Caltrans to Taggers: Spray Away
The confluence was unusual to say the least.
In a Caltrans maintenance yard Saturday under the looming interchange of the 5 and 134 freeways near Glendale, some of the best known and most prolific Los Angeles graffiti artists -- many would say vandals -- of the last two decades wielded spray cans.
Other graffiti writers, legendary in the scene but infamous in the eyes of police and critics, had traveled from the Bay Area, New Mexico and New York. On canvases hung for the day from fences topped in barbed wire usually intended to keep their kind out, they re-created signature styles.
As they layered strokes, bold and even intricate works emerged. Admirers sought tags in black books or straight onto T-shirts. All the while, more than a dozen police officers from the Los Angeles and Glendale police departments looked on.
The event, billed as the “First Annual West Coast Graffiti Party,” was permitted by Caltrans officials usually averse to graffiti of any kind. In the Los Angeles and Ventura County areas alone, Caltrans spends about $1.5 million annually to remove graffiti.
Event organizer Raul “Frame” Gamboa, a well-known Los Angeles graffiti writer, said that in his permit application he emphasized the need for legal venues for the art. “Removing graffiti obviously doesn’t work on its own,” Gamboa said.
Still, that Caltrans provided space for a graffiti event surprised some agency officials.
“It is a horrific problem. It uses scarce resources that could be otherwise employed building and operating the freeways,” said Caltrans spokeswoman Judy Gish. “We clear it up because it’s destructive, it’s an eyesore, it’s something no one wants to see. I can tell you pretty much as soon as we clean it up it’s back.”
But Gish said the department “issued the permit because Mr. Gamboa said he is presenting graffiti alternatives.”
For the $5 admission fee, attendees had a chance to see graffiti writers work. It was a pro-graffiti crowd, dominated by young fans inspired by participants still active in the street and veterans of the graffiti scene. In their eyes, it is street art that reflects urban culture, not a form of vandalism that prompted Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton to list fighting graffiti among his top priorities when he came to town nearly four years ago.
In a far corner of the yard, Marquis “Retna” Lewis began with a 6-by-12-foot blank canvas and seven cans of spray paint.
Using long strokes, Lewis created letters in shades of orange -- jagged, multi-dimensional strokes marking an evolution from some of the old-school graffiti writers at work close by. Like others invited to the showcase, Lewis, who got his start in the third grade at a Catholic school, began with simple tags before creating more elaborate works.
“I was trained up by gangsters,” he said. “My name, my name, trying to get it out there, that’s all I did at first. I got bored with it at some point.”
In some ways, Lewis said, he has found graffiti to be too rule-bound by street expectations. “You couldn’t drip, you couldn’t use paintbrushes, for a while anyone doing more painterly graffiti like we were lost credibility.”
Dennis Peterson, whose Burbank company, Penthouse Gallery, supplied the canvases, watched closely, snapping pictures. Peterson, gray-haired and decades older than most of the crowd, said the event with DJs, rappers and even a rock band was an “alien environment” for him.
“These guys are definitely artists in this genre,” Peterson said, watching graffiti writer Mear One work on celestial-like lettering. “It’s interesting the amount of detail they can create. I know they use special nozzles but it’s still just a spray can.”
Mear One, whose birth name is Kalen Ockerman, credited graffiti with saving his life.
“I was in junior high and I was getting into gangs, the kids I hung out with were smoking crack,” he said. “Graffiti gave me something to focus on and get good at doing.”
Now 34, he has worked for companies such as Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and Interscope Records. Like Lewis, he also now does studio art, working with oils.
“It’s two totally different things,” he said. “In one you are totally connected to the canvas, in the other you’re working at a distance.”
Ockerman said he welcomes questions from youths about how he creates his effects. After leaving the Caltrans yard, he went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he was to paint street art for museum goers attending an after-hours preview of an exhibition of David Hockney portraits.
Still, he and other graffiti artists acknowledged they get a thrill from working illegally on the street, even if it means the pieces are short-lived.
Robert “rELAx” Reiling, who co-wrote “The History of Los Angeles Graffiti Art,” said graffiti writers will always seek challenges.
“The truth is some graffiti writers are gangbangers, some aren’t,” said Reiling, who got his start in the 1980s growing up in Hollywood. “But there is a distinction between graffiti put up to mark gang territory and what tagging crews making their name are doing.”
Some in attendance have turned their street art into album covers, backdrops for videos or commissioned murals.
Lewis said that when he got started, the chances he took were part of the appeal.
Now, he and others say they believe one way to stop unwanted graffiti is to get businesses to sanction street art. Lewis said he often approaches business owners about using their exterior walls. With days to work unimpeded, he has created elaborate murals, some of which he said have stayed up for as long as a decade.
“I tell them ‘You’ve got a problem with graffiti,’ ” Lewis said. By letting someone with street credibility paint, Lewis said, taggers are deterred from defacing the work.
Still, Lewis said some of his works have been painted over by business owners warned by police or city officials that the mural was unauthorized. “They’re categorizing it all as the same,” he said. “But it doesn’t stop new graffiti from going up.”