Cops and Bombers
How an average kid from Queens named Steve Mona rose to become a star inside of the galaxy governed by the transit authority's infamous Vandal Squad. in his own words.
As told to Sacha Jenkins SHR Photos Matt Gunther
I grew up in Queens. I kind of led a very … what’s the right word to use … clinical existence in Howard Beach; there wasn’t a whole lot of diversity in that neighborhood. Moms and dads — in that neighborhood; daddy owned a business, mommy stayed home and took care of the kids and everybody was either Jewish or Italian. There was no diversity — there were no Hispanics, there were no Blacks. My family didn’t fit in, because my dad and mom both worked. They struggled to keep us there. My parents got money from my grandparents to put down on a house that we really couldn’t afford.
When I was old enough I started hanging out in Broad Channel and Rockaway, which was still a very White clinical existence with the Irish, but it was working class. That’s basically how I grew up — hangin’ outside my neighborhood in places like Richmond Hill, Woodhaven, Broad Channel, Rockaway — only because the kids I grew up with, when they turned seventeen, Daddy bought them a new car. And when I turned seventeen, my mom let me use her 1970 Impala. My first car was a ‘69 Cadillac in 1978 — a car that I still love ‘til this day.
I went to Aviation High School — two buses and two trains to get there — and that really was my first real interaction with people who were not from the same background as me. It was also my first interaction with graffiti. I remember waiting on Monday mornings, watching the number 7 trains go by; they would do the whole cars over the weekend and at that point I didn’t even know they went into train yards. I used to think like, “How the heck do they do that? Do they wait for the train to come back?” I remember seeing Caine One pieces. I’ll never forget the Snoopy and Red Baron car — that was my favorite. And some of the Spanish kids that I went to high school with were like, “Hey, you know graffiti? Blah blah blah.” They would show me pictures and I didn’t know anything about it.
I had a little taste of graffiti back in the ‘70s and then from high school until I got into the Vandal Squad, there was nothing …. We’re talking almost 10 years went by and I had no connection to graffiti at all. I moved to Brooklyn when I got out of high school — moved in with my grandparents because my parents got divorced. Dad took off — he was nowhere to be found — and my mom struggled to keep us in the same home and she worked three jobs to pull it all off.
When I graduated high school, I went to work at the airport. I was a mechanic at Kennedy Airport. It wasn’t a great time to be in the airline industry because people were constantly getting laid off. Literally you would get an envelope with your paycheck, and there’d be a pink slip in it every other week. And it just got to the point where it was not a great existence not knowing if you were gonna be working week to week. You’d work and get a lot of overtime and be making money and living large, and then all of a sudden you’re out of work for a month. So I got a job driving a truck; drove the truck for a few years, and then on a whim I took the police test. I had taken it earlier, back in ‘81, and my then-fiancé didn’t want me to become a cop.
Why didn’t she want me to be a cop? Well, for a number of reasons, not the least of which being her family; a lot of parts of her family were on the “other side of the fence,” so to speak. Bensonhurst, Italian … her dad was a city worker, but he ran numbers. Her brother-in-law was a minor league soldier in one of the families and always in jail. So being a cop in that family was not a comfortable existence.
I remember my dad was real happy that I got Transit Police ‘cause, by that time, we had reconnected a few years earlier and he was a big train buff. Back then there were three separate departments, but there was only one test. And they used this formula: for every ten hires, NYPD got seven, Transit got two, and Housing got one.
I remember calling my mother and saying I got Transit and my mom was all upset. Then I called my wife, told her I got Transit, she was upset. I call my dad, tell him I got Transit and he says, “Oh, that’s great!” And I’m like, why do you think it’s great? He goes, “Oh, I know a lot of Transit cops.” But he was into trains and all that stuff. I’d love to say that working for the Transit was like this grand calling, but it was really just a job with benefits. I took the sanitation test, I took the fireman test — the police department was the first to call.
