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Chaka crouched with a dozen spray cans in front of a wall in the blistering heat of the Lancaster desert. With the sweep of his right hand, he shot bold black lines on the white surface. It was not graffiti that he sprayed, but a biblical scene: Men walking from blackness into a stunning rainbow and a golden yellow sun.
Chaka, a.k.a. Daniel Bernardo Ramos, was once California's most notorious tagger, a Boyle Heights teen-ager who sprayed his moniker in the dark of night on 10,000 walls, bridges, freeway signs and lampposts between Oakland and Orange County, according to prosecutors. During his two-year spree, cut short by arrests and drugs, he was hailed by some as an anti-Establishment hero and reviled by others as a monstrous symbol of urban blight.
Today, at 22, he has been tamed. He lives in an all-male drug rehab center on a dusty two-acre flood plain, awakening every day at 4:30 a.m. for prayers. Secular books, tape recorders, radios and televisions are forbidden, as are cursing, alcohol and visitors. No cars, no phones. His Eastside homeboys and tagging partners do not know where he has gone.
There are also 54 rules of conduct at the center, regulating everything from hairstyles to restroom visits during church service. Loudspeakers almost constantly blare tapes of zealous religious sermons. Lights go out at 9 p.m.
This is the story of how a young man from a violent housing project got caught up in the obsessive narcissism of graffiti vandalism, helped make tagging a national phenomenon, and then let his life crash in the streets.
It is also the story about how--for now--he is going straight, calling himself "The New Chaka," yet still plagued by the wreckage of his teens.
Chaka was already an infamous, shadowy figure for his prolific attacks on walls and signs when he was first arrested for vandalism four years ago. As so often happens in the culture of instant celebrity, his capture catapulted him into the klieg lights: There was talk of art shows, posters and T-shirts bearing his tag and even movie deals.
From there, though, it was all downhill. Twenty-four hours after his release, Chaka was busted again for tagging a courtroom door. Later, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and violating his probation by carrying a marking pen.
The offers evaporated. He got a 14-year-old girl pregnant. His life dissolved into a grab bag of crack cocaine, LSD and angel dust.
Now Chaka says he has reformed and found God.
"I came down to the lowest of the darkest pits," he said at an outdoor table in the rehab center, speaking softly and haltingly. "I sure don't want to go back to that lifestyle again. I refuse. I refuse to be like the dog that runs back to eat its own vomit."
Many will never forgive Chaka for the thousands of dollars of property damage that he has wrought. Although he was sentenced to 1,560 hours of graffiti cleanup, his subsequent arrests and jail time meant that he never carried it out.
"My frustration is that the community never really got paid back and I think he still owes the community," said Peter Shutan, the former Los Angeles County prosecutor who handled Chaka's case.
Daniel Ramos' parents arrived in the United States from Costa Rica, settling first in Boston and then moving to Los Angeles when Chaka was 4. Bernard Ramos, Chaka's father, acknowledges having a drinking problem that sometimes caused him to erupt at home. His wife, he and others say, would often get angry and hit Chaka and his older brother, David.
"She blames me; I blame her. We blame each other," said Ramos, 57, a janitor.
The Ramoses settled into the Aliso Village project in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood claimed by 14 gangs. The violence, and the threat of it, were constant.
Early on, Chaka's teachers asked his parents to consider after-school art classes for their boy, a request they could not afford. At 10, Chaka--nicknamed by his friends after a cave boy character on a Saturday morning television show called "Land of the Lost"--began smoking marijuana and angel dust.
The vandalism started one evening when his older brother, a known gang member, walked Chaka to a trash bin a block from the neighborhood police station, Chaka said. Vigorously shaking a can of red paint, David sprayed his street name, "Shaft," and passed the can to his brother.
With bold, deliberate strokes, the 16-year-old boy spelled out in quivering block-like letters: "CHAKA."
"My adrenaline was pumping; it was a thrill," Chaka said. "And getting away with it--that was too much."
Suddenly, Chaka had a purpose. David had already told him that he was not welcome in his gang, and Chaka did not have the stomach for the violence. Here was something that set him apart.
It was, he says now, a way out of the apartment where his parents fought and his brother stowed guns, a way out of a neighborhood where he had been mistaken more than once for his brother and shot at. It was peaceful when he stole away in the dark of night, usually staying out between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. with a knapsack loaded with 15 cans of spray paint.
"It's no different than an alcoholic," he said. The more he tagged, the more he wanted to tag.
He planned his missions methodically, keeping tabs on a variety of maps. He would mark the areas he had struck with one color, and mark future targets in another. Lacking a car, he made his forays on bus, collecting a large box of bus schedules that told how far he could travel and how late the last bus ran.
He stole cans of spray paint and locked them in closets at home. "My parents didn't say anything," he said. "Before they'd be saying anything, I'd be out the door."
He finished the 11th grade at 17 and dropped out of high school. He had a profession.
Nearly every night, he says, he would take a bus to the end of the line and walk through a neighborhood until dawn, strategically painting his name in prominent spots along a main artery, busy intersections, or near amusement parks or malls that kids cruised. To paint freeway signs he would dangle by a leather belt. On any one block, he usually signed his name four times: twice on each side of the street.
He developed two outfits. In the rough, crime-ridden neighborhoods, he wore torn Levi's with an army jacket and brown leather work boots. In the middle-class neighborhoods--Pasadena and Altadena, for example--he donned "nice, appropriate jeans," a brand-new casual jacket and dressy shoes.
