Mackley in addition to Campagna and Garcia, will be held all evening this Saturday, December 2, at the gallery on Elm Street.

Lest any admirers get the wrong idea about being bailed out by benevolent mentors, Bones laughingly insists: "Stay in school, kids. Go to church!"

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