In Might 2020 a mysterious neologism started showing throughout Houston. Spray-painted in cartoonish letters typically a number of toes excessive was a single phrase: “Toeflop.” The cryptic disyllable was seemingly in all places, abruptly. Instagrammers documented dozens of Toeflops in quite a lot of kinds and colours—on bridges, railroad trestles, billboards, concrete revetments alongside bayous, and, most spectacularly, atop a thirty-story abandoned hotel building downtown. Twitter erupted in hypothesis in regards to the id of the graffiti author or writers, and the which means of the curious cognomen.
Redditors debated various theories. “It feels like foot drop, which is a neurological situation requiring spinal surgical procedure,” recommended one commenter. Observing the similarity of Toeflop to TOEFL (Check of English as a Overseas Language), one other hypothesized that the graffiti author had most likely failed, or flopped, the examination. Others recommended their very own acronyms: The Group Exists for Loving on Potato Salad? Take On Each Freaking Louisianan on Penicillin?
Within the subculture of up to date American graffiti writing, which emerged in Philadelphia within the late sixties earlier than spreading around the globe, reaching Toeflop-level ubiquity is called going “all metropolis.” The latest Houston author to realize such distinction was Rowdy, an nameless particular person whose spray-painted tags were nigh inescapable in 2019. Now it was Toeflop’s flip. As spring became summer time and summer time into fall, the artist or artists saved Toeflopping throughout Area Metropolis—and past.
Someday round September, Toeflop landed in Austin, hitting an deserted fuel station, the shuttered restaurant Shady Grove, and an oft-tagged railroad bridge over Woman Chook Lake. Toeflops had been even noticed as far afield as Memphis and New Orleans. Every tag had a unique look, starting from easy monochromatic designs to elaborate, multicolored items with shadowed bubble letters and complex shading.
“He’s doing one thing sort of tongue-in-cheek, enjoying with the conventions of East and West Coast graffiti,” stated Stefano Bloch, a legendary L.A. graffiti author who went all metropolis within the nineties below the nom de plume of Cisco. At my request, Bloch reviewed on-line photographs of Toeflop’s work. “He appears to be saying, I’m right here within the center [of the country], I’m in Texas, and I’m going to place my very own spin on standard graffiti varieties.”
Bloch, who’s now an assistant professor of geography on the College of Arizona, stated that within the early aughts graffiti writers started adopting intentionally outlandish names, like Neck Face, to differentiate their work from gang-related graffiti. “You decide essentially the most absurd of names to convey that you just’re really engaged in this sort of efficiency avenue artwork,” he defined. “There’s no means that any rational particular person can confuse you for a gang member who’s demarcating territory and keen to violently defend it. It appears to me that Toeflop is doing the identical factor. You would possibly even name him an avant-garde graffiti author from Texas.”
Former Houston graffiti author David Flores, aka Skeez181, informed me he’s impressed by Toeflop’s productiveness and geographic vary. “I don’t know precisely who he’s, however that’s the entire mystique behind graffiti—anyone might be portray far and wide and keep nameless,” Flores stated. “Some folks do it for the celebrity, some do it for the respect, and a few folks simply do it for themselves.” Though some web commenters have speculated that Toeflop is the identify of a crew, Flores and Bloch consider it’s the work of a single artist.
It’s typical for a single graffiti author to make use of all kinds of kinds, Bloch emphasised. “By no means have I recognized of a number of folks writing the identical identify—not even as soon as,” he stated. “I’m 99.9 p.c sure that is a person particular person with a number of writing kinds.” The entire level of tagging is getting your identify on the market, he defined, so appropriating another person’s moniker can be pointless. “Most graffiti writers come from communities the place there are fewer retailers to make a reputation for your self. They’re expressing themselves in a means that’s going to piss lots of people off, but it surely’s additionally going to impress lots of people.”
