Calligraphers and graffiti artists, whether they know it or not, speak the same language. “Take tagging,” says calligrapher Lisa Engelbrecht. “When they do it, it has a beautiful thick and thin line just like calligraphy.”
Driving around her Long Beach neighborhood not long ago, she spotted a building covered in graffiti. It was the humble Homeland Cultural Arts Center — beautifully painted in a lovely, sharp-edged italic.
She stopped, walked in and met Jose Martinez. The graffiti world has its kings, and Martinez is one of them. The 31-year-old’s street name, “Steam,” is emblazoned on walls across the Southland.
The calligrapher and the graffiti artist have been learning from each other ever since.
“The first thing you have to learn is can control,” says Martinez, inscribing perfect circles with a spray can, like da Vinci in aerosol.
“I can do that,” Engelbrecht says. She tried. She couldn’t. She learned that when you paint graffiti on a wall, you move your entire body, not just your hand and arm. Calligraphy, however, is done in small motions. Your neck aches from the stillness, and you find yourself holding your breath while you write.
One afternoon, Engelbrecht invited Martinez and his crew to her house, on the east side of Long Beach. They spray-painted a fence in her backyard.
When two street artists collaborate, she saw, they don’t speak. They just paint, in a kind of dance.
Martinez teaches art at Homeland, and his kids had been achieving calligraphic effects the hard way, ballpoint outlines painstakingly shaded in. So Engelbrecht showed them special parallel pens with two pieces of metal that make lines like fat wedges of cheese.
“That’s sick!” the kids said.
“Is that good?” Engelbrecht asked.
Thus, she is learning vocabulary: “Racking” is stealing paint. “Piecing” is going out at night to paint. “Piece” is short for masterpiece. “Toys” are little kids who try to paint over pieces. Whoever paints over a piece must be better than the original. It’s one way to “get up,” or get your name out. A 26-year-old man was recently arrested for tagging along the L.A. River embankment. “He got his name out like sixteen thousand times,” Engelbrecht says. “He got mad respect.”
He also got three years in state prison.
Martinez and Engelbrecht teach each other about letters. Engelbrecht, how to shape them. Martinez, how to break them.
“I’m amazed at how they can make letters fluid and snake in and out of each other,” she notes. “They do stuff with letters I’ve never seen before.”
She does things with tools Martinez has never seen before. She taught him how to double-dip a pen, each corner into a different color of ink — an old calligrapher’s trick.
Sitting in a Starbucks after class, she took the parallel pen and wrote the word gang on a piece of card stock in an elegant, graceful, effortless hand. The font is called black letter. It’s an ancient technique, the easiest letterform to learn.
She got into trouble for teaching it to kids at a Long Beach inner-city high school. You’re teaching them gang writing, the principal said. But it’s historical, she argued. Calligraphy has hundreds of styles, and every obscure European town had its own variant. When Germans immigrated to Mexico in the 18th century, they brought their farming, their tubas, their accordions, their beer and their lettering. That is why Mexican gangs have inherited a love of old German fonts.
Growing up in a rough neighborhood, Martinez, for his part, saw cursive scripts on some hoodlums’ tattoos or on letters sent home from prison, and came to associate calligraphy with danger. Calligraphy was what gangs wrote in. The implication, he says, was: “Don’t touch it … or you’re gonna get burned.”
Today he prefers letters that are tough: spiky, thorny As, Bs and Cs that “look like they’re gonna cut you.” They are letters you don’t want to touch. None is a bubbly, emotional letter you want to hug.
A piece of history for Engelbrecht: the Belmont tunnels. Famous battles happened there. Slick versus Hex at the Belmont tunnels. Hex won. For a while, before the tunnels were torn down, she would schlep her students in on field trips to gape at the layers of paint, a ghetto palimpsest. Calligraphy and graffiti are the same dialogue conducted on different surfaces — skin, paper and concrete. “We’re all letter geeks,” she says. “Our tribe is letters.”
She worries that time will not be kind to her craft. The hardest of the hard-core calligraphers are in their 50s. She is 54. Traditionalists in the various calligraphy historical societies are deeply entrenched in their ways. They will take their skills with them to the grave. Who will want to learn the arcane skill of quill cutting or affixing gold leafing on letters?
Graffiti, by contrast, is a young art, barely acknowledged as art. Engelbrecht is the oldest person in the room whenever Martinez and his graffiti artists get together to draw in their “black books,” sketchbooks that are passed around and autographed.
She learned to economize, to improvise. Art stores sell fancy spray nozzles now, but graffiti crews used to yank them off hobby paint cans and oven cleaners. Glass perfume bottles are convenient for carrying around small quantities of paint for sweet, quick tags. “Quick” as in hug your girl, lean against a wall and scribble the tag while pretending to be kissing. “Sweet” as in your tag literally smells nice.
Martinez is confident, a self-made man, but if he were to study more black letter, it would make him a better street artist, he concedes. He would learn discipline. The purest calligraphy is plain black ink. You can’t cover sloppiness with distracting, eye-catching color.
He teaches budding street artists how to paint on model toy trains instead of real ones. He just did a huge wall on Washington and Western, two stories tall and perfectly legal. Better to parlay skills into gainful commerce than to tear up the city. As with calligraphers, it’s hard for graffiti artists to find real jobs.
In any case, Engelbrecht despises the vandalism but admires the passion. Deprived of art in their schools, the kids are willing to hang off a freeway sign — risking life and limb — to sign their name.
“What is that about?” Engelbrecht asks. “Why do they do that? Is it the thrill?”
“It is,” he says.
Everyone has their own way of making their mark.