Going Up in L.A. | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Going Up in L.A. 

Ruben Martinez hangs out with the city's Graffiti writers

Thursday, Apr 13 1989
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It has only been a few hours, but the stain on the old couch that sits in the empty lot has already turned brown. Around it now are gathered about a dozen teenagers who stare at the dark flower spread out upon the grimy fabric.  Although it's a school day and only 10:30 in the morning, a quart of Colt 45 is being passed around. Some of the faces show fear; others are hardened into stony stares. "We know who did it, but we're not going to tell you," says one of the younger boys. His hair is cropped stubby short, and he wears dark jeans and a plain T-shirt. "We're not going to spell it out, but you can pretty much guess what's going to happen." (The following night two members of a neighborhood gang were shot and killed.)

At approximately 7 p.m. the previous evening, a couple of these kids had been seated on the couch; the rest were standing just a few feet away, among them Prime, a 17-year-old homeboy. They had all been "kickin' it" – downing some brews, their conversation accompanied by a boombox alternately  pumping out hip-hop and oldies – when a car pulled up to the curb below and two figures  climbed up the hill in the darkness. "Where you from?" one of them yelled from a distance of about 10 feet. A moment later, several rounds exploded from a shotgun and a .45, and Prime and another boy lay bleeding next to the couch.

We walk around to the side of one of the dilapidated stucco bungalows that crown the hill. A wall displays the local gang's roster – hundreds of names spray-painted in furious, spidery lettering. Someone points to the "RIP" section: more than a dozen names. "rest in power," mumbles one of the boys. Nobody is sure whether the next name to go up will be Prime's.


A few days earlier, Prime was sitting in his family's living room, which doubles as a bedroom, in a neighborhood not far form the empty lot. it is a crime-ridden area to be sure, dominated by one of the city's oldest Latino gangs. This is where Prime grew up, and where his two unemployed parents try to scrape by on welfare.

Although Prime admitted he's been "in the wrong place at the wrong time," on more than one occasion, he saw himself less as a gangbanger , more of a "writer" (as graffiti artists call themselves), one of the best-known among the city's thousands of young, spray-can wielding "bombers."

Prime shook hands gingerly that day. His right hand still bore chalky plaster stains from the cast that had been removed only the day before, the bones in his right – and writing –
 hand having been broken in a fistfight.

As soon as I entered the room, he began to show off the canvases. After years of doing complex, colorful works  on walls across the city, Prime had begun experimenting with acrylics, airbrush, oils, washes. It was Valentine's Day, and he'd done one for his girlfriend – it was a brightly colored Cupid surrounded by soft, pink roses, with a dedication that read, "Jose and Nerly, por vida." He pointed to a larger work dominated by grays, blacks and silvers, titled Dazed and Confused, an ambitious circular composition centered on a pair of dice that become a large syringe, then a huddled shadowy figure and finally, a large wicked-looking skull.

Prime sat down on the sagging bed, the plaster wall behind him bulging with cracked paint. At age 8, he tells me, he snatcched his sister's goldfleck hairspray and wrote "Little Joe, 18 Street" in the back yard. Soon afterward his initials were "up" in the neighborhood alleys. But it wasn't until about 1984 that Prime graduated from gang-tagging tomore original and complex forms of graffiti. He developed a style that set him apart from other graffiti artists, working closely with several colleagues in the K2S-STN (Kill To Succeed – Second To None") crew, one of the first to appear in the city's Eastside.

"I never really got crazy," he told me. But as gang violence in the inner-city increased dramatically in the mid-80s, he was busted for various misdemeanors (including vandalism), and almost did time for armed robbery.

But by last Valentine's Day, Prime could look back on it all and vow that it was the art that really mattered. He enrolled in classes at the East L.A. Occupational Center, and as he brought out photo albums stuffed with color photographs of graffiti he'd done over the years, he spoke to me of a future without drive-bys, drug overdoses or girls pregnant at 15. "I want to have a big lot when I grow older, he said leaning forward, a small gold crucifix swinging in front of his blue sweatshirt. "It'll have big, long movable walls. I'll put canvases up, and have kids and artists there, have it be like a big museum, people will walk through a big maze of art. Then, with the money I make in one day, I'll buy some more canvas and change the maze..."


By 1984, movies like Wild Style, Beat Street and Breakin'  had apprised L.A. teenagers of the writing explosion that had taken place in the Bronx, where a complex, multi-colored graffiti known as "wildstyle" had evolved in the late '70s and early '80s. Behind its New York counterparts by several years, L.A. created its own distinct scene. In New York, most of the work had been painted onto the sides of subway cars. L.A.'s answer was to bomb the freeways.

