WILD STYLE: Risk had a hand in bringing New York-subway-style graffiti to L.A.’s freeways. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)
Ahead of MOCA’s sweeping "Art in the Streets" exhibition, opening April 17 at the Geffen Contemporary, The Times interviewed three street art pioneers from the show: Chaz Bojórquez, Craig Stecyk and Risk.
Risk helped to import Wild Style graffiti, with hard-to-decipher, interlocking letters, from the New York subways to the L.A. freeways. At the Geffen, the artist takes over part of a wall inside and has parked a salvaged bus, painted in fiery colors, outside.
I used to surf a lot, so I was always drawing waves or writing "surf" or "wipe-out" on my desk and books. There was a kid in my school [University High School in West L.A.] who was from New York and said, What’s your tag? I had never heard of tags, but that day I went to a hardware store after school and got a can of red and white [spray paint] and came back to school. I did a piece that said ‘Surf.’ Later, because the high school caught me, I had to change my name from Surf to Risk.
First foray into New York
One summer in high school, I wound up hooking up with a guy named Reas who is in the [MOCA] show. He let me stay with him in New York, and we went bombing every night for a month or two. So I got to meet all the [graffiti] writers, like Henry Chalfant and Lee Quinones. I caught the last of the era; after that, the trains were all clean.
His style versus Wild Style
I still use a lot of the flow from Wild Style. But I tend to make my letters more readable. I’m more interested in the aesthetics of letters, with their balances and weights.
Last time he was arrested
I haven’t been arrested in years. Now with all the gallery work and other stuff I’m doing, it would be impossible for me to paint illegally in L.A. I’ve talked to the City Council, I was on KABC with City Atty. [Carmen] Trutanich. My goal is to educate people about graffiti. I want them to know the difference between gang graffiti and graffiti art.
Meeting Michael Jackson
I did the set design for the Michael Jackson video "The Way You Make Me Feel." He had me do three streets: one with pure graffiti art, one with a mixture of everything and one with gang graffiti. They built this set so he could walk through these different streets. He came up to me and said he loved it, but we didn’t have a real conversation.
The story behind the bus at the Geffen
I tracked down this bus from a bus graveyard in Murietta, then took it to my house to paint. The bus has been a nightmare. We couldn’t get it to my studio behind the house [in Thousand Oaks] so I painted it in my driveway, and my neighbors were freaking out. Then right when I finished painting, it rained and all the paint bubbled off, so I had to paint it again.
Where to see his work on the streets today
I did a mural on Cloverfield [and Broadway in Santa Monica] — with lots of "RISK" tags — for a TV production company, covering every wall of the building. That was 1991. They say it’s the oldest running graffiti mural here.
Biggest difference between street art scene, then and now
In the ’90s, Barry McGee and I used to mail each other packages of photos — I’d send him photos from here, and he’d send me photos from Frisco. Now a kid could see as much graffiti in an hour on the Internet as it took us five years to see. Now someone who hasn’t put in his dues could be really good, because they have so much to look at. It’s not a secret subculture anymore.
‘STRENGTH AND BEAUTY’: Chaz Bojórquez says his cholo-style graffiti derives from his search for identity as a Chicano. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)
It’s not easy being an aging street artist. It’s physically demanding. Young kids are jockeying to take your place, or your spot to paint, anyway. And a night in jail is rougher when you’re 55 than at 25.
But several artists who were pioneers of graffiti art in L.A. in the 1970s and ’80s are still going strong today, if not exactly risking prison. And they are getting credit for their life’s work in MOCA’s sweeping "Art in the Streets" exhibition, which opens April 17 at the Geffen Contemporary.
In part the show tells the story of street art flooding mainstream culture and, despite doubts from some of the international art elite, entering the museum sphere. "Just five years ago, street art was an underground thing, very renegade," says one of the show’s curators, Aaron Rose. But now, he says, "it’s an established art movement." And, speaking like an established art historian, Rose divides the movement into three phases, starting with New York and L.A. tagging in the ’70s and culminating with Banksy setting an auction record in 2007 of more than $1.8 million for a single painting.
In this way, "Art in the Streets" is also meant to be a historical show, spanning four decades and including more than 100 artists.
"This is not just a big street-art free-for-all," adds the museum’s director, Jeffrey Deitch. "We are trying to see its history through a critical framework and identify where the innovations occur: the invention of Wild Style [graffiti] in New York, its adaptation in L.A. and the innovations in cholo graffiti and skateboard culture in L.A."
Looking at London, this means putting Banksy in context with Jamie Reid, who designed graphics for the Sex Pistols, as well as the Situationists— a subversive, anti-capitalist philosophical and political movement. (Asked whether Banksy was making new work for the show, Deitch did not give a clear yes: "He works in his own way. But I hope so.")
Looking at Los Angeles, this means seeing emerging street art stars such as Retna in relation to Chaz Bojórquez, who in the late 1960s was the first to treat cholo lettering associated with Latino gangs as an art form. Years later his earliest painting on canvas, in the form of a "roll call" or list of names, was acquired by the Smithsonian. Now Bojórquez, 62, calls himself the "the oldest consistently working graffiti artist in the world."
