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Excited Delirium: Graffiti and Miami

Victor Merida

A wall that once held a memorial mural to Israel “Reefa” Hernandez. A year after his death, it has been buffed over. Photo: Victor Merida.

“I was like 20 minutes away from finishing my piece when I turn around and drop my can… these police officers were running towards us.” [1]

This wasn’t the first time TYPOE was caught doing graffiti. And by graffiti I’m not talking about graffiti-inspired street art that’s commissioned to advertise a brand. I’m talking about graffiti that implies a risk of being caught, an art form fueled by its own illegality. And although fines and jail time are typical when someone’s caught, discipline isn’t always dished out evenly.

But let’s get back to TYPOE’s story, about the time he was busted by cops. Well, kind of busted.

Before establishing himself within the gallery scene, TYPOE was a well-known graffiti artist. This particular run-in took place when he and friends were painting in a “penit”—the Overtown Penit, to be exact—which is the Miami-specific name given to abandoned spots that graffiti artists coat with technically illegal, but mostly surveillance-free graffiti. (More on penits later.) While finishing up details on a piece, cops showed up and cornered the artists. Being no stranger to police, like most graffiti artists, TYPOE figured they were in for another beat down or a trip to jail. But the cops instead gave them citations that required court appearances. Wanting to complete their illegal artwork, however, TYPOE asked the cop if he could finish: “The cop looked at me and said, ‘I’m not saying you can finish this wall, but I will tell you that we are leaving the area and won’t be back for two days.’ … So I quickly took my shit back out and we finished our pieces.” A few days later, TYPOE saw that same cop on a street across town. To his surprise, the officer told him to skip the court appearance because he had thrown the citation papers away.

Then there’s the story of eighteen-year-old Israel Hernandez, also known as REEFA, who was also busted by cops doing graffiti. But in his story, busted carries a graver set of consequences.

Early on the morning of August 6, 2013, officers of the Miami Beach Police Department spotted REEFA tagging his name on a closed-down McDonald’s. He was adding his tag to a mix of signs and other graffiti that was already plastered on the walls. REEFA, standing at 5’6” and weighing roughly 150 pounds, ran from about six cops until he was cornered a few blocks away. After allegedly resisting arrest, he was knocked to the ground then stunned in the chest with a Taser by officer Jorge Mercado. As the officers celebrated, the suspect went into cardiac arrest. Once delivered to Mt. Sinai Hospital, as stated in the police report, Israel Hernandez “expired.” All he got up on the wall was the ‘R’ in REEFA.

Both stories are examples of police catching graffiti artists performing crimes, but to get at what sets the stories apart, we should consider two substantive conditions, beyond the latter’s tragic ending. First are the narratives surrounding the stories: particularly, the discourse surrounding REEFA’s. Second are the locations where the stories take place: particularly, the penit in TYPOE’s.

One of the most notable differences between the two stories is the ways the anecdotes were delivered. And to be fair, only TYPOE’s is really anecdotal. TYPOE was able to deliver his account with his own details, on his own terms. He made his story public through an interview, but it remains his own. REEFA’s story, however, was controlled by numerous voices, never his own. And aside from the initial media reports and autopsy findings, the facts surrounding REEFA’s death have been colored by multiple sources.

In an attempt to bring attention to Miami Beach’s history of police brutality and assure justice for REEFA, there have been vigils, marches, and eulogizing street art and graffiti throughout Miami. This effort has been spearheaded by groups like Justice for Reefa and the Dream Defenders. These activists fight relentlessly to organize momentum in spite of a larger public opinion that’s arguably either unconvinced of, or apathetic to any notions of injustice.

The idea that activists combat is a dominant one. As a means to justify or excuse the use of deadly force by police, allegations were made that REEFA’s cardiac arrest was prompted not so much by the Taser but by cocaine, synthetic drugs, and “excited delirium.” These claims all appeared anonymously in the news stream. Even though they were proven false, in the seven long months between REEFA’s death and the release of the autopsy report, the damage was done. The prevailing discourse concerning the teen’s death is that he was, in effect, a thug who disobeyed laws and cops. Implicit in the need for activists to organize is the fact that, by and large, the largely apathetic status quo does not remember REEFA for committing a crime, but for being a criminal.