At first, I was just a regular patrolman, working from eight at night ‘til four in the morning. Back then, they’d have a cop on every train between eight at night and four in the morning. What you would do was ride the train from Coney Island, where I worked, up to West 4th Street or 34th Street. You’d get off, get on another train going back. You had a schedule: they’d tell you to be on the 7:15 F train out of Coney Island and then, when you got to West 4th Street, you had to walk over to the other side and wait for the next train to come and find out if that’s the such and such train out of Bedford Park Blvd on the D line. That’s all we did all night. It was like you were really just a scarecrow. It was theorized that most crime in the subway happened between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. The thinking was if you had a cop on every train, there would be no crime in the subway between those hours. Yeah, right.
You name it, you saw it on these shifts. First of all, you don’t have the luxury of pretending you didn’t hear the person calling you, saying “officer,” ‘cause you’re right there. You’re in the subway car with people and you’re expected to walk from car to car. You never knew what you were walking into — robberies, disorderly groups, drunk people, lost tourists who should be in Manhattan but found themselves in the South Bronx and didn’t know where they were. I used to tell people police work is hours and hours of boredom interspersed with minutes of terror. ‘Til this day I still eat too fast because when you’re sitting down, invariably, as soon as you step down for your meal the radio would go off, or somebody would say, “Officer, there’s a fight outside!” So you’d sit down in a restaurant or you’d sit in a car and you would shovel the food in your mouth. Every cop I know does it.
In the summer of ’86, I lucked into something else. I got punched in the face by a guy who was smoking on the train. I turned a negative into a positive. We were always told not to bury our heads in our summons books when giving somebody a ticket. I’m at the West 4th street station and the train pulls in. Doors open. I was very fortunate that my training officer was an old school guy who taught me a bunch of different things. And one of the things he taught me was everybody gets treated with respect. He said, “Let them decide if they’re gonna be respectful.” If you start off the conversation with, “Hey asshole, come here,” that interaction will only get worse because you just started off negatively. You used to see people smoking on the train back then because it wasn’t that long from the time when you could smoke on the train. My training officer told me that when you tell somebody to put the cigarette out, they’re gonna take that last puff — and that I shouldn’t take it personal because it’s automatic
I say, “Sir, put that cigarette out and step off the train.” He took the last drag, put it out, stepped on it. I open my summons book and I look down and I almost immediately knew I had done something wrong … I looked up and the guy punches me in the face and boogies. I chased him up into the street but lost him. I’m embarrassed now — I got a shiner, my face is all swollen. Somebody called it in, so cops from the NYPD are running down into the subway and they’re not paying attention to the Transit cop standing at the top of the stairs, they’re just boogying by me. I’m standing there — Sergeant shows up and says, “Would you be the reason I’m not finishing my dinner?” I say, “Yeah.” He asks what happened, so I tell him. He says “You alright?” I say, “Yeah.” “You want an ambulance?” “Nooooo.” I’m embarrassed enough.
The next day I got a call to come down to see the detectives — apparently this happened before. So I told [them] , “Listen, unless you’ve got a picture of a fist, I’m not gonna be able to identify this guy ‘cause I never paid attention.” I’m sitting in the detectives’ office and this Sergeant kept looking at my name tag. Finally I say, “Sarge, is there a problem?” And he says, “A friend of mine’s daughter married a guy with the same last name as you but there’s NO WAY his daughter would marry a cop.” I said, “Well, who’s your friend?” Small world. “Yeah, I’m married to his daughter, but I wasn’t a cop when we got married.” And he goes, “You know his other son-in-law is …” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know.”
He then proceeds to ask me what do I want to do with myself — as in my career there. And I said, “I just got out of the academy two months ago. I wanna go into CWPS” — and he started laughing. “Yeah, okay, kid. Why don’t you just ask to be police commissioner?” CWPS was City Wide Patrol Service. You would work Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., so you had a life. You didn’t work weekends, holidays. Sarge was like, “Yeah, get out of here, kid.” Two weeks later I’m sitting in the office waiting for roll call. And one of the Sergeants looks at the orders and goes, “You don’t work here anymore. You got transferred.” I got transferred to CWPS. CWPS had a lot of little sub-units and the Vandal Squad was one of them. So I went into CWPS, uniform, working from 10:30 to 7, nothing to do with graffiti.
This is already kind of a window into how the police department works. They’ll tell you it doesn’t, but there’s a lot of “This is so and so’s kid” or whatever. If I had a bad record, or if I hadn’t been making arrests, there would have been nothing this guy could do for me. Still, there’s definitely nepotism.
