Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Inside Metro graffiti: A Q&A with the director of 'The Red Line D.C. Project'

July 8, 2011 - 08:10 AM
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Graffiti from the Red Line. (Photo: flickr/eyespahn)

Two weeks ago, I spotlighted a documentary-in-progress known as The Red Line D.C. Project, which aspires to understand the world of Washington D.C.'s graffiti — and specifically, how this graffiti intersects with our city's visible system of public transportation. The film's director and producer is a young woman named Saaret Yoseph, a former writer and editor for the news site The Root, a current Georgetown grad student, and now a first-time filmmaker. She's been studying in Morocco in recent months but plans to return to D.C. later this summer and kickstart fund-raising for the film in a big way. The Red Line D.C. Project already has a trailer as well as a clip of her interview with notorious graffiti artist JU, both of which first attracted my attention.

I caught up with Yoseph recently and asked her several questions about the project, the inspiration driving her, and the nature and dimensions of being a graffiti artist along D.C.'s Metro lines. Here's what Yoseph had to say:

Chocolate strawberries
Saaret Yoseph (Photo: YouTube/KallieEjigu)

TBD On Foot: So tell me, how did the Red Line D.C. Project get started? Who first suggested a film looking at D.C. graffiti?

Saaret Yoseph: The idea for the film really began as a personal inquiry. As a D.C. native living in Northeast, I ride the Red Line almost everyday. On days when reading or people-watching weren't enough to pass the time, I'd look out the window and entertain myself by reading the writing on the walls. Sometime last spring, I started noticing a handful of aerosol images along the line that were signed by a single name, "JU." These were mostly characters from pop culture — the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Super Mario Brothers, the anime bear from Kanye West's "Graduation" album and others. Each time I saw a new work of JU (or JuJu's), I felt like I was in conversation with someone I'd never met. I became curious about who this person was and the concept of the film really started off as a search for this one anonymous writer.

In the process of looking for him, I got a chance to meet some amazing people who were already involved in the local graffiti community. Namely, the folks at Words, Beats & Life. I also encountered filmmakers, like Al Morgan of 5/5th Human Productions who were open to collaborating and taking the reigns in terms of the more technical aspects of the project. Making these connections allowed me to see that the story of the red line goes way beyond JU and me. I realized that the conversation should be bigger — and hopefully better served as a documentary that includes different perspectives on graffiti and the overarching Metro experience.

.On Foot: I love the line on your site saying the film tackles where “public space, public art, and public transportation intersect.” Can you give readers a sense of how those elements intersect in D.C.?

Yoseph: To me, the central issue behind Red Line D.C. is the notion of communal space. Thousands of people ride D.C.'s public transit system every day, yet we rarely interact with one another. This is a city full of contradictions: It's international, yet insular; political, but still pulsing with its own unique beat. The goal is to have this film encompass all aspects of our local culture by using Metro graffiti as the entry point.

The transit system here, like most metropolitan cities, is the lifeline that connects us to each other. Even if we never share more than a glance during our Metro ride, there's no denying the ties bound by physical proximity. I consider the graffiti along the Red Line to be emblematic of the sort of indirect relationships and overlapping identities that exist, not just in transit, but throughout D.C. By developing this project, I hope to encompass all the layers of art, identity, and interaction that happen on the Metro; the marginalized production, unspoken consumption, and ways in which graffiti tethers us to each other and the city.

(Continue reading the Q&A with Saaret Yoseph after the jump)

On Foot: And D.C.’s graffiti has been tied to Metro for years, hasn’t it? What’s the history behind those traditions?

Yoseph: I consider myself to be a student when it comes to the subject of graffiti, but I'll do my best to give a little background. It's true that transit and public name writing have often gone hand-in-hand. Whether on NYC subway cars or cross-country freight trains, graffiti tends to go where the eyes are. For writers looking to promote themselves and perfect their craft, public transportation offers the prospect of a captive audience.

In the case of the D.C. Metro, the Red Line route between Union Station and Silver Spring has a history of attracting writers looking to get their start or proliferate their brand. Writers from Maryland, Virginia, and other nearby cities have left their mark there (illegally) over the years and now, with the development of the Metropolitan Branch Trail, legal murals have been commissioned within that space. An evaluation of what these murals contribute to the commute in comparison to the existing graffiti is, of course, up for debate. But in my mind, the end goal of both is simply to be seen.

On Foot: Who are some of the players that you focus on in the film? I love the interview with graffiti artist JU you’ve uploaded.

