Grass Routes

Somewhere between Too $hort selling tapes out the trunk and bubblings of the dot-com boom, a few generations of Bay Area writers had keys to the city, hopping lines and getting up. Bay Area bus bombing cultivated hometown hand styles and armies of kids convinced nobody rides for free.

Mass Appeal Issue 51, April/May 2008
Photography by Dave Schubert, Spie & Kerbs

The Bay Area is made up of nine counties and 100 cities. Geographically, San Francisco faces the East Bay, where Oakland and Berkeley are split by the Bay Bridge. Even more renowned than these bridges (or its weed) are San Francisco’s cable cars. They are well over 100 years old and evolved into what would become the body of the modern-day San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni). A publicly-owned municipal transportation agency, Muni took over as the City’s only transportation option in 1944 by buying up the last existing private service. Two neighboring constituencies in the East Bay created a similar service, the publicly-owned Alameda Contra-Costa County Transit District (AC Transit). They purchased what was at the time a fledging transportation system and a few years later, began operation. The year was 1960. See, the Bay’s always been way ahead of the curve when it comes to civil rights. Even kids got on the bus... Until they scored driver’s licenses.

Both Muni and AC Transit have an elected Board of Directors that dictate finances and service, as well as demand cash from local, regional and state sources. Fare revenues account for little because sales and property taxes count for a lot. These taxes are often introduced on ballot measures, so if you need to catch the bus to work, it’s vote or die in the streets. Outside of a few lines, Muni operates within San Francisco’s seven by seven square mile city limit. For the last two decades, it has maintained and operated about 1,000 vehicles in all. These include cable cars and hybrid, electric and diesel-powered buses, as well as trolley buses and a light rail system, both of which have arms on their roofs that connect to overhead electric power lines (the latter, known as Muni Metro, travels above and below ground on its own private track). AC Transit is also self-serviced, but only runs buses. Over the last 20 years, the fleet of several hundred bio-diesel and diesel-powered machines have provided upwards of a 350 square mile service area, covering more than a dozen East Bay cities.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is the third head of the region’s systems. Launched in 1974 as a rail car operation, BART’s district consists of San Francisco County, Alameda County and Contra Costa County. The reach and speediness of the subway makes it ideal for intercity commuting, but every zone in its jurisdiction pays BART taxes even though some don’t have a local station. In the late ’80s, the AC Transit commissioned the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department to supply security for its fleet. When signs of bus bombing began on Muni in the early ’80s, responsibilities for law enforcement on vehicles, stations and at stops fell on the San Francisco Police Department. Unfortunately they had their hands full. By 1990, BART ran its own internal police force with special squad cars to cover its 34 stations. Spread over about two-dozen cities in the Bay Area, the agents wore special badges that meant business.


By the early ’80s, many San Francisco kids were into BMXing, playing arcade games, break dancing and increasingly, doing graffiti. In 1984, City-native Spie began writing with other kids from his junior high. “There was a lot of working class folks of all ethnicities: Filipino, Black, Latino, Samoan... The Excelsior district was unique, we had the largest concentration of youth in the whole city,” explains Spie, who notes that the wars in Central America created an influx of Salvadorian and Nicaraguan immigrants, as well. “The Mission was a very big center for families and a lot of youth. A lot of writing was really heavy in those areas, and what linked the two was, of course, the 14-Mission trolley bus line.”

The more areas it serviced and the longer the circuit, the better. With an eight-mile route, the 14-Mission was Muni’s premiere line for bus hoppers. “Growing up with public transportation, my parents gave me rides on the bus to go to school. I would see tags on the buses and got influenced by some of the high schoolers who were taggin’ at the time,” remembers Rewind GF (Graffiti Funk), who is from the Mission. “When I started going out on my own, I felt like that was the thing to do.” From the get go, Rewind rode the 14 and by the time he started writing in late ’86, the bar was set high and saturated with ink from Marks–a-lots, Unis and Pilots.

With a year of bus hopping under his belt, Spie started high school and was riding the 52-Excelsior everyday. “There was people that went to different schools around the city that lived very far from school. There was so much time devoted to riding on certain lines that connected districts and schools. McAteer High School had a lot of writers, it was a very interesting population because it was right in the center of the city,” explains Spie, who also notes that Galileo and Balboa were rich with writers. “Most of the writers I was with had Fast Passes [Muni monthly bus pass]. If you had a Fast Pass, the whole city was your turf. Nobody was really claiming sets—it was total freedom.”

