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The Rise of the Seventh Letter

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

Click here for "Tapping the Source," by Shelley Leopold.

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

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.

 

Principal David Garcia couldn’t be happier. “I was a little nervous at first, because, well, it is graffiti,” he concedes. “But when I saw what it did for the kids — they are so well behaved and the grades are up. They know if they screw up, they can’t come out here and paint with these guys.”

Working with nonprofit organizations and property owners has gained The Seventh Letter access to City Hall. In an effort to change city officials’ attitudes toward graffiti, about 20 crew members met recently with Elizabeth Morin, director of Youth Arts and Education in the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs. It was a logical step after the successful “Movement: Hip Hop in L.A. 1980s to Now” event she hosted late last year that included a graffiti-art showcase of city writers and photographers as a way to bridge the gap between lawmakers and young artists. While Morin is personally a fan of the art form, she realizes the momentous effort it will take to change negative perceptions, and also knows what the writers themselves need to do to help accomplish that.

“It’s part of the fabric of the city. It’s youth culture; it’s alive. I need to be very careful that we do the right thing here,” she says. “I would love to give the artists a place to paint, but there are still so many risks involved. Individuals who still live and behave in a certain way, making it difficult for both sides to get their point across.”

The risks and rewards are well known to the artists. “We have a crew etiquette, we avoid [historic] murals and glass etch — we’re not about flaming personal property or acting out of malicious intent,” says Saber, one of the crew’s most recognized painters. “It’s always about painting dope pieces and getting up. Graffiti is surrounded by an amount of manufactured misunderstanding. The color of the new world order is ‘Palomino beige,’ and 99 percent of the time, it’s a Caucasian individual getting uptight. There should be more yards — like Belmont, Motor, the River — they gave us a chance to practice and create a community.”

Admittedly, he’s not getting any younger and would like to see graffiti progress, maybe even to the point where it’s considered a planned part of the urban landscape, like design and architecture. “My job now as a graf artist is to work with people in developing the bigger picture,” he says. “AWR/MSK have been testing the modern environment for years now, and we’re just scratching the surface of possibility. I want to meet with city planners, architects, developers, and collaborate. I want to use these skills that I’ve built on the street as a viable resource. There is a huge amount of effort and skill that goes into what we do. I’ve risked my life.”

The city’s official stance on this kind of public art hasn’t moved much. All murals require lots of red tape, “irrespective of artistic content,” and along with that come size restrictions, not to mention that owners who have consented to have their walls painted but aren’t aware of city regulations can be fined.

Retna has been running legal walls (collaborating with private-property owners) for 10 years now, and while he admits to a bit of scheming to get those permits, he challenges the city to recognize the solution he offers. “When talking to a property owner about a space, I never once told them it would be graffiti I’d be painting on their wall,” he says. “I try to become the solution to their [tagging] problem. I try to make a culturally important piece for the neighborhood that no one destroys.”

He also believes there’s a disconnect between the importance of historic murals and the new ideas that a crew like AWR/MSK might represent. “I personally love the Eloy [Torrez, best known for the Dearden’s Furniture Store wall on Main Street] pieces, and Frank’s [Romero, ’70s Chicano muralist] stuff is beautiful,” says Retna. “But the youth can’t necessarily identify with them. They’re looking for name recognition, trying to get out there to say, ‘Believe in me.’ It became a graffiti free-for-all with the destruction of the yards — Belmont in particular unleashed it.

“There’s nowhere for kids coming up to get good. New ideas haven’t been allowed to flourish since the ’80s. We love our city, and it’s wrong to think that graffiti is out to destroy something. It’s just the opposite. Maybe it would result in better pieces if you don’t have to worry about getting shot at or sent to jail. But [in reality] a big part of the story is the ‘performance’ and the effort it takes to get your paint together and sneak out of the house, climbing stuff. The effort of what it took to get the art there, just for the recognition. It will happen with or without the city’s help. We’ve already been to jail and paid the fines.”

 

However you define it, or try to control it, graffiti has evolved. The aesthetic bar has been raised, the materials and paint are manufactured better, the Internet provides forums for it. The 20-year-old argument about whether it’s art or not is moot. It is a discipline representative of a unique urban American experience that’s gone global — an art form completely created and cultivated by youth. This city’s passion for graffiti is a story shared by many crews of artists and fans, one of overcoming fear, personal limitations and an obsessive-compulsive need to make marks. What makes The Seventh Letter unique is its members’ collective commitment to each other’s legitimate (read: legal) success, a consistent pride in their craft, and foresight for future generations of artists. The work that they generate is as individual as the writer who creates it and the public space it illuminates.

 

The following pages provide a look at some of The Seventh Letter stars and their art. Plus, a review of the definitive book on L.A. graffiti, and OG writer Craig Stecyk’s anatomy of an outlaw artist, who may or may not resemble him.


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