A superhero among the spray-can set and one of the L.A. Sheriff's Department's most wanted vandals, the artist known as Revok, aka Jason Williams, has had quite an eventful year. On the heels of his work for MOCA's "Art in the Streets" show, Revok captured headlines after his most recent arrest (for missing a court appearance) April 21 at LAX. His subsequent bail was set at a record high for vandalism, $320,000, and he was sentenced to six months in jail for unpaid property restitution of $3,700. He served 44 days, yet hasn't painted an illegal mural or committed art crime in Los Angeles for years.
Despite his legal troubles, Williams has found renewed motivation, and the result is "Perseverance," his new show opening Aug. 20 at Known Gallery with 14 new personal pieces. It promises to jettison Williams into yet another potentially life-altering situation — the gallery circuit.
"Sitting in jail I had a lot of time to think," Williams admits. "I've been a graffiti artist for over 20 years now. It's been my sole pursuit. I had to kind of figure out why, after so much bullshit and so many years, how am I still so motivated and why it's important to me. It's the creative root of everything I do."
It was impossible for Williams to transition from street to gallery walls in his home base of Los Angeles. Constant police raids of his apartment and undercover cops harassing friends at job sites and art shows didn't foster his creativity, instead provoking his paranoia and resistance.
As part of a self-imposed exile, Williams has gone into hiding among the ruins of the Midwest, which is, to him, a blank canvas. Detroit — Motor City, home to Motown, the Stooges, America's auto industry and Eminem — now plays host to one of L.A.'s most prolific and talented graffiti writers.
"I couldn't afford to make the kind of work I wanted to make in L.A., and I needed to go somewhere cheap where I could get away from being haunted by the police force," Williams explains by phone. "Detroit is wide open. There's tons of space — you can do anything you want here. I've been in L.A. a really long time, and it's really easy to get distracted and caught up. So I flew out here in February — it was freezing. I got off the plane and started driving around, sliding all over the ice in the streets and fell in love with it instantly. This place is fucking awesome."
The highlights among Williams' new work are his 3-D collages, meticulously built from found ephemera. While he concedes to having no formal art education or influences, the work recalls the deconstructivist-era Robert Rauschenberg. But Williams' work maintains a decidedly modern, rough-hewn sensibility. His materials show evidence of time spent in dark corners and under viaducts: fragments of hand-painted type, stickers, reclaimed wood, street signs, drawer pulls and caution tape. The large shadowboxes are deliberately representative of place and time, much like the inventive, bold, colorful graffiti burners he's known for.
Detroit's economic situation and the wealth of abandoned property it has generated is another reason fate placed Williams there. "It can be a sad place," he says. "It's a beautiful place in an unconventional way, a big graveyard of all these industries and people technology left behind. A lot of pieces that I use to construct this new work are from homes people lived in, or maybe windows from an abandoned business. Other people's stories left as trash or rubble. Now, filtered through my own life experience, I've hopefully made something new and positive."
The test of creating work in a studio isn't anything like the rush of bombing on the street. Williams remains steadfast in distinguishing the two, but realizes the significance of both. "There's no pot of gold doing graffiti. It's absolutely pure. It's not done for any other reason except just to do it and I love it. I make this [studio] art for some of the same reasons, but it's a totally different experience. When I paint graffiti, it's about me. I'll always be a graffiti artist, but my new work taps into the bigger picture."
Williams didn't get a chance to revel in the success of the MOCA show as the other artists and fans did — other than serving as the example for the current antimural, antigraffiti climate upheld by the Department of Building and Safety. He was jailed shortly after the show's opening — less fortunate than the rogue mosaic-maker Space Invader, who was able to skip out before the police realized who they had in custody, although they confiscated his grout and tile pieces.
Fortunately, MOCA is just a few walkable blocks from the detention center and when Williams was released, he walked right over. "It was pretty embarrassing. 'Yeah, I'm one of the artists that's in the show. I just got out of jail. I don't have my wallet or my cellphone. Can I use your phone to have somebody come and pick me up?' " he laughs. "Aside from receiving some nice emails and getting on the cover of The Wall Street Journal, I wasn't able to really participate in any of it."
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Still on probation, Williams has no plans to return to L.A. anytime soon. While he still has a profound love for the City of Angels and the community that has rallied around him, he doesn't miss the authorities, who vow to "bankrupt him and put him out of business," according to what one police detective told him. They're sticking to their agenda, as Williams says the city attorney has prepared a civil lawsuit against him seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars should he ever paint publicly in L.A. again. It would retroactively peg him for every mural he's ever done (or at least the ones they know about), regardless of whether it's a commission with the property owners' consent. "I'm not a saint. I'm not saying 'Poor me,' or anything. But the obsession is outrageous," he says.
Saber, an L.A. graffiti king and colleague of Revok's who recently held a sold-out art show in New York, couldn't agree more. "There is so much misdirected energy and taxpayer dollars being wasted going after this one person," he says, a sad, palpable anger rising in his voice. "We've lost one of our strongest artists — Los Angeles is going to miss out on some of the best art in the world, as far as I'm concerned. These sheriffs shut down Melrose Avenue during a business day to raid a store Revok pictured on his blog. In this economy?"
"Perseverance" — which includes contributions from Rime, a world-renowned talent also formerly from L.A., and Roid, an up-and-coming star from London — may serve as a homecoming of sorts, even though Williams won't be there, and all the work is being shipped from Detroit. And while his new Midwestern digs offer opportunity and peace of mind, his inspiration is local. "L.A. has always been my home. As a kid I'd drive around the freeways to see who was up, trying to soak it all up and memorize the city, learn as much as I could. I grew up in Riverside and all I wanted to do was live in L.A. Now it's ironic — I can't be there. Hopefully some day that will change."
PERSEVERANCE: REVOK, RIME AND ROID | Known Gallery, 441 N. Fairfax Ave., Mid-City | Opening reception Aug 20, 8-11 p.m. | Through Sept. 12 | knowngallery.com