The Artist Formerly Known As “Dap”

 Lucy Gellman Photo. 

Lucy Gellman Photo. 

A New Haven artist isn’t sure exactly when he started leaving his graffiti persona behind. But months after a court case ordered him to pay the city almost $10,000 in damages, he’s asking to tell his side of the story as a cautionary tale. At least, some of it. 

The artist, a young New Havener who asked that his name and several biographical details be withheld despite their place on the public record, used to go by the tag “Dap” and “Daper” (not “Dapper,” as previous coverage has suggested), doing tags between New Haven and New York City. For years, he said he tagged because it felt good—there was a certain excitement to seeing one’s name on the side of an underpass or old property. It felt like a blank canvas, waiting to be claimed. But it stopped feeling that way a while ago. 

It may have been because the city was onto him. For over a year, Livable City Initiative (LCI) Neighborhood Specialist Carmen Mendez and New Haven Police Department Detective Orlando Crespo tracked "Dap," Crespo comparing tags that appeared in and between New Haven and New York City.

By then, Mendez said the graffiti in that area—and around the city—had gotten under her skin, because taggers often go without consequence while the city gets saddled with cleanup. The city's annual graffiti removal budget is $30,000, which she said entails mix of power washing, repainting and removal by hand. She said the city works with an outside contractor to complete the removal each year.

After hearing that Crespo had reached out to friends and family members, “Dap” said he made the choice to turn himself in and give up graffiti for good. In October of last year and again this January, he appeared in the city’s Superior Court before Judge Philip Scarpellino, who ordered accelerated rehabilitation and $9,200 in direct reimbursement to the City of New Haven. That amount came from Mendez, who said she tried to price it out per tag—$100 for a small tag, $200 for a medium tag, and $300 for a large one, plus the cost of hiring contractors to do the removal. 

“I really tried to be fair,” she said in a recent interview. “I looked at all the pictures of all the tagging that Daper had done, and that was the number I came up with.”

It struck the young New Havener as a small fortune, he said—and so he offered to do some combination of cleaning it himself, adding community service, and even serving jail time to bring down the cost. Scarpellino’s order stuck—$9,200 and a clear record, or charges if he failed to pay the amount in full over the next four years. A graduate of New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) with two jobs, he began paying the amount in $100 monthly increments at the beginning of March. 

But for the artist, the ruling from Scarpellino doesn’t tell the full story of who he is. Raised between New Haven and New York City, he’s also a musician and with a robust record of volunteering for the city’s cultural organizations. He’s a local who loves New Haven as he whizzes through it on his bike, spends stretches of time chatting with its vendors, bathes in the sound of its music festivals. An excerpt of that part of the story, as he asked to tell it, is below. 

So, let’s start at the case. I’ve been thinking about how in the coverage, no one talked to you about your career, your feelings around this, what was happening. Are you still doing graffiti?

No. That’s the whole thing. Since this case, I stopped cold turkey. I haven’t been writing or anything. Because to me, it just kind of became a pointless aspect. You kind of put a light in my eyes with the public art versus graffiti art question. I’ve been thinking about it a lot more. 

You know, graffiti, it’s art but it’s art on a different level, that really shouldn’t be in the public eye. Like, public art—that’s something you want in the public eye. Graffiti, that’s something you stay anonymous, by yourself. You know?

Did you feel like people, the city, snuck up on you kind of?

In a way, this is kind of what I get for playing the game. 

Did you grow up in New Haven?

Yeah, I’m an actual resident. I grew up all around New Haven. Fair Haven, The Hill, the Tre (around Kensington Street in New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood), Westville. Currently I live in The Ville (Newhallville) cause it’s cheap over there. 

And I can tell you, some of these other graffiti writers, they’re actually not from here. 

It’s a new era of graffiti, too. I’m in my twenties, but everyone older always tells me—since Instagram, all this media attention came out. Everyone wants a piece of it, you know. They’ll almost do anything just to be famous. And anonymous. Which is weird. I don’t know what to put of it either.

For me, really, I’m actually “Dap” as you can see. He draws a tag on a piece of paper, while referencing the court case. I just don’t want associations with the media, really. I want to pay my dues, acknowledge my stake, and move on. 

How do you feel about your side of the story being told?

It [the media coverage] made me kind of look like I’m some type of gang member who wants to run around the streets rampant, but that’s not really it. I just kind of had a artistic addiction that I wanted to get out. And in my youth, I just did it. 

What struck me about the coverage was that it didn’t say anything about you as a human being. So—who are you, as a human being?

I’m not really someone who does extravagant stuff. I’m just a regular [guy], I work a nine to five, go home, wake up, repeat. The graffiti was really just my artistic freedom from the world if anything, but at some point, I guess God put a stop to it. 

And I can’t really be mad at that. I can really only play the rules of the game until death, I guess. You know? That’s how I kind of look at this whole graffiti thing. 

So do you just think you just won’t do it, period?

I mean, probably not. Maybe once in a while when I’m older and I feel comfortable doing it. Maybe a different name, maybe. But I don’t want to take the chances. There’s cameras everywhere nowadays. And they can recognize my face at any second. 

