Graffiti writers begin with a “tag”—a moniker, their personal handle. Typically, these are concise, visually compact, and catchy. Practically speaking, the shorter, the better.
When she was in middle school, Cita Sadeli began with a combination of letters whose shapes she enjoyed sketching, C–H–E, before eventually becoming CHELOVE or Miss CHELOVE, one of the few female graffiti writers in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s.
Federico Frum started with paz, the Spanish word for “peace,” then tacked on más to write MASPAZ, “more peace,” as much an aspiration as a name.
Look closely and you can track these two artists across the D.C. landscape—a mural on the side of a corner store, painted panels in a community garden, a sticker on a mirror in a nightclub bathroom, a piece commemorating a local graffiti writer on the anniversary of his death. They have also participated several times in Smithsonian programs, providing painting demos and leading arts activities.
Their styles are distinct from each other, but they often collaborate. When they share a wall, they paint independently until finally connecting their parts into a visual conversation. For their public work, they draw upon the support of the communities who live near the walls they paint and the camaraderie of many other artists—minding each other’s backs, respecting one another’s work, and sharing supplies and snacks. Their creative practice is anchored in their local upbringing, but through their art they also extend beyond the region, connecting multiple stories and experiences across generations and geography.
CHELOVE and MASPAZ grew up in the D.C. metro area in Maryland and Virginia, respectively. Their involvement in street art was shaped in relation to local punk, hip-hop, and skate communities. CHELOVE describes D.C. in the 1980s as a place where punk protests against government policies honed her “spirit of not being afraid to speak… shaped by doing it yourself, having a voice.”
In comparison to the iconic street art scenes in New York and Los Angeles, D.C. writers emerged later—but as with their counterparts, they worked on surfaces that mapped landmarks and gathering points specific to regional geography and mobility. These have included, for example, the bridges over the Potomac River dividing D.C. from Virginia; the warehouses along the raised tracks of the Metro Red Line passing through Northeast D.C. to Maryland; the walls of the C&O Canal and its aqueducts, remnants of nineteenth century shipping infrastructure that once moved goods between D.C. and the Ohio River; down beneath L’Enfant Plaza through the network of passageways connecting to Amtrak and Metro tunnels.
Street art has become increasingly common in D.C.—whether as murals, stickers, wheat-paste posters, or graffiti. Some of this work is legal, some unsanctioned. Some of the creators are formally trained artists, others self-taught. Some seek fame, others a platform for commentary. The proximity of D.C.’s ephemeral graffiti and public art to the pristine permanence of the national monuments reveals a common urge: to memorialize and define terrain. This contrast also underlines the inevitable tensions of place-making in a city that is at once a hometown, the nation’s capital, and an international destination; a place where the cranes crowding the skyline flag the commercial investment and development transforming the metropolitan landscape.
There are blurry lines that identify some expressions as public art (which could include monumental sculptures as well as temporary murals), street art (which spans unsanctioned work to graffiti-inspired “legal” work), community art (murals or public pieces created in a particular community, typically a neighborhood), graffiti art (sanctioned and unsanctioned work—more elaborate than a simple tag), and graffiti (encompassing tags to elaborate pieces). CHELOVE and MASPAZ have worked across this spectrum. And they have benefitted from the establishment of public arts collectives and programs that provide opportunities to create legal, paid work. For instance, they’ve painted for MuralsDC, a city program that coordinates with property owners to replace graffiti-prone walls with commissioned murals. Having both experienced brushes with law enforcement during their younger years, they appreciate that there are now expanded outlets for emerging artists and paying gigs available for many more people.
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But CHELOVE and MASPAZ are wary of the way street art collides with commercial and development interests—and the cachet that visual art with a street lineage can bring to properties and neighborhoods. They are clear about the motivations that drive them and careful about the projects they take on. When MASPAZ paints, he considers how “to do something that has a message that my grandmother would appreciate, that my mother would appreciate, and also a little kid.”
CHELOVE adds, “Public art—it’s free. You can see it any time of the day. It’s for the people, for everyone to see. Advertisers know this, and they’re selling walls everywhere. But when we are allowed to do a mural, I feel a great responsibility to the public to be real, to make them think, to keep them aware of what’s happening in the world.”
Both also work on walls well beyond the D.C. beltway, collaborating with artists in other places—from nearby New York to farther afield in Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Pakistan. They take their D.C. sensibilities abroad, but also bring stories they’ve learned elsewhere home—as with their 2017 homage to the water protectors at Standing Rock, painted for the 2016 POW! WOW! DC mural festival.
This expansive vision is shaped by their transnational, multiracial biographies. Though invested in local communities, distant places and ancestors also figure powerfully in their creativity. CHELOVE honors her late mother, who emigrated from Java, Indonesia, in all of her public murals—inscribing her name within the design. Her backgrounds and details—even in D.C. pieces—often reference tropical landscapes. Her meticulous skills are inspired by the craftmanship she came to appreciate in Javanese traditional arts. MASPAZ was born in Colombia and raised by adoptive parents in Virginia who encouraged him to develop his own personal connections with Colombia through studies and travel. With his bold, abstract figures and lettering, he explores and recovers an indigenous Latin American heritage.
CHELOVE and MASPAZ always look forward to meeting new artists and hearing about the public work going on in other places—finding the resonance that draws all of them out into the streets to create. So on the last day of the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, they met with Ruben Malayan, a participant from the Armenia: Creating Home program. Based in Yerevan, Malayan is an art professor and passionate about revitalizing Armenian script. During the 2018 Armenian revolution, Malayan made protest placards with traditional calligraphy and stylized letters. At the Festival, he had set up wall-length swaths of paper to demonstrate how he uses traditional lettering in his art—working in an uncharacteristically large format.
As the Festival was winding down, Malayan slipped away and met CHELOVE and MASPAZ across from the Metro Red Line tracks in Northeast D.C. He showed them his sketchbook, talked about lettering, and exclaimed enthusiastically as he came upon the walls with their murals. They answered his technical questions about how they work at such a big scale—what tools and equipment they use, how they transfer their designs onto the walls. Malayan told them about his interest in starting a mural program in his hometown. CHELOVE and MASPAZ talked about D.C.’s public art commissioning process and their recent work abroad. They exchanged social media handles.
As the sun got lower and the shadows from the surrounding warehouses lengthened, the three continued to walk along, chatting about social change, collaboration, and the expansive potential of transforming walls into monumental expressions—ephemeral as they may be—of hope and community.
Sojin Kim is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.