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San Diego graff artists confess

Tags more trouble than pieces

“When I got into high school, in the mid- to late-’90s, is when I really started writing. I say ‘writing,’ because ‘tag’ or ‘tagging’ seems kind of corny to me.” — Kahlee
“When I got into high school, in the mid- to late-’90s, is when I really started writing. I say ‘writing,’ because ‘tag’ or ‘tagging’ seems kind of corny to me.” — Kahlee

KAHLEE

I rock a dark hoodie when I walk these streets.

A scribe with streaks, no heat. My steps discrete.

Brass knuckles for these suckas with beef.

I need graffiti in cities surrounding me to make my life complete.

So go the opening lines in rapper Kahlee’s circa-2005 song “Graff Life.” Many graff heads worldwide look to it as an anthem of sorts for the misunderstood lifestyle. On YouTube, the song has racked over a million clicks since it was uploaded in 2008. Today, when Kahlee isn’t working at his day job and being a father and husband, he’s putting in time on his #HipHopWEDS and @BarsWeekly online platforms for San Diego hip-hop artist features and local events. Last November, I met with him near his home in Mira Mesa.

“Do you still tag in 2021?” I asked.

“I have a scribe in the car right now,” he replied. But it’s not like I carry it with me. It just happens to be in my car in case I ever wanted it. I got a streak in the house. It’s like a paint marker and kinda like a dope adult crayon. I got an acrylic tube in the house. If I go on tour, I probably go mobbin.’”

“So you don’t fuck with San Diego?”

“No, that’s not how it is, bro. I’m just not active. If I’m somewhere and we’re chilling, and my homie pulls out a streak, I’m probably gonna catch a spot. [But] I’m not gonna be taking a streak with me to catch spots.” That’s now. But back then, “I got with a group, and we called ourselves The Literates,” recalls Kahlee. “It was two other dudes and me. One used to write in a crew, and the other homie, Anti, was active at the time, too. Anti was our DJ and our producer. In the song, I’m saying that’s a part of the game: you’re gonna be running from cops; you’re gonna be running from rivals; you’re gonna be running from cats who just don’t want you doing that shit. It is what it is.”

Kahlee first experimented with tagging as a grom in Gardena, a city in Los Angeles’ South Bay, in the early ’90s. He was influenced by his brother, who had been a graff-artist in the ’80s, and Brew from the WCS (We Can’t Stop) graff crew out of L.A. Kahlee gave a shout-out to Brew in the song:

I used to see it as an ignorant act of turf marking,

‘Til my man, Brew, showed me the journey that he embarked in.

I started rockin’ spots with flames, names to gain some shine.

Some started but stopped in due time.

Kahlee wasn’t part of a tagging crew; he was a “one-er” who ran solo. “I didn’t have homies to mob with. I was a dude who always had a streak and always had a scribe. I was never as dope with the styles, let alone piecing or even bombing. But it was more about getting up, and it was more about going places, you know? When I got into high school, in the mid- to late-’90s, is when I really started writing. I say ‘writing,’ because ‘tag’ or ‘tagging’ seems kind of corny to me. But I guess everybody got a different opinion. If the cop said ‘writing’ instead, maybe I’d say something else.” When he graduated, he started heading down to San Diego, among other places. Many other places. “And as I got older, I would drive around. If I’d go on a trip somewhere, I’d catch a few spots out of state. I remember one time, pulling up to a rest stop, and I pull out my scribe to get a spot on the mirror. And I was like, ‘Motherfucker writing my shit.’” Then he realized: “It was me. Like, I don’t even remember being here. But I got a spot here.

Krown's Graff Vernacular

“So, was that the main reason why you tagged?”

“My personal reason for writing was to, like, show where I’ve been — even if I don’t even know who else would see it. Man, you know those people who send postcards from all the places they go and travel? It was kind of like that for me. And I’d scribe a spot because a scribe is a lot harder to buff. So I like catching spots that are going to stay there forever. I don’t need the biggest glamorous spot that everybody in the whole city’s going to see for three days before it gets buffed. I only want the same motherfuckers like me that’s gonna see it 10, 20, 30 years later.”

But it wasn’t all scribing. Kahlee also tagged spots with 12-ounce aerosol paint cans. From “Graff Life”:

It’s just another fad for some; it’s just the “thing to do”

But I seen it as 12 ounces of soul that I could escape through

Get It Done

In 2021, there was a 35 percent increase in graffiti removal requests made on San Diego County’s Get It Done (GID) app: 22,595, up from 16,693 the year before. The city’s website notes that response time can vary based on whether the graffiti is on public property, which takes about ten days, or private/residential properties, which takes about 32 days. Al Aliment, a 66-year-old Allied Gardens resident, told the Reader in February that he “turned in seven graffiti reports in 2021. Three tags were on SDG&E and AT&T utility boxes, and all were closed out within two days of my submission. The other graffiti was painted over between one week to one month, which is good for covid work conditions.”

Aliment, a U.S. Army veteran, drives around his neighborhood, east of the 15 and north of the 8, to seek out new graffiti tags and report them for removal. “This is the neighborhood I grew up in,” he says, “and this is my home. No punk tagger is doing their trash where I live.” Aliment opines that taggers tag “as they have not done anything else they can be proud of, and their parents failed to teach them respect for other people’s property.”

But while Aliment may have a point about property, there is respect and pride within the graff-life lifestyle, as I found out during my interviews with both parents of taggers and former taggers that are parents.

Iph

On December 22 of last year, I linked up with Iph on Broadway and 25th in Golden Hill. Iph is a 44-year-old prevention specialist in the mental and behavioral health field for children, adolescents, and their families. He asked that the Reader address him by his graff pseudonym. About two weeks prior and a mile and a half away, down by Commercial Street and 16th, he had painted a “piece” depicting his graff name in purple and silver, with icicle-type details next to a character resembling the Grinch. “Piece” is street shorthand for a spray-painted “masterpiece,” which is not to be confused with the more basic “tag” — something Iph admitted to making in his past. Tags are quickie-throw ups of a name, nickname, or a crew name, done with a pen, marker, spray paint can, and, said Iph, “liquid etch. It’s a chemical, so it’s burning into the actual glass in your handwriting.” We gazed at an example on the building across the street. “That’s a forever tag,” he noted. “The only way that’s coming off is if you replace that window.”