A bus driver’s awareness was guaged off their rearview mirror, and general protocol for bus bombing was targeting lower stuff like seats and panels. Then you worked up the courage to hit windows and ceilings. But when groups of roving hoppers would form, mob mentality took over. In the mid-’80s, bus bombers began meeting up at the corner of 24th and Mission Avenues, where above an underground BART station was a concrete courtyard. In addition to plenty of foot traffic, the intersection was fed by stops from at least five bus lines, including the 14. “If a bus pulled up, there’s at least 20 people pullin’ out markers, tagging up the side,” recalls Rewind. “Bus drivers stopped caring, they’d just close the doors and drive away as soon as people got in. People were doing crazy things—tagging over tags you just did, it was just loony.” The Forest Hills Station, which serviced a few Muni Metro stops underground, as well as five different Muni stops, was another spot where hoppers would mob buses. Five bus lines also intersected at Silver and Mission Avenues, where writers would hang out on the steps of the Jewish Home, a senior convalescent facility, which was used as a departure point.

“Sometimes we would be mobbing like 20, 30 heads on the 14. We were all just looking to get up,” says Spie. “Sometimes if some cat would try and start a fight, he didn’t know that we were all together. We weren’t necessarily all in the same crew, but since we were all rolling together, we all had each other’s back. I saw some of them get stomped on by 30 people. It was ugly!” Bus hoppers were experimenting with making utensils, splicing streakers, adapting new nibs to markers and concocting new ink colors. Muni drivers had radios in the buses to call the SFPD. Some would. Some didn’t. “There was one bus driver named 30 Seconds that invited us to do it. He started off being friendly, by saying, ‘Okay, I’ll give you 30 seconds to do what you gonna do, but then you gotta stop.’ He would let you write,” Spie remembers with a laugh. “He was a real cool dude, man. He would smoke out people at the end of the line.”

At the time, the mayor was San Francisco native and future Senator, Diane Feinstein. During her second term, in 1986, she declared a “War on Graffiti” and attacked the burgeoning scene by using the SFPD. “They had the Graffiti Task Squad: Mike Niland and John Haggett,” remembers Spie. “At times, they the played good cop, bad cop thing, but were ruthless. Sometimes they would interrogate kids in their own kitchens, go to their houses and make parents turn on them, snitch people out and all that.”

Published on June 30th 1987, in the San Francisco Chronicle, “S.F. Losing the War on Graffiti,” presented a candid outline of the Muni graffiti scene of the time, comparing its 36 officer efforts to the MTA’s ongoing woes at attempting to thwart New York subway writing. “It’s a peer thing, something all their friends do,” Officer John Haggett, is quoted as saying. The article compares graffiti on buses to “movable ads” and identifies the Winston Network, an agency selling advertisement space on Muni vehicles, as being concerned enough to hire guards and K9 patrols at the division storage yards. While the 38-Geary line is denounced for being especially crushed at the time, the article estimates that the worst has yet to come.

Muni bus hoppers had been hitting the storage yards for years before they had any kind of security, in fact, Muni’s largest yards still didn’t have fences. Rewind got in on the action in ’86, focusing on the Potrero Division, home to many Mission buses. “Everybody started at night. Everybody knew, like, if you went on a Tuesday you could go and hit it. Then they started doing security from 11[PM], ’cause most of the buses were in by 11. Security would roll from 11 to maybe 6 in the morning, so people started going in the day time,” explains Rewind. “People started creating different schedules around when they knew they could hit it.” Because of the dense population and space shortages in San Francisco, Muni’s vehicles were all stored in residential and commercial areas.

