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The Rise of the Seventh Letter 

Mad society kings

Wednesday, Jul 11 2007

Click here for "Street Artists: The Primer," by Shelley Leopold.

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Click here for "Anatomy of an Aesthetic Criminal," by C.R. Stecyk.

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Once you know what you’re looking for, your sixth (make that your seventh) sense will kick in and you’ll start seeing them everywhere — on empty walls surrounding vacant lots, on the ramparts of the L.A. River, along freeways, on billboards . . . everywhere. To the cold, blank spaces of our urban canvas, the throw-ups and pieces bearing the marks of The Seventh Letter crew add color, beauty, a bit of danger perhaps, and, increasingly, legend. Not since the postmodernist heyday of Pollock and Picasso has the art world been host to such a decidedly macho milieu.

The seventh letter is, of course, G, which in this case stands for “Gods of Graffiti” and represents what may be the most ambitious, racially diverse and prolific crew ever assembled. With more than 100 members operating under the Seventh Letter banner, names like Revok, Retna, Saber, Push, Rime and Zes are just a few to watch as they fast become L.A.’s modern muralists.

The Seventh Letter’s roots go back nearly 20 years, when the collective’s founder and leader, Eklips, a legendary writer in his own right, started the AWR (Art Work Rebels/Angels Will Rise) and MSK (Mad Society Kings) writing crews while bombing around the Motor Yard in Los Angeles. As Eklips’ fame grew, so did that of those wanting to align with his artists. Sensing an opportunity to take graffiti in a new direction, Eklips merged AWR and MSK under the Seventh Letter umbrella in 1999. By then, AWR/MSK members were well known on the street, and Eklips’ idea was to take graf where it hadn’t gone before, but where lowbrow-art practitioners like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth had previously spun gold: namely, corporate gigs and merchandising.

TSL’s streetwear brand features T-shirts designed by the writers and has incorporated a jewelry line, an upcoming bricks-and-mortar space for the currently Web-only Knowngallery.com, and an ongoing film venture called Seventh Day Project, featuring time-elapsed footage of writers painting actual pieces. New footage is released exclusively via the Web site on the seventh of every month. The collective’s members recently concluded a trip to Barcelona, courtesy of Royal Elastics, for its “Letters First” show at the internationally acclaimed Bread and Butter showcase. The concept revolves around 53 Seventh Letter canvases spelling out “Click Clack the Seventh Letter Strikes Again.”

Having done paying jobs for Adidas, Boost Mobile, Nike and Scion, Seventh Letter members may get heat from other artists for selling out, but they refer to their opportunities as “buying in.” Why let a junior designer in an ad agency attempt the crew’s style when the real guy can do it better and faster and offer the product a little credibility?

“When a company hires or sponsors a Seventh Letter writer, they know they are going to get a professional, someone who can conduct themselves in an appropriate way,” says Eklips.

European art schools hold classes in technique, and companies there manufacture premium paint stock. Salzburg, Austria, boasts a graffiti museum. Taipei and Tokyo hire the Seventh Letter crew to paint in their cities. “In Taiwan, especially, we’re treated like royalty. Here, we have to be underground — because of laws and envy.”

It’s a different world over here, where graffiti can bring automatic felony charges, and tougher local laws are in the works. Some crew members hold vandalism warrants. “Creating fear isn’t going to make a problem go away. Sending a kid away for eight years for painting on a wall and housing him with killers is just going to make another killer,” predicts Eklips. “Violence in graffiti? Is that because of graffiti or testosterone? You don’t see it around people who are doing something, staying busy. We’re about making sure everybody’s passport is valid. The Seventh Letter is positive. Making big moves and showing kids that there is hope, that you can have something for yourself. Graffiti saved my life. It bought my mom a house.”

As the time-honored painting spaces in L.A. continue to disappear — the well-publicized demolition of the Belmont Tunnel in 2005 for a planned housing development is a prime example, and the Motor Yard has been all but shut down — the number of young artists interested in graffiti art has only increased. The fact that viable public spaces are becoming increasingly scarce has possibly contributed to what city officials see as a tagging dilemma.

As long as reputations are still made and kept by getting up on the street, and they are, the Seventh Letter guys aren’t going to give up the life entirely. But that doesn’t mean they can’t find ways to comply with the law without compromising their lifestyles. Crew member Jersey Joe is at the forefront of seeking new ways of mentoring the craft and teaching kids a positive lesson at the same time. He works with a nonprofit afterschool group called Woodcraft Rangers (woodcraftrangers.org), doing murals at grade and middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Thanks to Jersey Joe, the expansive Samuel Gompers Middle School campus in Watts now boasts more than 35 of The Seventh Letter’s best pieces.

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