Kiko Was Here

A would-be Basquiat goes to prison in a misguided graffiti crackdown

evening not so long ago, Oliver Siandre was sitting at a wooden desk in a windowless room when he started to doodle.

In Siandre's drawing, the hero, a graffiti writer, is fleeing an NYPD patrol car after having just finished spraying his "tag" on a brick wall: "Kiko." There's another "Kiko" on the second floor of the building where two smitten-looking women watch from separate windows exhorting "Kiko" on. One is yelling, "Go! Go!" The other: "You can do it!" At the bottom of the picture is a third "Kiko" tag with "Busted 10/4/05" written next to it.

Siandre scratched it out killing time between rounds of questioning by detectives inside Astoria's 114th Precinct. Upon seeing the doodle, the cops laughed so hard they nearly cried. They'd witnessed plenty of written and spoken confessions but had never seen a suspect produce an incriminating drawing.

photo: Jorge Colombo


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They photocopied the picture and added it to the large pile of evidence already collected against Siandre. Then they called headquarters with the news that "Kiko," the city's "most notorious graffiti vandal," had been caught.

No one will ever nominate Oliver Siandre for a Rhodes scholarship—and not because Siandre is stupid. He's actually pretty bright. It's just his particular personality mix sometimes includes a total loss of common sense (usually after a forty or two of Heineken). This has led Siandre to make more than his fair share of dopey decisions, like the time he dropped out of 10th grade in part to concentrate on being a professional skateboarder.

But none of his ill-fated choices have proved more disastrous than choosing, at age 27, after a decade of forsaking a teenage passion for graffiti, to start "getting 'Kiko' up" again.

If he tried, Siandre couldn't have picked a worse time or place to revive his night-crawling, spray-painting alter ego. Not only did he target one of the most active anti-graffiti communities in New York, but he also invaded the home turf of an ambitious politician who's also the city's leading graffiti opponent. Though a small fish in the graffiti world then, overnight Siandre was identified to the city as the notorious "graffiti punk" by City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., whose anti-graffiti crusade was then desperately in need of new life after several setbacks.

That designation earned Siandre more street fame then he ever could have dreamed of. But, as far as the criminal justice system was concerned, Kiko was now a marked man.

Over the past two years, the graffiti battle in New York City has been joined.

The NYPD now treats graffiti more seriously than ever before. It operates an 80-member anti-graffiti task force, has anti-graffiti coordinators at each precinct, and operates a database that allows the cops to start tracking the writers by their tags before they even know their names. A zero-tolerance arrest policy now comes with more stringent prosecution.

The reasoning is simple: Spray painting or using a marker or etching acid to deface property is a crime, and a costly one at that. The city ponied up about $12 million to remove about 10 million square feet of graffiti this past year, and the MTA and private owners spent millions more.

For the victims of graffiti, it's a royal pain in the ass.

"It's just a blob; I don't know how else to describe it, a green blob," says a frustrated Mary Fente, 78, who can't afford to have the "Kiko" removed from the roof of her Elmhurst home.

More than anything, however, the graffiti battle is one of control. For the middle-aged bureaucrats who run the police department and City Hall, graffiti gives the perception of disorder and loss of control. It's a harbinger of bad times ahead.

But the odd thing, as both sides seem to agree, is that the more the city does to combat graffiti, the more of it goes up.

Oliver Siandre unabashedly loves graffiti. But when it comes to explaining why, he can't.

Hand Lettering by Diego 127

He has vivid recollections as a kid of five or six of watching the spectacular graffiti-covered No. 7 trains roll by overhead in Woodside. His early life was typically middle-class: sports, hip-hop, skateboarding, and by the age of 14, graffiti. Some of his friends started tagging, so he began fooling around with it too, mostly using markers. Originally, he chose "Tek" simply because a friend was "Lek." But there were a lot of Teks, so he came up with "Kiko."

It's short, he says, for Kid Knock Out. Soft-spoken and almost timid, Siandre, who stands maybe five foot eight and, at most, weighs 145 pounds, makes the difficult-to-believe claim that the moniker came to being "because when I used to fight, I used to knock people out."

At 16, he hit a subway with his first substantial spray-paint tag, providing a rush he'd never felt before. However, a few months after that first big one, he got busted tagging an F train in Forest Hills. Because he was still a juvenile, he got off with only two weeks of community service. The arrest kept him away from the aerosols for the next seven months, but peer pressure drew him back. He got pinched on one of his very first times out tagging again—a blue "Kiko" on a wall and another on a subway laid up in the Van Wyck and Queens Boulevard station, according to a police report.

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