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Graffiti: The Untold History of The City’s Truest Art Form

by Finn McKenty
art & design

cover

Growing up in the ’90s, the only things I really cared about were music and graffiti. Although I grew up in the Seattle area, I was always drawn to the Southern California scene, devouring every detail I could via the pages of magazines like Can Control, as well as word-of-mouth from friends of mine down south. While New York might have put graffiti on the map, in my opinion the most exciting innovations in the artform have come from LA. But sadly, aside from a couple (excellent) films like Infamy, the LA scene hasn’t really been documented the way it deserves — especially the era that I grew up in, the ’90s.

With that in mind, I was incredibly excited to learn about a new Kickstarter project: a book called The History Of Los Angeles Graffiti Art Volume Two, covering the scene from 1989 to 1994. Co-author Robert “Relax” Reiling was kind enough to sit down with us and talk more about this era of graffiti and share more about the project itself.

For anyone reading this who might not be a “graffiti insider,” what should they know about the book?

Other graffiti books will show the art — whether that’s a bomb, a heaven, a mural, whatever — but they fail to show what’s around it. And that’s what we include a lot of in our book. There’s a lot of those personal elements that you won’t get from any other book, and it makes you part of it. It’s documenting a culture, like watching National Geographic.

There’s tons of shows about gangs, street gangs, motorcycle gangs, all that. But nothing about graffiti. You know why? Because nobody shares information; it’s hard to get. Nobody else could do this book, because they don’t have access to that information, to those people. But we do. They trust us, they know that we’re going to represent them correctly, and we’re not going to censor what they have to say.

We’re actually giving you insider information, first-hand accounts of things that happened in their own lives, their own experiences. But this is a true history book. You’ll feel like you’re reading a diary of these artists.

ny vs la

COPE 2 with classic New York style (left) vs FOKIS LTS with modern LA style (right)

I have always wondered why the LA scene hasn’t gotten the mainstream media attention that it deserves. Much respect to the guys from the “Subway Art” era, but that was a long time ago and LA has been killing it since then and I feel like it should be documented. Why do you think that is?

Historically, like back in the ’80s, New York was the place to be. That’s where graffiti started. But I honestly feel that after the ’80s and ’90s, LA officially took that title of “capital of graffiti,” at least in the United States. I think it’s been pretty much on top since then, but maybe has cooled off a bit in the last three or four years compared to some other places. Like if you go to Europe, graffiti is just ridiculous over there.

If you’re talking about mainstream media, yeah, they tend to go back to New York. “Subway Art” has been out for decades, and it was published by a really big publisher. But if you talk about LA, the only book about LA is really our first book, which was obviously nowhere as large as “Subway Art.” So we’re the only ones who have done anything on that scale, premiering at MOCA and all that. The media just don’t know about it— they don’t have the inside scoop on who’s who in graffiti. They’re just gonna go on the internet and search for “graffiti” and find “Style Wars.” It’s an easy reference point versus LA, where our book is all there really is.

chaka

I loved the first volume of your book. Can you talk about why you are doing a second volume, and what’s different about it?

Well, it’s not really like there’s anything we left out in the first that now we’re covering in the second… Both volumes are based on a specific era. The first one is from ’83 to ’88. We started with ’83 because that’s really when graffiti started being a thing in LA. Not gang graffiti, because that’s been in around in LA for decades, but New York-inspired street art graffiti.

We thought about it like, “We don’t wanna make a book that supposedly covers everything up until today, because a year later our book will be out of date.” So we decided to break it down into 5-year increments: the first one was ’83-’88, the second volume is ’89-’94.

We want to present all this in a respectful manner without all the cliche elements that you usually see with a graffiti book, with the stereotypical “graffiti letters” and paint drips on the front of the book and all that. With this one, we wanted to make it even more elegant and just focus on the content of the graffiti and the artists themselves.

ayer heaven

“Heavens” are graffiti painted on freeway signs, a trend that started in LA with writers like SER, CHAKA and OILER

One of the definitive parts of the LA scene at this time was how crazy people got with bombing [‘bombing’ refers to illegal graffiti, rather than legal murals]. What was it like to see that firsthand?

When you think about bombing in that first era, ’83-’88, it was really focused on street bombing, hitting the sides of buildings, and progressed to signs and a little bit of heaven bombing. But ’89 is when it really took off as far as heaven, just trying to hit an even more visible place where everybody could see it. And it just took off: people were like “Whoa, how did they get up and get to the back of those signs?” People figured it out and other artists started doing it.

When you’re bombing a heaven you can see it for a long distance — not miles, but a really long ways on the freeway. It was almost addicting. Everybody embraced it. People were like, “If I’m bombing on the freeways, that gives me more credibility than someone who’s just bombing on the streets or doing legal pieces.” It was a fame thing, a credibility thing, and just about the pride of getting up more all-city than anyone else.

Another thing that was a big part of that scene was the infamous tagbanger epidemic. Was that as bad as it seemed, or was it overblown by the media?

No, it was pretty bad. There were a lot of areas you had to be real careful of. I don’t wanna get too into detail on the gang part of it, but basically how that worked was, you had gang members and you had graffiti writers. Graffiti crews were formed in neighborhoods where gangs had been around for a long time, and it basically came down to either, you gotta join a gang or stop writing. So that’s where the tagbanger thing came from: we wanna keep writing, but we don’t want to get a green light on us. I want to make it very clear, that is NOT what graffiti is all about, but yes that was an epidemic that got out of control.

slick k2s

SLICK K2S took a painterly, naturalistic approach to color and shading that was a quantum leap forward for graffiti

In my opinion, this era was a huge step forward for the artform of graffiti in terms of overall aesthetic innovation. What do you see as the big artistic developments during the period in Volume 2?

The biggest one would be SLICK and HEX, what they did with characters: the shading, the dimension, the colors. That was huge. And RELM from KSN, he was one of the guys who started that too. They used two colors to give it that depth, and applied the same kind of rules to letters — letters were traditionally one-dimensional became 3D with that kind of shading technique. And by the tail end of that era, by ’94, you started to see those same ideas even incorporated into heavens. They weren’t just outlines anymore, you were seeing progression.

Those were the two things that really changed how people were doing pieces: adding more depth and dimension and making them more “real,” especially the characters, and it all became more colorful.

gang graffiti

Old school gang graffiti (left) is a huge influence on LA graffiti (right)

Last but not least, I wanted to ask you about the role of the tag in LA. Having a really tight tag has always been a bigger deal in Southern California than in most parts of the country. Why is that?

The reason why tags are more significant here, and why people more effort into them here, is that we’ve had gang graffiti here for a long time. And the gang graffiti in Southern California versus the East Coast is very different— handstyles have always been a bigger deal here, even before there was graffiti as know it today. So if you grew up seeing that gang graffiti, the really nice blockbuster letters and the handstyles, the handstyles, then when you start doing graffiti it’s already cemented into your mind that your writing needs to be proper-looking. That really pushed us to make sure our handstyles were up to par.

Interested in hearing more of this story? Fund “The History Of Los Angeles Graffiti Volume 2” on Kickstarter.

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Finn McKenty

Finn is the producer of CreativeLive’s audio channel.

You can email him at finn [dot] mckenty [at] creativelive [dot] com

@finn_mckenty