If the police spotted him in a well-to-do area, he had a standard response--he was taking the bus home. "I'd bring a small book and go to the bus stop and read," he said. "I got so good I could have gone anywhere."
He became, in his own mind, a mysterious super hero speeding through the dark. The boy who felt so vulnerable in the projects began to feel invincible on this new turf. The prospects of encounters with police only made his missions more enticing.
Older taggers such as Sleez, Whisk and Prime warned Chaka that he would one day get caught. They had a saying: "Just as you catch the walls--they will catch you."
To his astonishment, after two years of full-time tagging, Chaka finally got caught plastering his name on a Lincoln Heights traffic light, three months after his 18th birthday in late 1990.
"I didn't run away," Chaka recalled. "I assumed the cops would let me go because I was just a kid."
Instead, police said, he yelled: "I am the famous Chaka!"
After pleading no contest to 10 counts of vandalism, Chaka spent five months in jail and a county mental hospital. His sentence included 1,560 hours of graffiti clean-up.
In the world of taggers, this was the ultimate insult.
"You don't take your name off the wall," said Johnny Odom, director of the Aliso Pico Community Center, "because the homeboys are going to think that you are crossing yourself out. . . . It'd be suicide in the 'hood. It'd be hara-kari."
Chaka never did.
Only 24 hours after being released from jail on probation, he was arrested in May, 1991, for allegedly scrawling his name on a courthouse elevator door on his way to see his probation officer--a crime he still says he did not commit. Four days later, he was arrested again--this time for trespassing on a city golf course and possession of marijuana.
In the eyes of many, he had become an arrogant young man. When Odom asked him to remove his moniker from the community center's wall, Chaka demanded to be paid for it.
More drug arrests and more jail time followed. The folk hero hype faded. In 1992 he returned again to the increasingly violent world of Boyle Heights. His brother's gang involvement had escalated. The family's apartment more than once was strafed by rival gangs. Chaka, whose face was plastered in police stations, could tag no more.
Hounded by his lost opportunities, he got high almost constantly. He found himself ducking bullets fired by his brother's enemies. Outside his home, Chaka got shot above his left ankle. From then on, he said, he carried a gun.
One chilly evening, as Chaka headed home, his brother--stoned and drunk--mistook him for someone else and opened fire, Chaka and others said. Hearing the commotion, Maribel Mora--then 14--peeked out the window. She saw a young man, kneeling between cars.
"He wasn't dressed like a gangster; he had on brown Dockers," Mora recalled. She yelled for him to duck into her family's apartment. Her mother, she said, gave Chaka a glass of water and turned to her daughter, saying: " This is the famous Chaka; he is going to do something with his life."
Mora was impressed by Chaka. "To us girls, it was kinda cool--Chaka, the tagger. I know it sounds kinda dumb, but it was like an honor," she said. "I didn't know how to watch out for myself."
Two months later, Mora learned she was pregnant with Chaka's child. But Chaka had little interest in a monogamous relationship with a girl six years his junior.
"Every night, I'd be out," he said. "I'd be high, completely loaded. She'd be out there with her big stomach looking for me."
When the baby was born in November, Bernard Ramos kicked open his son's bedroom door. "You're nothing but a junkie!" Chaka remembers him shouting. "How are you going to support this baby?"
The worst part about his father's rage, Chaka thought, was that he was right.
"I wanted to go to college and I blew it. All these failures weighed my heart down," he said. "I was hooked. I was a user."
Only five days after the birth of his son, Chaka took the tiny infant to hear a street preacher, Joseph (Jojo) Sanchez. Sanchez, informed by a bystander that he was talking to a street celebrity, recognized that the youth was strung out.
"You're not going to be able to change on your own," Sanchez told him. Gradually, the two forged a friendship, with Sanchez urging Chaka to visit his charismatic, nondenominational rehabilitation program in the Lancaster desert--an invitation that Chaka kept declining.
Tired of seeing Chaka stoned, Mora told him he could forget about seeing their son if he did not stop using drugs. High on PCP, Chaka burst into tears. He wept for hours. At 4 a.m., he called Sanchez's program and hysterically demanded that he be picked up.
Mike Rogers, then the office manager, answered the phone. "I thought someone was trying to kill him," recalled Rogers. He drove to Aliso Village and got Chaka, who was suffering flashbacks and shaking so badly he could scarcely speak.
In the months since, Chaka has gone straight. Yet there is the painful reminder of responsibilities he has ignored. His son, Daniel, named after his father, is 9 months old. Maribel Mora, now an 11th-grader, is struggling to stay in school and work a part-time job. Chaka's piety leaves her cold. She wishes he would get a job.
"I know somewhere in the Bible, it's got to say something about family," she said. "Chaka has left us behind. My baby doesn't have any food; Chaka is just doing good for himself. Meanwhile, me and my baby are having a hard time."
Chaka does not give Mora money for their child because he pays $200 of his monthly $211 welfare check to Sanchez for room and board in the program. He is not eager to re-enter the outside world. Although he will officially graduate from Sanchez's all-male academy in two months, he says now that he intends to stay two more years.
"I need to help myself before I help others," he said. "This takes time; it doesn't take overnight."
When prosecutor Shutan last saw Chaka a few months ago, the young man was full of Bible talk, but Shutan thought his words seemed forced, like mismatched jigsaw puzzle pieces. Shutan told Chaka he doubted his sincerity.
To Shutan, the story of Daniel Bernardo Ramos could still go either way.
"So far, the indications are that he hasn't grown up yet," the prosecutor said. "It doesn't appear that he benefited from his 15 minutes of fame. He was someone who was desperate for attention--and got it."