Most Sundays, the graffiti writer who goes by the moniker SCENT is out walking the industrial areas of Los Angeles. He’s a photographer or a flicker as it’s called by the graffiti community. Patrolling alleyways, pushing aside garbage, dodging excrement, obsessively photographing tags, he’s trying figuring out how he can be a better tagger. Just how high you can climb as a tagger, I was about to find out.
A tag way up on an awning — SCENT snaps a picture. A tag scrawled on a second story window — he zooms in and snaps another picture. SCENT uses the photographs as a means to access his community on Instagram and also to study for his own benefit.
SCENT: I didn’t do it for the likes or the follows. It was just an extra thing I did while I went out writing. The name, Flick The Cuts, I don’t even know why I chose it. I was just thinking about something else and it just stuck.
Flicking the cuts means he’s photographing areas not on the street view as opposed to legal murals.
SCENT: ‘Cause nobody likes legals. They’d rather keep it illegal. ‘Cause if you do something legal you know you’re asking permission. That’s the opposite of what graffiti is supposed to mean. It’s supposed to be freedom.
Within his graffiti community, SCENT has expectations to live up to. JASK, a well-known tagger in Los Angeles, says that, for a fledgling tagger, “you gotta know the rules. Know your background. Respect is key to this game.”
After that, aspiring writers need research and practice.
The building block of graffiti is a small tag made with a paint marker. SCENT carries one around when he photographs to practice his lettering. Once you master the marker tag — called a “streak” or a “mop” — you learn the spray can.
The most basic spray paint tag is called a “throw up” or “throwie.” When you see a bubble letter tag on a truck or a rolling door, that’s a throw up. Every good writer makes it their mission to craft a simple but memorable one.
NERPH, for example, uses the first two letters of his moniker as his throw up. He learned to shape the NE into a dog, effectively making a memorable tag.
If taggers have more time, they’ll use a few cans extra to make a more elaborate piece called a “burner” or a “bomb.” Typically this is the one with multiple background colors, 3D and more stylized letters. But it takes time, a luxury that many taggers do not have.
Once aspiring writers develop technique and style, the other half is about placement and timing.
JASK: I usually wait! I like to see when tags — like, yo that tags been rocking there for three weeks. We could bomb it! Because I don’t want to go and waste my paint and it’s gone the next day.
In just a few back and forth motions with their paint sprayers, graffiti removal can turn a colorful tag into beige square. Mario Gomez works for Gang Free, a non-profit dedicated to graffiti removal and gang prevention and education. Mario says graffiti writers call someone like him “the buff.” It’s not uncommon for taggers and the buff to play cat and mouse.
MARIO: NERPH that’s his name I think. I follow him because he was out in our area for a really long time, posting that dog or the paw print at first. Then he started adding more character to it. Like for christmas he’ll have christmas hats. He would put the dog’s tail up like throwing up the middle finger. Anytime I would see him, I would try to take it out. After a while, he acknowledged it and started writing things like, why are you using cheap paint?
You might think the buff is hated within the graffiti community, but, according to SCENT, “the buff is needed ‘cause without the buff everyone’s gonna fight for the same spot.” It’s a symbiotic relationship of sorts. And it also separates the strong writers from the weak ones — tagging enough so as to stay ahead of the buff is risky, exhausting and pricey.
JASK: Dude, paint’s expensive. You’re talking about 5 dollars a can and you need ten cans for this bomb. That’s $50. And if you do it everyday, can you support that habit of $50? It’s like having a drug habit. So you “rack.” Racking is stealing. You have to steal as a graffiti writer if you want to be someone in it. And I do it every day. I do it every day.
SCENT indicated this is the hardest thing about being a graffiti writer. The hustle isn’t for everyone.
SCENT: I couldn’t bomb for the same reason I couldn’t rack, so I didn’t get called out for most things. So I was a nobody. You know the cuts is just the same thing. You can go out practice, do your own thing and no one is going to tell you anything.
Although SCENT is still developing in some regards, he’s not resigned. Lately, he channels all his efforts into documenting. He hits the cuts — those back alley areas that you can’t see from the street.
Walking along the industrial yards by the I-10 freeway, he checks a gate leading into a promising alleyway. It’s open. The gate is guarded, however, by a homeless man who is wearing a red dress and an old lady wig. His name is Cedric. His attitude toward graffiti is similarly matronly. When I asked if he thought graffiti was good or bad he said:
Cedric: It’s good. Because when I was a kid, I had all kinds of outlets. They don’t have an outlet. Ok, some of those guys are gangsters, they come hooded and stuff like that. But most of the guys are graffiti experts. They tag everything.
With Cedric’s blessing, SCENT, explores the painted alleyway. It’s actually a well-known landmark among the Los Angeles graffiti community. They call it “The World’s Smallest Alley.” For photographer’s like SCENT, it’s a goldmine. It’s a secluded place where writers can practice their tags. It’s a cut. But this cut is like the sistine chapel of graffiti. The pipes, the dumpster, the window panes — even the battered AC unit has become a piece of tagger history.
SCENT pushes open a sheet metal pane leading to a staircase. He steps over mounds of trash, dragging aside a rusty metal box spring. He’s been hunting tags for almost five hours now. And you have to wonder, is it just a passing obsession, or is he inspired by something more?
SCENT: That day I noticed, where MSK used … What do you call those planes that drop those cloud figures or smoke?
SCENT recalls the moment that made him want to become a tagger where he saw a plane that graffiti writers hired to skywrite the name of their tagging crew.
SCENT: “Mad Society Kings.” I just saw it all in the sky one day. That just fucking took it. That shit was it. I wanted to start writing. I wanted to be some shit.
We look up briefly. I could imagine how watching a plane slowly, and deliberately spell out a word could be powerful expression of freedom. How between the first and last enormous cloud letter, stretching out across a blank slate of sky, nothing else matters.