Graffiti paints a path to jail



A prolific Portland offender reflects on his high-profile vandalism that stemmed from a damaging, selfish compulsion

Sunday, March 5, 2000

By Robin Franzen of The Oregonian staff 

Near the end of his two-year run as Portland's
high-climbing graffiti vandal, almost every piece of clothing
Aaron Reimer owned was covered in telltale splatters of
paint. He was stealing to feed a costly Rust-Oleum habit
-- 13 cans of spray paint per night on big nights -- and
napping in the afternoon to stay out into the wee hours. 

Even in the dark, and with police patrolling below, he
loved making his clandestine ascent, scaling fire escapes
and borrowed ladders to reach the fourth and fifth stories
of buildings, where he'd typically leave his calling card:
"Huge" -- a "pen" name reflecting his sizable, if wayward,
ambitions -- rendered in 5-foot-tall letters. 

Craving the spotlight and taking dangerous risks, the
19-year-old graphic art student couldn't wait to see
Portlanders' reactions. "I was painting more spots, bigger
stuff, crazier stuff," he says, comparing his work to that of
others in the graffiti underground. "People would wake up
and see it on their way to work. It's in their face." 

For Reimer, painting graffiti wasn't about making a
political statement or feeling sympathy for the many
Southeast and Northwest Portland property owners he
hurt. It was all about imprinting his hip-hop style on the
street, gaining status in the eyes of his peers. And by the
end of 1998, he had done both: His personal graffiti
journal, where he kept track of places he'd hit, had more
than 100 entries, he says. He'd had several close calls
with police. And as much as he drew the wrath of
residents as one of the city's costliest vandals, other graffiti
"writers" were dazzled. 

Then the talented art student, whom police later would
describe as polite and bright, was caught, pleaded guilty
to four felonies and got his first taste of jail, which he
didn't like. But not even that, and an order to pay
$28,444 in restitution, was enough to stop him. 

Now he's back in jail, doing six months. 

As Frank Colistro, a forensic psychologist, puts it, "He's
painted himself into a real little corner." 

Recalling a close call 
Many people, from the cops who chase them to their
victims, want to know why graffiti vandals do what they
do. Reimer agreed to tell The Sunday Oregonian his story.
Sitting behind a glass wall at Inverness Jail, where he
began serving his sentence last month, he recounts with a
nervous smile and flushed cheeks a close call. 

He's hanging off a warehouse-type building in Portland's
Old Town, spray can in hand, when a police cruiser stops
below. The officer gets out and shines his flashlight
overhead, catching the vandal in its beam. Reimer rips
through the chicken wire on a window and falls inside,
escaping and never once thinking about the person who
would have to pay to fix the building he was defacing, he
says. 

If that seems like a precarious -- maybe even foolish --
situation for a middle-class student, such as Reimer, with
no previous criminal record and noted artistic talent,
consider this: Most vandals fitting Portland police's
"tagger" profile are 14 to 25, male and come from middle-
to upper-middle-class families. Like Sara J. Fisher, the
21-year-old Reed College student who became
Portland's first high-profile graffiti bust, they aren't always
obvious candidates for illegal behavior. 

Even so, authorities estimate the damage they inflicted on
Portland in 1998 at an eye-popping $2 million, much of it
caused by 50 to 80 hard-core taggers. Fed up, city
officials in August that year ratcheted up the city's
response: They created a zero-tolerance zone in the
Central Eastside Industrial Area, adopted a tougher
anti-graffiti ordinance requiring swift cleanup, hired a
full-time staff person to coordinate the city's $280,000
graffiti-abatement program and subtly put more pressure
on police to nab the hard-to-catch criminals. 

Today, Mayor Vera Katz thinks it's working: Since 1997,
the city's six-day-a-week graffiti cleanup crew has
repainted more than 14,000 sites, and, in the past year
alone, the city has investigated or prosecuted about 40
vandals. "We aren't going to let up," Katz says. 

As the national problem reaches an estimated $15 billion
in damage a year, the legal stakes are getting higher, too.
Oregon's 1997 repeat property-offender law means a
minimum of 13 months in prison for the most serious
vandals, and some states fight back even harder. In 1997,
prosecutors in graffiti-weary Milwaukee won a 51-month
prison sentence for an 18-year-old tagger who committed
similar crimes. In that case, the young man served 16
months. 

"I hate it," says Robert Donohoo, chief deputy district
attorney for Milwaukee County. "It sends a signal to the
community that it's not in control." 

None of that affected Reimer, however. At the height, or
some might say depth, of his spree, he thought less about
consequences and more about his consuming need to get
noticed. Rarely, if ever, did he consider his victims'
feelings or those who had been injured or killed in
graffiti-related stunts nationwide. "I thought people would
say, 'Look, how did he do that?' It's an ego thing,
definitely." 

For victims and other stakeholders in the city's
appearance and quality of life, those admissions raise as
many questions as they answer. They want to know: Why
are vandals such as Reimer such junkies for adrenaline
and attention? Why do they squander their talent on ugly,
illegal acts? And how could they not think about the
emotional and financial impact they have on innocent
people? 