About ten feet away from the damaged window, some vandals had tagged the neighboring restaurant’s signage in yellow ink. “It’s a couple of tags, quickies,” he continued. “The person probably ordered something real quick and moved on.” We proceeded to the corner and looked across the intersection at San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Station 11, where a San Diego Police officer stood by monitoring traffic. Then we looked up at the back of the signal light, about nine feet in the air: two tags were evident in white ink. “It’s a simple process,” Iph said, explaining how the tagger might’ve gotten up. “You get your hands on one of the bars right here, you pull yourself up, and put a foot on the crosswalk button. Once your foot is up, it’s a ladder system right up. There are many tag names around here. This one’s been here a couple of times and probably is from around this area.” Iph also noted that taggers in this area utilized solid paint markers, while others used liquid markers with ball bearings inside. “And those are etching scribes,” he continued, pointing at a tree into which someone had carved their name. “Those tools are usually used in construction for marking things, like specs and measurements.”

In 2021, there was a 35 percent increase in graffiti removal requests made on San Diego County’s Get It Done (GID) app.

Some tags come ready-made: stickers were plastered onto light poles and electric boxes, both at eye level and high up on the pedestrian crossing signals. “So the slap tag is a whole another element to the graff game, like our version of NFTs before they were a thing. You have a story behind whatever logo or image that you use. You can use either an image that reflects or represents you, or current trending kind of icons that you Photoshop and make yours.” Most of the stickers we saw were mere remnants, and the tags were faded. Iph continued: “So those are USPS mail stickers. That was the original way we started stickers. We didn’t have this vinyl- or UV-coated sticker stuff back then, so what we did was just rack (steal) it, and afterward, sit there and draw on ‘em. And that’s where that slap tag started.”

One of the slap tags we noticed depicted a bus cartoon with a three-digit number. “That’s the crew’s bus route. They adopted that, as they would bomb the crap out of the bus they were riding in because it got them out of there. So now that sticker is their little symbol.”

“Can you get punished for slapping stickers?” I asked. “I see a grip of those at restaurant drive-thrus.”

“Yes, it’s still vandalism,” he responded. “What graffiti is and what vandalism is, by definition, is the application of a medium to a surface — period, point-blank.”

“So, why’d you tag?”

“I would think it’s centered around some kind of trauma,” he answered. “Because what would compel a kid to want to risk his life for tagging his name over and over again?” In the ’80s, Iph’s single mother moved him and his siblings from Los Angeles to San Diego. In those days, you would hear reports about So-Cal taggers falling to their deaths while climbing to elevated spots. Others were allegedly killed over territorial beefs. He bowed his head, deep in thought, then continued, “So the ‘why’ for me was a broken home, trying to figure out what my role was as a male and the oldest born, going from one city to the next, and trying to adapt. With our public schools, we’re exposed a lot of things that aren’t adequate, you know? Kids are being left behind and falling through the cracks. In the ’80s, that was rampant. And some things happened to me that I just needed to express.”

Iph picked up his first 12-ounce spray paint can in 1987; he was 10 years old. “Feeling oppressed and not being able to express can drive a person to excess. Once I felt that pressure of spraying and I saw the paint being dropped,” that was the point of no return, he recalled. “It’s on there, and I now make that connection. I release that chemical, and then I’m feeling accomplished. So now I want to replicate that feeling. And then I consistently write my name over and over, almost like a drug addict. I just don’t know that it’s a drug, so I just keep doing it. So if I write my name 21 times, I now have a habit.”

If you want to prevent graffiti, said Iph, you need “local grassroots community groups that are not just about graffiti-abatement programs,” and instead offer programs that “empower the youth, educate them right. Let them know that we can positively show you that there is a method to this madness. And to be able to help out the youth properly, you have to be able to utilize those that have been there and gone through that process.”

Writerz Blok

Krown One, or simply Krown, is a graffiti artist and former program coordinator of the Writerz Blok graffiti yard in Chollas View, on Market Street near Euclid. Locals claim that this was the first legal graffiti yard in the U.S.; its 10,000 square feet offered walls that stood eight feet high and thirty feet wide, about half the length of a train’s boxcar. The yard would draw the who’s who of the local graff-art scene, including Dyse, Sake, and Brisk, and many others from San Diego County. Besides that, worldwide graffiti artists would fly in, roll through, spray paint a mural, and then jet out. Like pieces, murals differ from tags. They are often enormous, hyper-colorful pieces sporting 3D letters, and sometimes featuring cartoon characters.

Iph picked up his first 12-ounce spray paint can in 1987; he was 10 years old. “Feeling oppressed and not being able to express can drive a person to excess. Once I felt that pressure of spraying and I saw the paint being dropped,” that was the point of no return, he recalled.

Sometimes, local youth came to the yard and found inspiration. Other times, they didn’t have a choice: when the San Diego Police Department caught them tagging, they were sometimes dropped off at the facility. Krown and his co-coordinator Sergio Gonzalez would teach those first-time offenders how to spray paint art murals legally, how to navigate graphic design programs, and how to screen print their own shirts using the facility’s manual press. “When I was young, we thought you had to be super rich to [print shirts], like Marc Eckō,” Krown told me. “You could go to a shop, and a two-color print would run $3.50; a color plus the second color will be an additional dollar. Those are things I didn’t know when I was 16 years old, so I know the next 16-year-old that the police bring in here doesn’t know that. And a lot of the youth that were coming through here had a connection through art. So we were like, ‘Let’s show you how everything works before you go to a screen printing shop and try and apply for work there, or start your own company.’ Every screen printing shop will have at least one of these setups, so we figured, ‘Let’s buy one and help these youth build a foundation for themselves.’”

The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation funded Writerz Blok in 2003, right around the time MySpace was getting started. It didn’t take long for social media to become a key marketing element for the kids making their mark on the Blok. But it wasn’t all business: many old school muralists came by, and the camaraderie they offered helped fill the voids felt by many taggers. Krown said the Blok drew about “500 youth, community members, visitors, and artists from around the world” every month. I was among them. Sadly, facility closed in October 2021 to make room for housing. In the months since the program left the Market Street lot, new tags have been emblazoned on the former venue’s nearby signs, and on nearby trash receptacles, street lamps, and buildings.

