"There was a high school down there in the middle of the projects, and everything around there was closed, blocks and blocks. It was like walking around in a ghost town that had graffiti in it. It was just a bugout, to go somewhere else — somewhere not as big as Boston but had a totally bigger graffiti scene."

The local scene faded almost as quickly as it had shot to prominence, though, its players soon forgotten. And Etips was part of the second wave that took off in the early- to mid-1990s.

A suburban kid from North Providence, his first exposure to graffiti came in the back seat of his mother's car, looking out at the retaining walls that lined Route 10. In high school, he overheard kids talking about the pieces down by the train tracks. And one day, at age 14 or 15, he hopped a bus with some friends and made his way down to the Amtrak station.

His first sighting: ground-ups by Wizart-Spoke — then the king of Rhode Island graffiti — and his partner Soda that he can still describe in some depth. Then he entered the tunnel. And he was done. "As soon as I saw that, my mouth really dropped," he says. "We must have been down there for nine hours."

It's this feeling of discovery, Etips says, that is missing now. Fifteen years ago, graffiti was more secretive. Harder to access. "It was fucking magical if you get your hands on a graffiti mag," he says. The Internet was but a nascent force.

And the relative isolation meant room for Rhode Island writers to develop their own style — a certain flourish to the Rs and Ks, all but forgotten now.

It took Etips time to master it all. But the seductive power of the late-night mission, drunk and determined, swept him up. "People are going to Christmas balls and proms and you go out painting," he says. "It fucks your whole shit up. You're not a normal human being."

Things changed over the years, though; even graffiti artists grow up.

Etips has a good job (he doesn't want us to say where). And he does some legal graffiti on the side for pay — murals for Spike's Junkyard Dogs, for instance, and Olneyville design build firm Site Specific — even if he takes some heat from other writers for venturing into the mainstream.

Etips walks up to an old rusted tower some 60 feet from the train tunnel and finds a few tags from the old days. There's Jobe from the AC (All City) crew. Troop was in that crew, too. He's in jail now.

These past few months, Etips says, he hasn't been out on the streets much. "There's too many winters you suffer through," he says, "you freeze your hands."

He'll be out again when the weather warms, though. He's got to.

"It's a love-hate relationship, man, it's horrible," Etips says. "Once you do it for so long, you can't let it go."

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Related: The deCordova thinks about ''murals'', Cambridge author Caleb Neelon traces graffiti's hidden history, Year in pictures, More more >
  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Rhode Island, Olneyville, graffiti,  More more >
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