Micsmith Ras lugs a cooler full of tattoo gear and a deck of playing cards, with his phone number written on each card, as he make house calls for his body art business. He has the look of an artist who has been working for a long time – he is covered in ink himself and wears a stylish gray brim hat, white collared shirt and crew shorts — and he has been, but not always giving tattoos. Ras helped make a completely different medium popular in Dallas in the '90s: graffiti.
Ras, who went by the name RAS13, calls himself the king of Dallas graffiti. He tagged his name all over town, in a style that continuously evolved. Now 45, he has painted countless murals across the country, including a standing 120-foot American flag in Georgia. But back in ’82, he was part of the first generation of graffiti writers in Dallas. He started painting walls when he was 12.
“I’ve been drawing since I could scribble,” he says. “I knew I was going to be an artist since I was little.”
Back then, foot traffic in Dallas was minimal and no one really noticed writing on the walls, much less cared. There may have been a few tags here or there, Ras says, but other than that, the city was “clean.” While now there’s a free wall in Trinity Groves and sleek murals are commissioned by landlords of gentrifying neighborhoods that want to preserve their edge, such as Deep Ellum and Bishop Arts, rewind to 30-plus years ago and these same walls and streets were virtually bare. The Big D was a blank canvas and most building owners didn't take too kindly to those early graffiti pioneers.
Ras wasn’t the only one painting the town but he was definitely one of the first. Marka27, Teks, Yums and Kung Fu were other active graffiti artists. By the early '90s, Ras started noticing other names popping up, too. From this handful of writers, Infinity Crew, or IC, coalesced.
“I was doing some of the first throw-ups around ’93 or ’94,” Ras says proudly. “That’s when the original crew members saw I was doing graffiti and we were magnetized to each other.”
Each member’s style varied, from the vibrant, tentacle-like forms of Ozone's art to Abis’ liquid lettering and Ucron’s exploding, tangled pieces. And while there were other writers, like Debt and Soner, IC was the city’s first legitimate crew.
Soner, who chose not to disclose his identity, moved to Dallas from San Diego in '95. With his California calm, he came to Dallas partly to escape the gang violence that plagued the graffiti scene there. In Dallas, he says, crews didn’t really affiliate themselves with gangs. In fact, they collaborated with each other.
“IC were pioneers but they didn’t do all that gang stuff,” Soner says. “That’s why it’s still not like that.”
The scene wasn’t without its beef and baggage, but at least it wasn’t about territory. Instead, it was about skill. Crew members of IC could do more than just bubble letter bombs or quickly done pieces called “throwies." They could produce full blown murals and were dedicated to growing the art form. One member, the late Minus Won, had a huge influence on younger artists. Many of the members of IC went on to become successful artists and business owners, Ras says.
“When I first moved here, there weren’t really street tags and stuff,” Soner says. “It was artists who had access to walls that were into graffiti but didn’t really know what it took to be a graffiti artist. They took advantage of these walls and their art skills to paint murals around town.”
While members of IC moved on to bigger things, other crews started popping up in the early oughts. One of them was Half Dead, whose infamy outlives them. Seminal artists in that group, such as Reign, Chemicals, Soler and Sekto, helped to spread graffiti all over town.
“When Sekto came out, he did bigger than anyone ever will do it,” affirms Ben Sharon, owner of Rec Shop, a skateboard and paint shop in East Dallas. “He killed the city.”
Sharon says the scene really peaked around 2005, when he first opened his shop. By that time, the popularity of graffiti had grown exponentially. His sales at the shop were booming and several spots had become common grounds for a new crop of tight-knit artists.
One was the Ace Parking lot in Deep Ellum, next door to Deep Sushi, which many artists describe as legendary. There, writers from across the country would meet during the day and paint for hours. Beginning in the late '90s and continuing for about a decade, the walls of the lot were covered in every shade of color and layers upon layers of paint. It was shut down around '06.
“It was definitely a beautiful part of the Dallas graffiti scene,” says one writer and member of ESK crew who chose to go by Hoamr Simpson.
There was also one spot that was virtual instead of physical. After the internet came into existence, one anonymous writer put up an online gallery of the city’s best graffiti called dallaspolice.com. For the few years that it was up, the site trolled the city, which was cracking down on graffiti artists at the time.
It was and still is illegal for anyone to vandalize anyone’s property or possess graffiti paraphernalia. With a chuckle, Simpson describes the site as having been the “pride and joy” of the local graffiti scene. Young writers like him aspired to get their photos on it, and Simpson says it demonstrated the true ingenuity of Dallas graffiti artists.
Of course, as bombs and throwies became more common the city pushed back even harder. Simpson says the effort got more serious around 2009, when the DPD created a graffiti task force to track down specific writers. There were raids and people got busted; artists were left with fewer places to paint. Simpson says his memory of that time is hazy — there were a lot of drugs around — but he doesn't think of it as bad.
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“A majority of the graffiti kids, we have this artistic inspiration but we also have a different way of thinking that’s just a separate drive,” he says. “People I know that didn’t end up becoming addicts or die are actually really skilled, not only at graffiti, but at trades ... Now we’re all older, got kids, settled down and got sober. We’re definitely on the other side of things.”
Still, Simpson reminisces about those days at Ace a lot, when the older crews ignited his creativity and shared their knowledge with him. Those days were “magical,” he says. Thankfully, the magic of street art lives on, even while so much has changed.