No one knows with absolute certainty, even Reimer, who
city records show was active from July 1997 to May
1999. All he can provide is a broad outline of how he got
there: growing up liking to draw letters. Taking special
interest three years ago in the graffiti he saw on bus
shelters and overpasses and the people who put it there.
Thinking of graffiti as a way for an artistic nonathlete,
himself, to be something special. At the end, feeling as if
he was in the grip of an addiction. 

Jeff Ferrell, a criminal justice professor at Northern
Arizona University who researched the hip-hop graffiti
underground in Denver for 51/2 years and wrote "Crimes
of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality,"
probably understands more than many. As part of his
work, he engaged in graffiti "bombing raids" with his
research subjects -- earning himself a year's probation --
and felt the rush firsthand. 

"You spend 10, 50, 100 hours designing a mural to get
the colors right and the proportion to scale, and now it's
time to go out and execute that mural in the dark with the
police bearing down on you. . . . When the level of skill
and artistry meets with the excitement of 3 a.m. and
searchlights, in that sense it's addictive," he says. "It's
better than any drug, more exciting than sex." 

To Colistro, the Portland forensic psychologist, that
sounds like someone suffering from an obsession or
compulsion, a person with some "huge unmet need" that
asserts itself as a driving desire to be noticed, despite the
risks. Such behavior has its own logic, incomprehensible
as it is to outsiders, that allows the offender to reoffend on
the way home from jail. "Forget what (Reimer) says. It's
real self-destructive behavior, and he'll be paying for the
rest of his life for 15 minutes of fame." 

Questioning authority 
Less than 5 percent of Portland's graffiti is gang-related,
experts say. 

Most gets put up by devotees of hip-hop, an
authority-questioning subculture in which "writers" of all
races and backgrounds strive to develop the best graffiti
style and produce the most arresting images. The act is
"pure, unfiltered expression," his way of putting a "scratch"
on a perfect-appearing city, says Jason, another Portland
graffiti vandal. Behind the bold images is a global network
with its own Internet sites, its own brand of ethics -- you
don't hit Grandma's house, but corporate sites are fair
game -- and an unwritten rule: You don't paint over other
people's good work unless yours is better. 

It also has its own celebrities, and, at least locally, "Huge"
was one of them. "He's definitely done a lot and motivated
others to do graffiti," says Jason, a 20-year-old art student
who did not want his last name published. With the
exception of graffiti, "Aaron is the perfect young man"
who has a caring family, he says. "He'd be the first guy to
pull over and help someone in trouble." 

As a beginner, Reimer copied others and painted little
"pieces" in unobtrusive public places where few people
would notice them. He didn't think he was very good. 

With practice he improved, and by the time he was a
senior at Benson High School, where a counselor says he
had no obvious trouble, graffiti took over his nights. By
then, he says he had enough credits to leave school at
11:45 a.m. every day, a 20-hour-a-week job at a Fred
Meyer bottle return and, by design, a long, dark walk
home. Along the way, he'd paint, undeterred by the
prosecution of other graffiti vandals, his spray can
concealed in a paper bag. He selected buildings that
looked abandoned, figuring no one would bother to clean
them up. If he had any conscious goal, permanence was it.

If he planned to paint with friends, he'd tell his parents he
was staying overnight at somebody's house, he says.
Reimer's father declined to be interviewed for this story,
but Reimer thinks his parents had to know. "I got the
feeling his parents had no idea how to stop it; they didn't
know what to do," says Kate Lieber, the Multnomah
County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case. 

After high school, Reimer enrolled at Portland Community
College, where he took a graphic design course to nurture
a possible career in advertising. And he wasn't the first
student to struggle to legitimize his interest in graffiti by
putting it on paper instead of a wall, says Cece Cutsforth,
head of the college's graphic design program. "There's a
skepticism about buying into the corporate environment,"
Cutsforth says. 

The challenge for instructors, she says, is to channel the
raw energy of their students' graffiti to something
productive. Comic book, running shoe and skateboard
companies need them, she says. "As long as they are
willing to get up every day at 8 o'clock." 

Arrested while on probation 
Last summer, police served a search warrant at a
Southeast Belmont Street apartment, the home of another
suspected graffiti vandal. They found a big box, which
Reimer apparently stored there, filled with photographs of
"Huge" graffiti plus documents that prosecutors could have
argued connected those photos to Reimer: mail addressed
to him, his tax returns. 

A surprised Reimer, caught once before in the act, was
arrested at a brake-company job Aug. 3 after a
four-month search and charged with 15 counts of
first-degree criminal mischief, all felonies. He broke down
in tears at his first court appearance, pleaded guilty in
November to four counts, was sentenced to restitution,
400 hours of community service and two years of
probation, and ordered to make public apologies. "It was
a slam dunk," says Kevin Warren, the police officer who
stopped Huge's graffiti rampage. "We got him." 

Then, on Jan. 17 Reimer was arrested again for allegedly
trespassing on railroad property and carrying cans of
paint. On Jan. 31, a judge found him in willful violation of
the probation he received for the previous felonies and
gave him the six months in jail. Now in a work-release
program, he says, "I never want to be in this much trouble
again." And is he remorseful? 

He nods. "Through this whole thing, I became selfish. I
wasn't really caring about other people." 

In the meantime, his future may be on hold. Under the
terms of his probation, he's prohibited from possessing
items that could be used to commit graffiti crimes,
including the paints and brushes he needs to finish art
school.