As Hartford police Officer Mike Allen and I talked the other day about his recent arrest of two guys tagging up a wall near the service road entrance to the riverfront, I figured I could guess their identity: a couple of clueless teenagers with Sharpies.
But I asked, anyway.
That's just it, Officer Allen said, one of the guys was in his 40s. A dad. With a job.
In his 40s? Get out.
As impressed as I was with Officer Allen's uphill battle against graffiti, I had to meet this aged artiste.
So off to community court I went Tuesday, where Judge Raymond Norko tore into Eduardo Gonzalez and his 20-year-old nephew before handing down a fitting punishment — paint over graffiti in the area where they'd been caught.
When I approached the duo, I expected a short conversation. But Gonzalez was game. What'd I want to know?
Turns out Gonzalez, who is 43, started tagging when he was 16. He claims he hadn't done it for years before Allen caught him and nephew Alex Torres. Torres, new to the art form, was apparently merely the apprentice.
So, what prompted Gonzalez's coming out of retirement?
"I had the day off," he said, with a smile.
When we got to the riverfront, Gonzalez tried it another way: "It's sort of like being a retired athlete," Gonzalez expanded. "You start to see all these new taggers doing really good work on the streets and you wonder: Are they better than me? Do I still have it?"
So, Gonzalez grabbed his nephew and a few bottles of spray paint and headed out to prove himself. He'd barely laid down the foundation when Officer Allen rode up on them on his bicycle.
Doesn't that show that maybe you're too old for this, I asked. A younger guy wouldn't have gotten caught.
"Nah," Gonzalez says, brushing a thick coat of gray paint over another tagger's work. "It just shows that my eyesight is shot. I didn't even see the cop coming." Of course, the fifth of vodka they had with them that day might also explain their slow reflexes.
"How old are you, Eddie?" his boss asked when Gonzalez called in busted.
If Gonzalez was embarrassed about making that call, and having to use vacation time for his community service, he didn't show it.
Graffiti is art, he says, a way to express yourself. And although he doesn't agree with defacing someone's home or business, he thinks there should be a legitimate way for local artists to showcase their work.
Years ago, Gonzalez said he went to city hall to talk to then-Mayor Mike Peters about designating an area for graffiti artists. But he didn't get very far.
This arrest might actually help his cause. Officer Allen says he's open to the idea — anything that will cut down on graffiti and the 12 grand a year it costs to clean up the stuff.
And it's not as if graffiti hasn't already gone mainstream — you find it on everything from clothing to videos. There are tag exhibitions commissioned by museums. Art shows and galleries showcase big-buck pieces from some of the more famous graffiti artists.
So civilized, and so contradictory to the excitement of creating art under the radar, under the cover of darkness — though if there are others like Gonzalez, they're clearly getting too old for the chase.
For now, Gonzalez says he's shelving his paint cans and concentrating on getting support for his idea.
But first, Gonzalez — aka Tite — has got some more court-appointed painting to do.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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