Strange: I drive by graffiti all the time in East Dallas. I don't even notice.
Sergeant Mark Langford of the Dallas Police Department's gang unit told me the other day: "People just drive by it like it's a street sign. It's almost become a part of the fabric of the city, and that in itself speaks volumes."
Until it's on my block. One night not too long ago I was walking my dogs and saw three young men tagging the traffic sign right in front of my house. I took out my cell and called 911.
You know the difference, right? Gang graffiti refers to the painted symbols, usually crude lettering, that gangs use to mark their territory. Tagging is the bolder, more graphic spray painting, usually in multiple colors, sometimes covering an entire façade or fence, sometimes called tag art.
Maybe you don't know the difference. Why do I? I guess mainly because I'm the parent of a middle-class city kid, a student in Austin now but not too many years ago a member of the pre-adolescent boy-hordes who swept through these neighborhoods near downtown every summer on leaping dirt bikes like bareback Apache boys on ponies.
The close-in city was raunchier 10 and 15 years ago, rougher, way less finished out and settled than today. Automatic-weapons fire rattled and popped in the alleys almost every night, and there was a little piece of us that liked it, because it kept away the sissies, out in the suburbs where they belonged.
Another piece of us was scared to death, I must admit. Automatic-weapons fire usually makes a better story than an experience. We fought for police protection and got it. Crime fell. The crack-house whore-house hell-to-pay apartment buildings emptied out of rascals. Daring developers came along and redecorated cunningly. The buildings filled up again with well-dressed, gainfully employed owners of late-model seldom repo'd automobiles.
McMansions happened. The city's Code Enforcement Department enforced. On occasion. Cops cruised, and the sissies flooded in like lemmings. Now we live in Sissy City.
Don't misunderstand: Now we are sissies too. After our youthful adventures on the frontier, we have been recovered and embraced by our own people again. I remember reading that in the 19th century when the white people tried to rescue some of their own women who had been captured by Indians, a few of those women grabbed guns, flopped on the dirt and fired at the rescuers. I think I understand.
Our kids were not suburban kids. We liked that. We didn't want them to be. We thought suburban parents and Park Cities Bubbleonians were ninnies locking their kids up inside church halls all weekend, hiring Pinkertons to protect their birthday parties.
Our kids rode the streets bareback. They owned the city. They were unafraid, and so were we. Of course, they were kids. We were idiots.
Our kids see themselves now as very different from the suburban young people they encounter in college or the Navy or wherever they may be at this point in life. Ours have a certain urban swagger--street smarts. They regard boys who flip up the collars of their polo shirts as silly. None of that do I regret.
But I do regret the hell out of some other things I am only now beginning to learn. All's well that ends well, I suppose, but I now see what a close thing it was, how easily any of us could have lost our kids to the streets. Some parents did--parents just like us, every bit as committed, with homes just as stable and centered as our own. My kid has a strong sense of his own center (he has a good mother), but I wonder how much of it was luck of the draw. Not yet 20, he sure knows a lot of middle-class kids who have been to jail and prison.
When I started working on this column, I called him in Austin to ask if he knew the identity of SEKT, reputed to be the city's most notorious and prolific tagger. I don't know why I thought he might. He said yes. I asked if he could tell me who he is. He said, "Of course not." And I don't really even know why I asked. There are rules. I knew that.
I kept looking, of course. It took about two minutes. I found SEKT the way you find everything in the world today--Googled him. Several Web sites have posted fragments of a Denton Record-Chronicle story from two years ago when he was arrested up there and charged with more than $10,000 in property damage and $6,000 in public clean-up costs for posting his signature all over the walls, fences and public utility structures of Denton.
Jay Stephen Voltmann.
I almost fell out of my chair. I checked the age. It had to be the Jay Voltmann I have known since he was my son's "big brother" at White Rock Montessori School in the early '90s. I called Libby Voltmann, his mother--a great woman, involved in the community, bright, lively. She wouldn't talk to me about any of it on the record, beyond confirming that it was her son.
I have been devastated ever since learning.
It wasn't the traffic-sign tagging that got me going on this. I forgot about that the next day. But a few weeks later I attended a crime watch meeting way the heck up in Far North Dallas, up above LBJ Freeway. I drove up there: It was so far north and there was so much Soviet-scale red brick fake-retro multifamily development, I kept expecting to see Tom Hanks come dancing out from between the apartment buildings with a million elves.
All of the people attending the crime watch meeting were apartment managers--all women between the ages of roughly 20 and 40. Dallas police officer Angie Pardue was telling them about a new graffiti abatement program. I was vaguely aware that just before Christmas of last year, the police had staged some kind of citywide mobilization to round up the city's "most-wanted taggers."
Pardue told the crowd at the crime watch meeting that the impetus for a tougher approach to tagging was coming straight from the top, from Chief David Kunkle himself. She said the worst of the taggers had defaced a number of buildings along the route where Kunkle runs for exercise, and the chief had made catching him a personal crusade. I knew, listening in the back of the room, that she had to be talking about SEKT, because I knew Kunkle lives near me in the Lower Greenville area, and SEKT is all over the place on Lower Greenville.
SEKT's tags are fat letters with arms and legs that seem to dance up out of blotchy clouds of color. I know them well. They are, indeed, a part of the fabric of my neighborhood.
When I reached Chief Kunkle, he sounded like he was at his desk trying to get through a late lunch. He soft-pedaled the idea that he had a personal crusade based on his running route: "The guy's stuff is all over town," he said. But he did say doing something about tagging is a high priority. He said tags are a big messy public signal telling out-of-control persons that the area around them is out of control, too, so they're welcome to stay and be out of control.
East Dallas city council member Angela Hunt, who also has made tagging and graffiti a personal crusade, told me that Kunkle personally led a team of officers to the Voltmann home just before Christmas 2005, when investigators were looking for evidence that would prove SEKT was Jay Voltmann.
I tried to imagine that scene--cops in the backyard, house shattered by flashing blue lights and maybe Libby Voltmann at the door, exactly the kind of person you'd go to for any big community effort like this. Only it was her kid the cops were looking for.
I looked up his sheet, and my heart cringed. He's just 22, with a healthy string of arrests, convictions and jail time. Not just for tagging. I found a couple of marijuana convictions in there too. His personal status at the moment is on the lam, ducking warrants that came out of the pre-Christmas raid last year.
Look, I don't know how to tell you this, but this was the sweetest, funniest, most charming little kid in the world. Oh, sure, beat me up: Some dumb ex-hippie liberal screaming because now it's one of his own who's going to get what he richly deserves.
I know he needs to be caught and punished. I'm sure his parents believe he does too. Within reason. He didn't kill anybody, you know.
Council member Hunt probably has the best take on it: "I can't get into the mind of a graffiti vandal," she said, "and I refuse to use the term graffiti artist. I think that is such a contortion of the word 'artist.' An artist does not damage other people's property without their consent. To call these folks artists is really an insult to true artists, who take their time and their energy and funnel it into something positive."
She's right. That's exactly how I felt when those guys were out in front of my house tagging my own neighborhood.
But let me tell you, and this is just as strong and true a sentiment: I do feel the walls of civilization closing in slowly from all four directions. There is a day ahead when inner-city Dallas will be rescued from the savages by tract-home Plano. And a part of me--not the good part, not the responsible part, not the part I tell my own kid about but part of me--is tempted to grab a spray can, flop in the dirt and open fire.
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