Amid the funk, lust, and quiet carnal desperation of the Block in the early '80s, venerable Polish-sausage takeout joint Polock Johnny's was a young man's video game oasis. Kids would be lined up after school to pump the machines with quarters, and Adam Stab, Baltimore's elder statesman graffiti writer, was one of them.
He'd be coming home from the after-school art program at the Baltimore School for the Arts and couldn't wait to get downtown and play Asteroids and Galaga, recalls Stab (his tag, which doubles as a surname).
"In the old days, before home game systems were even a concept, Polock Johnny's was one of the few places where a kid could go play," he says.
After a red-light-district gaming marathon, the 13-year-old would hop the 20 bus and head home to Highlandtown. He loved being out at night."You didn't have kids on leashes back then. I was checking out my world," he says.
And what a world Baltimore was. It was while exploring the city alone that Stab first became aware of graffiti. "Baltimore graffiti was the first thing that got me hot about creating things."
The teen had recently moved from Gainesville, Fla., with his mom, a neuroscientist, and was adjusting to the early-'80s charms of pre-crack Charm City.
Gainesville was a college town, and Stab was already into typical suburban-male youth culture-skateboarding, BMX, and X-Men comics. He stood out among the kids in working-class Highlandtown.
"Skateboarding hadn't broke in the inner city yet. Music-wise, I had college friends who got me into good shit. I'd already been to a DEVO show. I mean, I was so different," Stab says.
Predictably, the kids excluded him, and the public schools (save for the School for the Arts' TWIGS program) didn't help any either, he says.
"I saw my first handgun not on the street, but in seventh-grade science class," he says.
"The kid didn't show me the gun with malice. He just pulled it out of his bag and said, 'Hey, look!' -as if this was supposed to be cool. I was like, 'Oh, Jesus Christ. . .'"
Despite the culture shock, Stab says he was taken with Baltimore's good qualities immediately.
For a kid from Gainesville, Baltimore was a gritty metropolis with tall buildings, old neighborhoods, and crazy characters. The teen skateboarded around all over town, getting to know Mobtown's nooks-first alone, then with Aztec, another budding graffiti writer.
"Aztec was one of my first tagging partners. We learned all of Baltimore's alleys together," Stab says. At night, the two hung out at Jules' Loft on Eutaw and Mulberry streets. "The place smelled like stale beer and spray paint. It was a magnet for disaffected kids who indentified with the punk aesthetic."
The young Stab eventually fell in with the Mobtown Crew, a group of older graffiti writers. He says his first piece of graffiti was in a tunnel under the University Avenue Bridge, near Wyman Park Dell.
"I cared more about what I did at night on the streets than what I did in the classroom," he says. (Stab went to School for the Arts for high school, but got thrown out for bad grades.) "The school was pretty hostile to street art then too. Teachers told me, 'This art form, this culture, this lifestyle is going no place.'"
The first time Stab actually got arrested for graffiti he was 15 and innocent.
"I drew my tag with my finger in dirt on the side of a building. Cops saw me and wanted to file a field report. I said, 'I'm not telling you shit.'" What followed, he says, was a trip in the paddy wagon with a pissed-off officer and an unpleasant situation.
He never got locked up for graffiti, but he knows people who have.
"It's hard to believe today, but years ago, I saw cops go from being grunt-nobody to being detective just for investigating teenage graffiti shit in Baltimore," he says.
Nowadays, he says, Baltimore police have bigger problems. "They have a freaked-out scene on their hands. Guns are everywhere. Graffiti is something you get a citation or community service for, as it should be."
At 43, Stab is now a grandfather in Baltimore's graffiti world. He says if he's known for anything, it's being part of an era of writers that defined the Baltimore handstyle-that, and for his longevity.
"I'm the oldest guy in town still doing freights, buildings, and tags," he claims, but he also acknowledges that parenthood leaves him less time for clandestine creative pursuits.
"I go out a few times a month with a couple of guys, maybe take a six-pack, change up a spot on bridge. I do it to enjoy it. I'm not flippant about it. I'm off the radar. I've got nothing to prove."
Like most guys his age, Stab is focusing on trying to make a living-in his case, as a jack of all trades in the arts: graphic designer, painter, and muralist. He's diversified. He worked with a decorating team for awhile (even had a clothing and design boutique in Fells Point a couple of years ago). He gives the occasional talk on the history of graffiti in Baltimore.
After 30 years in the city, though, Stab's thinking about taking leave, specifically spending more time in the Bay Area. He plans to hook up with an old Baltimore street-artist friend, Cuba, and do more mural work, among other things.
The plan is to be bicoastal.
"San Francisco is a graffiti and street-art mecca," Stab says.
What's more, in San Francisco and other major cities, he says, "it really means something to be a Baltimore artist. To be of Baltimore and from Baltimore is a cool, respected thing."
Baltimore, on the other hand, he says, is only beginning to acknowledge the value of street art.
"I'm glad to see that the scene is growing here and gaining acceptance"-see Open Walls Baltimore, Wall Hunters-"any art that elicits public response and a reconsideration of boundaries is good.
"And if it stirs things up, that's even better."