“The land for Writerz Blok was always set for redevelopment and buildout,” a Jacobs Center spokesperson said last October. “To ensure continuity and provide it a strong home, Writerz Blok was transferred to an excellent partner in UPAC (Union of Pan Asian Communities).” Krown and Gonzalez have followed the project to the UPAC facility in City Heights. “Another yard is in the making,” Krown said, “and we are trying to identify a location. We’re talking to some real estate friends of my [UPAC] supervisor, so that way we can find some good spots for a yard. That’s needed in the community wherever you’re at. It’ll be more of an art park/school, because we are going to continue teaching classes and workshops in the future Writerz Block and outside.”

Krown

In December, I paid Krown another visit. This time, he was prepping for a trip to Crawford Community Connection and the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility to teach graffiti art to the youth.

I asked him, “Why do people tag?”

“It was just something that you kind of ‘monkey see, monkey do,’” he responded. “You see it on the walls, and you’re like, ‘Well, I want to write my name, too.’”

In 2019, Krown was commissioned by the juvenile office of the district attorney. The 15-foot piece he produced was titled “Alphabetic Evolution,” and it “represented the struggle and accomplishments of a teenager who at some point needed direction and words of wisdom.” Krown, now in his early 40s, recalled attending third grade at St. Jude Academy in Southcrest. “I had to wear a uniform and met Mother Teresa there. One of my homies that also went to school there was Renee. I can’t remember his last name, but his older brother was from TMK. And he showed up with like a cutout metal stencil that said TMK. I was like, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s my brother’s crew.’ To this day, I don’t know who his brother is, but I remember going to Tijuana and seeing the big rollers over there and big throw-ups of TMK.”

Writerz Block closed in October 2021 to make room for housing. In the months since, new tags have been emblazoned on the former venue’s nearby signs, and on nearby trash receptacles, street lamps, and buildings.

TMK stands for “Too Much Kaos,” an ’80s tagging and graffiti-art crew. In a 2017 Reader article, I interviewed Spek One, a former TMK member who grew up in Sherman Heights. To this day, Spek is known for “rocking the billboards and ‘mean-greens.’” Spek said that he tagged for the adrenaline rush back in those years between 1988 and 1993 when he’d “get-up,” climbing billboards and freeway signs to spraypaint his own moniker or his Too Much Kaos crew’s acronym. The Tribune did a story on his chaotic defacements of the 805 and 163 freeway signs around 1990-1991. There are rumors that the California Department of Transportation lined San Diego freeway signs and billboards with barbed wire and other deterrents partially because of Spek’s all-city rampages in the early ’90s.

Young Krown followed TMK’s lead and began tagging. “So in the third grade, I was already catching tags drawing this dumb shit, Then I go to a public school, Marston Middle School, and it’s everywhere: carved on desks and in the back of the school bus. I used to write P-I-L-O-T when I first started, and I loved the markers, the fat jumbos, and whatnot.” He also salvaged spray paint cans left behind by the older cats in his Shelltown neighborhood.

Like Iph, Krown flew solo. “I didn’t get picked up by anyone; I just kept to myself. I saw their styles and how they were up. I would go to TJ for the weekend or during the summer, and I would see their stuff over there, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck, they are out here?’ I’d go to L.A. to visit cousins and uncles, and look out the window and see it over there, realizing, ‘Oh, it’s not just San Diego.’ And I’m like 12 years old, and not on a mission to go bombing, just looking out the window and seeing more crews: TKO, SKA, and TMK. Then I changed my name to Krown One. Back in high school, there were a million other names, and you’re trying to kind of find yourself, you know, find a style, find the letters.”

David Aguilar / Anthony ‘KIDS’ Aguilar

Anthony’ “KIDS” Aguilar was a Chula Vista tagger from the 1990s punk rock scene. His character-based tag was a simple one-dimensional sketch of a kid with his hair parted to the side but missing a nose, signed ‘KIDS.’ At times, he also added DAC to his tags, an acronym for Destroy And Create, his tag crew — or a 4DC. That’s what’s on one of his last tags, on a Chula Vista garage, that reads “THANKS FOR EVERYTHING...DAD...LOVE YOUR SON.”

“He always left us surprises,” said David Aguilar, KIDS’ father.

Aguilar was born on April 17, 1975; he died on March 31, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “He tried to stay away from San Diego County,” explained Aguilar, “and later throughout the years, you can see why. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people that could point it back at the parents for vandalism.”

Aguilar and his grandson, who requested anonymity for this article, invited me inside their house in Chula Vista and opened up their books. The grandson, who is in his teens, saved his tio’s art scrapbooks and black books. Black books are sketchbooks that taggers and graff-artists pass around to one another to autograph, tag, and piece — a custom reminiscent of the yearbook huddles on the last day of school. KIDS graduated from Castle Park High School in Chula Vista in 1993. At the time, he sketched party and gig fliers for his punk rock buddies. The designs eventually developed into the KIDS character. “As soon as they graduated, that’s when he started traveling,” Aguilar said.

On the 12 OZ. Prophet online forum, user Varsity Letterman once wrote, “[KIDS] was pretty much the epitome of what could happen if punk traveler culture and graffiti ever came together. I liked watching him tag — he would kinda jump into it and ‘pop into action’ and be super fast all of a sudden and was done before I even fully realized what just happened. I liked that he always had a pocket full of different tools on him at all times for different surfaces and was the kind of guy that would find two half-cans and somehow make a night of it.”

Anthony’ “KIDS” Aguilar was a Chula Vista tagger from the 1990s punk rock scene. His character-based tag was a simple one-dimensional sketch of a kid with his hair parted to the side but missing a nose.

12 OZ. Prophet is an online shop for lifestyle gear, graffiti-art supplies, and print-and-bound literature covering the graff scene. Its online forum is a place where taggers, graffiti artists, and purveyors have been connecting since at least 1999. The site’s About page warns, “If You Don’t Get It, This Isn’t For You. It’s ridiculous to think that anyone can truly understand style or culture by clicking around the internet. It requires effort, sincerity, and a trust that is only built through participation. Authenticity doesn’t follow up a cheerful greeting with hollow conversation; it’s a guarded character that gradually rewards persistence. Pay your dues…”

There are multiple homages to KIDS on the site; one of them runs 17 pages deep. It would appear that KIDS paid his dues to the lifestyle he chose when he hopped onto his first train out of San Diego County. “He did so many characters in Deep Ellum [a Dallas neighborhood] that you can still make many of them out after the buff jobs,” user bigtruckchase posted on the forum. “If your graff survived in buff crazy Dallas, you did something right. His graff was so great even my Republican dad liked him. One of my dad’s colleagues in Dallas used to jog...and would take pictures of every KIDS he came across. He then made a collage and hung it up in the break room to cheer everyone up.” KIDS brought smiles to many people in the midst of his “all city” missions; throwing up pieces throughout Dallas, Austin, Oakland, and Pittsburgh. The latter city is where he met his girlfriend, who would give birth to their daughter. “She calmed him down a lot,” said Aguilar.