Yoseph: The interview with JU was my first for the project and certainly one that has personal significance, but I've also gotten a chance to speak to other young writers like FAME, GOBE, YELO, GATAS and CAVE. I hope to speak to many others over the course of the project, especially writers, like Cool Disco Dan, that got up on the Red Line during its early years.

In addition to interviewing writers, I've talked to folks from organizations outside of the graffiti community, including the D.C. Department of Public Works, DDOT, etc. And, though I've collected opinions from some Metro commuters, I hope to hear from many more before we wrap production, whether on-camera or on our website: redlinedc.wordpress.com.

On Foot: Was JU initially reluctant about being interviewed?

Yoseph: Sure, he was hesitant, at first. I think most writers are cautious when "outsiders" ask about their illegal work, especially when they want to ask on-camera. But I assured him and others that I've spoken to that I would protect their anonymity. Having the kind of candid conversation that I want with interviewees depends a lot on comfort, so respecting their privacy is important and, ultimately, beneficial to the quality of the film's content.

On Foot: What makes street art like graffiti so controversial?

Yoseph: Any act that's criminalized is bound to be viewed negatively by some people and, since graffiti has its roots in counterculture communities, there's always been a bit of a mystique around the practice. There is certainly a camp of enthusiasts, which includes writers, who enjoy graffiti because it's illegal, and then there's others who will never accept it for that same reason.

Now that street art and graffiti styles are mainstreaming into pop culture, galleries, and museums, the debate is becoming less about artistry and more about ownership. With private property, the answer is a little easier, but in terms of public space, who gets to decide what we see in the city? And why?

On Foot: Give me a sense of what it’s like to be a transit-line graffiti artist in D.C. I’ve wondered a lot about the little details. When do they create their art? What motivates them?

Yoseph: Now, if I shared all these details, you'd have no motivation to see the film. So, I'll save some tidbits for later and expect you to stay tuned ...

On Foot: Is there a real sense of competition among graffiti artists?

Yoseph: The thing that I'm consistently reminded of as I produce this project is that the graffiti community is like any other, full of individuals who share some commonalities and plenty of differences. There are individuals who are fiercely competitive and adhere to a code of conduct, and others who aren't and play by their own rules. I don't think any writer would be in the game if they didn't have a desire to prove themselves at some point in their career. But for those who maintain the practice over several years, the sense of rivalry often dies out and is replaced by a discipline to improve their craft.

On Foot: What’s the timeline like with The Redline D.C. Project — how much is filmed and what are the next steps?

Yoseph: I plan to develop the film as part of my graduate thesis for Georgetown University's Communication, Culture and Technology program. The intended release date is Spring 2012, but we're working on raising the necessary funds to meet that deadline. Thankfully, the project was awarded a small/planning grant by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and I'm praying that future fund-raising efforts, including an upcoming Kickstarter page and a live summer event, will help us meet the rest of our budget.

Aside from the business end, I'm trying to draw as much attention to the project as possible in order to inspire people to share their opinions (as well as their photos and videos) of Metro graffiti. This is a collaborative, community-based documentary, so there's no way I can wrap production without hearing from all the stakeholders involved. That means not just graffiti writers, but also commuters, city officials, city planners, pedestrians, art enthusiasts — anyone who feels invested in or interacts with the Red Line.

On Foot: What inspired you personally to tackle this subject?

Yoseph: Delving into this subject matter was really about answering questions that I had about my Metro ride and the unseen individuals who contribute to the experience. Turning that investigation into a documentary project is just my attempt to see if anyone else is asking the same questions ... So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and I take that as a sign that I'm headed in the right direction.

On Foot: And you’re in Morocco now! Tell me what brought you there.

Yoseph: This trip to Morocco is completely unrelated to the documentary. I'm here doing a study abroad program on post-colonial north African history and development. What brought me here was a plain desire to travel and take a brief reprieve from all things Red Line D.C. But of course, graffiti is never far behind from my daily activities. I've been working remotely on our fund-raising efforts with my sister and marketing director Metasebia Yoseph at The Muse Collective. I've also been capturing snapshots of the graffiti I come across here in Morocco and intend to post some pictures on the project's website before I leave at the end of July.

On Foot: Finally, what’s been your favorite moment working on The Redline D.C. Project so far, and what one thing do you hope people would bring away from it once you’re done?

Yoseph: I've really enjoyed the people that I've gotten a chance to meet while exploring D.C.'s graffiti scene. There's been so much positive reinforcement about the project. And I'm always happy to find others who are interested in the Red Line's story. At the end of the project, once all has been said and done, I'd be content knowing that I did that story justice. That I included as many voices as possible, from all sides of the fence, and helped encapsulate this one angle of local identity as best I could.

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