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With a $15,000 fine, St. Petersburg graffiti artist learns to grow up


Here is Julian Grimes' fantasy:

He lives in New York City, a splattered Bohemia where both street art and rules have gray areas. By day, he and his girlfriend run a "culture shop" where people buy art, vinyl records, vintage clothes or nothing if they're broke.

At night, sneaking outside and rattling a spray paint can isn't out of the question.

Here is Julian Grimes' reality:

At 22, he spends 75 hours a week inside Central Deli, a minimart on Central Avenue. He rings up cigarettes and beer and potato chips and ham sandwiches. He makes $7.50 an hour.

He can't move to New York. He is shackled to this city, because he literally painted himself into a corner.

Getting out — growing up, really — is complicated.

"I feel like a sellout," he says. "But if I go back to my old ways … I don't know where the even keel is."

• • •

"I've tagged that before."

It's a small electrical box across from Starbucks in downtown St. Petersburg, a mundane cog of infrastructure most people wouldn't notice. Grimes, his paint-pocked knuckles wrapped around a coffee, fixes his ice blue eyes on it.

"It's not doing anything. It's not going to do anything. I'm not necessarily making it look better. I'm altering the state of something that's sitting there."

He has tagged a good chunk of the city, roaming by bicycle at night like a supervillain, spray-painting surfaces with his logo, "JPEG." To those who run businesses and keep order, street artists like Grimes are lowly vandals. Grimes thinks they have a point — but they don't entirely get it, either.

"It's a subculture," he says. "Every time I see a tag, I get off my bike and look at it. Graffiti is just a form of communication. Letting people know you're there. That you exist."

Grimes has lived in St. Petersburg his whole life, attending art programs in school. When he was young, his drawings had intricate elements. Army guys or vigilantes had guns, guns had meters and scopes and radars.

"I was always more focused on the details. Everything had to have an attribute. I was very nitpicky with it."

He was an eighth-grader at John Hopkins Middle when a classmate introduced him to graffiti. He started reading about the history of street art — ancient hieroglyphics in caves, political messages in wartime, New York subways, gang culture, hip-hop.

Letters captivated him.

"These things had shadows on them," he says. "They were complicated. It was like, wow, it was so pretty. I think of it as a romantic movement. People don't value the letters anymore. They don't think there is art in letters. There is."

When he was 14, he started spraying the sketchy parts of the Pinellas Trail, the ones "just begging to be painted up." He practiced whipping out a tag in fast, fluid motion. On an early outing, he remembers being chased by police.

He got away.

• • •

Grimes is bright and prefers to think in big theories rather than specifics. He is keenly aware of how his brain works, which he explains by connecting a constellation of air dots with his finger.

He has attention-deficit disorder. He'll start with a thought, then move to another, then another. Then, when he realizes he is off track, he'll try to circle back to the original thought.

He dropped out of Gibbs High in 11th grade and then passed the GED test. He drank and experimented with drugs, which calmed his brain but fueled his confidence to act out. When he was 18, he got busted for prescription pill possession and DUI. Court-ordered rehab helped him get control.

The graffiti was another addiction. Grimes' tagging had increased to a nightly excursion, usually between 3 and 5 a.m. when the world was asleep.

"I felt that ninja appeal," he says. "I know as a graffiti artist, I'm putting myself at risk. That's why I do it."

The more he painted, the bolder he got. The tags crept out of alleys and onto things that were prominent, clean and commercial. He felt invincible.

In the wee hours of Dec. 27, 2007, Grimes went out with a younger cousin, did some tagging, then went home. But he couldn't sit still. He wasn't satisfied. He went back out.

He rode up and down Fourth Street on his bicycle from 20th Avenue N to Central, tagging private property like Outback Steakhouse, Panera Bread, real estate offices, a moving truck and a garden center.

"I just didn't give a damn," he says. "I didn't care about anything, which is a bad thing and I recognize that. I was just being really dumb."

When the police caught up, he tossed his cans into the bushes, but he couldn't hide the silver paint that gloved his hands. All told, the criminal mischief charges that night amounted to eight felonies. A judge sentenced him to five years of probation and told him to pay a $15,000 fine during that time.

And, of course, ordered him to stop tagging.

• • •

Graffiti in St. Petersburg has ebbed and flowed through the years. It spiked to an all-time high in 1995 with more than 2,200 reported cases. The city started a graffiti removal program in response. Today, when people call a hotline to report graffiti, a worker responds within 48 hours to cover it up.

"We have laws and ordinances that keep people from doing it," says Bob Turner, the sanitation department's fleet management director. "Just because they think something is neat, it doesn't mean it's okay to do it."

The numbers sank to 332 in 2005, then went back up to 1,242 in 2008.

"They've gotten back in check through 2009," Turner says. Reports have gone from dozens to one or two a week. Workers keep a graffiti database, which helps them recognize artists even when they change their tag — someone's "R" is an "R" no matter the word.

"It's kind of a pride issue," he says. "I've yet to see any here that I look at and go, 'Wow, that took talent.' Most of what I see that comes across my desk is the bubble lettering. The vast majority is indecipherable scribble."

Grimes thinks it's more than that. He walks a line between guilt and defiance.

He understands why tagging makes people angry, especially on private property. He points out that he isn't into the violent gang aspect of street art. And he gets frustrated when things that are supposedly tax-paid and public — like parks and trails — are scrutinized the same as private businesses.

Tagging and being a good person aren't mutually exclusive, he says.

"I'll walk this old lady across the street, and later that night I might go tag up a building that she owns. In my eyes, I didn't mess up my community. I'm not trying to hurt anyone."

• • •

Grimes has perhaps the most understanding girlfriend someone in his position can have.

Brittany Gomez grew up in Brooklyn mired in a sea of street art. Her father, she says, is a famous New York graffiti artist known as Sex from a group called Tats Cru. She once worked in a St. Petersburg real estate office that Grimes tagged before they knew each other.

But even she gets nervous.

"I know the difference between when he comes home from doing something that he is supposed to do to when he has that sinister grin on," says Gomez, 25. "We're always holding our breath, like, what's going to happen if he goes out and decides to do something? It's the same way you'd feel if your boyfriend is a heroin addict. What if he relapses?"

After his 2007 arrest, someone ratted on Grimes for penning his name on a bathroom stall in a bar. He called home and told Gomez that he might be in trouble for violating his probation. While on the phone, she saw a pair of his shoes in the corner of their apartment and broke down bawling.

He got off with a trespass warning that night.

Grimes has matured in the past two years, he says. He pays $500 a month toward the bills, in addition to his $250 monthly court fine.

"I cook and clean," he says. "I'm paying rent. I'm doing things that I never thought I would. It feels good."

He spends most nights after work painting canvases at home. He has painted murals for local skate shops and hair salons and bars, including one outside Central Deli, and several pieces for neighboring Fubar, a club. He has presented some work at local art shows.

"He is at a point, I think, where he knows this is really fun and awesome, but he is growing up a little and moving on to being an adult," Gomez says. "He realizes that there are more constructive ways of going about doing what you love."

For now, he's stuck at Central Deli, where his brethren still come in the night and tag the walls outside.

And because it's part of his job now, he paints over it.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.

With a $15,000 fine, St. Petersburg graffiti artist learns to grow up 03/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 6:36pm]
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