Dueling Spray Cans : Graffiti Artists in Showdown on Furniture Warehouse Wall

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For weeks, the street had rumbled with rumors that "Slick" and "Hex" were headed for a showdown.

On Friday, it erupted at an industrial, weed-choked site between the Levitz furniture warehouse and the Los Angeles River on the Glendale-Los Angeles border.

At stake was nothing less than the title of graffiti king of Los Angeles.

The battle--which lasts until sundown on Sunday and involves judges and hard-core partisans on both sides--will determine whose artwork rules the street. The winner will become part of the legend of "hip-hop," the popular urban subculture that blends elements of graffiti art, rap music, skateboarding and break-dance clubs.

"Your pieces aren't immortal, so what's important is the feeling you get when you finish it and the knowledge you've touched even one person with your art," said Hex, a 21-year-old self-taught artist from Downey, as he sprayed salmon-colored paint on a freshly whitewashed wall.

Hex, whose given name is Hector Rios, is no gang member. He gets his artistic inspiration from mythology, history and the Bible. His spray-can paintings are self-contained worlds complete with dragons, castles and other fantasy figures. Recently, he was commissioned to paint a giant Batman on the wall of a Melrose comic book store.

His opponent, 22-year-old Slick, who lives in Baldwin Park and whose given name is Richard Wyrgatscht, favors cartoon-like figures that exude comic energy. At Pasadena's prestigious Art Center College of Design, where Slick studied illustration, professors praised his talent and potential.

Much to the chagrin of some law enforcement officials, graffiti art, which started in New York subways during the 1970s, is embracing Los Angeles with a growing passion. The city's horizontal sprawl and abandoned industrial spaces provide numerous places to spray paint one's way into "hip-hop" legend.

Painting on walls without permission is illegal, but some authorities and businesses are starting to draw distinctions between graffiti art and the scribbles that regularly defile RTD buses.

For instance, Levitz, which has been plagued by graffiti in the past, has granted permission for artists to use its back walls in hopes that the more visually pleasing works will keep away "taggers" who just scribble their names.

Most aerosol artists say they are motivated by a desire to create, not destroy. What puts Slick and Hex ahead of the pack of an estimated 500 or more local graffiti artists is their talent at "piecing"--slang for creating masterpieces. Both are skilled traditional illustrators.

This battle is a rematch. Slick and Hex first crossed spray cans last fall in the old rail yard at Glendale Boulevard and 2nd Avenue near downtown Los Angeles. Because it ended without a clear winner, both artists are going for the jugular this second time around.

Both have sketched the scenes and characters they will paint, but were leery of discussing their plans Friday morning for fear of tipping off their opponent.

For instance, Slick might paint a Superman, prompting Hex to paint a scorpion attacking Slick's Superman, prompting Slick to paint a hooded executioner blowing away Hex's scorpion. And so on.

By early Friday afternoon, Slick, who had been at the Levitz warehouse since 6 a.m., was kicking into high gear.

On one end of the wall had materialized a goofy cartoon figure in flesh tones that represents the rival he jokingly refers to as "Hoax."

"I'm going to draw a 'Hoax-in-the-Box,"' Slick vowed from high atop an aluminum ladder for those hard-to-reach spots.

Farther along the wall where the Hex contingent had decamped, his opponent had a quick comeback.

"Hoax?" Hex said, in tones of mock surprise. Then he offered to help Slick sign up for spelling classes.

By late afternoon, Hex's mural also was taking shape: a haunted nighttime landscape where ravens perched on gnarled tree branches while a full moon rose in the background.

As rap music blared, he took a break from the action and mused, "This is the greatest escape in the whole world. A lot of people went through a lot of pain to develop this art, and we're keeping it alive."

The battle ends Sunday, when the winner will be picked by a team of judges who include "Delta," a noted New York graffiti artist, and Jim Prigoff, a self-styled graffiti expert who wrote the book "Spray Can Art."

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