Bojórquez is one of three street art pioneers, interviewed here, who illustrates the range of the field. Craig Stecyk, 60, helped shape the graffiti-fueled surf-skate aesthetic of Venice and Santa Monica in the 1970s. Risk helped bring Wild Style, with its bubbly forms and interlocking letters, from New York to L.A. in the 1980s.
At 43, Risk represents another generation, but these artists share something in common. They have all witnessed their rebellious, adolescent gestures become a popular activity — and big business. They’ve seen their own art and their colleagues’ migrate into fine art galleries on the one hand and onto clothing, advertising and entertainment on the other.
In short, they all started out at a time when it was pretty much inconceivable that they would ever be interviewed about their careers as street artists.
Chaz Bojórquez found art in the cholo-style graffiti associated with Latino gangs and now sounds a bit like a scholar of gang history. For the Geffen, he has made a new roll-call painting that will hang along with earlier works.
The paint brush versus the spray can
When I started in the 1970s, there was only one can and only one tip — Krylon. It had low pressure, bad pigment and the paint would run down my elbows. So I went back to the old tradition of graffiti writers from the ’40s who used a brush. I use a brush and acrylic today.
The origins of cholo gang graffiti
The typeface is Old English, some people call it Gothic. It goes back to the first printing press, the Gutenberg, where the Germans used it to represent the government. It’s a prestigious typeface used in birth certificates, the Declaration of Independence and newspaper logos like the L.A. Times. That’s why in the ’40s gang members used it to define their neighborhoods — they’d make a "roll call" or list of names to mark their territory.
His version of cholo graffiti
I was raised during the civil rights movement, so it was important to me to find my American identity in being Chicano, in being Mexican American, and graffiti did that for me. So I took the cholo graffiti that had been in the streets since the 1940s. Everybody hated it, and I found strength and beauty in it. I was also inspired by Asian calligraphy. I took the strength of cholo and the spirit of the brush.
Commercial work he’s turned down
I’ve turned down Adidas, Pony and Nike shoes because they’re not my style. I wear Vans.
Commercial work he’s done
I used to design logos for movies — "The Warriors," "Turk 182." And I did master inking for "The Empire Strikes Back," the Muppet movies, James Bond. It taught me a lot about doing billboards and signs: The logos have to be read within three seconds.
The difference between New York and Los Angeles graffiti
There they’ll tag all over the city; it’s about getting their name up and not about their culture. Here it’s about being Latino, and you tag your neighborhood because you’re proud of it, to protect it.
Where to see his work on the streets today
Señor Suerte was my tag early on, in 1969. Twenty years later I started seeing this image [of a skull wearing a fedora] on tattoos and now thousands of men in prison have it. Gangs picked it up as a warrior shield, something to protect them if they got shot. If you go to jail and they find it on you, you go to separate cells.
The biggest challenge in getting older
Eyesight — when you hit 50, it goes south. But climbing, scaffolding, that’s no problem.
PUNK PUSH: Craig Stecyk helped set the tone for the surfer and skater aesthetics of the 1970s. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)
Craig Stecyk helped define the surf-skate-punk-graffiti aesthetic of Venice and Santa Monica in the 1970s by publishing his photographs of Dogtown and Z-Boys skaters in various magazines. (He also co-wrote the 2001 documentary with Stacy Peralta.) The Geffen will have his posters and sculptures, with a monitor showing archival images.
His first skateboard
When I was 12 or 13 I made my own skateboards by finding oak drawer fronts — I’d ride around to forage, very much like I still do. And if you went overboard, you would take the wheels from Union ball-bearing steel roller skates. I stole my cousin’s skates, and she’s still angry about it.
The role of the 10 Freeway
When the Santa Monica Freeway was built, they condemned a bunch of houses with eminent domain. It created a rift down the spine of Los Angeles, suddenly a whole block through the city — gone. But if you were a roving kid, this was free material and no supervision: garages full of paint, houses full of furniture. We’d take parts from cars to make ad-hoc sculptures. I should have been taking pictures then.
I was always around cameras. My dad was an early documenter of Hiroshima during World War II, though he would never talk about the nature of that assignment. I started shooting surfers in 1962 or ’63 — I was interested in documenting what I was seeing, and magazines weren’t doing it yet. The skate shots came later — just like there was demand for Miki Dora in surfing magazines, there was soon demand for Tony Alva. But I shot everything for no particular reason, which is what I still do today.
Street art that inspires him
Street art is the original form of art, if you go back to Lascaux [cave paintings] or look around this town. I think the first great painting in L.A. is by [David Alfaro] Siqueiros on Olvera Street: "Tropical America" [now under restoration.] It’s a piece that rivals "Guernica," an incredibly significant piece that was censored almost immediately.
In this country we spend over $5 billion a year on graffiti abatement and prevention. It’s strange to me. What’s the difference between the Sistine Chapel and the side of an underpass? Not much. So why do we criminalize beauty?
I still make these posters — some are etchings, some are hand-painted. I mount them on telephone poles, wherever I am. I’ve done them in Indonesia, Japan, Brazil, Africa, all over. I like to make incidental images — things that you don’t even realize you’ve seen.
Where to see his work on the streets today
There might be a couple posters in Ludlow, Calif., outside Route 66. Though I don’t know if they are still there. Put them up and they disappear in 60 minutes, even in places where you don’t see a single person all day.
Source: latimes.com /