On the 12 OZ. forums, a few graff heads who met KIDS on his travels said he was generous and thoughtful. His parents confirmed the sentiments, showing me handwritten letters and handmade gifts he’d send to them via snail mail, signing off as “Anthony.” One art piece was for Father’s Day; it appeared to be a Jesus Christ statue that KIDS had modified and handpainted.

KIDS would often return to Chula Vista between his adventures to recharge and re-ground himself. When the Aguilars put new concrete down on their property, KIDS etched into it “HOME SWEET HOME” with two hearts — the left heart inscribed with “MOM” and the right one with “DAD.”

He etched other things as well. “When he was in San Diego, the thing that he did the most was like a heavy-duty scratcher that would scratch into a sink,” Aguilar continued. If you look hard enough in the Mi Rancho taco shop on Main Street by the Naval Base on South 32nd Street, there’s a KIDS scribe lurking. “It’s in the bathroom, right in the sink,” Aguilar said. “It’s where you open up the knobs. And he might even have a date right there.” Aguilar paused, then mumbled, “I think that’s probably when he tagged that sink.” He pointed toward the kitchen, where a framed photograph of KIDS’ daughter was hanging. “That’s my little granddaughter; we’re eating carnitas together at the taco shop. So I think that’s probably the time that he tagged the sink.”

Aguilar also recounted the time when he pulled up to the now-defunct El Gallo Petrol gas pumps on 3rd by Palomar Avenue in Chula Vista. “I was pumping gas, and the sun was shining. Right when I turned, I was like, ‘Oh shit, that’s his tagging right there on the gas pumps, right by where you leave your credit cards.’ He had scratched all that KIDS in there.”

The grandson busted out his tio’s old photos, original art, and the paint-stained stencils he used on his missions. “By Kobey’s Swap Meet, there was mostly a lot of KIDS stickers,” added Aguilar’s grandson, who now sleeps in KIDS’ former upstairs bedroom. “I have all of his records, too, including an old Wu-Tang Clan.” On the 12 OZ. forum, user Mydeadfriends recalls kicking it with KIDS when the band’s second album Wu-Tang Forever dropped. “I met [him] in Minneapolis back in ‘97-’98. We both were into hopping trains, hitchhiking, and Greyhounds as a last resort, [then] drinking and punk rock. If there [are] a few things about graffiti that I learned from [KIDS]: graffiti is a secret identity; fuck the tough guy/gangster mentality; you don’t have to ride crews...“ Many of the people on the forum shared similar sentiments regarding KIDS humble and peaceful demeanor, except for one time when KIDS allegedly squabbled in Austin with a would-be world-renowned artist. Other than that, I could not find many negative comments, despite his all-city rampages that left a trail costing property owners and taxpayers thousands of dollars.

The photos Aguilar and his grandson shared with me showed that KIDS would tag pieces that looked 8-10 feet tall. Aguilar recalled a time when he picked up his son at an Austin pad where he’d been partying. “He goes to me: ‘Hey dad, can you take me to his one place?’ So we went out of the city, and I took him to a fleet store, and he goes, ‘They use these markers for cattle, and some of the markers are, like, waterproof; you can use them when it’s moist and stuff like that.’ So that’s what he used to use for heavy-duty tagging.”

“Did anybody know who KIDS was?”

“Nobody knew. The only people that knew who he was were some of his close, close friends. One of his good friends out there was Thor, and Damien from El Centro. Everybody kept it between friends.”

“Why did he do it?

Aguilar looked down, nodded his head, and replied, “I don’t know.”

“Did it hurt you when you saw his tagging?”

“No, I was just surprised, because I know a lot of people that get creative doing different work, right? But I’d never seen it to that extent.”

“So you thought of him more as an artist? You didn’t look at him and like ask, ‘Why?’ — like almost scolding him?”

“No. We all got different outlets to release ourselves. Growing up in Chula Vista and different areas, with cholos doing different tagging and stuff like that. There are different meanings for the tagging; they just don’t tag for the hell of it. There’s always something behind it. And even when he came to town to visit, he would see tagging and go, ‘Oh, so and so is in town, and they’re going to do this.’ I asked him, ‘How the hell do you know?’ and he goes, ‘Well, you read the tag, and they communicate that way to you and stuff like that.’” It was a little different for my wife — KIDS’ mom — because she was [viewing it] more as a homeowner and business owner. He did a lot of damage to different places. Back in the day, they didn’t have the powerwash machine, and to see a brick building that is all tagged up, and some of his characters are massive... And then all the little ones that he did on different stores, you know, that were just like, scratches, wherever they had a glass. I was more surprised to see some of the etching on the glass: God damn, they got to replace the whole window right here.”

Aguilar noted that he had found a video in KIDS’ stash. It contained a clip of his son tagging in Pittsburgh. “That’s when he almost got caught the first time. After that, he left Pittsburgh, then went to Austin, then moved to Oakland, and then he came to visit us. We probably would never see him again after that.”

KIDS is still alive on Instagram: IGers from all parts of the world post photos of his “get ups” and “damage,” then hashtag the images with #RIPkidsdac, #RIPkids4dac, #kids4DC, and #kidsdac. Aguilar continued, “He left his mark, and people are still following him.”

“And does that makes you feel good?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he responded, “in a sense. It takes a lot for somebody in the graffiti community to be respected on the 12 OZ. Prophet site. Not so much here in San Diego, but in Pittsburgh, Austin, Oakland, and those other places, I know people still respect him a lot. Especially when somebody writes: ‘Man, seeing the little KIDS character every morning going to work, you know, that kind of keeps you motivated,’ and stuff like that. Or to see him popping up out of the blue.”

