It’s not easy being an aging street artist. It’s physically demanding. Young kids are jockeying to take your place, or your spot to paint, anyway. And a night in jail is rougher when you’re 55 than at 25.
But several artists who were pioneers of graffiti art in L.A. in the 1970s and ‘80s are still going strong today, if not exactly risking prison. And they are getting credit for their life’s work in MOCA’s sweeping “Art in the Streets” exhibition, which opens April 17 at the Geffen Contemporary.
In part the show tells the story of street art flooding mainstream culture and, despite doubts from some of the international art elite, entering the museum sphere. “Just five years ago, street art was an underground thing, very renegade,” says one of the show’s curators, Aaron Rose. But now, he says, “it’s an established art movement.” And, speaking like an established art historian, Rose divides the movement into three phases, starting with New York and L.A. tagging in the ‘70s and culminating with Banksy setting an auction record in 2007 of more than $1.8 million for a single painting.
In this way, “Art in the Streets” is also meant to be a historical show, spanning four decades and including more than 100 artists.
“This is not just a big street-art free-for-all,” adds the museum’s director, Jeffrey Deitch. “We are trying to see its history through a critical framework and identify where the innovations occur: the invention of Wild Style [graffiti] in New York, its adaptation in L.A. and the innovations in cholo graffiti and skateboard culture in L.A.”
Looking at London, this means putting Banksy in context with Jamie Reid, who designed graphics for the Sex Pistols, as well as the Situationists— a subversive, anti-capitalist philosophical and political movement. (Asked whether Banksy was making new work for the show, Deitch did not give a clear yes: “He works in his own way. But I hope so.”)
Looking at Los Angeles, this means seeing emerging street art stars such as Retna in relation to Chaz Bojórquez, who in the late 1960s was the first to treat cholo lettering associated with Latino gangs as an art form. Years later his earliest painting on canvas, in the form of a “roll call” or list of names, was acquired by the Smithsonian. Now Bojórquez, 62, calls himself the “the oldest consistently working graffiti artist in the world.”
Bojórquez is one of three street art pioneers, interviewed here, who illustrates the range of the field. Craig Stecyk, 60, helped shape the graffiti-fueled surf-skate aesthetic of Venice and Santa Monica in the 1970s. Risk helped bring Wild Style, with its bubbly forms and interlocking letters, from New York to L.A. in the 1980s.
At 43, Risk represents another generation, but these artists share something in common. They have all witnessed their rebellious, adolescent gestures become a popular activity — and big business. They’ve seen their own art and their colleagues’ migrate into fine art galleries on the one hand and onto clothing, advertising and entertainment on the other.
In short, they all started out at a time when it was pretty much inconceivable that they would ever be interviewed about their careers as street artists.
Chaz Bojórquez found art in the cholo-style graffiti associated with Latino gangs and now sounds a bit like a scholar of gang history. For the Geffen, he has made a new roll-call painting that will hang along with earlier works.
The paint brush versus the spray can
When I started in the 1970s, there was only one can and only one tip — Krylon. It had low pressure, bad pigment and the paint would run down my elbows. So I went back to the old tradition of graffiti writers from the ‘40s who used a brush. I use a brush and acrylic today.
The origins of cholo gang graffiti
The typeface is Old English, some people call it Gothic. It goes back to the first printing press, the Gutenberg, where the Germans used it to represent the government. It’s a prestigious typeface used in birth certificates, the Declaration of Independence and newspaper logos like the L.A. Times. That’s why in the ‘40s gang members used it to define their neighborhoods — they’d make a “roll call” or list of names to mark their territory.
His version of cholo graffiti
I was raised during the civil rights movement, so it was important to me to find my American identity in being Chicano, in being Mexican American, and graffiti did that for me. So I took the cholo graffiti that had been in the streets since the 1940s. Everybody hated it, and I found strength and beauty in it. I was also inspired by Asian calligraphy. I took the strength of cholo and the spirit of the brush.
Commercial work he’s turned down
I’ve turned down Adidas, Pony and Nike shoes because they’re not my style. I wear Vans.
Commercial work he’s done
I used to design logos for movies — “The Warriors,” “Turk 182.” And I did master inking for “The Empire Strikes Back,” the Muppet movies, James Bond. It taught me a lot about doing billboards and signs: The logos have to be read within three seconds.
The difference between New York and Los Angeles graffiti
There they’ll tag all over the city; it’s about getting their name up and not about their culture. Here it’s about being Latino, and you tag your neighborhood because you’re proud of it, to protect it.
Where to see his work on the streets today
Señor Suerte was my tag early on, in 1969. Twenty years later I started seeing this image [of a skull wearing a fedora] on tattoos and now thousands of men in prison have it. Gangs picked it up as a warrior shield, something to protect them if they got shot. If you go to jail and they find it on you, you go to separate cells.
The biggest challenge in getting older
Eyesight — when you hit 50, it goes south. But climbing, scaffolding, that’s no problem.