Behind Birmingham’s Graffiti

Behind Birmingham’s Graffiti

Story and photos by Kyle Bowman.

A large graffiti piece is illuminated by a hole in the ceiling of the abandoned roundhouse.

There is a lot to see in downtown Birmingham: shops, restaurants, office buildings, houses and apartments. But most buildings do not look the same way they used to. It doesn’t take long to notice graffiti on walls, dumpsters, electrical boxes, street signs, and even port-a-potties.

Graffiti can be spotted all over the city. And while some are willing to pay to remove it, those who put it there see it as the purest form of expression. However, very few people know who put it there, why they put it there, and what it means to them.

Words from Brett Bellomy

Brett Bellomy is a long-time resident of the Glen Iris neighborhood, and he has made a point to pay attention to the graffiti in his area over the years. 

“I’ve lived in Glen Iris for several years,” Bellomy said, “so I have seen trends come through.”

Those trends include different people painting graffiti for different seasons of time. 

“There’s a guy that goes by DEWZ,” Bellomy said. “He does a lot of art. And there was temporarily a guy that went by HSK and he was doing art in that area for a while.”

The vandalism itself can be categorized by size, style, equipment used, and most importantly, by who put it there.

“The thing about street art (graffiti) is that there’s a couple different ways of doing it,” Bellomy said. “You can have a formal tag, which is when you write your name with big block letters, and there’s usually artistic splashes of color.”

“Then there’s just a quick signature, which is usually done with a pen of some kind, like a paint pen. Those are smaller. But you can also use just a can and quickly sign your name. You see those everywhere. But those aren’t nearly as ‘aesthetically pleasing.’”

Smaller signatures can be found on just about anything. Sometimes they are a person’s “graffiti” name, sometimes a short message, and still other times they are profane. They might be what you think about when you think of vandalism.

But the bigger tags are much more impressive. Upon close examination, it is easy to see that they take a good amount of time to create. It is those bigger, blockier tags that could arguably be called art. They are likely what you think about when you think of graffiti.

“Bigger tags are definitely more of an expression thing,” Bellomy said.

In order to learn more about the bigger tags, and the people who place them there, I reached out to a few vandals and street artists on Instagram. The only person I heard back from was a vandal who goes by the name DAZE.

DAZE’s works can be found all the way from the northside to the southside of Birmingham and even on a bridge over I-20 E (and those are just the tags that I have seen).

Words from DAZE

Below you will find the questions that I asked DAZE and the responses he gave me.

DAZE’s tag (in black and white) is seen on the side of the highway alongside three other tags.

Q: When did you start creating street art, and what got you into it?

A: OK so for starters I am not a street artist I’m a vandal. Who painted graffiti I feel the two things are very separate. This is just my opinion of course. But I’m a different animal than a street artist. So I started my career as a city vandal in 1990 on the streets of New Orleans. My first interacting with this sport was in the quarter when I seen a car load of guys jump out and start writing on everything. Pushing people out the way to place their name in the perfect spot. I’m not sure what was happening but I knew I needed to be a part of the chaos. So I started trying to figure out just what it was. And that night is what turned me into the fine individual that I am today. So at this point I’m just gonna assume that by street art we are referring to vandalism.

A large DAZE tag is found on the walls of the abandoned roundhouse in north Birmingham.

Q: What does vandalism mean to you?

A: Vandalism to me is the purest form of expression. I’m in charge of what you people view throughout the day. If I don’t like something I climb up there and paint over it. If I disagree with something in the city I go place my name on it and ruin it. I can be nice with it and put it in a place that makes people happy. Or I can choose to go the other way. It’s free. No boundaries. And it tends to keep me kinda sane on this goofy world we live in.

Graffiti is hard to really explain. I used to be on a pretty strange path. We used to rob tourists and break into houses steal cars and a store every now and then. Once I discovered graffiti it took me away from all of that. While it put me into another form of bad boy-ness, it stopped me from doing other bad shit.

A large DAZE tag is found on the south side of downtown with the message “All is well. I am not insane.”

Q: Why is vandalism important?

A: I can’t necessarily say I think it’s important but it did save me in a way.

Through the barbed wire fence, a DAZE tag is seen next to another tag on the patio of an abandoned apartment building.

Q: What is something that people might not know about vandalism? How can they understand it better?

A: People might not know that you can be seriously hurt out in the street. Dabbling in a culture you may not [know] enough about. I’ve been stabbed once. [Shot] at about 6 times chased. Got into numerous fights. Ran from every cop in Birmingham. Cut on razor wire. And about 1000 other things that aren’t that cool. Most people think it’s just really cool and get into it thinking you get to just run around and create beauty all over the place. While that is sometimes true. You have to watch for the shark in the water. Not everyone wants you out there cause it makes it harder on us when a rookie does something dumb. While they may be in it for a year or two we are into this our whole lives is more serious to us than just a hobby for the summer.

So what’s the point?

At first glance, graffiti may seem like nothing more than defacing a building. But after years of practice, or even years of observation, it is easy to see the goal of graffiti.

Small tags and large tags coexist on the walls of the abandoned roundhouse.

“Graffiti is definitely about self expression,” Bellomy said. “People aren’t tagging people’s houses. They’re usually tagging a lot of abandoned buildings, a lot of public property. They aren’t vandalizing a lot of personal property.”

Bellomy said that he supports self expression, especially in the form of graffiti. 

“I’m really pro-graffiti,” Bellomy said. “I think it adds character to a city. Whenever I go to a new city, I look around and see if I can start recognizing names during my time there. Every city has different artists and different styles. I think it’s cool. It’s worth preserving.”

As DAZE said himself, he used to be involved in crimes that harm other people. But ever since he started vandalizing, he has been putting himself in harm’s way to bring beauty to the streets.

Graffiti has the potential to create beauty in abandoned spaces. It also has the potential to create beauty in a person’s life. 

Follow DAZE on Instagram: @dazetn