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“When I got into high school, in the mid- to late-’90s, is when I really started writing. I say ‘writing,’ because ‘tag’ or ‘tagging’ seems kind of corny to me.” — Kahlee
“When I got into high school, in the mid- to late-’90s, is when I really started writing. I say ‘writing,’ because ‘tag’ or ‘tagging’ seems kind of corny to me.” — Kahlee

KAHLEE

I rock a dark hoodie when I walk these streets.

A scribe with streaks, no heat. My steps discrete.

Brass knuckles for these suckas with beef.

I need graffiti in cities surrounding me to make my life complete.

So go the opening lines in rapper Kahlee’s circa-2005 song “Graff Life.” Many graff heads worldwide look to it as an anthem of sorts for the misunderstood lifestyle. On YouTube, the song has racked over a million clicks since it was uploaded in 2008. Today, when Kahlee isn’t working at his day job and being a father and husband, he’s putting in time on his #HipHopWEDS and @BarsWeekly online platforms for San Diego hip-hop artist features and local events. Last November, I met with him near his home in Mira Mesa.

“Do you still tag in 2021?” I asked.

“I have a scribe in the car right now,” he replied. But it’s not like I carry it with me. It just happens to be in my car in case I ever wanted it. I got a streak in the house. It’s like a paint marker and kinda like a dope adult crayon. I got an acrylic tube in the house. If I go on tour, I probably go mobbin.’”

“So you don’t fuck with San Diego?”

“No, that’s not how it is, bro. I’m just not active. If I’m somewhere and we’re chilling, and my homie pulls out a streak, I’m probably gonna catch a spot. [But] I’m not gonna be taking a streak with me to catch spots.” That’s now. But back then, “I got with a group, and we called ourselves The Literates,” recalls Kahlee. “It was two other dudes and me. One used to write in a crew, and the other homie, Anti, was active at the time, too. Anti was our DJ and our producer. In the song, I’m saying that’s a part of the game: you’re gonna be running from cops; you’re gonna be running from rivals; you’re gonna be running from cats who just don’t want you doing that shit. It is what it is.”

Kahlee first experimented with tagging as a grom in Gardena, a city in Los Angeles’ South Bay, in the early ’90s. He was influenced by his brother, who had been a graff-artist in the ’80s, and Brew from the WCS (We Can’t Stop) graff crew out of L.A. Kahlee gave a shout-out to Brew in the song:

I used to see it as an ignorant act of turf marking,

‘Til my man, Brew, showed me the journey that he embarked in.

I started rockin’ spots with flames, names to gain some shine.

Some started but stopped in due time.

Kahlee wasn’t part of a tagging crew; he was a “one-er” who ran solo. “I didn’t have homies to mob with. I was a dude who always had a streak and always had a scribe. I was never as dope with the styles, let alone piecing or even bombing. But it was more about getting up, and it was more about going places, you know? When I got into high school, in the mid- to late-’90s, is when I really started writing. I say ‘writing,’ because ‘tag’ or ‘tagging’ seems kind of corny to me. But I guess everybody got a different opinion. If the cop said ‘writing’ instead, maybe I’d say something else.” When he graduated, he started heading down to San Diego, among other places. Many other places. “And as I got older, I would drive around. If I’d go on a trip somewhere, I’d catch a few spots out of state. I remember one time, pulling up to a rest stop, and I pull out my scribe to get a spot on the mirror. And I was like, ‘Motherfucker writing my shit.’” Then he realized: “It was me. Like, I don’t even remember being here. But I got a spot here.

Krown's Graff Vernacular

“So, was that the main reason why you tagged?”

“My personal reason for writing was to, like, show where I’ve been — even if I don’t even know who else would see it. Man, you know those people who send postcards from all the places they go and travel? It was kind of like that for me. And I’d scribe a spot because a scribe is a lot harder to buff. So I like catching spots that are going to stay there forever. I don’t need the biggest glamorous spot that everybody in the whole city’s going to see for three days before it gets buffed. I only want the same motherfuckers like me that’s gonna see it 10, 20, 30 years later.”

But it wasn’t all scribing. Kahlee also tagged spots with 12-ounce aerosol paint cans. From “Graff Life”:

It’s just another fad for some; it’s just the “thing to do”

But I seen it as 12 ounces of soul that I could escape through

Get It Done

In 2021, there was a 35 percent increase in graffiti removal requests made on San Diego County’s Get It Done (GID) app: 22,595, up from 16,693 the year before. The city’s website notes that response time can vary based on whether the graffiti is on public property, which takes about ten days, or private/residential properties, which takes about 32 days. Al Aliment, a 66-year-old Allied Gardens resident, told the Reader in February that he “turned in seven graffiti reports in 2021. Three tags were on SDG&E and AT&T utility boxes, and all were closed out within two days of my submission. The other graffiti was painted over between one week to one month, which is good for covid work conditions.”

Aliment, a U.S. Army veteran, drives around his neighborhood, east of the 15 and north of the 8, to seek out new graffiti tags and report them for removal. “This is the neighborhood I grew up in,” he says, “and this is my home. No punk tagger is doing their trash where I live.” Aliment opines that taggers tag “as they have not done anything else they can be proud of, and their parents failed to teach them respect for other people’s property.”

But while Aliment may have a point about property, there is respect and pride within the graff-life lifestyle, as I found out during my interviews with both parents of taggers and former taggers that are parents.

Iph

On December 22 of last year, I linked up with Iph on Broadway and 25th in Golden Hill. Iph is a 44-year-old prevention specialist in the mental and behavioral health field for children, adolescents, and their families. He asked that the Reader address him by his graff pseudonym. About two weeks prior and a mile and a half away, down by Commercial Street and 16th, he had painted a “piece” depicting his graff name in purple and silver, with icicle-type details next to a character resembling the Grinch. “Piece” is street shorthand for a spray-painted “masterpiece,” which is not to be confused with the more basic “tag” — something Iph admitted to making in his past. Tags are quickie-throw ups of a name, nickname, or a crew name, done with a pen, marker, spray paint can, and, said Iph, “liquid etch. It’s a chemical, so it’s burning into the actual glass in your handwriting.” We gazed at an example on the building across the street. “That’s a forever tag,” he noted. “The only way that’s coming off is if you replace that window.”

