For most graffiti artists, their typical canvasses are the blank walls, hideaway tunnels and freeway underpasses where they can work with one eye on the paint job and another on the lookout for police.
Their usual audience is a mixture of fellow artists competing for work space and passing motorists and pedestrians, many of whom disdain the colorful artwork and blame them only for the gang signatures, nicknames and crude messages that share space with their street art.
But five young Los Angeles painters are determined to change that image and prove to the public and the art world that graffiti art is a legitimate form of creativity.
"People usually don't think of this as art. They just see it as vandalism," said Armando Santiago, an 18-year-old graffiti artist who goes by a street name of Mandoe. "But I want to be accepted as an artist, not as a hoodlum or vandal."
Hector (Hex) Rios, another graffiti artist, agreed. "We're trying to break the stereotype or misconception of what we're doing," he said. "This is an art form . . . what we've done is convert a spray can into a paint brush."
Both Rios and Santiago spoke Saturday as they and other young painters were putting the finishing touches on an unusual exhibition at the Pico House Galleria in downtown Los Angeles' Olvera Street Plaza.
The five artists, ranging in age from 18 to 21 years old, have spent several weeks spray-painting their creations on large plywood canvasses that will be displayed as part of a special show on graffiti art. The exhibit, which will open next weekend, will feature pieces that vary in size from 8-feet-by-7-feet to 8-feet-by-26 feet, but all share a common theme of outrage and social commentary.
Art With a Message
They include paintings decrying child abuse and television pollution of children's minds; the perils of economic overdevelopment and the dangers of controlling creative thought--all done in the colors of store-bought spray paint.
Gallery director Angelica Gonzalez said she and other members of United Latinos for the Arts in Los Angeles decided to stage the exhibit after being impressed by the artistry of some of the street graffiti they had seen.
"As an arts organization, what we saw were artists with a burning desire to not only create but to somehow showcase their work," she said. "And we were surprised at just how serious they were about their art."
Gonzalez said she hopes the five artists serve as role models for other self-taught painters who want to channel their talents into positive avenues.
One of those artists, Erick (Duke) Montenegro, said he once belonged to a gang and left his "tag" on buses and walls. But Montenegro said he abandoned gangs and vandalism as he became more serious about graffiti art.
"I found out I didn't have to gang bang any more," he said. "I found I could just do this and feel good about it, but I never imagined it could lead to this (exhibition)."
Some Are Skeptical
Although there remains some skepticism about graffiti artists, organizers hope the art show will persuade those who question either the commitment or talent of such artists as Johnos (Skill) Ferrari and Richard (Slick) Wyrgatscht, two others who will be featured at the Pico House Galleria.
Wyrgatscht, 21, now a student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, added that one professor has already warned him that, as a graffiti artist, he cannot expect to go far in the world of fine arts.
"I respect him," he said, "but I want so bad to prove him wrong."