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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

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Gerko quits tagging, concentrating on music

Graffiti is something you’re either all right with or you aren’t. Not everyone understands it, but almost everyone has an opinion on it. Any public display of artwork can be a hotbed of intercomunal controversy, and that can be especially true with regards to graffiti.

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Alex Watanen, also known as “Gerko,” is a local hip-hop and graffiti artist residing in the Marquette area. He’s been involved in the local underground music scene for over 10 years, and is currently working diligently at honing his skills as both an emcee and as a now fully-legalized visual artist.

Before “Gerko,” Watanen made music under a different pseudonym that referenced a part of the female anatomy. His hardcore-punk band, 5 Finger Discount (2006-2009), played shows at the 231 House of Muses before the house burned down. He started performing hip-hop around 2008. Watanen says he didn’t start rapping under the name “Gerko” until after his case went public.

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On July 22, 2013, Watanen was arrested for writing “Gerko” on a dumpster near the 500 block of Hawley Street in North Marquette. A man walking his dog called the police and reported seeing somebody “tag” the dumpster of his apartment complex.

Marquette Police tracked down Watanen shortly thereafter and attempted to question him, when he took off on his bike. Officers chased him around the Superior Dome and into a bush, where he was eventually apprehended.

Watanen said prior to the arrest he had been trying to quit tagging. Earlier in the evening, on the night he was caught, he’d been at a party where he’d seen his ex-girlfriend “making out” with her “new dude.” From there he “got all bummed, went and got a marker and started writing on stuff.”

Watanen was brought to the Marquette Police Station and charged with one count of resisting arrest (a felony that carries up to two years behind bars and/or $2,000 in fines), as well as three misdemeanor criminal damage charges. His bond was set for $12,000. Overnight, “Gerko” became the face of vandalism in the Marquette area.

Detective Sergeant Heslip, who was put on the case, said graffiti in Marquette has been around “since Marquette’s been a city,” but that the arrest-rate in graffiti-related cases has always been “typically high.” Marquette Police apprehended another individual in a graffiti-related case not long after Watanen was arrested.Before Gerko’s arrest, Detective Heslip had received multiple complaints from business owners in the community, as well as municipal officials, who wanted the person writing “Gerko” around town caught and held responsible.

Watanen claims that there are even more people in Marquette writing graffiti now than before he was arrested. He cites graffiti names like “itnuk” and “bumr,” but maintains no knowledge of, or relation to, anyone still writing graffiti in the area.

Detective Heslip also said that most graffiti in Marquette is made by students and that many of them view it as an “art form.” A view, he says, business owners in the community do not share.

A close friend of Watanen’s, who wished to stay anonymous, thinks “writing your name on someone else’s property is silly,” and doesn’t understand it, but also doesn’t view what Watanen did as vandalism.

“If Alex wants to write his name on a dumpster, who cares?” she said. “There are other graff[sic] people in Marquette who think they can deface small businesses or public statues and cost the city thousands of dollars in reparations and then never have the courage to admit to it. I think those people are childish idiots who have no concept of community and give graffiti artists a bad name.”

Watanen’s friend expressed that she was not surprised to find out that he was behind the tag “Gerko.”

“We all kind of knew,” she said. “I didn’t understand how he put up so many tags without getting caught before he did. The dude covered a lot of territory all on foot.”

Some people, she said, may have taken it differently.

“I think a lot of younger kids followed his hip-hop career and idolized him, and began tagging when they found out,” she said. “I think those kids are bad at what they do, and have really lame tags and are bad at graff[sic] writing. The rest of our friends don’t really care either way – we think it’s hilarious how much of a celebrity Alex has become in Marquette. It seems a lot of Yoopers need to spend some time in a city where real problems exist.”

Watanen identifies as an “outsider artist-purist,” and said he has always admired people who don’t do things “completely the way they should be done,” the kind of people who just “ride the rails and make it work.”

Watanen is currently signed to Arcadiac Records based out of Wisconsin. He performs regularly in the Marquette area and has a show lined up with Toki Wright and Big Cats on Saturday, Feb. 21 at Coco’s in Marquette.

Many cities across the world have designated or erected “legal walls” for graffiti artists. The basic principal is to give artists a place to do graffiti legally, so they’re less likely to do it on private or commercial properties. Could the same incentive behind building a city-owned skate park, like the one built here in September of 2013, possibly be employed to stave off the vandalism problem in Marquette? That all depends on whether residents and city officials want to take a proactive or a reactive approach            to the issue.

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