About ten feet away from the damaged window, some vandals had tagged the neighboring restaurant’s signage in yellow ink. “It’s a couple of tags, quickies,” he continued. “The person probably ordered something real quick and moved on.” We proceeded to the corner and looked across the intersection at San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Station 11, where a San Diego Police officer stood by monitoring traffic. Then we looked up at the back of the signal light, about nine feet in the air: two tags were evident in white ink. “It’s a simple process,” Iph said, explaining how the tagger might’ve gotten up. “You get your hands on one of the bars right here, you pull yourself up, and put a foot on the crosswalk button. Once your foot is up, it’s a ladder system right up. There are many tag names around here. This one’s been here a couple of times and probably is from around this area.” Iph also noted that taggers in this area utilized solid paint markers, while others used liquid markers with ball bearings inside. “And those are etching scribes,” he continued, pointing at a tree into which someone had carved their name. “Those tools are usually used in construction for marking things, like specs and measurements.”

In 2021, there was a 35 percent increase in graffiti removal requests made on San Diego County’s Get It Done (GID) app.

Some tags come ready-made: stickers were plastered onto light poles and electric boxes, both at eye level and high up on the pedestrian crossing signals. “So the slap tag is a whole another element to the graff game, like our version of NFTs before they were a thing. You have a story behind whatever logo or image that you use. You can use either an image that reflects or represents you, or current trending kind of icons that you Photoshop and make yours.” Most of the stickers we saw were mere remnants, and the tags were faded. Iph continued: “So those are USPS mail stickers. That was the original way we started stickers. We didn’t have this vinyl- or UV-coated sticker stuff back then, so what we did was just rack (steal) it, and afterward, sit there and draw on ‘em. And that’s where that slap tag started.”

One of the slap tags we noticed depicted a bus cartoon with a three-digit number. “That’s the crew’s bus route. They adopted that, as they would bomb the crap out of the bus they were riding in because it got them out of there. So now that sticker is their little symbol.”

“Can you get punished for slapping stickers?” I asked. “I see a grip of those at restaurant drive-thrus.”

“Yes, it’s still vandalism,” he responded. “What graffiti is and what vandalism is, by definition, is the application of a medium to a surface — period, point-blank.”

“So, why’d you tag?”

“I would think it’s centered around some kind of trauma,” he answered. “Because what would compel a kid to want to risk his life for tagging his name over and over again?” In the ’80s, Iph’s single mother moved him and his siblings from Los Angeles to San Diego. In those days, you would hear reports about So-Cal taggers falling to their deaths while climbing to elevated spots. Others were allegedly killed over territorial beefs. He bowed his head, deep in thought, then continued, “So the ‘why’ for me was a broken home, trying to figure out what my role was as a male and the oldest born, going from one city to the next, and trying to adapt. With our public schools, we’re exposed a lot of things that aren’t adequate, you know? Kids are being left behind and falling through the cracks. In the ’80s, that was rampant. And some things happened to me that I just needed to express.”

Iph picked up his first 12-ounce spray paint can in 1987; he was 10 years old. “Feeling oppressed and not being able to express can drive a person to excess. Once I felt that pressure of spraying and I saw the paint being dropped,” that was the point of no return, he recalled. “It’s on there, and I now make that connection. I release that chemical, and then I’m feeling accomplished. So now I want to replicate that feeling. And then I consistently write my name over and over, almost like a drug addict. I just don’t know that it’s a drug, so I just keep doing it. So if I write my name 21 times, I now have a habit.”

If you want to prevent graffiti, said Iph, you need “local grassroots community groups that are not just about graffiti-abatement programs,” and instead offer programs that “empower the youth, educate them right. Let them know that we can positively show you that there is a method to this madness. And to be able to help out the youth properly, you have to be able to utilize those that have been there and gone through that process.”

Writerz Blok

Krown One, or simply Krown, is a graffiti artist and former program coordinator of the Writerz Blok graffiti yard in Chollas View, on Market Street near Euclid. Locals claim that this was the first legal graffiti yard in the U.S.; its 10,000 square feet offered walls that stood eight feet high and thirty feet wide, about half the length of a train’s boxcar. The yard would draw the who’s who of the local graff-art scene, including Dyse, Sake, and Brisk, and many others from San Diego County. Besides that, worldwide graffiti artists would fly in, roll through, spray paint a mural, and then jet out. Like pieces, murals differ from tags. They are often enormous, hyper-colorful pieces sporting 3D letters, and sometimes featuring cartoon characters.

Iph picked up his first 12-ounce spray paint can in 1987; he was 10 years old. “Feeling oppressed and not being able to express can drive a person to excess. Once I felt that pressure of spraying and I saw the paint being dropped,” that was the point of no return, he recalled.

Sometimes, local youth came to the yard and found inspiration. Other times, they didn’t have a choice: when the San Diego Police Department caught them tagging, they were sometimes dropped off at the facility. Krown and his co-coordinator Sergio Gonzalez would teach those first-time offenders how to spray paint art murals legally, how to navigate graphic design programs, and how to screen print their own shirts using the facility’s manual press. “When I was young, we thought you had to be super rich to [print shirts], like Marc Eckō,” Krown told me. “You could go to a shop, and a two-color print would run $3.50; a color plus the second color will be an additional dollar. Those are things I didn’t know when I was 16 years old, so I know the next 16-year-old that the police bring in here doesn’t know that. And a lot of the youth that were coming through here had a connection through art. So we were like, ‘Let’s show you how everything works before you go to a screen printing shop and try and apply for work there, or start your own company.’ Every screen printing shop will have at least one of these setups, so we figured, ‘Let’s buy one and help these youth build a foundation for themselves.’”

The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation funded Writerz Blok in 2003, right around the time MySpace was getting started. It didn’t take long for social media to become a key marketing element for the kids making their mark on the Blok. But it wasn’t all business: many old school muralists came by, and the camaraderie they offered helped fill the voids felt by many taggers. Krown said the Blok drew about “500 youth, community members, visitors, and artists from around the world” every month. I was among them. Sadly, facility closed in October 2021 to make room for housing. In the months since the program left the Market Street lot, new tags have been emblazoned on the former venue’s nearby signs, and on nearby trash receptacles, street lamps, and buildings.

