Kiko Was Here

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

By then, most aspects of Siandre's life were imploding. The family's good times—summer camping trips, the big vacation in Hawaii, regular visits to Disney World—had gradually been replaced by scenes of alcoholism, domestic strife, and violence.

A psychotherapist who interviewed Siandre at his defense lawyer's insistence following his arrest noted that he recalled his father as "a heavy drinker and a strict disciplinarian that [sic] beat both him and his mother." Siandre told her that though scared, he'd often throw his skinny body between his battling parents trying to protect his mother.

At the end of 1994, Oliver's mother, then six months pregnant with his sister Ashley, found out her husband had impregnated another woman. "I packed his bags and put him out of the house," the mother told the psychotherapist, and after that, 16-year-old Oliver became "the man of the house."

photo: Jorge Colombo


Tune in: Interview with reporter Sean Gardiner

Siandre's father, who's from Uruguay, had refused to allow his pretty Peruvian wife to work, demanding she stay home and take care of the kids. Once her husband and his paychecks were gone, Wanda Siandre's lack of workplace skills and the fact that she was too proud to collect welfare led to economic hardship—including having to rent out her son's room to a border, which forced him to live in the unfurnished basement.

Siandre's parents' breakup wasn't the main reason he dropped out of Forest Hills High School. Crappy grades, too much weed, and the dream of being a professional skateboarder had more to do with it. But the split forced Siandre, who had become a proficient jewelry maker just by experimenting with his jeweler father's molds, into the adult work world when most of his friends were still trying to get their learner's permits.

For his second graffiti arrest, the judge slapped Siandre with another 14 days of community service but warned: Next time counts.

Graffiti experts say that typically the threat of an adult criminal record forces most taggers into retirement. And so it was for Siandre. By all accounts, he quit graffiti cold at that point, shelving his spray paints and the urge to "get up."

As Siandre tried to shoulder the responsibilities of the adult world—working fulltime to support his family and being a surrogate father to his little sister—the mental release he once got from a spray can came more and more from alcohol and drugs.

Eventually, Siandre was drinking at least a six-pack and smoking as many as eight joints a day. By the fall of 2004, Siandre hit proverbial rock bottom: He lost his car in an accident, his girlfriend left him, and he was fired from his $25-an-hour job because, as he acknowledges now, "I had a shitty attitude."

Having previously found a low-income apartment on the 22nd floor of a West 92nd Street high-rise, Siandre loved the thrill of dangling his legs off the balcony late at night. When everything went wrong that fall, there was a time he contemplated letting his slight body slip over the side. But ultimately, he says, sounding not entirely convincing, he decided that "I love myself, my life, too much to commit suicide."

To say graffiti saved his life may be going too far. But with no car, girl, or job, it at least gave Siandre something to look forward to each day. Sounding much like a relapsing junkie, Siandre described his tagging return after a decade of abstinence. Using his unemployment money, he'd been partying all night and sleeping all day. Two days before he resuscitated Kiko, Siandre bought a couple of cans of spray paint "because I knew I was going to go bombing soon . . . I had the itchy finger."

The first day, he kept the cans in his bag. The second day, after downing more than his share of Heinekens in Astoria's Athens Square Park, the cans came out. That night Kiko started on Ditmars Avenue and worked his way down to Queensborough Plaza bombing until his cans hissed dry.

Using a "skinny cap" nozzle for the outlines and a "fat cap" that sprays a four-inch-diameter blast for filling in, Kiko could throw up a huge tag in a minute or two.

Traveling between Manhattan and his old stomping grounds in Astoria, he did the same thing the next night and the night after that. Soon all the nights of partying and tagging blurred together. Shimmying up drainpipes like Spider-Man, scaling fences, cutting himself on barbed wire, dangling off fire escapes, fighting with rival crews, he kept tagging until the neighborhood became awash in "Kiko" tags of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

For Siandre the reason to tag again was simple. To see his tag in a place others couldn't reach, receive the adulation of the kid wannabes(the toys), or overhear people bitching about "Kiko," made him feel like a somebody. It made him feel good.

The jailhouse doodles of Oliver “Kiko” Siandre

It had the opposite effect on Peter Vallone Jr.

Vallone, 44, has been Astoria's city councilman since 2002. His grandfather was a judge and his father the speaker of the City Council.

Like his father, who made unsuccessful runs for governor and mayor, Junior aspires for higher office. In fact, Vallone, who will be forced out of his job by term limits in three years, already has a campaign contribution account set up for an "undeclared office" for 2009. It's no secret one of the jobs he covets most is Queens District Attorney. And it's no surprise that Vallone, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, has a platform almost exclusively devoted to law enforcement issues. What is surprising is that graffiti tops that agenda.

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