The white-painted cinder block wall inside 808 Indoor Skatepark doesn't look like much, but it's got Robert Levering and his pals practically drooling.
Canvases like this one don't come along every day. The business owner actually wants graffiti on his interior wall. Leave your mark here, and it'll stay for years, forever maybe, or at least as long as kids keep riding skateboards and stubby bikes.
Such permanence is rare for street artists, whose work tends to be ephemeral, here one day and whitewashed the next.
His buddies are eyeing the wall hungrily, but no one gets to touch it except Levering, a 29-year-old plumber who goes by the name of Entake. His sobriquet derives from his appetite when he was growing up.
“I was always eating all the time and drinking, you know, soda pop or whatnot,” he says. “I couldn't stop. I'm a big boy. I had some friends who started calling me the Intake Machine. It kinda stuck.”
Even now, Levering is a burly guy, about six feet tall and with four months' growth of dark brown beard. His hair curls out of the back of a black ball cap, and he's wearing a black T-shirt over paint-spotted jeans and brand-new (and ill-fated) Nikes. He could be intimidating if he tried, but that doesn't seem to be his nature. He smiles too easily, laughs a lot. He says he loves his life.
As well he should. He's got just about everything he ever wanted: a good job, a wife he adores, two dogs, supportive friends … and this wall. This glorious, open wall.
As long as there have been walls, humans have felt compelled to decorate them. In that respect, Levering and company are building on a tradition that started thousands of years ago.
At a stretch, cave paintings could be considered an early form of graffiti. The images — representations of humans, animals, hands, spirals, hunters and more — predate written language and were designed using simple tools (spears, sharp rocks) and colors derived from organic materials such as berries, charcoal and clay.
As humans grew more sophisticated, so did the marks they left behind. Graffiti has been found in ancient tombs in Israel and throughout Roman-held lands. Examples exist in Turkey and Greece. Vikings left graffiti; so did the Maya.
In Pompeii, the Roman city-state partially buried in A.D. 79 by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, archeologists have discovered dozens of inscriptions that show our ancestors weren't all that different from us. Among the inscriptions are insults, sexual remarks and boasts. Many bear the names of the wits who wrote them.
“We two dear men, friends forever, were here,” reads one of the tamer tags. “If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus.”
Others are hateful: “Chie,” an uncharitable soul wrote, “I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than … they ever have before!”
At least one inscription laments the unwanted prose: “O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.”
There's just something about emptiness that compels humans to fill it.
The best space
The skate park is mostly empty. At this hour, it's a wonder anyone's here at all.
The park occupies a warehouse on NE 46 near Santa Fe Avenue. A couple times a month, owner Patton Simpson hosts a “lock-in,” an all-night skate party. The kids — most of them sleeping — are still here when Levering, his wife, Kim, and an artist who calls himself Germ arrive shortly after 7 a.m. Jan. 19.
They unload supplies from the trunk of a Chevy Impala and stand outside for a while, talking to Simpson and shivering. The temperature is somewhere north of freezing, but not by much. When they move inside, they find the warehouse scarcely warmer.
“Should I turn the heat on?” asks Simpson, an expressive man who seems much younger than his 39 years. “What do you think? Do we need some heat?”
Nobody answers. The obvious response is yes, absolutely, turn the furnace on, but no one wants to tell Simpson what to do in his own business. He resolves the issue a few minutes later, declaring that he's cold, so he's raising the temperature on the thermostat.
Anyone entering the skate park passes through the lobby and through another door, which opens onto a cavernous space. Beyond a pair of metal picnic tables and a chest-high wall, wooden ramps and platforms stretch off into the distance. Graffiti occupies several sections of the wall space — work done by other artists sometime in the preceding two years.
The best wall in the joint has been reserved for Levering. To the right of the door are a couple bathrooms. To the left, the direction you must turn to get to the actual park, is the blank patch he will fill. Because of the room's interior geography, you won't be able to avoid his art. It'll stare you right in the face.
Modern American graffiti has its roots in the past. Like the Pompeii inscriptions, much of it is subversive. It's funny to think about, but your grandparents or great-grandparents may have paved the way for today's taggers.
U.S. soldiers spread graffiti on a global scale during World War II, largely by repeating a common meme. Wherever they went, they scrawled simple drawings of a long-nosed man peering over the top of a wall. Each was accompanied by the same declarative sentence: “Kilroy was here.”
By the 1960s and '70s, graffiti was common in many of the world's major cities. It became attached to countercultural movements, punk rock and political causes. It was both a voice for the voiceless and an act of vandalism. Already, though, it was emerging as a confrontational means of artistic expression. As the 1980s neared, graffiti artists were finding appreciative audiences in galleries on the East Coast.
The latter decades of the 20th century gave rise to rap and hip-hop. In the early days, at least, it was a natural partner for graffiti; both were urban forms of outsider art, risky and young, each growing beyond its borders.
Casting a shadow over both was gang violence. Beyond a doubt, graffiti is bound up with gangsters, who tag public and private property as a way to expand turf and build reputations. A whole vocabulary, impenetrable to most Americans, is spelled out on tagged railway cars, commercial buildings, billboards, benches, street signs, bridges and more. At their simplest level, such tags identify members of gang sets, but they also threaten and taunt, generating real-world consequences.
Not all street artists are gangsters, though. Graffiti artists chafe at being lumped in with tagging thugs, particularly now that graffiti art is being sold by brokers and has found its way into the homes of celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera. Certain spray paint virtuosos, most notably British stencil artist Banksy, have elevated the form to the point where their illegally painted creations are valued as public art. One of Banksy's pieces, “Keep It Spotless,” sold for a reported $1.87 million at a 2008 Sotheby's auction.
Banksy is interesting, as well, because he has kept his true identity secret all these years. His work reveals him as a sly, witty, rebellious political and social commentator. Common targets include police and big business. In one piece, a man — poised as if to hurl a rock or grenade — instead is frozen in the act of throwing a bouquet of flowers. In another, a British traffic warden is painted on the working end of a steamroller, appearing flattened and surprised.
Other significant artists include King Robbo, who famously feuded with Banksy; Lady Pink, Daim, Dondi White and Blek le Rat, whose style Banksy often is accused of imitating.
The next great artist — or perhaps the world's worst vandal — may be painting walls in your neighborhood right now.
Paint and consequences
Levering doesn't waste any time.
Once his spray paint cans are arranged neatly on a folding table and work lights have been set up, Levering gets to it. He chooses a paint can, stares at the wall as if it's speaking to him, and sprays a rough outline across its surface — loops and spikes of color, overlapping one another, extending, sprawling across an area perhaps 25 feet wide by 8 ½ feet high.
It quickly becomes apparent that he's painting a stylized version of his nickname, Entake, in capital letters. Over the space of 20 minutes, he fills the first letter with green paint the color of toxic goo. Sickly spheres appear to float upon its surface; globules drip down.
It's crazy. I love it. I came from nothing, and now I have everything I want. Took a lot of hard work and hustle.”