“The land for Writerz Blok was always set for redevelopment and buildout,” a Jacobs Center spokesperson said last October. “To ensure continuity and provide it a strong home, Writerz Blok was transferred to an excellent partner in UPAC (Union of Pan Asian Communities).” Krown and Gonzalez have followed the project to the UPAC facility in City Heights. “Another yard is in the making,” Krown said, “and we are trying to identify a location. We’re talking to some real estate friends of my [UPAC] supervisor, so that way we can find some good spots for a yard. That’s needed in the community wherever you’re at. It’ll be more of an art park/school, because we are going to continue teaching classes and workshops in the future Writerz Block and outside.”

Krown

In December, I paid Krown another visit. This time, he was prepping for a trip to Crawford Community Connection and the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility to teach graffiti art to the youth.

I asked him, “Why do people tag?”

“It was just something that you kind of ‘monkey see, monkey do,’” he responded. “You see it on the walls, and you’re like, ‘Well, I want to write my name, too.’”

In 2019, Krown was commissioned by the juvenile office of the district attorney. The 15-foot piece he produced was titled “Alphabetic Evolution,” and it “represented the struggle and accomplishments of a teenager who at some point needed direction and words of wisdom.” Krown, now in his early 40s, recalled attending third grade at St. Jude Academy in Southcrest. “I had to wear a uniform and met Mother Teresa there. One of my homies that also went to school there was Renee. I can’t remember his last name, but his older brother was from TMK. And he showed up with like a cutout metal stencil that said TMK. I was like, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s my brother’s crew.’ To this day, I don’t know who his brother is, but I remember going to Tijuana and seeing the big rollers over there and big throw-ups of TMK.”

Writerz Block closed in October 2021 to make room for housing. In the months since, new tags have been emblazoned on the former venue’s nearby signs, and on nearby trash receptacles, street lamps, and buildings.

TMK stands for “Too Much Kaos,” an ’80s tagging and graffiti-art crew. In a 2017 Reader article, I interviewed Spek One, a former TMK member who grew up in Sherman Heights. To this day, Spek is known for “rocking the billboards and ‘mean-greens.’” Spek said that he tagged for the adrenaline rush back in those years between 1988 and 1993 when he’d “get-up,” climbing billboards and freeway signs to spraypaint his own moniker or his Too Much Kaos crew’s acronym. The Tribune did a story on his chaotic defacements of the 805 and 163 freeway signs around 1990-1991. There are rumors that the California Department of Transportation lined San Diego freeway signs and billboards with barbed wire and other deterrents partially because of Spek’s all-city rampages in the early ’90s.

Young Krown followed TMK’s lead and began tagging. “So in the third grade, I was already catching tags drawing this dumb shit, Then I go to a public school, Marston Middle School, and it’s everywhere: carved on desks and in the back of the school bus. I used to write P-I-L-O-T when I first started, and I loved the markers, the fat jumbos, and whatnot.” He also salvaged spray paint cans left behind by the older cats in his Shelltown neighborhood.

Like Iph, Krown flew solo. “I didn’t get picked up by anyone; I just kept to myself. I saw their styles and how they were up. I would go to TJ for the weekend or during the summer, and I would see their stuff over there, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck, they are out here?’ I’d go to L.A. to visit cousins and uncles, and look out the window and see it over there, realizing, ‘Oh, it’s not just San Diego.’ And I’m like 12 years old, and not on a mission to go bombing, just looking out the window and seeing more crews: TKO, SKA, and TMK. Then I changed my name to Krown One. Back in high school, there were a million other names, and you’re trying to kind of find yourself, you know, find a style, find the letters.”

David Aguilar / Anthony ‘KIDS’ Aguilar

Anthony’ “KIDS” Aguilar was a Chula Vista tagger from the 1990s punk rock scene. His character-based tag was a simple one-dimensional sketch of a kid with his hair parted to the side but missing a nose, signed ‘KIDS.’ At times, he also added DAC to his tags, an acronym for Destroy And Create, his tag crew — or a 4DC. That’s what’s on one of his last tags, on a Chula Vista garage, that reads “THANKS FOR EVERYTHING...DAD...LOVE YOUR SON.”

“He always left us surprises,” said David Aguilar, KIDS’ father.

Aguilar was born on April 17, 1975; he died on March 31, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “He tried to stay away from San Diego County,” explained Aguilar, “and later throughout the years, you can see why. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people that could point it back at the parents for vandalism.”

Aguilar and his grandson, who requested anonymity for this article, invited me inside their house in Chula Vista and opened up their books. The grandson, who is in his teens, saved his tio’s art scrapbooks and black books. Black books are sketchbooks that taggers and graff-artists pass around to one another to autograph, tag, and piece — a custom reminiscent of the yearbook huddles on the last day of school. KIDS graduated from Castle Park High School in Chula Vista in 1993. At the time, he sketched party and gig fliers for his punk rock buddies. The designs eventually developed into the KIDS character. “As soon as they graduated, that’s when he started traveling,” Aguilar said.

On the 12 OZ. Prophet online forum, user Varsity Letterman once wrote, “[KIDS] was pretty much the epitome of what could happen if punk traveler culture and graffiti ever came together. I liked watching him tag — he would kinda jump into it and ‘pop into action’ and be super fast all of a sudden and was done before I even fully realized what just happened. I liked that he always had a pocket full of different tools on him at all times for different surfaces and was the kind of guy that would find two half-cans and somehow make a night of it.”

Anthony’ “KIDS” Aguilar was a Chula Vista tagger from the 1990s punk rock scene. His character-based tag was a simple one-dimensional sketch of a kid with his hair parted to the side but missing a nose.

12 OZ. Prophet is an online shop for lifestyle gear, graffiti-art supplies, and print-and-bound literature covering the graff scene. Its online forum is a place where taggers, graffiti artists, and purveyors have been connecting since at least 1999. The site’s About page warns, “If You Don’t Get It, This Isn’t For You. It’s ridiculous to think that anyone can truly understand style or culture by clicking around the internet. It requires effort, sincerity, and a trust that is only built through participation. Authenticity doesn’t follow up a cheerful greeting with hollow conversation; it’s a guarded character that gradually rewards persistence. Pay your dues…”

There are multiple homages to KIDS on the site; one of them runs 17 pages deep. It would appear that KIDS paid his dues to the lifestyle he chose when he hopped onto his first train out of San Diego County. “He did so many characters in Deep Ellum [a Dallas neighborhood] that you can still make many of them out after the buff jobs,” user bigtruckchase posted on the forum. “If your graff survived in buff crazy Dallas, you did something right. His graff was so great even my Republican dad liked him. One of my dad’s colleagues in Dallas used to jog...and would take pictures of every KIDS he came across. He then made a collage and hung it up in the break room to cheer everyone up.” KIDS brought smiles to many people in the midst of his “all city” missions; throwing up pieces throughout Dallas, Austin, Oakland, and Pittsburgh. The latter city is where he met his girlfriend, who would give birth to their daughter. “She calmed him down a lot,” said Aguilar.

