In May 2020 a mysterious neologism began appearing across Houston. Spray-painted in cartoonish letters often several feet high was a single word: “Toeflop.” The cryptic disyllable was seemingly everywhere, all at once. Instagrammers documented dozens of Toeflops in a variety of styles and colors—on bridges, railroad trestles, billboards, concrete revetments along bayous, and, most spectacularly, atop a thirty-story abandoned hotel building downtown. Twitter erupted in speculation about the identity of the graffiti writer or writers, and the meaning of the curious cognomen.
Redditors debated various theories. “It sounds like foot drop, which is a neurological condition requiring spinal surgery,” suggested one commenter. Observing the similarity of Toeflop to TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), another hypothesized that the graffiti writer had probably failed, or flopped, the exam. Others suggested their own acronyms: The Organization Exists for Loving on Potato Salad? Take On Every Freaking Louisianan on Penicillin?
In the subculture of contemporary American graffiti writing, which emerged in Philadelphia in the late sixties before spreading around the world, achieving Toeflop-level ubiquity is known as going “all city.” The most recent Houston writer to achieve such distinction was Rowdy, an anonymous individual whose spray-painted tags were nigh inescapable in 2019. Now it was Toeflop’s turn. As spring turned into summer and summer into fall, the artist or artists kept Toeflopping across Space City—and beyond.
Sometime around September, Toeflop landed in Austin, hitting an abandoned gas station, the shuttered restaurant Shady Grove, and an oft-tagged railroad bridge over Lady Bird Lake. Toeflops were even spotted as far afield as Memphis and New Orleans. Each tag had a different look, ranging from simple monochromatic designs to elaborate, multicolored pieces with shadowed bubble letters and intricate shading.
“He’s doing something kind of tongue-in-cheek, playing with the conventions of East and West Coast graffiti,” said Stefano Bloch, a legendary L.A. graffiti writer who went all city in the nineties under the nom de plume of Cisco. At my request, Bloch reviewed online photos of Toeflop’s work. “He seems to be saying, I’m here in the middle [of the country], I’m in Texas, and I’m going to put my own spin on conventional graffiti forms.”
Bloch, who is now an assistant professor of geography at the University of Arizona, said that in the early aughts graffiti writers began adopting deliberately outlandish names, like Neck Face, to distinguish their work from gang-related graffiti. “You pick the most absurd of names to convey that you’re actually engaged in this kind of performance street art,” he explained. “There’s no way that any rational person can confuse you for a gang member who’s demarcating territory and willing to violently defend it. It seems to me that Toeflop is doing the same thing. You might even call him an avant-garde graffiti writer from Texas.”
Former Houston graffiti writer David Flores, aka Skeez181, told me he’s impressed by Toeflop’s productivity and geographic range. “I don’t know exactly who he is, but that’s the whole mystique behind graffiti—somebody can be painting all over the place and stay anonymous,” Flores said. “Some people do it for the fame, some do it for the respect, and some people just do it for themselves.” Although some internet commenters have speculated that Toeflop is the name of a crew, Flores and Bloch believe it’s the work of a single artist.
It’s typical for a single graffiti writer to use a wide variety of styles, Bloch emphasized. “Never have I known of multiple people writing the same name—not even once,” he said. “I’m 99.9 percent certain this is an individual person with multiple writing styles.” The whole point of tagging is getting your name out there, he explained, so appropriating someone else’s moniker would be pointless. “Most graffiti writers come from communities where there are fewer outlets to make a name for yourself. They’re expressing themselves in a way that’s going to piss a lot of people off, but it’s also going to impress a lot of people.”
Because graffiti writing is illegal in most cases, considered a defacement of public or private property, anonymity is critical; many writers don’t disclose their real names even to their tagging partners. Flores was arrested in Houston in 1996 for tagging freight trains and spent four years on probation, after which he transitioned into painting authorized murals and teaching art. Bloch earned his doctorate and became a professor. The biographical blurb on the back cover of his memoir describes him as a “semiretired graffiti writer.” Some well-known graffiti artists such as Houston’s Gonzo247, who now paints city-commissioned murals, followed similar trajectories from the margins to the mainstream. Others have maintained their anonymity, but that’s not always easy.
On the evening of March 16, a security guard spotted a man and a woman breaking into the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, an art museum in Houston’s wealthy River Oaks neighborhood. The pair fled toward Buffalo Bayou, where they boarded a small motorboat to make their getaway. Pursued by Houston Police Department officers, the burglars were forced to abandon their boat and escape on foot through a drainage tunnel. The police lost the trail, but inside the boat they found a backpack filled with graffiti supplies and hand-drawn Toeflop patterns. They also found a van on a Buffalo Bayou boat ramp, registered to 33-year-old Lewis Yates Robertson. (Police have not been able to identify the woman.)
Robertson was arrested in April and charged with felony burglary; he’s currently free on a $1,000 bond. His lawyer, Mark Metzger III, told me that his client is innocent. Metzger denied that the grafitti designs belonged to Robertson. Even if they did, it wouldn’t mean Robertson was Toeflop, he insisted. “Go to any tattoo shop around town and they’re all going to have the same book with the same designs,” he said. “That’s kind of what this is. It’s a template that all these guys carry around.” Metzger subscribes to the “multiple Toeflop” theory, ascribing the tags to a “collaboration of probably over a dozen people mimicking the same art form.”
But Robertson does have a history of graffiti writing. In 2005, he was arrested on a graffiti charge, for spray-painting the wall of a business and causing between $500 and $1,500 worth of damage. When police came to pick him up, Robertson fled in his car, leading to a charge of evading arrest. The following month he was arrested again after stabbing a man during a fight. He pleaded no contest to assault and evading arrest, receiving ten days in jail and five years of probation. (The graffiti charge was dismissed as part of a plea deal.) Metzger said his client manufactures and sells leather goods out of his home in Spring Branch, an appropriately creative occupation for someone with an artistic talent for graffiti. I made two recent attempts to speak with Robertson at his one-story bungalow. On both occasions no one answered the door.
Meanwhile, after a frenetic year of activity, Toeflop appears to be slowing down. The writer’s most recent mention on Twitter was May 1, when someone posted a photo of a tag scrawled on a gas station bathroom mirror. Having achieved all-city status, is Toeflop taking a well-earned sabbatical? Is the artist lying low, perhaps waiting for the resolution of legal issues? Perhaps we have seen the last Toeflop tag, and the artist will reemerge in the future under a new sobriquet.
Judging by the experience of other graffiti writers, a full Toeflop retirement seems unlikely. In his 2019 memoir Going All City: Struggle and Survival in LA’s Graffiti Subculture, Bloch nostalgically describes going on all-night “bombing runs,” tagging dozens or even hundreds of locations in a matter of hours. Raised, he says, by a mother who struggled with heroin addiction and a stepfather who was in and out of prison, Bloch found a community and sense of purpose in graffiti writing. “Behind every tag is a story about survival and about striving to be seen, or a momentary reprieve from deprivation and desperation,” he writes.
We may never know Toeflop’s full story, but we do know that the artist’s tags have brought a bit of distraction and levity to a state in desperate need of both. Over the past year, spotting Toeflops has become something of a game in Houston—a socially distanced, pandemic-friendly reason to get out of the house and reconnect with the city. Most of the tags will eventually get painted over, but the name will endure, at least among graffiti writers.