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My New Hero: Somebody Finally Says No to Borf

Borf, the despicable snot who decided that only he gets to determine the cityscape for half a million Washingtonians, got a beautiful and powerful tonguelashing from a D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday, and the only bad news is that because the D.C. courts refuse to allow cameras in the courtrooms, you can't fully share in the joy. (If you haven't been following the story, see Libby Copeland's Style piece on Borf after the jump.)

But here's what we do have of Judge Lynn Leibovitz's lecture to John Tsombikos, courtesy of Post reporter Henri Cauvin's story:

"You profess to despise rich people. You profess to despise the faceless, nameless forms of government that oppress. That's what you've become. That's what you are. You're a rich kid who comes into Washington and defaces property because you feel like it. It's not fair. It's not right."

Borf's graffiti is "not artistic expression. That is not political expression. That is not grief therapy. That is vandalism.
It's not about whether you want to express yourself. Washington, D.C., is not a playground that was built for your self-expression. It's a place where people, real people, live and care about their communities."

"You should have been walking out of the front door of this courtroom today. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that you require more than that to impress upon you the seriousness of what you've done. Not because it's a wall, not because it's a building, not because it's a fixture in some abstract sense. But because of people."

The judge ordered Tsombikos to make restitution for the damage he did, and she told him to get a job. "Not the bogus jobs that your father gives you in New York . . . a real job, going to work like the people you demean, earning it with paychecks and the sweat of your own brow."

Then she stepped him back, off to jail for a month. She sent him off with these words: "I want him to see what the inside of the D.C. jail looks like, because unlike every other person you've seen in my courtroom this morning, who have a ninth-grade education, who are drug-addicted, who have had childhoods the likes of which you could not conceive, you come from privilege and opportunity and seem to think that the whole world is just like McLean and just like East 68th Street.

"Well, it's not."

In a courthouse riddled with too many slackers and softies, here's one judge who stood up for the people of the District of Columbia.

(on the jump: From the archives, Style's profile of Borf from last summer.)

July 14, 2005 Thursday
Final Edition
Style; C01
The Mark Of Borf;
With Graffitist's Arrest, Police Put a Name to the Familiar Face
Libby Copeland, Washington Post Staff Writer

The mysterious, ubiquitous and eminently destructive graffiti artist known as Borf was arrested yesterday after waging a months-long campaign that may have been intended to enlighten Washington, but mostly just confused us.

The man primarily responsible for Borf is, it turns out, an 18-year-old art student from Great Falls named John Tsombikos, according to D.C. police inspector Diane Groomes. He was arrested along with two other young men in the wee hours of yesterday morning after officers received a tip that graffiti artists were spray-painting at Seventh and V streets NW.

Approached by a reporter at D.C. Superior Court yesterday, Tsombikos refused to comment. One of the other men arrested, Richard Lee, 18, said, "Borf is dead."

Well, yes and no. According to Tsombikos's mother, Kathleen Murphy of Great Falls, Borf was the nickname for a close friend of her son's who committed suicide about two years ago. The Borf face featured in his graffiti -- which many who've walked through Dupont Circle would recognize, and which looks somewhat like TV actor Jerry O'Connell -- belongs to that young man. Murphy suggests that for her son, the Borf face and moniker came to stand for all that he felt was wrong with the world.

Many who saw Tsombikos's graffiti -- including a huge five-foot-high Borf face that appeared on a Roosevelt Bridge sign this spring, and a 15-foot "BORF" above a Dupont Circle cafe -- might suggest that, far from making the world better, he cost the city of Washington a lot of money.

Dennis Butler of the D.C. Department of Public Works said the Borf tag prompted almost daily phone calls to the city call center. "He's just all over the inner city," Butler said.

"Citizens are ecstatic about him being caught," Groomes said.

Tsombikos was arrested with Lee and another man who has not yet been identified, though Groomes says she believes Tsombikos is the primary Borf culprit. Leah Gurowitz, a D.C. Superior Court spokeswoman, said that Tsombikos and Lee were charged with a misdemeanor for defacing public or private property in connection with yesterday's arrest.

