I first saw Homer Simpson around the corner of the KIRO Radio offices in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. The doughnut-eating cartoon icon I grew up with was distinctly spray painted on a sidewalk behind some shrubbery. And he wasn’t alone – this was just the beginning.
Homer began showing up at quite a few places. Another sidewalk in Eastlake, and then in the University District. On an electrical box off Ravenna Boulevard, on the wall of a diner in Roosevelt. Then on the boarded-up Ying’s Drive-In on Lake City Way. He was popping up in the most random places I passed. Sometimes his nose was painted a bit off, other times it was an unmistakable likeness.
Graffiti in a city is visual white noise — it’s faded into the landscape and often overlooked. But Homer stood out. Maybe it’s because of his celebrity status. Maybe because he was painted in locations many other tags weren’t. Homer, as I found him, wasn’t painted in places he would be easily seen — not oft traveled sidewalks, around corners of buildings. And I admit that it became a minor obsession to find Homers hanging out in Seattle.
I asked around town and no one else seemed to be noticing him. I even reached out to The Simpsons and got a reply: Woo hoo.
— The Simpsons (@TheSimpsons) June 2, 2016
The only person in Seattle that seemed to have any clue about what I noticed was Seattle Police Detective Chris Young.
“I’ve seen it. It’s quite good, actually,” Young said. “He’s a good cartoonist. I do not know who is doing it.”
But it’s probably no surprise that Young has seen Homer. He is Seattle’s very own graffiti detective.
Seattle’s graffiti detective
In 2010, Seattle began studying the problem and discovered that cities with successful anti-graffiti programs had their own graffiti detective.
In 2011, Detective Young became Seattle’s first graffiti detective, working with the Criminal Intelligence Unit. While he bears the title of graffiti detective, he investigates a range of crimes in Seattle.
His job involves reviewing every graffiti report that comes through SPD, much of which is written by the public. He keeps a record of common tags, creating a trail of evidence. When a person committing a graffiti crime is arrested, Young can then tie them to a string of other incidents. He personally arrests about two taggers each year. Patrol cops come in more direct contact on the street and make more arrests.
The charge against those caught for graffiti is generally for property destruction.
“There are a lot of myths about graffiti – the biggest one is that people think that it’s all gang related when only a tiny percentage of it is. Another myth is that it’s just kids when most of my offenders are adults.”
It’s myths such as these that Young has documented in a website he manages solely about graffiti investigations – Graffipedia. On it, he lists out the common characteristics of taggers, many of whom defy stereotypes.
– 71 percent adults (average age of 23)
– 77 percent white
– 89 percent male
– Primarily middle-class
Seattle graffiti culture
The graffiti scene is a very distinct sub-culture and it is filled with very passionate participants.
“They take it very, very seriously,” Young said. “That is the thing that surprised me most when I got this job. For some of these guys, graffiti is their life.
Young said that a sense of community and fitting in is part of the attraction to graffiti, but the primary reason people tag is the thrill.
“The motivation is thrill-seeking and attention-seeking behavior,” Young said. “They view it as an extreme sport, like bungee jumping, because there is an element of danger — getting hurt or falling, or being caught by police. They talk about getting an adrenaline rush by doing it.”
“Sometimes people will shoplift when they have money because they enjoy the thrill of getting away with something – it’s the same thing,” he continued. “They tell me they are addicted to it, and they get a rush from it.
“When you go online and read their forums, they don’t talk about art that much. It’s more about being a bad ass.”
Another myth, according to Young, is that graffiti is about art. Graffipedia shows a range of graffiti forms from tags to hate-crime related forms. There are some that bear messages, and others are somewhat artistic – Homer Simpson would fit into that last category.
“The guy doing the Homer Simpson tag, he can draw,” Young said. “But most people that are really good at street art do it legally because there’s demand for that. I make a distinction between street art, and graffiti.
“Most of our bridges have street art,” he said. “The north end of Aurora Bridge has a beautiful mural on it … there’s an artist named Henry Ward who makes a living do this.”
Seattle’s graffiti neighborhoods
Young goes to many areas of Seattle for graffiti reports, but he spends a lot of his time in Ballard and the International District – these are the two most tagged neighborhoods in Seattle. Those areas have what is called high “buff and burn” ratios.
“Targets are selected based on their buff and burn characteristics,” Young said.
Buff and burn is basically an equation to calculate where to tag. “Buff” is the likelihood and time span a tag will be removed. “Burn” is how much eye traffic a tag will get – as if burned into your memory.
Low buff but high burn locations are prime targets, and Ballard and the International District have plenty.
“For example, the back of every sign on I-5 have graffiti all over them,” Young said. “The reason is because the guys who work on the freeways are not willing to risk their lives to clean it off … they have to block off lanes and get a cherry-picker. So it’s going to stay up there for close to a year. The Columbia Tower in downtown Seattle has high traffic, but it will be cleaned up immediately. That’s the thing about Chinatown, there’s a lot of abandoned buildings down there right now.”
That posed a bit of a dilemma: by snapping photos, and writing about Homer Simpson, did I just contribute this tagger’s burn? Well, yes.
“There are some graffiti detectives that would freak out, ya know, don’t give them attention,” Young said. “But I think it’s a good thing to discuss. It’s a part of urban life – it’s something to deal with.”