Besides, the city already had a rich history to draw upon. Grafitti had been around since the World War II-era Pachucos (the first style-conscious Latino gangs, who incorporated Old English lettering into their tags) and the East L.A. mural artists of the '60s, with their close ties to the Mexican muralism, were a local artistic and political institution. The city was ripe for a new public-art explosion.

The city's first graffiti "crew" was the L.A. Bomb Squad, whose membership consisted almost exclusively of Latinos from the Pico-Union area and East L.A. Soon, however, the movement spread west, south and north, to include teens from other impoverished neighborhoods and from the middle-class suburbs.

And so the L.A. version of hip-hop graffiti was born. Many of the more aesthetically developed works – known as "pieces," short for "masterpieces" – were done in hidden away places like the Belmont Tunnel, an old fenced-off trolley stop near Belmont High School. There were also more daring exploits – simple tags and "throw-ups" (two-color tags) went up on buses, benches, sidewalks, street lights, stop signs, anywhere that was highly visible to the public. Competition as to who could top whom in terms of quality and originality was intense.

The glory days of the nascent L.A. scene hit in '84, when a youth club named Radio-Tron open its doors. Housed in a building in the Westlake district near MacArthur Park, "It was a cultural center where people could go practice breaking and drawing," recalls Moda ("fashion" in Spanish), a founding member of the Bomb Squad. It was akin to an established artist's studio, a haven from the streets where writers always ran the risk of a bust. Soon, every inch of the site was covered with tags and pieces. "All the guys I knew were getting thrown in jail or getting killed," says Primo D, also of the Bomb Squad. "Radio-Tron was an alternative."

The center's "curriculum," according to founder and director Carmelo Alvarez, a long-time inner-city youth activist, included deejaying, scratch and rap, and "advanced graffiti." "I just took what they had and structured it," says Alvarez. But the experiment didn't last long. Wrangles with the city (Alvarez balked when the Department of Parks and Recreation made a move to take over the center), as well as a fire marshal's notice, led to its being closed. "when Radio-Tron shut down, everybody started getting into gangbanging," says Primo D. "There was nothing else to do."

Not long after the bomb Squad's work – wildstyle tags and ambitious, cartoonlike characters – appeared in the downtown area, a group of mostly middle-class Anglo WEstside teens took note and founded WCA ("West Coast Artists"), the biggest crew in the city, with a membership of about 35, plus a subsidiary crew ("BC" or "Beyond COntrol") of a dozen or so. On any given weekend morning, you can see WCA at work, along with other Westside crews like KSN ("Kings Stop at Nothing"), at one of their favorite spots, the "Motor Yard" in West Los Angeles.

Carrying in dozens of Krylon (the preferred brand) spray cans in backpacks or milk crates, the crews usually arrive early inthe day and work alongside the railroad tracks that run parallel to the Santa Monica Freeway near National Boulevard. Everything i nthe yard, including the rails, the ties, the torched wrecks of cars, has been tagged, pieced, bombed – in a word, "terrorized." The thousands of spray cans that litter the yard testify to the nhundreds of pieces that have gone up on top of one another on the half-mile stretch of concrete retaining walls that flanks the railroad tracks.

A box will invariably be blasting Eazy E's "Boyz-N-the-Hood" or BDP's "My Philosophy." ranging in age from 6 to their early 20s, the writers fish sketches out of their back pockets, shake the cans, press down the customized nozzles ("fat tips" culled from Testor's spray cans, which lalow for a thicker, smoother line) and begin the sweeping, rhythmic motions thyat trace the skeleton of a new piece.

Phoe of BC, a wiry, clean-cut teenager of Hawaiian-Philippine ancestry, is there one weekend, wearing a dark-blue cap embroidered with the anme of his crew. He works on a three-dimensional wildstyle rendition of his tag that is typical of Westside work, the edges of the letters honed glass sharp, aidded by cuts and arrows that make the composition virtually unreadable to the untrained eye.

"Writing is like a different community. It's communication with other writers throughout the city," says Phoe (a neologism based on "foe," which, according to him means "society's enemy"), yelling to be heard over the freeway roar that threatens t odrown out his high-pitched adolescent voice. Wherever he goes ("even when I go out with my parents"), the tools of the trade – markers or spray cans – are at his disposal.

Like many Westside writers, Phoe's response to the city's anti-graffiti forces, and to those adults who encourage him to professionalize his talent, is lackadaisical. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. They're telling me to go out and sign up for scholarships and art classes, and get paid for writing, and I'm, like, well, I don't really need the money because I  work." Yet some WCA writers do take legal jobs now and then, pounding the streets in search of sympathetic business owners who'll pay them to paint storefront signs and the like. (Risk, one of WCA's premier writers, recently did backgrounds for a Michael Jackson video.)