It wasn’t a promotion — just a transfer. Same rank. But if you had to work in uniform for the Transit Police, that’s the job you wanted. CWPS was the overhead command and it had this uniform patrol, which is where I went. This was in October, 1986.
With CWPS, you have duty Captain — every borough has a Captain on call if there’s a problem. And CWPS would provide the drivers for the duty Captains, so every now and then you would get tagged and they’d say, “Hey, today you gotta drive around the Brooklyn-Queens Captain.” You’re sitting around most of the time, driving them from different places. If there’s a problem you take them there. You’re learning a lot about the job ‘cause the Captain’s got all the heavy shit and all of a sudden you’re next to the guy calling all the shots at like a shooting. Back in that day we would have twelve serious crimes a day — robberies, rape, assaults, stabbings, shootings.
I wanted to be out of the car, I wanted to learn who everybody was; I wanted to know why people were doing stuff. I’ve always been quick to learn. I didn’t wanna just be the wet-behind-the-ears guy who got punched in the face on the platform at West 4th Street.
One day I drove one of the Captains to a meeting. At that time, they were starting to get new trains, they were starting to refurbish the old trains and they were trying to put them on different lines. What I knew about the Vandal Squad at that point was that I had made one graffiti arrest when I was in uniform, locked up three kids on the platform at 18th Avenue on the B line — [it] could’ve easily been Kaves, but it wasn’t. I didn’t really know what I was doing, because it was one of my first arrests, and when I brought the three guys to the precinct to process them, the Vandal Squad showed up to interview them. And they were like, “What did they write?” And I said, “They were writing on the walls.” They were like, “You didn’t read it?” I’m like, “Who the fuck reads it? It’s just scribble.” I was determined that that wasn’t gonna happen again; if I saw a guy writing, I was gonna figure out what they were writing.
At the time, I didn’t even know there was a Vandal Squad; I just knew that these guys came into the precinct every once in a while with arrests. They were always covered in steel dust and dirt, and spray paint.
That’s all I knew about the Vandal Squad. Anyway, I took the Captain to a meeting and they were discussing layups — where they park the trains — and I’m a train buff, my dad’s a train buff, I know a lot about trains. I’m sitting there minding my own business ‘cause I’m not of rank. I’m just there to drive the Captain. And one of the guys says something about a layup location and I say, “They don’t leave trains there anymore.” And the guy running the meeting looked at me and said, “What?” And I said, “They don’t leave trains there anymore. They stopped using that layup area years ago.” He goes, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m driving Captain Murphy.” He goes, “Shut up.” I’m like, “Okay.” I’m sitting there and they ask another question, and it had something to do with trains, I was like “cough, cough …” And the guy says, “What?!” So I tell him and he says, “Come here a second.”
I walk over and he asks, “What do you know about graffiti?” I said I don’t know anything about graffiti, I know about trains, I’m a train buff. He said, “Come back here tomorrow, not in uniform. I’m gonna borrow you for a few days.” The next day I came back that the office in civilian clothes, he handed me a memo pad and a pen. He said, “Go out today on this line and this line and this line and tell me what the most prevalent graffiti tags are.” I’m like, “Okay.” I remember the first day I did it, it was freezing, it was like late October. It was raining and I was sitting at Avenue U on the D train watching these trains go by. And I remember Jon 156 was the one tag I kept seeing — pieces.
They gave me a Polaroid camera, I’m taking pictures and I’m going back to the Vandal Squad asking them, “Hey, what does that say?” I did that for like three days and the guy was like, “You know a lot about [graffiti] …” I said, “No, I’m being honest, sir; I know nothing about graffiti, I know about trains.” And he said, “As of Monday, you’re in the Vandal Squad.” And I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no, no …” I went from being a uniformed officer with weekends off to working from eight in the night to four in the morning, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays off.
The only unit that really existed at that time was called the CWPS AGU (Anti-Graffiti Unit), but that unit wasn’t expected to be proactive — you were essentially a scarecrow. They’d send two cops into a train yard, or two cops into a layup area, and basically the job was, make sure everybody knows you’re there so when the kids come up to do the graffiti, they go away, or go somewhere else.
