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. A Q&A; with Risk follows below; read the rest of the story here and here.
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.