The years ’87 and ’88 saw the height of it all as Muni buses were completely destroyed. “TWS: Crayone, Stylz, Risque, Man45, them guys were doing pieces on buses, like full color or manipulating the advertisements to make it look like the letters,” remembers Spie. “We would go to 6th and Geary, Kentucky Fried Chicken on Thursday night, there was an all-you-can-eat dinner special, sit up on there on second floor and just watch them go by on the 38-Geary line.” As far as tagging, the fame spots on buses, like the glare visor over the driver’s head were highly visible, risky and usually done in yards. With cleaning campaigns initially focused only on the exteriors, writers wrote on weirder places, like bumpers and the rubber joint sleeve that connects the cars of an articulated bus (an extra long, double-body vehicle with an accordion-like hinge in the middle). “Some people perfected the backwards flow so that you could get a panel on top of the bus, outside of the window. This was done while the bus was running. You weren’t even looking at it… take your arm out and you hit like this,” says Spie, standing, reaching through an imaginary windowpane and making a writing motion above his head. “It would look exactly like the same thing as if you did it regular…or upside down. Kids could do it upside down and backwards. That’s some higher level thinking.”

But with bus bombers’ innovations to get over, Muni redoubled efforts to eliminate it. “When the yards got a little harder to hit, a little more seductive, we created an hour we like to call ‘the bumrush hour.’ Maybe 5:45 to 6:30, the bus drivers were getting in their buses to heat ’em up so they could pull out. We’d run right into the yard and go straight to the end of the row. We’d just started hoppin’ bumpers all the way across and just workin’ our way out, zigzagging all the way. In most cases we ran into the janitors, mechanics, bus drivers,” explains Rewind. “We’d get a lot of, Hey! Heys! And we’d just keep workin’ our way out, until the end. The yard was so hard to hit at one point, it was just security all the time, but as soon as the bus drivers were getting ready to leave there was no security.”


The bumrush was never really an option for the East Bay. AC Transit storage yards were located in industrial areas of cities, like Richmond, Emeryville and Hayward. Security guards patrolled the buses, which were also monitored by closed-circuit surveillance and surrounded by high concrete walls. Originally from San Francisco, Kemrexx moved to Oakland when he was around 10 years old. He started writing in ’85 while in high school and repped BS (Bomb Squad). Kemrexx got into the legendary crew, TDK (Tax Dollars Kill), in 1988, when AC Transit bus bombing began to pick up steam. “Dream and Breaks were bombing really hard. Both were in TDK and living near East Alameda, where the 51 would end and start its route. So the bus would finish a long run and do its half-hour break there,” explains Kemrexx. “So you have four or five buses, most of ’em 51s, and we would go at night and stake ’em out. The bus driver would get a cup of coffee or be kickin’ it in the back with a newspaper over his head, and meanwhile, outside, the bus is being completely bombed. [Dream and Breaks] would just totally devastate a bus—go all the way around the bus, get inside the bus and hit all the windows...and you know it’s runnin’!”

The AC Transit’s 51 line was established as the best for bus bombers by traveling through areas populated with writers, as well three cities in its 13-mile route. Similar to San Francisco before bus bombing took off, the East Bay graf scene was primarily focused on schoolyards and parks, where Kemrexx also devoted his efforts. A self-described loner, the buses offered him a way to network. He’d take AC Transit to the City and to a commercial strip on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, which was like a grimy outdoor mall where a lot of break dancers, writers and rappers hung out. With motion tagging being the only option available, East Bay bus bombers were bred on long trips and not vulnerable to trouble spots. The sheriffs couldn’t possibly monitor the hundreds of miles AC Transit covered.


In late 1989, Muni began repairing and storing all 100 of its articulated buses in the newly constructed, enclosed bus garage, Flynn Division. According to a February 12th article in The San Francisco Chronicle of that next year, Muni found that these buses were exceptionally devoid of graffiti and a light went off. In addition to pledging priority to a $1 million program making fences higher and adding security, focusing on yards like Potrero, Kirkland and Woods, Muni General Manager of Utilities Thomas J. Elzey is quoted as saying, “If you can secure the yards, you can solve it.” By the end of the year, Muni had built only one new fence, around the Presidio Division, but it got the ball rolling on plans for future fortification.

By 1989, a wave of bus hoppers quit and moved on to other things… mainly driving. Spie got a car and went on to become an influential street bomber and piecer. After making his name in the vast sea of writers from the era, Rewind retired from buses and then quit altogether. “For me, there was levels of graffiti. There was piecers, I was groomed by some and taught, but I just didn’t get it. I found that tagging, to me, was enough,” says Rewind. “Maybe ’cause I grew up in the City, it was more fame, more recognition and that’s really what you wanted. You wanted to say, I was there.”

