When L.A. graffiti artist Saber was asked to create a mural for an urban art exhibition now on view at the Long Beach Museum of Art, he says his mind turned to the highly publicized police killings that have dominated headlines since last year: Michael Brown in Missouri, Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Eric Garner in New York, among others.
He also thought of the lesser known case of Hector Morejon, the 19-year-old killed by Long Beach police after he was apprehended during a trespassing and vandalism incident. (The officer in question says that he believed Morejon was pointing a gun at him, though no weapons were found at the scene.)
"I got into predicaments as a kid," says Saber, a long-time graffiti artist who goes exclusively by his street name. "Hector was a tagger. We influence these kids. We inspire them to go out and do these things. And society may determine that some of these kids are disposable since they were committing a crime."
So when he was asked to participate in "Vitality and Verve: Transforming the Urban Landscape," the Long Beach Museum of Art's big summer show, Saber decided to use the opportunity to tackle the issue of police violence. His idea: to compose the work entirely out of tags, the quick and easy bits of urban scrawl that generally consist of little more than a name hastily sprayed on the side of a building, bridge or utility box.
"At first, I thought I'd paint some hyper-aesthetic Wild Style abstraction thingie," he says, "but after I read about Hector, I decided to just stick to the tags."
On the wall, he painted the names of dozens of victims of police shootings, tagger style in black spray paint. Over this wallpaper-like pattern, he did a single giant tag of Morejon's first name — executed with a fire extinguisher. (A video the artist posted to his Instagram account offers an abbreviated view of this process.)
"To me, the tag is the base element of it all," Saber explains. "It shows the hand style, the ability to write a certain way. But it's often understood as this abrasive tool that people hate. Most people hate tagging. So, for me it became this abrasive way to create a message."
Saber is a long-running presence in the L.A. graffiti community — working on his first tags in his teens in the late '80s and early '90s and making a name for himself in 1997 for producing a massive multi-colored piece on the concrete banks of the L.A. River. Today, he is known for his highly stylized paintings and murals.
But the piece in Long Beach offered an opportunity to do something more. "This is not happy street art," Saber says. "There are real messages that deal with real lives."
"We have a voice in the culture," he adds. "We need to use it."
"Vitality and Verve: Transforming the Urban Landscape," is on view at the Long Beach Museum of Art through Oct. 25. 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, lbma.org.