But how has this criminalizing discourse preceded and ultimately outlived the evidence? How has this discourse managed to justify REEFA’s death and claim his life—a life that friends and family believe was destined for greatness as a street and gallery artist, not unlike TYPOE? As Michel Foucault would explain, the answer is because discourse is the most effective method of control there is.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault referred to the term delinquency as the overreaching codification that effectively broke the one-to-one structure of a single punishment for a single crime. Made popular during 18th-century prison reform, this codification sought to criminalize the entire life of the person. Hence, punishment for a crime was no longer sentenced through a single event but served out over time in prison. While first practiced in the judicial system, this all-encompassing form of discipline was subtly institutionalized throughout society. This wide reaching discourse effectively created a “punitive city” where the new-look delinquent citizen was judged by all members of society who came to see the criminal as an enemy. By judging entire lives instead of lone actions, frames like delinquency became a means to control the population in terms of the natural norm and the unnatural other. Foucault called this form of population control “biopolitics.”

And if this self-governing style of criminology seems normal, that’s the point. It works because it’s delivered as common sense. But common sense is rarely more than an ideological framework, a seemingly natural way of seeing the world.

What makes this measure of control all the more troubling is the root of the control. While the state is in charge of disciplining (by normalizing) the population, it’s really the marketplace that structures the norm. Foucault traced the reach of the market’s control over the state back to the rise of the bourgeoisie. But to see this control at work, we can just look Miami’s graffiti and street-art landscape.

Graffiti, as an art form, is only as illegal as business owners decide it is. The line between il/legal graffiti comes down to control: if the property owners want the artwork and its aesthetics, then it’s ok. The troubling part is that these aesthetics were painstakingly defined in terms of illegality for years. I think here we can replace “aesthetics” with “cool factor.” That’s the phrase Donald Worth, co-founder of Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, uses to describe the illegal-chic aesthetics of graffiti art at the stadium. This “cool factor” will help them market the landmark’s revival. Crediting Tony Goldman’s advice, Wynwood’s famed visionary, Worth says, “What we want to be able to do is keep the cool factor in this place.”[2] What they want to get rid of, however, are the vandals who for years have illegally made the place cool—at least during the decades that the marketplace didn’t consider the stadium profitable. We can call these decades in Miami’s recent history the pre-Wynwood era.

In the current Wynwood era, graffiti and graffiti artists have been embraced as a tool for selling brands. And by embraced I mean as in a tight, controlling grip. For instance, spray paint a stencil without permission on a Wynwood sidewalk and you run the risk of arrest, but get permission for the street art like Heineken did and you’ll be fine. Even Wynwood Walls has a gate and security detail meant to control the amount of bodies allowed to enter—often in single-file lines when busy—all for the ironic purposes of protecting its café and graffiti-inspired artwork from vandalism. Hell, in this gallery that touts a free, communal vibe, you can’t walk on the grass without being reprimanded. But this sort of control is to be expected whenever the marketplace gets involved. TYPOE went from being chased by cops for defacing property to getting commissioned to design Becks beer bottles with his subversive style. Los Angeles street artist, RETNA, painted the Louis Vuitton store in the Design District.

The risk that helped these particular artists develop their style was eventually rewarded by the bourgeois marketplace. And it’s impossible not to wonder how the marketplace may have eventually responded to REEFA’s artwork had the police not defended the marketplace so vehemently on that August morning.

As such, it’s vital to consider how normalizing discourse and market control affected REEFA’s story. Did REEEFA break the law? Yes, he was writing his name on property he didn’t own then ran when cops told him to stop. But after cops did stop him, he was killed with “non-lethal” force (as Taser International has convinced the necessary authorities and public). As for the cop who fired the Taser, he was punished with paid administrative leave. Other than this temporary disciplinary measure, the city of Miami Beach has taken no further action in addressing the death. Part of the reason for this inaction is because the dominant public opinion has quietly sided with the police. Ignoring the fact that the punishment did not fit the crime, his death does not stir a greater collective outrage because enough people have been convinced he was a delinquent. This is the notion activists combat, rightfully so.

Now this may seem an unfair appraisal. There might be other factors at play. But if the discourse that serves to protect the market’s fluid interests were any less effective at surmising the teen’s life as a threat to society, the question of police brutality wouldn’t be a question.



There’s more to the role of the marketplace when it comes to the area’s graffiti subculture. Understanding the location where TYPOE’s story took place is pivotal for understanding the subculture’s response to the discourse that frames them as criminal.