Over the past year, Borf graffiti became a touchstone for the city. Following the graffiti became a kind of urban Easter egg hunt. People took pictures of his work and posted them on Web sites. Bloggers speculated on the culprit's identity and his motives. Was he man or woman, one person or many? What did Borf stand for?

Some people were enraged and others were cheered by that mischievous Borf face and by the whimsical sayings like "BORF IS GOOD FOR YOUR LIVER," or "BORF WRITES LETTERS TO YOUR CHILDREN." (Borf seemed quite conscientious about matters of spelling and punctuation. )

In four interviews over several months, a young man claiming credit for the Borf graffiti spoke extensively about why he did it. He did not give his real name. The Post was able to ascertain his identity as John Tsombikos independently, but did not publish a story because the man's condition for granting interviews was anonymity. He agreed, however, that if he was arrested or his identity became public, The Post would be released from this condition.

Over and over, the man who wanted to be known simply as Borf said his identity was not important. What was important was his message -- an earnest though sometimes muddled mix of progressive politics filtered through a lens of youthful optimism.

If you followed Borf graffiti carefully, and there are those in this city who did, you'd have noticed that he sort of disappeared in the last few months. That's because, according to Borf himself in past interviews, as well as his mother yesterday, he was traveling in Europe, stopping off in Scotland to protest the G-8 summit. He returned to the Washington area Monday, his mother says.

Reached at home, Murphy said she didn't know her son had been arrested until a reporter called. She said he graduated from Langley High School in McLean in three years, and went to the Corcoran College of Art + Design last year before taking some time off. She said he had been avidly involved in peace marches and other protest efforts, and his graffiti appeared to be an outgrowth of that. She said she appreciated his artistic effort, though she told him that it wasn't right to deface property.

In the spring, Borf said in an interview that he was aware many people didn't understand why he'd been defacing buildings, signs and newspaper boxes all over this city. It's clear he liked being enigmatic, but he didn't like being misunderstood. That's why, on that particular day, he said he was mulling some sort of public explanation, perhaps in the form of a poster campaign.

"I've got plans," he said ominously, sitting out on U Street, eating a vegetarian burger from Ben's Chili Bowl. "Maybe like a manifesto."

He wiped veggie-chili-covered fingers on his jeans, which were dotted with flecks of colored paint, then pulled out a silver paint pen and wrote EL BORFISMO on the rim of a garbage can.

Borf would often tag things like that as he walked through the city, in broad daylight on busy streets. Because he did it openly and casually, passersby seemed not to notice. He cultivated the air of being everywhere but nowhere.

He said he liked listening to people talk about the Borf phenomenon. One time, he was in a computer lab when the women behind him started Googling "Borf." It made him feel quite powerful.

"I feel like Batman or something," he said.

If you've seen Borf's graffiti -- the stencil of the little girl who holds a sign saying "Grownups are Obsolete" or the impish face that appears throughout the city -- you, too, might be wondering what Borf's message is. Once upon a time, Borf said, he was "just, like, some liberal, like anybody," but then he started reading, and found out he really wanted to be an anarchist. He decided he doesn't believe in the state, capitalism, private property, globalization. Most of all, he doesn't believe in adulthood, which he considers "boring" and "selling out."

"Growing up is giving up," he said. "I think some band said it."

Borf recently turned 18, a fact he revealed with hesitation because "I'm against age. It's just another way of dividing people." At least until recently, he lived at home -- where exactly he would never say -- and cut cardboard stencils on his parents' living room floor. He spoke sneeringly of "rich people," though sometimes when he parked in the city his parents gave him $14 for the garage.

Borf's graffiti appeared in unexpected places -- the base of the Key Bridge, or a brick wall along a lonely, glass-strewn alley by the 9:30 club.

Some of the work is in such well-trafficked places that you wonder how he didn't get caught before. Granted, it takes only seconds to spray a stencil -- press the cardboard cutout against the wall so there's no drip, wield the can with your other hand -- but still. On pillars outside a bakery just north of Dupont Circle on busy Connecticut Avenue? On the sign over the Roosevelt Bridge? For that one, Borf had to get onto a catwalk that's maybe 20 feet in the air and spray not one but two layers of paint to make a three-dimensional half-face that seemed to have just peeked in front of the sign. The eyes danced, as if asking, "Do you really want to go to work today?"

