When you first encounter Leafar Seyer, you’re likely struck by one of a dozen eye-catching things about his physical presence. It might be the elaborate “1913” tattoo emblazoned across his stomach. Maybe it's the black nail polish on his fingers, or the row of earrings dangling from his lobes.
Dressed like the leader of a renegade mariachi band, and swathed from neck to navel in ink, Seyer — born Rafael Reyes — is just as comfortable wearing black lipstick and fingerless gloves as he is flinging a switchblade at any nearby surface. He and beatmaker Dave Parley are Prayers, the pioneers behind a musical genre and growing subculture they call “cholo goth.”
While the thought of goths instantly conjures up images of sunlight-deprived individuals dressed in black and listening to Bauhaus, Seyer and Parley have subverted and infiltrated the genre by infusing it with the elements of Southern California gang culture. Inspired by the morbid aesthetics and dark tones of bands like New Order and The Cult, the San Diego-based pair (whose LP Young Gods dropped earlier in June on Travis Barker’s LaSalle label) represent an unlikely collision of worlds that could only be brought forth by someone like Seyer, a member of San Diego’s Sherman Grant Hill Park gang since he was jumped in at 13.
At age 40, Seyer has already gained a reputation in San Diego as a street artist, author and, perhaps most surprisingly, owner of a vegetarian Mexican restaurant. Now, with Prayers, he and Parley have found a way to combine their love of goth culture and the occult with their childhood upbringings in tough Mexican-American neighborhoods.
“We’ve created a whole new experience,” he says. “There’s a message behind what we’re doing. We’re not just making music for people to have a good time — we’re making music to empower people. You know how many people have written emails to me saying, ‘I was gonna kill myself but then I listened to your album and I want to keep on living’? Why? Because we empower people. That’s why our album is the best shit out right now.”
That might sound cocky, but coming from a man who often growls, “I don’t worship the Devil, the Devil worships me” during concerts, it’s a fairly modest declaration.
Seyer, who served a six-month prison sentence in 2010 for assault, has no qualms with disclosing his gang affiliation to the world. “I want people to know I’m a gang member, but I’m not a criminal. I’m a gang member, but I’m not a thief. I'm a gang member, but I’m not a drug addict. A lot of people think, ‘He’s a gang member, he robs people and kills people.’ No, I don’t do any of those things. I just defend those that I love and care for.”
Despite the map of tattoos that trace his body, and his penchant for knife-throwing, Seyer is an atypical cholo. He finds himself bridging the gap between Mexican gang life and the alternative music scene with his transgressive approach to goth, a genre traditionally dominated by white musicians and fans.
“Gangs might think me wearing nail polish is gay or feminine, but they don’t understand that it’s the most rebellious thing you can do, especially coming from my background,” he says. Misconceptions are nothing new to Seyer, and he’s more than happy to make people uncomfortable. “People freak out when I wear lipstick, but it has nothing to do with being feminine. It’s just me giving people the middle finger, saying, ‘I don’t care what you people think. I don’t care if this makes you feel inadequate. Question yourself, don’t question me.’”