On the 12 OZ. forums, a few graff heads who met KIDS on his travels said he was generous and thoughtful. His parents confirmed the sentiments, showing me handwritten letters and handmade gifts he’d send to them via snail mail, signing off as “Anthony.” One art piece was for Father’s Day; it appeared to be a Jesus Christ statue that KIDS had modified and handpainted.

KIDS would often return to Chula Vista between his adventures to recharge and re-ground himself. When the Aguilars put new concrete down on their property, KIDS etched into it “HOME SWEET HOME” with two hearts — the left heart inscribed with “MOM” and the right one with “DAD.”

He etched other things as well. “When he was in San Diego, the thing that he did the most was like a heavy-duty scratcher that would scratch into a sink,” Aguilar continued. If you look hard enough in the Mi Rancho taco shop on Main Street by the Naval Base on South 32nd Street, there’s a KIDS scribe lurking. “It’s in the bathroom, right in the sink,” Aguilar said. “It’s where you open up the knobs. And he might even have a date right there.” Aguilar paused, then mumbled, “I think that’s probably when he tagged that sink.” He pointed toward the kitchen, where a framed photograph of KIDS’ daughter was hanging. “That’s my little granddaughter; we’re eating carnitas together at the taco shop. So I think that’s probably the time that he tagged the sink.”

Aguilar also recounted the time when he pulled up to the now-defunct El Gallo Petrol gas pumps on 3rd by Palomar Avenue in Chula Vista. “I was pumping gas, and the sun was shining. Right when I turned, I was like, ‘Oh shit, that’s his tagging right there on the gas pumps, right by where you leave your credit cards.’ He had scratched all that KIDS in there.”

The grandson busted out his tio’s old photos, original art, and the paint-stained stencils he used on his missions. “By Kobey’s Swap Meet, there was mostly a lot of KIDS stickers,” added Aguilar’s grandson, who now sleeps in KIDS’ former upstairs bedroom. “I have all of his records, too, including an old Wu-Tang Clan.” On the 12 OZ. forum, user Mydeadfriends recalls kicking it with KIDS when the band’s second album Wu-Tang Forever dropped. “I met [him] in Minneapolis back in ‘97-’98. We both were into hopping trains, hitchhiking, and Greyhounds as a last resort, [then] drinking and punk rock. If there [are] a few things about graffiti that I learned from [KIDS]: graffiti is a secret identity; fuck the tough guy/gangster mentality; you don’t have to ride crews...“ Many of the people on the forum shared similar sentiments regarding KIDS humble and peaceful demeanor, except for one time when KIDS allegedly squabbled in Austin with a would-be world-renowned artist. Other than that, I could not find many negative comments, despite his all-city rampages that left a trail costing property owners and taxpayers thousands of dollars.

The photos Aguilar and his grandson shared with me showed that KIDS would tag pieces that looked 8-10 feet tall. Aguilar recalled a time when he picked up his son at an Austin pad where he’d been partying. “He goes to me: ‘Hey dad, can you take me to his one place?’ So we went out of the city, and I took him to a fleet store, and he goes, ‘They use these markers for cattle, and some of the markers are, like, waterproof; you can use them when it’s moist and stuff like that.’ So that’s what he used to use for heavy-duty tagging.”

“Did anybody know who KIDS was?”

“Nobody knew. The only people that knew who he was were some of his close, close friends. One of his good friends out there was Thor, and Damien from El Centro. Everybody kept it between friends.”

“Why did he do it?

Aguilar looked down, nodded his head, and replied, “I don’t know.”

“Did it hurt you when you saw his tagging?”

“No, I was just surprised, because I know a lot of people that get creative doing different work, right? But I’d never seen it to that extent.”

“So you thought of him more as an artist? You didn’t look at him and like ask, ‘Why?’ — like almost scolding him?”

“No. We all got different outlets to release ourselves. Growing up in Chula Vista and different areas, with cholos doing different tagging and stuff like that. There are different meanings for the tagging; they just don’t tag for the hell of it. There’s always something behind it. And even when he came to town to visit, he would see tagging and go, ‘Oh, so and so is in town, and they’re going to do this.’ I asked him, ‘How the hell do you know?’ and he goes, ‘Well, you read the tag, and they communicate that way to you and stuff like that.’” It was a little different for my wife — KIDS’ mom — because she was [viewing it] more as a homeowner and business owner. He did a lot of damage to different places. Back in the day, they didn’t have the powerwash machine, and to see a brick building that is all tagged up, and some of his characters are massive... And then all the little ones that he did on different stores, you know, that were just like, scratches, wherever they had a glass. I was more surprised to see some of the etching on the glass: God damn, they got to replace the whole window right here.”

Aguilar noted that he had found a video in KIDS’ stash. It contained a clip of his son tagging in Pittsburgh. “That’s when he almost got caught the first time. After that, he left Pittsburgh, then went to Austin, then moved to Oakland, and then he came to visit us. We probably would never see him again after that.”

KIDS is still alive on Instagram: IGers from all parts of the world post photos of his “get ups” and “damage,” then hashtag the images with #RIPkidsdac, #RIPkids4dac, #kids4DC, and #kidsdac. Aguilar continued, “He left his mark, and people are still following him.”

“And does that makes you feel good?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he responded, “in a sense. It takes a lot for somebody in the graffiti community to be respected on the 12 OZ. Prophet site. Not so much here in San Diego, but in Pittsburgh, Austin, Oakland, and those other places, I know people still respect him a lot. Especially when somebody writes: ‘Man, seeing the little KIDS character every morning going to work, you know, that kind of keeps you motivated,’ and stuff like that. Or to see him popping up out of the blue.”

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