I never thought I would miss the smell of raw sewage.
Being a graffiti writer can take you to a lot of places your average city-dweller never sees. Graffiti thrives in the underbelly. Hidden behind retaining walls, sound barriers, and drainage ditches is a culture very few have the privilege of knowing about, let alone seeing. At 14 my friend’s mom gave him a book about graffiti and graffiti artists. They started doodling letters and names, and so I did too. My friend knew one of the big local spots – so after a few weeks of sketching we went down there in the dead of night. An isolated ditch with concrete walls running along either side of a sewer runoff, it would often smell strongly of stale sewage, especially after it rained.
Honestly, we were lucky we didn’t get our asses beat and our paint taken. We didn’t know the rules, and rule number one is that you don’t paint over someone better than you. Hell you don’t even paint close to them. This was back in the day when guys like Met, When, Arys, Sez and other TA and IOK guys were running the scene. I believe the rumor is that Met had writers from all over the eastern seaboard giving him paint out of sheer respect. Had any of them or their peers caught us down there, even with them being grown men and us being teenagers, they would have roughed us up. But it’s still a privilege to be down there.
So all through high school this place was my shrine. Regularly my friends and I loaded up our bags with paint, grabbed a couple gallons of oops paint from Home Depot, and walked down to the only part of this place we would allow ourselves to paint, often jumping over the flooded shit stream in the process. We mainly painted over ourselves; partly in an attempt to preserve the history around us and partly because we knew we sucked. But this space made us feel alive. Doing something we knew we weren’t supposed to be doing in a space we knew the cops ran people out of regularly – this is the ultimate thrill for a pent up teenager. Graffiti was my rebellion and we had found our Garden of Eden.
It eventually became an obsession. I spent long hours drawing in my sketchbooks dreaming of going all-city. My friends and I compared and traded sketches and styles constantly, but only occasionally took our painting outside of the isolated spot we felt uncomfortably safe in. Our attempt to thwart the system was only half-hearted, as in reality we were mainly innocent suburban white kids. Graffiti has always stuck with me though, even into my thirties now. It’s rare to find a scrap of paper I haven’t scribbled my old tag or throwup on.
Eventually I moved away. After college and a long stint down south I came back to the place that birthed my obsession. Of course it’s changed. I was told that in 2007 or 8 the city came through and laid dull grey buff paint over everything. The spots once held by local and national legends are now almost up for grabs, and while there is some serious talent out there now (OTE, MFK, TA crews. Uforik, Avert, and Guile some of my favorite current local writers), I still long for the days of walking through the hall of fame in the final tunnel. And now every time I’m downtown and it rains, the sewers back up and I’m taken right back to when I was a teenager. The nostalgia floods back just like the rain into the drainpipe, and I am left longing for the innocence of my first rebellion, the kind of raw sewage of my youth.
–Joe Pennington is a working artist and free-lance writer based in Cincinnati