SPIDER-MAN'S GOT NOTHING ON JERK. FASTER than you can say “Green Goblin,” the petite Latina graffiti artist scrambles up a 40-foot-high concrete embankment of the L.A. River to a narrow ledge at the top and drops the spray-paint cans she'd been holding in the crook of one arm. Let's see Tobey Maguire try that 70-degree climb minus his Spidey suit, steel cables and team of special-effects coordinators. The girl wasn't even breathing hard.
Five minutes later, JERK's minibomb is complete, fat Humpty Dumpty letters shouting her scrawl over a particularly desolate stretch of river. As quickly as she went up, she comes down, skidding on her ass until she hits the ground with a thud. She dusts herself off, jumps the slime-green creek before her, and starts returning the way she came. Doesn't even bother looking back at the piece she just threw up.
“I'm used to it, I guess,” says JERK, 20, walking sideways up the other side of the riverbed, which, fortunately for her rotund companion, is not as steep. “Maybe it could be dangerous, but I never think about it.”
Drive-by show-and-tell takes up the remainder of the JERK tour. We pass a wall the city once allowed taggers to hit and see JERK in red industrial lettering and Hot Wheels flames. Next to an overpass, there's her name in white, sports-logo style, ready for a baseball cap. On another concrete expanse, a multicolored Aztec-cubist fusion hides JERK in it. Like those 3-D pictures in the comics, her name emerges only after you stare at it long enough.
“I don't paint stores that are mom-and-pop owned,” she replies when asked about the damage she does. “But if it's something for the city or corporations, I don't care. They've got the money.”
A dirty-white bobtail truck passes by with a half-dozen tags on it. JERK admits she'll do bobtails too. And freights. No homes or personal property like cars though. Buses? Sure. These are “the rules” as enumerated by a writer who's been in the game since she was in the seventh grade. She says she doesn't remember why she started writing JERK. She seems unconcerned that during her graf career, she's probably cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
“Shit, I pay taxes too,” she laughs. “If I want to paint something, I'm gonna paint it. That's my tax money. Buff it.”
JERK's referring to the fact that she also holds down a semirespectable job at a Macy's somewhere. Though she dresses like a boy on the street, she's pretty with big brown eyes and ink-black hair pulled back into a bun. You can imagine her in a dress helping some yuppie chick pick out a tie for her husband, all the while daydreaming her aerosol dreams. You'd never guess to look at her that she's one of a handful of female writers who've made fame for themselves in the mostly male graf world. She runs with the crews GAW (Going AWOL) and GMS (Got Mad Skills). So far she's NBC, i.e., Never Been Caught.
WHAT MAKES HER DIFFERENT FROM COUNTLESS other L.A. writers is the fact she's repped by Mat Gleason's Coagula Projects Gallery in the Brewery Art Colony downtown. In spring of 2000, he included her in a group show he was curating called “Eight Under 28,” where she was one of eight artists under 28 years of age. Later that same year, he gave her a solo show as part of the Absolut L.A. Biennial. It featured JERK's graffiti on canvases as well as drawings of her “characters,” as she refers to them. These include a cute little gal in ribbons and bows, a snarling, cockeyed fattie in pigtails, and a dancer sticking her foot in your face, with a giant “OUCH!” above it.
According to Gleason, notorious publisher of the bicoastal art scandal sheet Coagula, her drawings sell out whenever he puts them up. Granted, at $50 a pop, she's no TWIST or Shepard Fairey. But it's not too far-fetched to expect Juxtapoz to come calling one of these days, or even MTV. Gleason's already invested much time and money in producing a documentary about JERK called Graffiti Girl, which he hopes to sell to HBO or another cable outlet.
“JERK's constantly inventing, whether it's on the street or on canvas,” says Gleason. “What she does is very fresh, very original, and she's my most consistent seller. In this economic climate, that counts for a lot.”
Lack of ambition is not a problem. Raised in East and South L.A., JERK knows this might be her way out of low-paying, dead-end jobs. “I can't take this 9-to-5 bullshit,” she states, echoing the cry of many an aspiring artist.
There are a few big-ass flies in the ointment, however. First off, graffiti costing $400 or more to repair is considered a felony under the California Penal Code, and can catch you a year in county or a $10,000 fine. (Penalties increase according to the amount of damage.) The California Highway Patrol arrested five taggers responsible for thousands of dollars' worth of damage in a November 13 and 14 sweep. Of course, the cops have to catch her first, but that may be more likely with LAPD Police Chief William Bratton in the saddle. Bratton's an advocate of the “broken windows” theory of policing wherein cracking down on JERK and her fellow vandals is fundamental to reducing overall crime. For Bratton and his advisers, graf writers are at best kissing cousins to gangbangers, and at worst gangbangers themselves. JERK claims that couldn't be further from the truth.
“Graffiti's not linked to gangs at all. It's not the graffiti writers who are committing all these murders and robberies. Graffiti writers go out, and they're basically risking their own lives, not anybody else's. We'll get shot at by gangsters, or get beat. They're not going to just watch us write. They don't like us in their neighborhoods. I'm more afraid of gangs than the police,” she says.
So if JERK could talk to Bratton directly, without fear of ending up in steel bracelets, what would she tell him to change his mind?
“When people get older, they're set in their ways. They're more stubborn, and the harder it is to make them try to see anything else. No matter what I say, he's going to think what he wants. He'll just say, 'You're young, and the city doesn't trust you.' That's it.”
What if there were more legal walls? JERK says it might cut down on the illegal stuff, but not completely. The risk of getting caught is part of the rush of doing the deed. Ironically, if all graffiti were legalized tomorrow, the allure of producing it would likely dissipate. By cracking down on graffiti, Bratton and other law enforcement help ensure its survival as a subculture.
“Certain things were meant to be done a certain way,” JERK says. “No matter what, I'll always be doing graffiti on some level.”