Holding on to the work he has to let go

Man who flooded city with his graffiti is sentenced to clean it up

June 21, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

With cans of spray paint in black and sparkly silver, Kenneth Ellis made his mark on Baltimore, tagging "Oricl" on hundreds of light poles and buildings and trash bins and trailers.

Now the 25-year-old graffiti artist has to clean up after himself.

Ellis pleaded guilty yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court to six counts of malicious destruction of property. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and ordered to perform at least 500 hours of community service, during which he has to remove graffiti - his own and others'.

Charles McMillion, an assistant chief at the Baltimore Department of Public Works who has counted and removed about 130 Oricl tags, at a cost to taxpayers of about $23,000, will supervise Ellis' community service.

"When we get him, we'll make it worth our while," McMillion said. "I'd like to give him a removal chemical and a toothbrush and send him to the biggest tag out there."

The apologies flowed in court. "I'd just like to say to that I'm sorry to the city of Baltimore," Ellis said. His lawyer, Michael Tomko, said Ellis is a talented brick mason from a good Bowie family. He has "accepted responsibility" and is eager to "right his wrongs," Tomko said.

But moments later, standing in an alley near the courthouse on North Calvert Street, alongside a green light pole with a small silver tag he'd left many months ago, Ellis' sheepish courtroom persona seemed to give way to the more daring Oricl.

"I'm done, to some extent," he said, adding, "But you never know what the future holds."

"Oricl is dead," he said, adding, "You'll still see me. You just won't know it's me."

Ellis - bald, pale-skinned, a colorful tattoo of a two-faced man on his right forearm - describes himself with the vanity to be expected of someone who loves writing his name on walls all over town.

He calls himself Baltimore's "No. 1 most prolific" tagger. "There are only two good guys out there who can do it like I do it." He says he's featured in underground videos.

He boasts of being a "master shoplifter" and of making a living that way for a year and a half. "I'm a junkie for stealing paint. When I'm surrounded by it, I feel like a millionaire." He served jail time in Frederick County after he was convicted of stealing spray paint, he says.

He is known, he says, for carrying a baton and two markers, for drinking a beer and eating fried chicken while he tags. He likes to have a girlfriend hide a couple cans of spray paint in her purse.

The Oricl tags come mostly in two styles - one resembles squared-off bubble letters, often with a dollar sign inside the "r," and the other is angular, almost like a fish skeleton, with arrows sometimes pointing off the ends.

Ellis chose Oricl "because it means prophet" and says he tagged it up and down the Amtrak corridor between Baltimore and Washington. He likes to take the train to admire his own work.

"I make it a point to see myself everywhere I go," he says. He is perhaps proudest of tagging every steel panel of the O'Donnell Street bridge.

The city's Environmental Crimes Unit, a small group of public works employees and police officers, began pursuing Oricl's identity because the tag popped up everywhere from Hampden to Canton and on everything from highway overpasses to mailboxes.

"He was all over the place," said Robert Guye, chief of the Environmental Crimes Unit. "He wrote his name on anything. Not too many people do that."

Police caught up with Ellis after being contacted by someone in the graffiti subculture in October. That person became a confidential informant, said Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Etheridge. In November, after he was arrested, Ellis admitted to being Oricl, Etheridge said.

Will Ellis stop now that he has been convicted and has three years of prison hanging over his head if he violates his probation?

McMillion is doubtful. "To be honest with you, I think he's still doing it," he said. He found Oricl-tagged trash cans just yesterday at the Patterson Park pool. Ellis is already talking about his new "two-letter throw-up," a replacement for the now too-obvious Oricl.

Tagging is a culture, Ellis explained, that can't easily be left behind.

It has its own rules: Winter is "painting season" because fewer people are around to catch you. Don't go out before midnight. Don't go with too many people. A girlfriend with a large purse is helpful. Kissing the girlfriend if an officer comes along can throw them off your trail.

It has its own lingo: Writers tag bandos. City officials buff them. (Translation: Graffiti artists paint their signatures on abandoned buildings. City officials scrub them off.) Writers give nicknames to areas they tag, such as "Jeep Country," off U.S. 40 near Essex.

It has its own cast of characters: There's "Meca" and "Arek." And there's the "forever king" of Baltimore graffiti, a man called "Shaken." The 38-year-old has been tagging since 1986, Ellis said, and plans to name his newborn baby "Krylon," after a popular brand of spray paint.

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