By the time Sheriff Deputy Zheath Sanchez busted Imperial Beach’s most prolific tagger last year, he had documented 218 pieces of the tagger’s graffiti sprayed across the city’s sidewalks, trash cans and fences.

Deputies first connected Kyle Boatwright to the tagger’s moniker, “Slow,” at the scene of a car accident last April. Boatwright was behind the wheel. A cache of spray cans and graffitied paper signed by “Slow” were in the back seat.

“It didn’t take a master detective to put two and two together,” said Sanchez, who is part of a specialized unit that focuses on graffiti, gangs and other community problems. “When we got inside his house, just everything was in graffiti. It was like an obsession.”

After a few months in jail, Boatwright turned his obsession into a job. The Machine Shop, an East Village art gallery, will be featuring a show of the 23-year-old’s work Friday night. Boatwright will be there, too, adding his mark (legally) to a new canvas.

Boatwright’s apparent transformation has spurred numerous stories by local news media, often quoting Sanchez’s review of Boatwright’s artistic talent.

“I thought he was talented,” Sanchez told Channel 10 in December. “If he’s been able to channel his talent into positive means, I think it’s fantastic.”

On Wednesday, I caught up with Sanchez to talk about the case, graffiti and his own affinity for art.

We talked at his office and then while patrolling the city in an unmarked car, so Sanchez could show me examples of graffiti and its impact on the community. We didn’t see anyone tagging, but we ran into plenty of fresh examples and ended up arresting a wanted man along the way.

How can you tell the difference between graffiti done by gang members and taggers?

A tagger’s graffiti is going to be a lot more artistic, more style to it. Gang members tend to write in more block styles. Here’s an example of a true tagger, Slow, who sees himself as an artist, and he just expressed himself through other people’s property, which is illegal.

Sanchez points to an example of Boatwright’s graffiti. So you see the styling of the letters. It’s kind of neat, except that it’s on a public sidewalk and you probably don’t want that in front of your home. The lettering has flair to it. It wiggles and all that stuff. It had flow to it. And he even started doing cartoon characters.

After doing this for a while, do you know everyone by their moniker?

The younger kids — like 10 to 16, 17 years old — they’re the ones mostly doing graffiti. So every couple years we get a whole new batch of graffiti. It’s the same gang, but now it’s Blacky and Pyro. We just got our latest batch of graffiti that was done over this last week and I have four new monikers. I’m thinking these got to be younger guys who are starting to get into the gang, doing graffiti to prove that they’re doing work for the gang, getting the name out there.

Do the taggers or gang members do more graffiti?

The taggers are more prolific and passionate about it, because that’s what they do. For gang members, it’s just part of being in gang life.

I’m curious. Are you an artist yourself?

I took art in high school — ceramics and all that stuff — but I wish though. I love art. I really admire art.

Have you ever bought a piece of graffiti art?

No, but you know what, I saw Boatwright’s art, and I like the painting he has of a woman with eyes and she’s kind of like a skull and smiley. I liked that. I’m definitely a fan of art. I don’t think I would purchase a piece of his art, but I wouldn’t mind owning a piece of graffiti art as much as I wouldn’t mind owning a piece of sculpture or an oil painting.

Why not his art? Because you don’t like it or because he’s a guy you busted?

Probably because he’s a guy I busted. Maybe after I retire, I don’t know. It’s funny because some of the pieces he has for sale are the art pieces he had in his house and I took pictures of for evidence.

If he hadn’t been busted and called a notorious tagger, do you think he would have the same career opportunities that he has now?

I definitely think that had he not been arrested, he would probably still be running the streets and tagging and doing negative things. I mean, did him getting busted get him notoriety? Yeah, and if that helps him get on the right track and do something positive, then that’s all we can ask for. There’s lots of artists who have checkered pasts and crazy lives, and it’d be great if he went on to become a great artist.

Does the path to becoming a great graffiti artist require having the notoriety of being busted?

I don’t think so. Your talent will speak for itself. Someone can admire a mural on a wall that you do legally with permission just as much as you can doing it illegally. Art is art and if it’s good, people are going to admire it.

If it’s legitimate graffiti art, then that’s great. It’s a way to express yourself, but graffiti vandalism, it’s illegal and those guys are criminals in my eyes.

Interview conducted and edited by Keegan Kyle, who can be reached at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

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