(After a few weeks, the stencil was "buffed," which is the word graffiti artists use when someone removes their work. Borf didn't seem to get nearly as upset about buffing as he did when peers scribbled their graffiti over his, which he considered exceedingly disrespectful.)

Borf considers himself a crusader for youth; he drew inspiration from the children's author Shel Silverstein and from something called situationism, an obscure avant-garde movement popularized in 1960s France.

He said in the spring that he'd been reading a book by the situationist Guy Debord "about modern capitalism" and "how the status quo is maintained and perpetuated by a series of spectacles." Borf often finished his graffiti early in the morning, just in time to see a spectacle he despises -- rush hour. "People all heading downtown," he said. "Like, it's ridiculous if you think about it. Like, Orwellian-ridiculous. And they do this with so-called free will."

His clothes are usually frumpy and speckled with paint, and the baseball cap covering his dark hair has a broken band. He is fond of phrases like: "Property is theft, as Prudhomme says." He labels the Cosi cafe chain "boojy" (for bourgeois) and despises Starbucks. ("Instead of police on every corner we have Starbucks on every corner," he says.) He thinks young people have it really bad. He hated high school, which is why he finished early, taking his last few courses online. It bothers him that those younger than 18 can't vote, "as much as I don't believe in voting or anything." He complained that folks in stores assume "all young people shoplift," and when he's reminded that he himself shoplifts spray paint, he says that's just more evidence of how messed up society is.

He said he was an activist long before he got into graffiti. The first protest he attended was against capitalism in September 2002. It's possible he would have been arrested if he'd gotten there on time, he said, but the protest was "too early."

Borf scrupulously followed media coverage and Internet rumors about him and was pleased to be contacted by a reporter ("wow!" he typed when first messaged through the graffiti Web site StencilRevolution.com). But he refused to reveal his real name. For one thing, he feared getting arrested. He also knew much of his appeal lay in the mystique -- he is Borf, master illusionist, omnipresent but invisible. To maintain the mystery, he sidestepped questions about what "Borf" meant, if anything, and how he scaled rooftops. He offered clues and then backtracked, contradicting himself, or shrugging and saying "secret."

He imagined himself like the Zapatistas, the Mexican rebels who cover their faces. "Who I am is not as important as what I want," he said.

Some time ago, someone placed an "I Saw You" ad in the Washington City Paper, saying, "Who are you BORF? . . . Let's meet." On Flickr.com, a Web site where people share their photo collections, there were hundreds of photos of Borf's graffiti, with comments such as, "He keeps me entertained as I ride the metro. go borf!" and "Are you sick of this dork yet?"

The face is Borf's most striking signature in the District. There's a playfulness to the expression and an artistry to the image. Sometimes the face appears alone and sometimes in different contexts, like on the image of a teenager holding a can of spray paint.

Because of the very nature of graffiti, it's hard to know how much of the Borf oeuvre can be attributed to this one teenager. To bolster his claim that he's the real guy, he brought along his hand-cut cardboard stencils to Capital City Records on 10th and U streets, where he was spray-painting an installation for a street art show organized by a graffiti artist named Cory Stowers. Borf unfolded a cardboard stencil crusted with spray paint and almost as tall as his own 6-foot-1 frame. It was the Borf face on the body of Black Panther Huey P. Newton holding a rifle.

Borf claimed credit for graffiti in New York City, Raleigh, N.C., and San Francisco. He is familiar with Manhattan, he said, having lived on the Upper East Side until he was 10. As for San Francisco, he said, he and a friend took Greyhound.

Over time, there was so much of his graffiti, a Borf backlash emerged. Borf said he's not responsible for graffiti saying "Borf is gay," and he certainly didn't write "Borf hates God" on a church. In February, a 27-year-old man was arrested for writing anti-Borf graffiti on the back of a sign in Logan Circle. He got as far as "Borf is a do-" before the police caught up with him.

Borf considers this his unwitting legacy: He's democratizing graffiti. People are decorating the District's streets, even if it's just to make fun of him.

What will he do when he gets older? he was asked months before he was arrested.

"I'm not older," he said.