Even with yard activity slowing down and writers retiring, there were the lapses of the older generations, still up to the bygone wild ways of Muni, crossing paths with younger city kids riding the bus. San Francisco native Jade started writing in 1992 by focusing on buses, mainly the 29-Sunset, which he took to school. “I think I rode the bus with a little bit of fear all the time in high school, ’cause you never knew what a writer would do when you met them. Either pocket check or you get down with them and they’re straight, but you never knew…I was a little 14-year-old kid on the bus and, you know, I wasn’t the best writer [laughs],” he remembers, as well as the infamous crew of older bus hoppers, BVD (Black Vandals Destroy), being one of the first he saw in action.

“I met BDT, it was Big Daddy Ties, (not be confused with a different ‘Tie’). Imagine this bus is crowded, packed full of people and this man is wearing all red, a black Seahawks hat, he’s got a boom box and we already starting tagging on the bus, like with one paint tag. He gets on the bus, he’s somehow friends with someone we know already and he goes, ‘Do I smell Krylon?’—He’s playing Cypress Hill, “How I Could Just Kill A Man”—‘Is that Krylon I smell?! Here, hold the radio, I’ll give you the paint back.’ So he writes on the roof, ‘Big Daddy Ties. Try to play me and you’ll get chalked.’ And then on the side panel, reaching over these two black chicks, he’s writing every crew he’s in…He’s real casual about this. The two girls are like, ‘That stuff stiiinks!’ And he’s like, ‘Shut up, biiitch!’ This is the old Krylon, it’s toxic. People aren’t saying anything, they’re just opening the windows and [fanning their noses]. I think that’s when I got a little bolder.”

Another aesthetic that crossed the generations was the Frisco flow, a controlled, but fluid, tagging style, born on buses. “I remember it’s the first way I learned how to write and it feels natural to me,” says Jade THR (The Hard Reality), who hadn’t even attempted his first piece until a few years after he started writing. “I did progress and learn the other styles too, but I don’t know, something about bus hopping…I was used to people tagging really fast and throwing their wrist everywhere.”

One on it’s way up and one it’s way down, both Muni and the streets of San Francisco were bombed. Born in the City, Tase FEA (Fuck ’Em All) had family all over the Bay Area, and grew up riding both Muni and AC Transit, before he started writing in the early ’90s. “I was kind of ahead for my age. All I was doing was riding buses to school and back, but I would see graf on the streets. I was too young to really walk the streets and hit spots. By the time I was 12, I started fucking with the streets heavy,” he says. Tase ended up getting down with the cross-Bay crew, TDK, which also included former bus bombers like Dream (RIP). “A lot of the cats that were doing pieces back then, that were already doing full productions—I didn’t know they started out kinda like how I did. I just really realized that shit recently. From a whole different time frame, it was the same thing, that everyone eventually evolved and got better and better.”


Back in the summer of 1990, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that AC Transit spent only $110,000 annually on graffiti eradication, while Muni had a $2 million a year budget. With Muni running a fleet of only about 20 percent more vehicles, the article applauds AC Transit’s success in the cleaning its buses. “The key is, once you see it, get rid of it, remove it as soon as possible,” the article quotes AC Transit General Manager, James O’Sullivan, as saying. “Once it gets going you’ve lost it.” But the problem was only beginning for AC Transit, as only a few months later, O’Sullivan resigned amid allegations of misusing several millions of dollars in funds. A former AC Transit attorney took over as general manager facing a reported $4 million deficit and a wave of new bus bombers on the horizon.

By the end of 1990, the number of East Bay bus writers increased and they began not only to make markers and multiple color streakers, but experimenting with utensils never before used on AC Transit, like drill bits, and even rocks, for scribing. “I used a school compass, the all-metal joint. That was the best for me ’cause I could hold it like a pencil, have more control. I would do scribes on the bus that were like all freakin’ symmetrical and as perfect as I could make it,” says Kemrexx, who, along with Matrix, was well known for his scribing on AC Transit buses. “One of my favorite scribes that I’ve done on the bus is taken the TDK cassette tape logo—the triangle with all the little triangles in it—six by five inches on the window, all precise and a little ‘Kemrexx’ over the top.”