Still, there's an allure to doing risky work. And , since most writers lack studio space, sites like the Motor Yard are indispensable. "They just don't understand," says Ash, another respected WCA writer. "We need this place to paint, or else we're going to bomb the streets more, straight up."


Although a few Westside writers are "down" with their Eastside counterparts, interaction between thee two groups is limited. Indeed, the rivalry between WCA and K2S-STN dates back to the origins of the L.A. writing scene. Like breakdancers, writers "battle" each other; the spoils of victory may include several dozen spray cans, or the appropriation of a writer's tag.

As soon as WCA and K2S-STN became aware of each other, the stage was set for the East-West battle, which took place in the East-West tunnel in 1985. WCA went up with the bigger production in their trademark flashy style, featuring a pastel yellow/clover green/pastel aqua, black-outlined, white-highlighted, hot-pink and avocado-bordered piece by Risk. Next to it was a "character" by Cooz, a Japanese-animation-style buxom woman wearing shiny shield glasses, a cascade of auburn hair spilling over her shoulders.

K2S-STN countered with a shocker from Prime. Employing an abstract, futuristic style, he wrote his name with an altered color scheme and composition: triangles and squares of hot punk, white, true blue and baby blue produced a new kind of three-dimensional effect. Next to it he drew a robot character he’d found in a comix mag. Some West Coast writers congratulated Prime afterward in an apparent admission of defeat. By the next morning, however, all of the WCA productions, as well as a substantial part of Prime’s, had been “dissed”-painted over- by unknown writers, and the bad blood began. To this day, some WCA writers maintain that Prime was the culprit, although he’s always denied the allegation.

Style differences are marked between East and West in L.A. WCA writers are sensitive to the charge that they are “biting” (the writer’s term for plagiarism) New York styles. “We took the New York styles and made them into our own style,” says Wisk, the crew’s most prolific writer. Utilizing thin letters with the stylized swirls and blends of color accented with arrows and sparkles, West Coast’s work often achieves a slick magazine look- the New York stamp is unmistakable. K2S-STN, on the other hand, while sometimes drawing on the same New York influences is often more readable, block or bubblelike letters that echo old gang-writing styles bending with the wildstyle in various ways. The result is a comparative aesthetic analogous to the split between the Anglo and ethnic art worlds of the ‘60s and ‘70s- playful abstraction on the one hand, Socialist Realism-flavored work on the other.

The Stylistic differences between the two groups, however, hide deeper tensions. The Eastside writers, who lay claim to being the original Los Angeles bombers, feel that WCA has received a disproportionate share of media attention, including articles in the L.A. Times that have largely ignored the Eastside writers in favor of Westsiders.

“It was only when white people started doing graffiti that they said it was art,” Prime once said bitterly. “We were doing it before them, but [the media] were blaming us for vandalism.” These sentiments are echoed by most Eastside writers-a resentment that is obviously both class- and race-based.

“Most of the West Coast writers are from middle-class families,” says Moda of the original L.A. Bomb Squad. “On this side of town, you’re faced with the gang problem and graffiti at the same time. It affects the writers from poor neighborhoods: because they have the distraction of gangs they might not be able to pursue it all the way. Like Prime- he’s stuck between gangs and graffiti.”

Prime’s father approaches the bed slowly. An oxygen mask all but hides Prime’s incipient beard and mustache; the dried blood is still incrusted on his forehead and temples. The father takes his son’s bloody hand into his own, leans down and whispers something into his ear. Prime tries to speak, but the words are mumbled, delirious. His father lifts back the white sheet and peers at his son’s right arm, again swathed in bandages. After two major operations, the doctors are finally willing to predict that Prime is going to make it.

Over the next few days, Prime’s fellow writers will visit his bedside in an endless procession. Among them is Duck, 20 years old, a native of Guatemala and a seven-year writing veteran of K2S-STN. Like Prime, Duke has been involved in gangbanging. When he heard the news about the shooting, his first impulse was “to go out and take care of shit,” but he says he’s beyond that now. “The art took me out of the [gangbanging] trip,” says Duke, who is dressed in his trademark smoke-gray jeans, his boyish face showing a spotty beard. “It helped me to look at this world in a more positive sense.”

Initiated into gangs at an early age, Duke’s first spray-can escapade involved simple tagging. But after some heavy violence on the streets- he was one dragged for two blocks by a car driven by rival gang members- he decided to try to “clean up his act.” When the first wave of graffiti art hit L.A., he began devoting more and more of his time to “piecing.”

“I wanted to kick back,” Duke says of that time. In 10th grade, however, “jungle football” clubs were springing up all over the inner city. The emphasis was on sports at first, but soon fights were breaking out between the rival groups. Then guns were brandished, and the club Duke had helped to organize quickly became one of the largest gangs in the Pico-Union area.