At the time it was all about working line by line; if they wanted all the graffiti writers off the D line, they’d put a bunch of AGU cops on the D line, and as long as the graffiti writers went somewhere else — it didn’t matter if they went somewhere else in the subway system — as long as they went somewhere that wasn’t designated as the next graffiti-free line, it was all good. So if, at the time, the D line and the 4 were the lines they were trying to clean, if we chased the graffiti writers off the D and the 4 and they went to the 1, that was okay.
Trains were being replaced either by new trains or by refurbished trains. So they would declare that the next line going graffiti-free is the D line … our job was to keep the graffiti writers away from that line. But when me and a few other guys went into the CWPS unit, we were like “We wanna make arrests, we wanna be active. I came on the job to be a cop, not a scarecrow.” And there was friction between the older guys who just wanted to coast. “Hey, nobody expects us to do anything, we just get to show up, we get to chase people away. Nobody breaks our chops, nobody says we have to make arrests. As long as the D train doesn’t get graffitied, it’s a success.”
In March of ’87, they merged all the units together, so if you look at the transfers, it looks like everybody got transferred from all these different districts, but they had already been doing anti-graffiti work for years. On March 19th, 1987, they made it official — that’s the first time the department called the unit the Vandal Squad. Before that it was simply called the Graffiti Unit.
I’m proud of my work with the Vandal Squad, but I started to become disillusioned toward the end of my career. What bothered me at the end was the hierarchy changes — the people I answered to changed, and all of a sudden the stuff that we did that wasn’t enforcement-related doesn’t count anymore. Arrests — we want arrests. But I was working to get kids to do murals and channel their energies in a positive way. I was banging my head up at One Police Plaza saying, “We’re arresting the wrong people now.” The answer was always, “Yeah, but your arrests are up 89% now.”
We’re not arresting the right people. There’s a narcotics mentality in police work. That mentality is, grab everybody in a net, shake the net, the users fall out and go on their way. You grab a couple of low-level dealers, they know some of the bigger dealers, and boom! But that doesn’t work in the graffiti subculture ‘cause the toys don’t know the big guys. So me going out and locking up a guy for just writing his name on his desk and then sitting him in a room and asking him, “What do you know about this, look at this layup that got hit, what do you know about this?!” And the kid’s looking at you like, I don’t know anything.
Our theory was — and it worked for nine of the ten years I ran the unit — go after the big guys. Go after the big fish, and ten little fish might stop swimming ‘cause they may say, “Wow. So-and-so got locked up for this and he’s doing jail time.” For every big guy who knows that getting arrested is part of the danger of the job, there’s ten guys who don’t wanna be arrested. They say, “I think I like graffiti a little bit but I don’t like it as much as the guy who’s getting arrested every week.” So they changed our dichotomy and had us apply the narcotics mentality.
I learned the language of graffiti directly from sources like Subway Art; I watched [the movie] Style Wars ‘til the video tape broke. I purposely read all the magazines back then; it was mostly guys who ran off mimeograph copies and were selling it over at Scrap Yard or BMT Lines store in Brooklyn. I used to submit a voucher at work and they would laugh, like, “We’re not paying you for this.”
People say you get as addicted to it as much as graffiti writers, but I just started noticing it more. Most New Yorkers, especially back in the day when graffiti was really rampant, they saw it in the periphery. They noticed it more when it wasn’t there. When the trains were covered with it, and we would put a clean train on the line, you’d watch people get on the train. Nobody ever really walked on the train and went, “Oh yeah, there’s this guy and there’s that guy.”
Back when I was in the thick of it, your everyday working stiff was probably under the impression that the average graffiti writer was a poor Black kid, when in actuality, it was more middle class White and Hispanic kids for the most part. And when you arrested some well-to-do people, who came from “good families,” they’d be like, “Wait a minute, what do you mean? Not my son, he only does it in his room.” “Really? You see that on his wall?” “Well no, no we let him do that.” “I’m not here to arrest your kid for writing graffiti on his bedroom wall. But haven’t you noticed that exact same thing all over the neighborhood?” “Yeah, but it’s not him.” And then you show them fifteen pictures and it’s all identical. That’s your son. “No, no, no, that’s not my kid.”