The older New Flyer and Gillig model buses servicing many East Bay lines had extremely detailed interiors. Institutional amenities offered in chain motels, like upholstered seats, carpeted walls, plastic cased vents and textured panels were nearly unbuffable when hit with the right utensil. A streaker tag on the rear wall rug had a long lifespan, and while windows were prime spots, writers even hit up on floors. Wounded by funding follies from the recent recession, for the first time, AC Transit began charging one-trip riders a bonus fare, 25 cents, for transfers to switch lines. However, most kids used a Youth Pass for unlimited monthly rides. A few years later, AC Transit conceded vinyl advertisements fully wrapped around select buses to boost revenue. The first one was for Crystal Pepsi.

Writers like Saze, a Berkeley native who had been taking buses to school since the ’80s, but just started to write and bomb AC Transit, were entering the scene. While writers including Kemrexx, who moved on to painting yards and crews like TPC (Tax Payer’s Coins), that had been dominating buses for years, switched focus to writing in the streets and piecing on rooftops. One writer whose heavy hand held down the streets, buses and even highways, was Ceaver 640 (the California penal code for breaking laws on public transportation vehicles), an Oakland-bred bomber who popped up all over the Bay. Saze recalls one incident, in 1993, when he was riding the 51 on University Avenue in Berkeley, and through the window, saw Ceaver dip out of a Kragen Auto Parts store. “So him and Hotep had just racked a bunch of paint and ran out and got on the bus, immediately popped the top off, put a fat cap on and just starts crushing the windows on the bus, pulled the bus stop cord to get off the next stop and got off immediately. And that just seemed so gangster,” he remembers with a laugh. “Here I am catching Mean Streak tags on the window. That definitely let me know that I had a long way to go before I can reach Ceaver status.”

Originally from Los Angeles, Dut moved to Oakland in 1990 and began writing a few years later in junior high, just in time to catch the height of AC Transit bus bombing. “The bus definitely was a catalyst because that was like the scene—you were on the bus, that was your graf scene,” says Dut. “You could hit up on that shit in the daytime and for the most part, it’d be all good, whereas street shit, you couldn’t necessarily hit up in certain situations. It was just an environment that kind of bred graffiti.” AC Transit buses were equipped with radios to call the Sheriffs, but multi-use, effortless emergency levers were attached to larger windows with hinges at the top that made for easy getaways.

Above the Downtown Berkeley BART Station, the bus stop for several lines like the 51, 40 and 43, became a meeting place for writers by 1993. The spot was blocks from Berkeley High School, had plenty of benches and a row of pay phones for pagers. “There was no internet and no cell phones, so if you wanted to get into something and you wanted the sure way to link up with somebody, you’d just go there and there would be somebody with a boom box playing instrumentals, people ciphering, smoking blunts—running up to buses with fat caps, bombing on them—running back, ciphering,” remembers Saze. “It was kind of mayhem, but not in a bad way, it was very constructive, as far as people being creative.”


There were plenty of active Muni bus hoppers as the mid-’90s approached and certain divisions still only had one guard at night. “It was always just a normal ass dude. We were little kids, so we didn’t talk to him like a human being, we talked to him like a piece of shit,” remembers Jade. “We would be like, ‘Hey, here’s a 40, man,’ and just walk past him. It was funny, we would try to give him weed sometimes, but weed is expensive, so we’d always get a dollar each and go get him a 40, try to give him that. Most of the time, he’d just take it.” Though the buff was steadily increasing, writers in yards continued to hit inconspicuous spots, like the small surface next to the main bus route display, in anticipation of a thorough cleaning. By 1995, Muni had installed surveillance cameras inside many buses, starting with the 14-Mission, however, due to overcrowding in the storage yards, vehicles were frequently left parked on the street in clusters, scattered around the city overnight.

During the days, a handful of writers focused on power scribing—leaving lines as thick as three inches and so deep in the window that the tag was white and opaque. “Buses were fun, but the closure of all those yards, it did move to the streets. That street phenomenon took off and got known outside of the City,” says Spie, who was bombing streets hard with various writers, including Twist. “That’s when the influx of a lot more people from the outside the city came, kids going to art school, a lot more whiter writers. Your neighborhood, ethnic-based writer…it wasn’t in any more.”