So it’s like—it’d be kind of pointless for you to do it. For me to even think about it, like, I’d have to wear a mask. And I don’t want to be like this grown man running around the streets with a spray can. At some point, I realized I needed to grow up. That’s how I kind of feel about graffiti at this point. 

So after we ran the story about someone claiming to be a tagger earlier this summer, Carmen Mendez reached out to me. She talked about the court case, and how she would like to talk to graffiti artists about a public art project. Is that something that you would ever consider?

Yeah! Honestly, I wanted to do more public things. But for that, it’s going to cost me money, and I have to put myself in a better [financial] position. Right now I’m actually paying the city $100 [per month]. So it’s like, I can’t actually think about doing public artwork while I’m paying for it. It’s kind of contradictory in my eyes.

Maybe down the road when I’m financially stable again, and I can actually afford to buy paint. Because I feel like the city is not going to pay me for that. And if they are, I’ll always welcome arts opportunities. You know, whatever takes my name out of the dirt of being “Dap.” I’m an artist in this city. Don’t look at me as like, a gang member. Look at me as someone who—I wanted just to see not blank walls, if anything. 

You know, I’m down for the community, really. Whatever brightens the community and puts a smile on someone’s face, I’m around for it. 

So that’s a tentative yes?

I actually wanted to do that, too. Link up with Carmen, see if that’s really how she felt or if the media twisted her words. I would be interested in seeing her. I wanna apologize in ways, hear what she has to say, come on even terms with her. You know?

Yeah. For people who do graffiti now, what do you think about it? Or do you feel like, you’re going to do your thing, they’re going to do their thing?

Yeah. They can do them. You guys, don’t get caught. Get caught if … ah, I don’t know. Do what you want. It’s really for self-expression. I did it because this is my only version of self-expression on planet earth that I’m gonna feel, while I’m a human being. But for others, I can’t really speak on them. 

But, you know—just don’t get caught. This is what happens when you get caught. You gotta pay $100 every month. Realize there are cameras watching you guys, if I can give that message.     

So I want to come back to something you said before—that people write you off as a gang member. With both city officials and law enforcement more broadly … we see that kind of stereotyping in the media all the time. So if you were in a room with them, what would you say?

Honestly, they have to kind of open their eyes and perspective to see that you can’t stereotype everything when there are people like me who try to do graffiti … just for the fun of it. There was no reason behind it. I just wanted to do it. I watch YouTube videos, I've seen other people do it throughout the years. 

I grew up in the Bronx too, so I’ve seen graffiti a little more, coming back and forth on the train line. I just kind of caught onto it and brought it here. New Haven, it’s not really a big thing for some reason. People aren’t into it. Which is respectful. You have Yale, and a lot of big names for New Haven … they don’t want it here. Which makes sense.

When I come around—I was kind of testing it out, seeing how far I could get with it. I mean, if I sat in a room with them right now, they’d just have to see who I am as a person and realize like, I’m just a regular person who just created art in an illegal way.

When you were going through the trial, what did you feel like they got wrong? In that discussion? 

I want to know where they came up with the estimated $9,200. To me, that doesn’t make sense. I would have been comfortable paying like, $3,000 if anything. I feel like I did at least $3,000 worth of damages. I don’t know where they came up with [that amount of] money.

I feel like they do just want some type of like … someone’s getting a paycheck for their vacation or whatever. Which is like, I’m in the works of trying to figure out a different way. I did offer to go to jail, I offered to do a whole year. I said: I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll clean it up myself, hand wash it, whatever it took. But they wanted the money. 

So now, what do you feel like is next?

At this point, I don’t know. I guess, pay, see what I can get out of it. I’ve had a bunch of people say “hey, I want to put some spotlight on your name,” and I appreciate it, but I kind of just want to pay my dues and move on in life. Stay out of the spotlight. Remain anonymous. I just want to leave behind that name, “Dap.” Because it’s not going to be on the streets anymore.

Maybe I’ll do public art in the future. For now, I’m just working a nine to five. A boring life. 

I’ve heard people say “Oh, New Haven’s so much better now.” But do you believe that?

New Haven’s cleaned itself like a crazy amount. Ten years ago, you would sit on the Green and see homeless people everywhere. I think the name “Yale” [does a lot]—it’s such an ivy league school, and everyone and their mother wants to come here and get that degree. They have international students. So when they see graffiti, they associate it with gang-related activity and think it’s a bad place, instead of realizing it’s just public art. Like a flower on a wall or a giant baby on the side of the highway. 

At least for some of us, it’s the same kind of idea. New Haven—they don’t want to see stuff like that. Yale pretty much just cleaned it up. 

In a way, I’m mad at the city that they caught me. But this is where I grew up, and I am a native and I do plenty of other things besides graffiti that I enjoy in New Haven. I enjoy the flea market, you know, coming downtown. 

The fact that I got caught in my own city doing something that I love, and you have these other graffiti writers who aren’t even from here and they didn’t get caught—I feel bittersweet about it. But it’s like, I’m the local. This is what can happen to a local.