There’s so much denial on all sides and then there’s this lie that goes about from both sides, and this is something that came to me after I left the job. I can tell you almost the moment I realized it — it was at the Jam Master Jay benefit. And I’m there with a bunch of people who normally would not have been in the same room as me back in the day. And I’m watching all these young people from all these diverse, different worlds coming together for a good cause. One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that we marginalize much of society — unless it fits into some corporate scheme. I’m talking about graffiti itself, hip hop, everything.
I wasn’t allowed to say this when I was on the job. People would say to me, “Haven’t you seen graffiti that you thought was artistic?” And I would say the Bernie Jacobs line from Style Wars, “I’m not an art critic, I’m a cop.” And I would credit Bernie with the line ‘cause I knew him, I mean I knew him when he was interviewed and I got to know him; great detective, hard-working guy, very proud of his career. Bernie said, “I’m not an art critic, I’m a cop.” My deal is, we go out and we tell people it’s not art — when it is. Because what’s art? I don’t decide what art is, the person who’s viewing it does. So if someone wants to have a statue of Jesus in a vat of urine, I don’t think it’s art, but maybe you do. You get to decide, not me.
I will never wrap my head around the idea it’s okay for me to come in here and spray paint this wall if you don’t want me to. You may do a beautiful job, but I say this all the time: “If Michelangelo didn’t have permission to paint the Sistine Chapel, he’s a vandal.” No matter how beautiful it might be, if the Catholic Church didn’t want that to be done, he’s a vandal. Graffiti isn’t a crime — where you put it is a crime.
For me to sit here and tell you there are no bad cops, no corrupt cops, you might as well tell me to go, ‘cause that’s a lie. I didn’t condone writers getting beatings when I ran the unit. I didn’t like it when I heard it happened before I ran the unit. When I ran the unit, I could do something about it and they knew, no bullshit, if you grabbed somebody, I don’t care if you had to chase them, you defend yourself. If the kid is violent, you do what you gotta do to defend yourself. But nobody gets a beating, nobody gets painted on — that’s bullshit. One of the things that, when Kaves and I got friendly, he told me he took a beating from one of the guys I had worked with, who was actually somebody who didn’t [work] for me. This was back when I was a rookie cop in the Vandal Squad. It bothered me. And the fact that Kaves was tattooing me when he told me this story bothered me even more. I was thinking, like, I hope he doesn’t take it out on me … so does it happen? Yes. Should it happen? No.
I’ve had graffiti writers write some crazy stuff about me while I was on the job. “Police Officer Mona has AIDS” — this was high up on the Manhattan Bridge. My uncle saw it on his way to work. It’s part of the game, I guess. But like I said to Alan Ket at that graffiti forum — don’t be surprised when you get more attention because you’ve made it personal. It never was personal for me. It was, “Okay, we got a problem in this area, we need to take care of it.” Then again, you don’t get the respect in the subculture unless I’m chasing you — it’s a cat-and-mouse game. I happened to be the cat for a while.
As far as informants go, anything that gives law enforcement a leg up in any sort of situation — as long as it’s legal — works for me. And that was always my thing: “Is what we’re doing legal?” And then, if we can get past legal, is it ethical? Using informants has become the norm — it probably goes back to the Praetorian Guard in Rome.
I’ve come to a different place now that it’s not my job. I don’t know that I’d call it respect; to a degree, I’d call it more of an understanding. I understand what they did back then. Some of them, a good majority of them, understand what I was doing back then. Then there are those who don’t. I’m still the Boogey Man. I get that. But I do appreciate the art form itself, and I own a few canvas pieces, and I hang them proudly in my home because I want them to be there. And if I wanted the wall on the side of my building to have a mural, I would do that.
I love Kaves’ stuff. Lee, I love Lee’s stuff. Reas — Todd James — I like looking at his work. I’m a big fan of Revs’ sculptures. Genius. And I see them all over, they’re all over Dumbo. Bolting something to a street sign, is that a crime really? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I mean, what’s damaged? When he was writing those stories in the subway tunnels, okay, there’s an argument there. But bolting a metal sculpture to a street sign? Ellis, with the shadow stuff … I’m happy to not have taken any part in having him arrested. I mean … chalk? Guys, come on.
This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 53, which you can purchase a copy of here.