In late 1995, San Francisco streets were sutured with all types of graffiti, as well as new residents, in part due to the City’s embracing of the web industry. However, Muni’s intricate transportation network was experiencing service problems and many commuters complained. The overall state of Muni was a heated topic in the mayoral election that year. A flamboyant 30-year veteran of the California State Assembly, Willie Brown, wooed San Francisco with a “100-Day Plan for Muni.” He took over that next January and immediately adopted a policy that required SFPD officers to ride a Muni bus, for at least a short trip, once per shift. And in April, the City launched the short-lived “TURF” (Together, United, Recommitted, Forever) program, which employed jobless, young adults, as glorified bus monitors on particularly chaotic lines littered with students, like the 29-Sunset. These efforts were a bonus to support the “Muni Tactical Unit” of roughly 50 officers who were dedicated to the buses. Brown began putting millions more dollars into Muni, which quickly began buffing buses around the clock.


At the tail end of the mid-’90s, active AC Transit crushing crews were dwindling. Cutting class and rolling to other high schools to pick up friends during the day, NOC (Nation of Creation), stood out amongst their peers. “There were a lot of drivers who wouldn’t let us on the bus. They would keep rolling or they would come up and just talk some shit to us,” remembers Dut. “It wasn’t just for the graf, I mean, we had fake bus passes, we were harassing people on the bus—whether it was shooting spitballs or when they’d reach for the string to pull [to signal a stop], you know, we’d yank that shit.” Several buses, including the 40, stopped at the end of Telegraph Avenue, which was right at the mouth of Cal Berkeley’s campus and where a lot writers hung out. The strip leading up to it offered girls, and stores with beer and cigarettes. The Hayward BART Station, one of two in the city, serviced up to a dozen AC Transit bus stops. Many writers who used to meet there also hit BART, but because the rail cars were buffed immediately, it was only worth scribing. As AC Transit buses were cleaned more frequently, writers resorted to doing jumbo, deep scribes.

By 1997, it became increasingly more rare to see writers crushing on bus rides. Some got caught and quit, others started focusing on painting and a lot got licenses. That year, AC Transit began integrating new and increasingly different looking buses into its fleet. These models, manufactured by North American Bus Industries (NABI), featured exteriors made of mostly hard composite materials that can be quickly cleaned, as well as windows with a laminate film that keeps scribes from scratching the glass. The window frames had special glazing, which allow the film to be easily replaced. Especially bombed windows on older buses were also swapped out for new windows. The history, like Chase, Wisk and Miner scribes from a trip in the late ’80s by LA’s WCA crew, which were still running, was gone. Kids looked elsewhere for inspiration. “The next generation of writers were bred on some other shit, with the magazines and the internet. They weren’t trying to perfect their hand styles, catch the buses, become bus bombers and learn about scribing and shit, they were trying to do pieces overnight,” says Dut. “No one really took the time to put in real work like the bus bombers would. So when you have this whole generation trying to kind of just jump ahead and not even deal with the lower level-type graf shit, it’s gonna fucking pass.”


As one of the last dudes to really smash AC Transit with the gusto of yesteryear, Tase stopped writing on buses in ’99. In 2003, AC Transit switched to new eco-friendly coaches that have low floor aisles and seats of varying heights, like the futuristic tour buses from the insides of hair metal record covers. The hits from the ’80s, some as old 19, were all retired from AC Transit service. “It will probably come back,” says Tase, who also points out that there are still are a few kids writing on buses now. “I wouldn’t be surprised if fools started rushing yards and mobbing deep and a whole new wave of delinquent ass teenage motherfuckers start getting juvenilistic by putting in work and being competitive and shit like that.” Over the last Holidays, Muni tested out a loaner 83-seat double-decker bus, by rotating it around to different routes, including the 38-Geary.

If they can afford them, Muni feels the increased passenger load and dimensions would save time, energy, space and money. A wonder bus. “I really look at it like a social networking phenomenon. It was a whole revolution of getting to know people,” reflects Spie TDK. “You talk to anybody who was doing it at that time, they’ll say, ‘Man, I would have never met some of these people before, if I didn’t step out of my neighborhood and find that there was people like-minded that did this shit.’” Today, select AC Transit buses on the Transbay lines— routes that run between East Bay cities and San Francisco—offer AT&T Wi-Fi internet for free.

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