The tagger and the DA
The Placer County district attorney says tagger Corey Simpson-Upmeyer is a gang member who deserves seven years in prison. But what if he’s just a dumb kid?
It was a strange place to hit. The beige brick wall separating the comfortable homes of north Roseville from the vast scrublands stretching to Lincoln offered plenty of space for a hundred taggers, but the surface faced just vacant land. No matter what graffiti Corey Simpson-Upmeyer, 19, and his comrades painted there on the night of May 8, 2009, it was doubtful anyone would see it.
But people did see Simpson-Upmeyer’s painting—a photo of his large, intricately rendered red-and-white tag “Escape” appeared in The Sacramento Bee the next day. Turned out two of his comrades were, in fact, undercover Roseville police officers, and they later arrested Simpson-Upmeyer and four others (one of which is a minor). But rather than just prosecute the crew for misdemeanor tagging, the Placer County district attorney’s office charged them with criminal gang felonies that could net them each seven years in prison.
“I know coke dealers that kill people,” Simpson-Upmeyer said, who was shocked at the charges against him. “I don’t do that.”
Jim Updegraff, chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Sacramento board, seemed equally surprised. “I’ve never heard of anyone in Sacramento County tried [with gang enhancements] for graffiti, which as far as I know is a misdemeanor,” he said. “Generally, here, gang charges stem from violent crimes. If it was just graffiti, I don’t see where the gang charges come in.”
Simpson-Upmeyer insisted that he’s a street artist and denied any gang membership whatsoever. He also said he always knew his comrades on May 8 were undercover cops. He said they showed up with a bag of brand-new aerosol cans, and all of them—including the cops—went to work on the wall.
“I met with the cops because who in the world can say they painted with cops?” Simpson-Upmeyer said. “But I knew they were cops the whole time. They looked way too normal. Most artists get high before they paint because it brings out the inner artist. But they refused, so I knew something was up. But I was already this far, so I thought I might as well paint with the cops.”
Very little is known about “Operation Buffed,” the Roseville Police Department’s ongoing effort to infiltrate local tagging crews that nailed Simpson-Upmeyer. The cops apparently found him on MySpace, befriended him and soon played apprentice to him. A May 8, 2009 Roseville police press release dramatically announced the sting results.
“Friday afternoon, officers served search warrants in Roseville, Rocklin, Citrus Heights and Rocklin, and arrested five individuals suspected of at least 318 separate incidents of graffiti vandalism,” stated the release. “They are suspected members of a ‘tagging team’ that caused $36,840 in property damage in Roseville alone. The group is also being investigated for an additional $80,000 in property damage in Sacramento County and on Union Pacific Railroad property.”
But Roseville police public information officer Dee Dee Gunther would only release three sentences of the official 42-page report on Simpson-Upmeyer’s arrest, and one of those is less than enlightening: “When the subjects would paint graffiti, they would conspire together to commit the vandalism and the vandalism would be completed in furtherance of the tagging crew.”
On May 11, Placer County Deputy District Attorney David Broady filed a complaint against Simpson-Upmeyer, alleging that he and his crew “maliciously and unlawfully” tagged property in excess of $400, tagged “in association with a criminal street gang” and committed “street terrorism,” which Broady later described as a “generic term” used in gang prosecutions. Convictions on all three charges could bring seven years in prison for each defendant.
Simpson-Upmeyer and the other defendants pled not guilty.
Graffiti as an art form (sometimes called “street art” or “urban art”) has always been controversial. Born on the New York City subway in the early 1970s, it spread virally throughout the world, one tagger inspiring another. Arrests occur often, and the biggest names in the street-art world—like Banksy, Invader and Ramm:ell:zee—keep low profiles, often appearing masked when interviewed.
Their work often attacks the political and corporate establishment. Despite, or perhaps because of, their notoriety, a few taggers end up as commercially successful artists (Simpson-Upmeyer ultimately wants to attend Academy of Art University in San Francisco). David Garibaldi, a 26-year-old Elk Grove resident and former tagger, ended up joining the establishment he once assaulted. Today he paints portraits for Disney Fine Art and scored a profile in the June/July issue of Sactown magazine.
Simpson-Upmeyer is a long way from that. He’s 6 feet tall, weighs about 150 pounds, and has green eyes and unkempt black hair. He has “Thou Shall Not Kill” inked on his chest. He showed up to our interview dressed in all black, with black gauges the size of dimes in his earlobes, two piercings in his lower lip and one in his nose. His Roseville police booking sheet calls him an “unemployed artist,” but he works part time as an apprentice in a tattoo shop.
He and his family lacked the money to post bail, so he spent six days in the Placer County Jail following his arrest. The court appointed him a public defender, but Simpson-Upmeyer said he has never spoken to him (the Placer County public defender’s office didn’t return a call for comment). Simpson-Upmeyer was to meet him on June 18 at an “early-settlement conference” at the county courthouse, but never did, because his attorney recused himself from the case, which spurred Judge Colleen Nichols to delay the whole matter until August 5.
Simpson-Upmeyer denies his crew was a “criminal gang.” “We were just a bunch of kids getting together to express our artwork,” he said. “We rarely painted together. I always painted by myself.”
Well, not on May 8. Regardless, Simpson-Upmeyer admits that he put his “Escape” tag all over Placer County. His justification was simple: “Look at all the commercial advertising around,” Simpson-Upmeyer said. “They’re imposing that on me, so why can’t I impose my art on them? I see graffiti as a healthy addiction, but a bad addiction. It’s a way to force others to see my artwork. But I believe I’ve now reached my goal and I’m done. Completely done. When I painted, I considered it my escape. That’s why my name is Escape.”
Dominic Rinaldi, a family friend and owner of Godlike Rehearsal Studios in Natomas, doesn’t see things that way. “Corey isn’t that talented,” Rinaldi said. “In fact, he kind of sucks. Corey is just learning how to do this. He’s bright, but he does stupid things. It’s a prestige thing for him.”
Rinaldi, who often pays local street artists to tag the interior walls of his music studio, hired Simpson-Upmeyer put his “Escape” tag on the facility’s “free wall.” But after the arrest, other artists protested Simpson-Upmeyer’s actions by painting a huge flower over part of the work.
“I see Corey as a young person with a chance to get ahead, but he’s going down the wrong path,” said Bishop, a 29-year-old tattoo artist and ex-tagger. Bishop, who goes by one name, has painted extensively at Godlike music. “I met him a long time ago, and was trying to get him on a straighter path. His painting is cool, but he’s not doing it right. There’s no positive kick—it’s like sending a car out with the frame, just the engine and parts. I told him to paint something entirely out of the ordinary. But he’s just doing mindless crap.”
And now that mindless crap may net Simpson-Upmeyer seven years in prison. “I just hope they don’t put me in jail,” he said. “I have too much talent to be in jail. I’m not a bad kid—I just messed up.”