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Holding on to the work he has to let go

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The world at large just doesn't get it - people couldn't even read Ellis' tags, thinking they spelled "Trickfish" instead of "Oricl."

"I don't think it's funny," said Circuit Judge Barry Williams before imposing Ellis' sentence. "I don't think it's a childish prank. It's a crime."

Charles Village residents aren't amused either. Dozens of tags have dotted buildings in the North Baltimore neighborhood, one of Ellis' favorite spots.

Ellis' graffiti drove off potential homebuyers and made the neighborhood look a wreck, said Wes Tolbert of the Charles Village Community Benefits District in a letter read yesterday in court.

Ellis said he regrets tagging private homes in areas like Hampden and Charles Village because working-class people have to pay out of their own pockets for the removal. He only did such things, he said, when he was intoxicated.

But public buildings and highway overpasses and train yards - that's a different story, he said.

McMillion, the Public Works employee, sees it differently. Graffiti costs about 71 cents per square inch to clean or paint over. The city spends about $840,000 a year removing about 1.5 million square feet of graffiti vandalism, according to Public Works. Ellis is responsible for at least 32,000 square feet.

McMillion said it's important that city employees remove graffiti right away.

"To some extent, it's a cat-and-mouse game," he said. "We think that if we stay on it like we do, they'll get disgusted with us and move somewhere else."

The no-tolerance approach is borrowed from New York City, a place increasingly inhospitable to taggers. Subway tunnels that used to feature a colorful array of graffiti are now scrubbed clean daily. And a city ban passed last year - and under appeal in state appeals courts - prohibits anyone under 21 from buying or possessing aerosol spray paint, etching acid and indelible markers.

One result of New York's crackdown is that other cities, including Baltimore, have become more attractive to graffiti artists, Ellis said.

Ellis began tagging while at Glen Burnie High School. He stopped for a few years, around 2000, during which time he said he experimented with marriage and "shooting dope." He also bought a house in South Baltimore, which he said he eventually sold, in part to buy a BMW.

He resumed in earnest last July he says, under the tutelage of his hero, Shaken.

Graffiti, Ellis said, is an outgrowth of his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ellis also said he has trouble controlling his anger.

Part of Ellis' plea yesterday included a conviction for second-degree assault from a January 2005 bar incident. A condition of Ellis' probation is to attend anger-management counseling.

Etheridge, the prosecutor, said she hopes Ellis' punishment will discourage other graffiti artists. But Ellis said his arrest may have the opposite impact.

"Nobody's worried about being caught," he said. "Now that they caught me, the city's happy for a little while. The people are happy."

As for his own future, Ellis concludes, "I don't want to destroy anything. ... Well, maybe a little."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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