Although both TYPOE and REEFA committed the same crime, the police were not nearly as interested in protecting the abandoned building TYPOE was painting. The lack of interest is partly due to the fact that the McDonalds was a more visible location. TYPOE tells of other stories where he bombed highly visible spots, leading to several ass beatings by cops—much like REEFA. But the defiance motivating REEFA’s graffiti, in fact, motivating much of Miami’s graffiti subculture, is nurtured in the type of place where TYPOE’s anecdote took place. And cops aren’t so interested in protecting these pieces of property.

In Miami, this otherwise common disinterest is significant. While the police don’t always enforce laws in some buildings because they’re abandoned—which is why most cities have their own abandoned buildings covered in graffiti—in Miami, these buildings carry a defining value for the subculture. And it all starts with the building’s name. In Miami, these buildings are called “penits.”

A shortening of the word penitentiary, the local term, penit, derives from the early 1980s after a large building rumored to be a new prison was defunded midway through its construction. After this first abandoned space was found and reclaimed by the young graffiti subculture, all other such spaces were similarly branded.

By calling these graffiti epicenters penits, a tradition that stands to this day, the subculture actively performs against the discourse of delinquency that is otherwise used to cast them as non-normal. Here, the controlling discourse of biopolitics is not only neutralized but used against its design. For instance, consider the fact that the modern prison serves as a space where the citizen who committed a crime against his community is sent to in order to serve penance. But in Miami’s reclaimed penitentiaries, the disciplinary power of the prison system is recoded. And although the origin story remains the same, the word-of-mouth spelling of “penit” varies. One popular spelling is “pennant,” like the trophy awarded for winning a baseball conference series or the flag adorned by warships in battle. Even when departing from the penitentiary etymology, the naming codes the illegal performance with celebration, community, and pride. Here the artform’s criminality is nurtured, is celebrated, is emboldened, before making its way out onto the streets of Miami – streets like Collins and 71st, where that McDonald’s sat abandoned.

Ironically, considering the role of the marketplace in disciplining the norm, the reason why penits are virtually surveillance-free is tied to a lack of market interest. These buildings at some point housed business ventures that eventually failed. And during this period of industrial abandonment, although the buildings may have legal owners, the spaces are eventually discovered by other members of the community: from graffiti artists coming into their own to the homeless looking for shelter. While these classes may be considered transient, they’re the ones filling the buildings with life, not the marketplace. Eventually, these buildings are either demolished or revived because some other kind of business opportunity comes along. But during these periods of official abandonment, trespassing is not quite so rigorously monitored, as was the case in TYPOE’s story.

But what happens when those same illegalities performed within a penit become both cool and marketable? Take for instance the RC Cola Plant in Wynwood. After RC Cola shut down in the 1990s, local graffiti crews took over. Then in the early 2000s, the mural group that eventually became respected gallery firm, Primary Flight, with the help of TYPOE as a co-organizer, started reserving wall space to feature legal street art/graffiti during Art Basel. For the past decade, the RC Cola penit-turned-venue space has kept up its aesthetic of urban decay and graffiti. But county records paint a different picture. In 2000, the RC Cola plant was sold for $487,500; in 2010, the former penit was sold for $2,065,000. In this timespan, the location has been used for everything from private events to commercial shoots. While trespassing is still possible, the risk has been heightened given tighter security, reinforced gates, and limited access points. Ironically, the marketplace has created a space that must be kept under control and yet adorned with cool, illegal-chic graffiti—not unlike Wynwood Walls. When it comes to the area’s commissioned street art with its built-in graffiti aesthetics, this ironic control of the non-normative art form is the very posturing that structures Wynwood.

In Miami’s history, there have been many penits. The beauty behind these subcultural spaces is not in the fact that several are currently thriving. The beauty is in the fact that, even after the marketplace reclaims the spaces they’d left abandoned, the subculture moves on to other failed spaces to make their own.

I don’t know if REEFA ever painted in a penit, and TYPOE says he only painted in them occasionally. But the pointed defiance nurtured in penits, that has for decades reinvigorated the local “delinquent” subculture, and that is actively incorporated into the bounds of the norm in part by Wynwood’s capitalizing marketplace, all contributed to the stories of REEFA and TYPOE. In Miami, the marketplace is inextricably tied to the graffiti subculture. Market interest has the power to enforce laws, disregard laws, and even capitalize on the breaking of the same laws.

REEFA and TYPOE’s stories are marked by these shifting definitions of control, by a defiance hinged on performing art that is also crime. Art that must also be criminal.


Victor Merida is a writer from Miami. He received an M.A. in English from Florida International University and wrote his thesis on Miami’s graffiti subculture.