Staff writers Clarence Williams and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.

By Marc Fisher |  February 10, 2006; 10:25 AM ET
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Comments

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Marc -- You seem to have changed your tune. As I recall, at the time of his arrest you thought graffiti wasn't really a crime and the whole thing was overblown. Did something happen in the interum? Did you get tagged?

As someone who has spent a lot of time with a paint roller, steel wool and toluene cleaning up after "artists" like Mr. Tsombikos, I read the story with glee. However, I still think the sentence is light. To remove graffiti -- obliterate it, make it like it was never there -- is extremely time-consuming and expensive. The $12,000 in restitution doesn't begin to cover it, nor does 180 hours of community service. I would have sentenced him to complete, absolute removal of all "Borf" graffiti, or replacement of the item if removal is not possible -- that would be restitution. For punishment, I would have required him to do an equal quantity of other people's graffiti.

Posted by: Graffiti Scrubber | February 10, 2006 11:03 AM

I'm sorry this angers you so much. Clearly, both of you have very hard lives.

Posted by: DJ | February 10, 2006 11:27 AM

I'm sure they didn't grow up in a life of privelige in a McMansion in one of the wealthiest suburbs in the nation.

Posted by: Chris | February 10, 2006 12:25 PM

I just love the notion that this snotty little McLean punk -- who plainly thinks that his alleged artistic expression supercedes everybody else's rights -- is going to cool his heels in D.C. jail for 30 days. Can you BELIEVE he got busted in New York while this was pending? This is exactly what happens when a kid's got too many resources and too few demands are made on him. God bless that judge.

Posted by: EqualTime | February 10, 2006 1:07 PM

The real "fun" will be completing his probation. Does anyone really think he can go THREE years without lashing out at the terribly oppressive society that's made his young life so difficult thus far?
In the meantime, I'd be interested in knowing what if anything he learns during his month in jail. Can you ensure the Post does a proper follow up, Marc?

Posted by: athea | February 10, 2006 1:25 PM

You know, when I was in tenth grade, I listened to a Rage Against the Machine album, and the whole revolutionary thing seemed really glamorous and exciting to me, too. But then I took some history classes and read a little bit about some of these people. The Zapatistas aren't just a community action group; they're a guerrila army. This kid needs a serious education in a) what it means to be a liberal and b) social graces. He should be happy to spend 30 days in lockdown among the proletariat. We'll see how "revolutionary" he is after that...

Posted by: bamagirlinVA | February 10, 2006 1:29 PM

Borf is 18. You all refer to him as a kid. Maybe you should keep that in mind when condemning him. We all make mistakes, and he is going to pay for his. But to actually find joy in someone elses suffering is just plain sick.

Posted by: Tyler Durden | February 10, 2006 2:09 PM

If it is like most jails, he will only be inside 1/2 of his actual sentence. The vast majority of jails cut your time in half as an incentive for people to behave, if your sentence is less than one year. He'll be out in two weeks.

Posted by: Beautiful downtown Lake Ridge, Virginia | February 10, 2006 2:09 PM

Yes we all make mistakes, but some people commit crimes. I find joy whenever a criminal is locked up.

Posted by: Chris | February 10, 2006 2:15 PM

I find it kind of funny that Marion Barry stays out of jail despite defying an agreement and a graffti artist gets a month. I think it is a sign of Marion Barry playing by another set of rules.

Posted by: Jesse | February 10, 2006 2:35 PM


The DC court activity was pretty typical of attitudes found downtown towards white suburban residents. This, along with the woman who was charged with DUI for a glass of wine, are iconic of this sadly ingrained attitude.

Posted by: Gentry | February 10, 2006 3:09 PM

Give me a break, Gentry. This guy is self-centered and irresponsible. He has no concern about the consequences of his actions.

Eighteen is young; we don't really expect people his age to esercise good judgment in all situations or to think far into the future. But this situation required neither sophisticated judgment nor a long-range view. The property he was destroying didn't belong to him, and he thought it was cute to damage it---not just once, but over and over. Moreover, he indicates by his own words and actions, as reported by L. Copeland, that he knew what he was doing was wrong. And, yes, the judge is right. His actions were disrespectful to the people of the city.