As a result of graffiti writing is unlawful most often, thought of a defacement of public or non-public property, anonymity is important; many writers don’t disclose their actual names even to their tagging companions. Flores was arrested in Houston in 1996 for tagging freight trains and spent 4 years on probation, after which he transitioned into portray approved murals and instructing artwork. Bloch earned his doctorate and have become a professor. The biographical blurb on the again cowl of his memoir describes him as a “semiretired graffiti author.” Some well-known graffiti artists resembling Houston’s Gonzo247, who now paints city-commissioned murals, adopted related trajectories from the margins to the mainstream. Others have maintained their anonymity, however that’s not all the time simple.
On the night of March 16, a safety guard noticed a person and a lady breaking into the Buffalo Bend Assortment and Gardens, an artwork museum in Houston’s rich River Oaks neighborhood. The pair fled towards Buffalo Bayou, the place they boarded a small motorboat to make their getaway. Pursued by Houston Police Division officers, the burglars had been pressured to desert their boat and escape on foot via a drainage tunnel. The police misplaced the path, however contained in the boat they found a backpack filled with graffiti supplies and hand-drawn Toeflop patterns. In addition they discovered a van on a Buffalo Bayou boat ramp, registered to 33-year-old Lewis Yates Robertson. (Police haven’t been capable of establish the lady.)
Robertson was arrested in April and charged with felony housebreaking; he’s at present free on a $1,000 bond. His lawyer, Mark Metzger III, informed me that his shopper is harmless. Metzger denied that the grafitti designs belonged to Robertson. Even when they did, it wouldn’t imply Robertson was Toeflop, he insisted. “Go to any tattoo store round city and so they’re all going to have the identical e-book with the identical designs,” he stated. “That’s sort of what that is. It’s a template that every one these guys carry round.” Metzger subscribes to the “a number of Toeflop” principle, ascribing the tags to a “collaboration of most likely over a dozen folks mimicking the identical artwork kind.”
However Robertson does have a historical past of graffiti writing. In 2005, he was arrested on a graffiti cost, for spray-painting the wall of a enterprise and inflicting between $500 and $1,500 price of harm. When police got here to choose him up, Robertson fled in his automobile, resulting in a cost of evading arrest. The next month he was arrested once more after stabbing a person throughout a struggle. He pleaded no contest to assault and evading arrest, receiving ten days in jail and 5 years of probation. (The graffiti cost was dismissed as a part of a plea deal.) Metzger stated his shopper manufactures and sells leather-based items out of his house in Spring Department, an appropriately inventive occupation for somebody with a creative expertise for graffiti. I made two current makes an attempt to talk with Robertson at his one-story bungalow. On each events nobody answered the door.
In the meantime, after a frenetic yr of exercise, Toeflop seems to be slowing down. The author’s most up-to-date point out on Twitter was Might 1, when somebody posted a photograph of a tag scrawled on a gas station bathroom mirror. Having achieved all-city standing, is Toeflop taking a well-earned sabbatical? Is the artist mendacity low, maybe ready for the decision of authorized points? Maybe we now have seen the final Toeflop tag, and the artist will reemerge sooner or later below a brand new sobriquet.
Judging by the expertise of different graffiti writers, a full Toeflop retirement appears unlikely. In his 2019 memoir Going All Metropolis: Wrestle and Survival in LA’s Graffiti Subculture, Bloch nostalgically describes occurring all-night “bombing runs,” tagging dozens and even a whole bunch of areas in a matter of hours. Raised, he says, by a mom who struggled with heroin dependancy and a stepfather who was out and in of jail, Bloch discovered a neighborhood and sense of objective in graffiti writing. “Behind each tag is a narrative about survival and about striving to be seen, or a momentary reprieve from deprivation and desperation,” he writes.
We could by no means know Toeflop’s full story, however we do know that the artist’s tags have introduced a little bit of distraction and levity to a state in determined want of each. Over the previous yr, recognizing Toeflops has develop into one thing of a recreation in Houston—a socially distanced, pandemic-friendly motive to get out of the home and reconnect with the town. A lot of the tags will ultimately get painted over, however the identify will endure, a minimum of amongst graffiti writers.