This was never for the glory. It was never about the success stories, though it seems like those are the only stories ever told. While success is built on the backs of the fallen, legends are forged from the sacrifices of soldiers that are most relentless and defy all odds. They don’t deviate from the task at hand, and continue the pursuit of a mission begun for reasons often lost into obscurity.
When we first collaborated with DESA on AKA Volume 1 he had already been through the wringer, a couple of times. The headlines and jail time had come and gone, but an intense focus on DESA from the outside world remained. Maybe it’s because new tags continued showing up, or because DESA never shied away from controversy, but trouble followed DESA wherever he went.
The first time we photographed DESA was a late night, or early morning. At a subway station in East New York about six stops from the end of the line, we hopped on board a train and DESA immediately went to work, catching mop tags on every surface of the car. Pull up at a station, switch cars and repeat, again and again. One station from the end we hopped off and watched the train pull away.
The MTA maintains a policy of not letting trains run until they’ve been cleaned, but with morning rush hour looming, DESA had forced their hand. The clock was ticking towards 5:00 am and the trains were beginning to fill up with the first wave of early morning commuters. The poor saps in the bright vests tasked with cleaning graffiti could only manage a paltry scrub job on freshly minted tags, resulting in a bigger mess than the original tags had left. You could practically see their surrender in the smudges.
We waited until the trains hit the end of the line and were turned around and then boarded the same cars DESA had just wrecked, taking after action shots and riding the train back towards the city for another round. There, in vibrant blues, deep purples and opaque blacks was DESA, still clearly legible under the futile efforts of the buff.
Select photos from Million Dollar Vandal – The Life and Crimes of Desa MTA.
In those frames we had captured DESA, but the person behind the name remained a mystery. Though his given name made headlines and his face was splashed across tabloids, the person behind it all faded back into the crowd and further into shadows. The release of Million Dollar Vandal would attempt to document the real source of all the turbulence, Robert Morrisey.
There was a compelling narrative there, not just about graffiti, but the odd complexities and intersections of the human experience. Rob and DESA were so real in every sense that it allowed for an honest glimpse into the life of a notorious vandal and one of New York’s lost sons.
We documented DESA for more than a year, and the more we were out there the more we learned about Rob. What we found was a strikingly normal person, hidden below a thick skin of distrust and contempt no doubt created from a failed system and amplified by a lifetime of tragic circumstance. Whether it was hopping down into the tunnels, or hammering fills across train station platforms, the events that occurred over that span of time were only as predictable as chaos allows anything to be. Million Dollar Vandal is a story of mayhem, of control, of obsession and of listlessness. It’s the the story of Robert Morrissey, of DESA, of a name, and everything that comes with it.
Million Dollar Vandal, ISBN: 0-9768516-2-8
Specifications: Hard cover, 8.25 x 10.25 inches, 192 pages full-color, 179 photographs and artworks, spot silver and fluorescent ink.
*Million Dollar Vandal is officially out of print and sold out, but we occasionally release limited quantities from our archives for sale on the 12ozProphet Shop so keep your eyes open.
Million Dollar Vandal Launch Party – Nike Spirit Room, Mitte Berlin, Germany – June 23, 2007. Hand painted mural and exhibition by the 12oz Collective.
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