Posted by: SJG | February 10, 2006 4:27 PM

18 is not a kid. 18 is a legal adult in these here United States. My five year old is a kid.

Posted by: 18 | February 10, 2006 5:27 PM

I agree. This "kid" believes he can go through life by making excuses, and all of those people who are saying he's too young to know better and that he made a mistake are just encouraging that behavior. I applaud that judge--she's absolutely right.

Posted by: ERD | February 10, 2006 5:39 PM

His messages, while enigmatic or disassociative, were at least far more entertaining than the gang tags that blight Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and Petworth neighborhoods. I'm once DC resident that will truly miss seeing a new Borf tag. But hey, they won't be able to clean them all up, same as how I still stumble across Cool Disco Dan tags from the early 90s...

Posted by: FROB | February 10, 2006 5:50 PM

Most of these comments reflect the pervasive double standard of our politically correct society. We're furious that an educated, white, suburban kid would dare deface public property. But where's the outrage at the gang graffiti that pollutes downtown DC? Oh, that's right, gangstas have had a tough life, so their crimes are forgivable. At least Borf's work has (presumably) a more high-brow meaning than "stay off our turf or we'll kill your b**ch."

Posted by: Cathy | February 12, 2006 10:21 AM

Cathy - I don't think you're correct. Actually, plenty of 'gang members' get arrested, convicted, and sentenced for this type of thing. They may not make the papers. Borf is just one example. I went to a juvenile's house once that was on on probation (I am a probation officer) and found him sleeping on (literally) on some stolen street signs. He got six months in a secure program for that and some other vandalism charges, and the steet signs got returned to VDOT. He is now an adult and he is still paying the Commonwealth back as part of his restitution. It happens. I thought Borf's sentence was actually pretty light.

Posted by: Beaufitful downtown Lake Ridge, Virginia | February 12, 2006 12:53 PM

I agreee FROB, Borf is not the first to be caught painting walls illegaly, however I'll bet he is the only one to get 30 days of jail. Being white, middle class, and from the suburbs should not make the law more applicable or penalites more harsh. After all, it's these people that make DC what it is. I doubt the judge has any kind of personal vendetta against Borf, but she sure makes it seem that way.
Shortly after the Borf story broke a few months ago, a friend of mine who is a reporter for the connection newspapers called me for help covering the Borf story. I took him all around the city (downtown, Adams Morgan, Dupont, Howard U) to interview people. We talked to business owners and citizens who have been both directly and indirectly affected by Borf tags. The majority of people did not mind the tags, many even enjoyed them. These were people who live, work, and play in the city. So my point is who are all these people that the judge is reffereing to that despise these tags? It seems that the constituency that most highly objects to the Borf tags are indeed suburban themselves.

Posted by: Chuck | February 12, 2006 1:06 PM

Chuck, you just don't get it. It's ILLEGAL. So it doesn't matter who likes the graffiti, defacing property is a crime. Geez. I'm sure those people like to drink and then drive themselves home, too, but that doesn't make it right.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 12, 2006 2:22 PM

Wow, I want those judge's words on a t-shirt or something. Amazing.

Posted by: Ben | February 12, 2006 5:18 PM

Geez, all you people who defend Borf oughta have their house or place of business defaced, just to know how it feels to be violated.

Posted by: Phil | February 13, 2006 12:33 AM

I couldn't agree more with the judge. Even wealthy, spoiled suburbanites need to learn that their actions have consequences. What would you like to bet that his dad's already trying to find some way to get the sentence reduced?

If the DC Jail is the Hieronymous-Bosch-vision-of-hell that I've heard it described, even a couple of weeks there should be pretty eye-opening.

Posted by: well done | February 13, 2006 9:51 AM

Some punk just defaced the sign to our subdivision for the second time and it cost over 5000 dollars to replace (each time.) The cleanup cost came right out of our HOA fees - That's about 100 per house for 2 nights work.

Posted by: Laura | February 13, 2006 1:50 PM

drinking and driving is hardly the same as grafitti. it's ridiculous when people try to compare two completely different things. just because they are both illegal hardly means that they are the same.

Posted by: kelly | February 13, 2006 2:07 PM

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