The synchronicity between the opening of MOCA's “Art in the Streets” show and L.A. law enforcement's crackdown on graffiti hasn't gone unnoticed by postmodern cholo and tattooer's apprentice Sal Sanchez.
Recent arrests of street artists Invader, Smear and Revok are on Sanchez's radar. “The city of Los Angeles is cracking down on graffiti artists, sending people to prison and making an example of them for expressing themselves,” he says.
Sanchez manages a design/tattoo studio on South Alameda Street, but at the moment he is bumping Scarface in his silver 1979 El Camino all the way to the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. He's going to see “Art in the Streets,” billed as the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art. It traces the trajectory of the genre from the 1970s until today. Part of Sanchez's job involves maintaining two pieces that his mentor, Mr. Cartoon, has in the show.
“They're taking away art programs from public schools,” Sanchez says at the museum as he makes his way through a world-class clusterfuck of street art armed with a feather duster. From Banksy to Chaz and beyond, the show is decidedly expansive. “Kids who are in the inner city — all they have is expressing themselves with what's available to them … and then get sent to prison,” he says, disillusioned.
Prison is a place Sanchez knows a little something about. He was sentenced to eight years in the Texas state prison system on a 1998 drug charge. He even did some time in Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, aka “the Walls,” the state's oldest prison; it boasts 472 executions between 1982 and 2011. Before being locked up, Sanchez went on the run and ended up in L.A., where he landed a part in a movie and a job at the design studio where he works now.
It was a big surprise when the cops picked him up on the Texas warrant as he was on the way back from the MAGIC Clothing Show in Vegas. “Two to 2,000 pounds,” he says, intentionally evasive about the exact amount of weed Texas cops had found in the trunk of his car at the time of his arrest. He had not told his employers about his fugitive status.
He was extradited to Texas in 2004. “The judge sentenced me to eight years. When I was a kid, I never really thought I'd go to prison. It's a little surreal. Eight years is a long time. A lot can happen in eight years.”
Sanchez says he took advantage of every opportunity while he was serving his time, which ended up being four and a half years. He practiced his art, earned a GED and generally read a lot.
After tending to the MOCA show, Sanchez is back at the design studio, baseball cap pulled low. He runs a tight ship. The place is spotless, a celebration of automysophobia, possibly a lingering effect of institutionalization. It's so clean you could separate conjoined twins with an X-acto knife without risking infection.
“What I'm talking about is art as an alternative to crime,” he says. “Being a drug dealer is not a very good career choice. Art is one of the methods I've used to deal with the emotions that came with being incarcerated. It's a tool. Art is what's keeping me free. Drug dealers? I don't wanna say that if you're a drug dealer you're gonna die, because that's not true. These people in power who are putting drugs in the street aren't dead.”
While in prison, Sanchez sent his drawings to his tattoo master back in L.A. “The old-school way of being an apprentice and learning this trade is by your tattoo master picking you, and that's kind of like what happened to me. He saw something in me that I didn't see in myself.”
Sanchez is now in his flesh-and-ink period because he found something that he connected to and decided to make a living at it. “I wanted something creative, so I surrounded myself with creative people. I'm getting a better result than I did trying to make fast money.”
A realist, he acknowledges that he designed his own fate: “I had a really big part in going to prison. It's definitely designed to keep minorities and people from poverty locked up. Slavery is the word that comes to mind.”
Sanchez asserts that an awareness of his role in the events that have played out in his life is imperative to a continued self-agency. “You need to shut the fuck up and pay attention to what's around you. I think people should stop fucking blaming the police, blaming their environment, blaming the ghetto … blaming the streets. I mean, where the fuck is the accountability, you know?”
An advocate of alternative education, he promotes self-incarceration erudition. “If you're just getting out of prison, and you're looking at your situation like there's no way out of it, you're lying to yourself. Don't tell yourself that. Educate yourself. When I say education, I don't mean out and get a student loan and go to university, because not everybody has the opportunity. If it's classic cars that you like — custom paint — I say you go get a job at a body shop. If it's fashion or something to do with graphic design, go get an internship at a design studio.
“If you wanna make a career out of selling drugs, it's really important that you educate yourself about what you're getting into. People are naïve about what they're involved in. I think there's a lot of people out there who don't know that there's another option besides the easy way out — selling drugs, being a fool. I dunno, there's so many things that people get sucked into, I can't really put a word on it.”