Early one morning in October 1985, a shotgun blast tore Duke’s stomach open as he was walking to school. The doctors later told him it was a miracle that he had survived. Later, there were family problems and a difficult separation from his girlfriend. He gave up writing for months and found himself at a crossroads, uncertain as to which path to follow. Today, he’s back in the writing scene, involved in myriad projects like sign-painting and doing everything he can to set up his own art studio at home.

Prime, like Duke, had begun to distance himself from the gang world when he was shot. “He wasn’t the kind to go out and say, ‘Let’s take care of these dudes,’” says Duke after visiting Prime one day. “Thank God he’s not gone. And I hope he never goes” like Geo, who was shot for yelling out the wrong gang name when asked where he was from. Or Sine, who was stabbed when trying to defend a younger kid from a gangbanger wielding a switch-blade. Or Risko, who died in a car that tumbled off a Harbor Freeway overpass as he and another friend were fleeing the police after a gang outing. All were writers associated with K2S-STN.

Although no hard figures exist on how many full-fledged writers there are in Los Angeles, veterans estimate that at any given time there are probably several hundred of them. But one must then add to this figure hundreds, perhaps thousands of teens who are merely bombing the city with single-color tags- the band of the RTD and other city agencies. “There are so many people into tagging, and that’s what’s messing it up for people who do art,” says Cash, a K2S-STN veteran. “Tags, all they do is destroy, make the city look ugly. The art beautifies the walls that gave been tagged up.”

On the other hand, there is no doubt that straight-out vandalism is part of the appeal, especially for the younger, or “toy” writers. On a recent Friday (“Ditching Day”) morning, the Panic Zone, East L.A.’s most famous writing yard, was crawling with up-and-coming writers, most of them of junior-high-school age, and their crew names alone- KCC (“Kids Committing Crime”) and CIA (“Criminals in Action”) tell the story. With a ravenous hunger for recognition, they announce their names: POSES, KORE, MICRO, MIST, ERGER, SED, SOEWHAT, DEVO, SKOE, DEES, STINGER, BEAST, DEFEAT, KINE, SETO. (Writers strive for originality when choosing their names; hence the purposeful misspellings. Most of the tags deliberately cultivate ether a dark or brooding image- DOOM, DREAD, DYE- or conjure a notion of hip-hop “badness” – REGENT, PRIME, SLICK.)

The young writers at the Panic Zone are rabid taggers. “We all write on ‘em all,” proclaims one writer whose voice hasn’t changed yet, pointing at the buses lined up at the RTD maintenance yard, which lies only about 50 yards from the northernmost end of the Panic Zone. Why? “To get up, be known!” he says, and all the other writers nod their heads eagerly.

Last year alone, government agencies in L.A. County spent some $50 million in the war against graffiti. Sandblasters are available for heavy duty buffing across the city, and a city-run warehouse doles out free paint to any citizen who asks for it (30,000 gallons- enough to cover six million square feet of graffiti- has been given away since 1986). A legal offensive is also in the works. One graffiti writer was recently sentenced to 130 days in prison, a clear message to writers across the city.

“It’s a great deterrent,” says LAPD spokesperson William Medina, who coordinates a neighborhood cleanup effort in the Rampart area. For the LAPD, even the elaborate pieces that have gone up at the various “yards” around town are considered illegal. “We view it as graffiti. The only things we don’t consider illegal are organized, approved murals,” continues Medina.

Judging by the standing-room-only turnout of community groups at a recent L.A. Chamber of Commerce-sponsored conference, popular frustration over the problem is on the rise. Three years ago, Tome Bradley formed the Mayor’s Committee for Graffiti Removal and Prevention. (The chairman of the committee, Stuart Haines, is the owner of Textured Coatings of America, a profitable paint manufacturing company. “It’s like a guy who works in a weapons manufacturing plant being named head of a task force to stop a war,” said one supporter of graffiti art.)

The adult response, then, has placed top priority on eradication and enforcement of anti-vandalism statues. Only $250,000 had been funneled into a public mural program, one administered by the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice.

“The real answer is to pass tougher laws to punish the graffiti artists who deface public property, along with the gang members who are identifying their turf,” says Haines.

Among the adults searching for alternatives to this deadlock is Al Nodal, the new general manager of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department and a longtime supporter of public arts, via endeavors like the MacArthur Arts Project, which featured graffiti art by local writers on the park’s bandshell. “Arresting kids and abatement through paint-outs is not the only way to do it,” says Nodal. “It has to be an issue of implementing cultural programs fro kids. We’ve been fighting a losing battle on this issue.”

“We haven’t looking into why they’re painting,” says Marry Trotter of the Vernon Central Merchants Association, which is

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