Who is behind the infamous ‘RLong’ graffiti tag? We investigate

From East to West Baltimore, you’ll see it sprawled across buildings, street signs, and even car windows. Sometimes it’s as small as a signature, other times it spans several feet.

RLong.

The graffiti tag itself has taken on a life of its own, capturing the eyes and curiosity of those online and off.

One day while traveling across the city, Baltimore rap artist Turk P. Diddy said he clocked at least 20 RLongs on his route, leading him to pose the question on everyone’s lips: “Who the fuck is ‘RLong’?” He posted the query to Instagram reels and it went viral, joining an already growing list of posts about the elusive tagger.

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Just like with any piece of art, plenty of people have their own interpretation of the graffiti. To some, it’s just a sloppy tag. But, to others, it’s a subversive message criticizing the city leadership’s priorities. Or a memorial to a 2008 murder victim. Some people even think it’s the calling card of a local radio host.

To find RLong, a team of Baltimore Banner reporters spent hours chronicling tags throughout the city, investigating theories about the artist’s identity, and conducting interviews with local artists and potential suspects to find the answer.

Who is RLong?

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RLong tag spray-painted on a sign for Lenny’s Deli on East Lombard Street on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher / The Baltimore Banner)

The iconic pillar advertising Lenny’s Deli on Lombard Street is covered in RLong tags. So is the building behind it. And the truck parked in the corner lot.

Some are black or yellow. Some have smiley faces. One even has pink eyes.

“He’s everywhere,” said Ron Thompson, who works for Helping Up Mission, the addiction and homelessness nonprofit that now occupies the old Lenny’s Deli building.

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“I don’t know who he is, but he should get a better hand,” he added.

Banner staff identified 131 RLong tags spread throughout the city, with the highest concentrations in Station North and Oldtown. Baltimore is no stranger to graffiti, especially downtown, where it’s often found in alleyways or on the sides of buildings.

But The Banner found that RLong usually places their art on full display for all to see, especially in Station North, which is home to the Maryland Institute College of Art. There are over 40 RLong tags on a single block in the area.

Many on social media, where the tags have sparked robust conversations, think RLong could be a MICA student. Even mayoral candidate Sheila Dixon suggested MICA students are responsible for the “rampant” graffiti downtown at a recent talk with Roland Park residents.

MICA did not respond to The Banner’s request for comment.

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Peter Williams runs into RLong on a daily basis. He works at an auto parts store in Old Town, where there are 14 tags on his block alone. But it doesn’t just stop at his day job. Williams said he’s seen the tags on gas pumps in Owings Mills and on a bridge in Middle River.

He doesn’t know who RLong is, but, Williams said, he has heard one theory.

“Somebody was saying it was the family of the guy who died,” Williams said.

In 2008, a man named Robert Long was killed in the “Lumber Yard” of Southwest Baltimore in a murder-for-hire scheme. The case made national headlines after the wrongful conviction of Demetrius Smith for the crime. Now, some think Long’s family began posting RLong throughout Baltimore in his memory. The Long family could not be reached for comment.

However, a Banner analysis of RLong tags casts doubt on this theory. None of the RLong graffiti the Banner identified existed before August 2022, according to Google Street View, over a decade after Long’s murder.

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Local rap artist Turk P. Diddy who has gone viral for his commentary on Baltimore Graffiti tagger RLong. (Kirk McKoy / The Baltimore Banner)

MASN sports radio host Robert Long first started seeing RLong graffiti around the city two years ago. Then, this past summer, people started calling into his radio show and posting on his Facebook page asking if he was RLong.

“No, I’m not RLong,” he told The Banner.

But he gets why people think he could be. He said the graffiti is all over West Baltimore, where he’s from, and he often refers to himself as “RLong,” which he says is unrelated to the tag.

“It’s kind of a badge of honor to come to people’s minds that way,” Long said.

“If you were to tell a 14-year-old Rob Long that ‘RLong’ would be up all over the Baltimore metro area, he would think it was huge,” he added.

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Long has his own theories about the artist’s identity. First off, he thinks the tag has to be the work of multiple people, instead of just one. It’s the only thing that makes sense to him, he said.

Baltimore is such a “localized” and “regional” city, according to Long, why would someone from West Baltimore care about tagging gas pumps in Owings Mills?

Local street artist Reed Bmore agrees with Long’s theory.

“There is an RLong in all of us,” Bmore said. “I think it’s fun to think of it like that.”

Artist Bmore can understand the case of RLong like few others. Known as the “Baltimore Banksy,” Bmore spent years as an anonymous street artist hanging wire sculptures throughout the city before he was outed by The Baltimore Sun.

Though Bmore now fully embraces his public persona, posting his sculptures on Instagram and working on public art commissions, he didn’t feel that way before. Maintaining anonymity made him feel safer as an artist, focused mainly on creating rather than how people would perceive him and his art.

Perhaps, he said, that’s what RLong is trying to do, too. And Bmore is a huge fan.

“I think she’s a really good graffiti artist because she’s just around in the city, everywhere,” Bmore said.

“She?” a Banner reporter asked.

“Well, I mean, just what I’ve heard from the grapevines,” he replied.

Another theory added to the mix.

Starting a conversation

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Reed Bmore poses for a portrait outside of his Baltimore studio, the Lost and Found, on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher / The Baltimore Banner)

Bmore sees RLong’s work as a larger commentary on Baltimore leadership, poking holes in what City Hall prioritizes — what gets shown, what gets covered up.

Historically, according to Bmore, different cities have distinct graffiti hand styles. In Baltimore, graffiti often starts small and gets larger, almost like an arrow, allegedly because the city’s first graffiti artist was left-handed, according to Bmore and online histories of Baltimore graffiti. In Philadelphia, the graffiti will often span the entire length of a building.

To Bmore, RLong has broken out of the typical Baltimore style by adopting the more homogenous approach of “anti-graffiti,” which prioritizes the quantity of tags over stylistic flair.

“By getting up there enough, you’re starting a conversation,” Bmore said.

Though talk show host Robert Long feels pride when he sees an RLong, it also raises concerns for him. Graffiti is usually a telltale sign of urban distress, he said, ultimately affecting property values and marketability.

The Banner did not find objective proof that graffiti detrimentally impacted property values in Baltimore. However, anecdotally, reporters found that the vast majority of RLong tags are on vacant properties in a city already struggling to keep the number of vacant homes and storefronts at bay.

Graffiti has become a worsening problem in Baltimore, with 311 calls on the rise since 2021, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis from last year, prompting the city to add over $300,000 toward graffiti-removal efforts in 2023.

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RLong tag spray-painted on the side of a building on Ensor Street in Baltimore on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher / The Baltimore Banner)

While Bmore is a staunch supporter of the local graffiti community, he also thinks that the artform is often used to highlight longstanding tensions.

“It’s just one of those things that is a reactionary event from how poorly taken care of some cities are,” Bmore said of graffiti.

And it looks like much of RLong’s work is here to stay. Though the city does have a graffiti task force, the unit mainly focuses on covering up graffiti on public buildings, often leaving tags on private property untouched.

What’s more, RLong appears to still be hard at work, with Google Street View showing some of the artist’s tags cropping up as recently as October 2023.

“I think five or six years from now, it’ll still be up on walls. We’ll still talk about it. We’ll still wonder who RLong was,” Long said.

He paused.

“You know, I think it’s better that we never find out who it is,” he concluded.

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