“There’s no one I ever gave a can of spray paint to who didn’t become addicted.”
I try to imagine myself with a can of spray paint, decorating a blank wall with my signature, with the most creative expression to identify myself that I can think up. No brushes, no markers, no masking tape to help me cheat. Just me and the potential power of paint, locked in an aerosol can, ready to burst on to the world with an explosion of color. There is something strangely liberating about the idea, and I actually get a little bit of a head rush. I wish I could try it, but I don’t have a can of spray paint with me, and I’d probably rather practice first on a blank wall in private before putting myself up for public view.
I’m talking to Robert Gomez, aka Dytch, at the “Painting by Permit Only” graffiti walls at Venice Beach. Just two weeks before I would have walked right past the area, with a snobby snort about how “graffiti art” was a contradiction in terms. My only real experience with graffiti had been my building’s dumpster, tagged in white with ‘REM,’ the bottom leg of the R a bit squared off and a dot under the E, particularly irritating since I stare right at it from my parking spot. The thought of some punk teenager tagging right under my second floor kitchen window, next to my car, while I slept, didn’t exactly comfort me either. My perspective changed a few weeks ago, when I met my cousin’s son for the first time. Blake (a member of the TKcrew who writes Aer) is a 15-year-old graffiti artist, with a passion and dedication that most adults would do well to emulate.
My 14-year-old nephew, Jalen, was coming out from Pennsylvania for a visit to LA. With me and my sister out here, he had two aunts to see, as well as two other cousins his age in southern California. Blake was invited to come out and spend some time with them too. He lives in Nashville and had never met the other boys, or any of us, before. My cousin Teresa took him and the boys to a graffiti art exhibit downtown, and I met them there. I was most impressed with the graffiti-adorned aluminum folding chairs decorating the bathroom walls. Suffice it to say that I’ve never been in a building without checking out the restrooms, and I like the décor’s style to complement that of the main space. This one succeeded.
I wasn’t too interested in the gallery’s art work though. I didn’t get it. Teresa gushed on about Blake, how he knew all of the major graffiti artists, had corresponded with some of them, how he knew what all of the graffiti he saw meant and what crew had designed it. I couldn’t imagine that all of those wacky, energetic symbols meant anything, except maybe a headache, but I was impressed with Blake’s dedication.
So here I am, ambling around Venice Beach, searching out an interesting manmade thing to describe in my writing assignment, and I am pulled right into the area of the public graffiti walls. I talk to Dytch, the Venice Art Walls volunteer supervising the site. He says graffiti art was at its height in the 80s, part of the break dancing and skateboarding subcultures, but that it’s having a comeback now, as are all forms of pop art. Urban is hip again, and Dytch predicts that it will be for a while. His personal success would seem to prove him right. Adidas sent him to Italy to exchange ideas with local graffiti artists there, and he was recently commissioned to paint the interiors of the America’s Best Dance Crew studios. He teaches graffiti art classes in local high schools and is able to make a living working full-time as an artist.
He enthralls me with his account of a recent urban art competition at LA Live. In the first round, he and the other artists were each given nine cinder blocks and tools to smash them, spray paint, and a pile of typical city trash. In twenty-five minutes, they were to fashion some kind of art piece. He broke up the blocks and piled them up, painted everything black, then added a starscape with some spidery, many-eyed aliens. Winning his round, he passed on into the finals, in which contestants were given a big piece of canvas covered in chain link fence, some fence-cutting tools, the spray paint, and again the ubiquitous garbage. He said he “quick grabbed all the best garbage” – including a hubcap and caution tape – then tore open the fence. He stuffed the garbage in, drew some more, then painted a helmet fin, like something out of Transformers, rising up out of the rubble amid flying flames and debris. I imagine this superhero bursting into life, straining to escape the confines of the canvas, imbued with the energy of the city’s underworld, and I am mesmerized.
My art is quiet, stately, introspective. I watch, experience, think – then think and think some more, until I feel I’ve found a coherent whole, a story to tell that makes sense. The more I write, the more new thoughts pop in, ones that seem random until I recognize their connections. They insert themselves gently, delicately, hoping to slide in unnoticed and unchallenged, because they know they are necessary. This graffiti art though – it is loud and bold. The vivid colors, the dynamic motion of the lettering that threatens to jump off the canvas – the art asserts itself in no uncertain terms, often in places where it is not supposed to be. Is the insistence at leaving a mark in the graffiti writer’s art any more defiant than mine for being more vehemently expressed? Aren’t all artists creating despite barriers, real or imagined, internal or external? Is the feeling behind the art any different for its force or mode of expression?
Dytch explains to me that the keystone of graffiti is the artist’s signature. He points out a wall behind me with neon pink and green symbols that spell out BOVS. I am amazed that those are letters. I walk around and decipher other panels on the walls. He says to look right in the center; the signature starts there and then the artist extends outward, embellishing the letters. The artists have nicknames or initials to keep their real identity private since most graffiti is done illegally, and on top of that, the letters are camouflaged. I’m excited to be cracking the code. I ask Dytch about one design that I can’t make out, but he can’t interpret it either. “Sometimes the artist hasn’t figured out his signature yet. Not all graffiti artists are good.” He explains the graffiti signature as the ultimate expression of individuality. Is it? Or is it an egotistical attempt to live forever? Is a graffiti artist’s need to create any different than a writer’s?
I question the illegal aspect though. I can tell that Dytch wouldn’t respect a graffiti artist who hadn’t “cut his chops” by tagging first. He explains to me that he started as a “freeway writer,” but because he was truly an artist at heart, he soon got bored with the little he could accomplish after a dangerous dash across the highway. “I tell you though; I won’t do it again, but it was such a rush.” He laughs, the mischief still in his eyes. “It was so stupid, but I don’t regret any of it.” I try to imagine myself running across five lanes of traffic to crawl up an overpass and scribble my initials, or better yet, scaling a building (with my fear of heights) at three in the morning to hang over the edge and scratch out my signature. I’d probably be demoted to dumpsters and recycling cans. I can understand though the thrill of breaking free from the usual rules and restrictions, of pushing the limits too far so that they bounce back just a little more expanded than they were. Is a little rebellion necessary occasionally for growth to happen?
I wonder about the serendipity of my finding the graffiti park a week after my cousin left town. The pulsing, vibrating rhythms of the art itself didn’t inspire me to learn more, but my unassuming familial bond, stronger than my own artistic sensibilities, silently drew me towards the space to reinforce the connection. As my relatives spread out further and further, each individual family circling to create its own history, new generations need to be linked in to the greater field, spiraling out from my grandmother’s memory. The family is also a creative endeavor, and each member’s individual creative force generates the energy that holds us together and joins us to all of humanity.
After meeting Dytch, I write to Blake to ask him why he chose graffiti over other kinds of art. He answers that he likes the constantly evolving nature of it, that graffiti writers are continually trying new techniques and creating new styles for themselves. He says graffiti’s momentum won’t stop because “there is always the driving force of ‘I want to do what that guy did but ten times crazier’ or ‘yeah that color scheme was sick and the letters were nice, but I think I could do something better.’” He adds that “the thrill of doing a ‘piece’ whether it be legal, illegal, big, or small, is just that, a thrill. Seeing that you have created something from your own hands, it's a really cool experience.” The basis for any creative impulse, really, including my own.
This essay was part of an event at Venice Beach, CA, organized by a literary magazine. Each participant pulled a random writing assignment out of a hat, and all of the results were published in The Black Boot, Issue 7, Autumn 2009. Check out the other essays and stories at http://www.theblackboot.com/90min_Venice/90-Minute_Ass_Venice.html.