Spray Painting Their Graffiti To Glory

Like many in Los Angeles I see graffiti as blight, or at least until today.

Two world-class graffiti artists, one named Saber and his mentor Casey Zoltan, put the blight in a different light at a METal presentation Saturday morning.

Taggers start out as rebellious youth, many who were skateboarders or break-dancers at places like Venice boardwalk. In time some evolve into artistic warriors and merge into a brotherhood that won’t be denied.

“I am a soldier of art and refused to be constrained by society,” said Saber at the METal event, hosted by Ken Rutkowski.

Mural Moratorium

Society hasn’t been nice to graffiti artists and Saber is pissed about that. He’s in a war with L.A. politicians who want to snuff their work. The city removed or painted over 36 million square feet of graffiti for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011, up 8% from the prior year, costing $7 million. City workers paint over graffiti with Palomino beige, the color of “the New World Order,” he said. Other forms of removal include sandblasting and chemicals.

Saber wants the war against graffiti stopped badly enough that he paid to have five skywriters paint the noon sky above downtown Los Angeles last September. They wrote the names of several graffiti artists, along with  Saber’s Twitter address, and ended with this message: “End Mural Moratorium. Art Is Not A Crime.”

L.A. was once known as the “Mural Capitol of the World,” with 1,500 of them by some famous painters across city walls and freeway stretches, illustrating themes of the civil-rights movement, anti-Vietnam War activism and black-pride movements. But about 10 years ago it seems enough was enough for many citizens.  Mural artists were hit with a moratorium ordinance that deemed their outdoor art illegal by lumping it in with commercial signage. Los Angeles now has many laws to halt graffiti.

Saber says the moratorium is a clear violation of the first amendment right to free speech and that enforcement of the laws a waste of taxpayer funds.

“They’re trying to crush us,” Saber said. He claims that business owners have about 4,000 illegal billboards throughout the city yet laws against taggers mean some end up “doing hard-core time.”

Artwork by Saber

Saber began his graffiti career about age 13. He’s now 35 and has no plans to change despite the blowback and commonly held view that he’s a public nuisance.

“We are not angels,” he said. “But why am I doing this and why do I want to write on walls?”

Graffiti dates back to ancient Greece and Rome and places like Pompeii that had scads of political slogans and profanity. The roots of modern graffiti today emerged from depressed economic times of the 70s as a protest and declaration of identity and to claim neglected space.

It started with tagging then evolved to a more advanced form called a “throw up,” using bubble letters and wild styles. Artists then painted a “piece,” short for masterpiece. These are large, labor intensive works depicting elaborate scenes that might include collaboration with multiple artists.

Graffiti In Politics

It’s an outlaw culture that sometimes taps into the political realm. Saber submitted a video to a contest held for President Barack Obama on the topic of health care reform in 2009. The image of the America flag splattered with health care graffiti at the top of this article is a screen grab of what Saber presented. He was among the Top 20 finalists, out of nearly 1,000 submissions. Saber didn’t win and was sharply criticized in the media by some, especially pundits on Fox News.

Saber battled it out with Fox. “They hate us,” he said.

But not everyone does.

Last summer the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles held a graffiti exhibition called “Art in the Streets.” The exhibit traced the development of graffiti and street art from the 1970s “to the global movement, concentrating on key cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and Sao Paulo, where a unique visual language or attitude has evolved,” MOCA said. The exhibit had the highest attendance of any show in the museum’s history, according to reports.

Graffiti is now a business, with Zoltan being an avid force behind it. Zoltan, also known as Eklips, is a founder of The Seventh Letter, a clothing company and an art collective based on the works of graffiti artists. Zoltan also curates KnownGallery, in Los Angeles, which exhibits a wide range of graffiti inspired works from artists that include Saber, Revok, Augor, Rime, Push and Haze.

Artwork by Rime

Much of this work comes from an umbrella group of top graffiti artists called AWR and MSK, or Art Work Rebels and Mad Society Kings, which Zoltan also developed.

“We never thought it would become a business, or that people would be traveling the world doing this,” said Zoltan, whose introduction to graffiti began in 1984.

Despite the success in graffiti art having emerged as a recognized platform, it’s not easy street.

“The reality is it’s really hard,” said Zoltan. “People fall, people get shot, they get mistaken for burglars or gang members,” and some get arrested, he said. “A lot risk their lives.”

It’s worth noting that “tagging” often consists of gang signs and territory marking. There is little if any creative thought and to many it’s like a dog pissing on the carpet. Offensive to be sure.

When I got a chance to speak with Saber I had a simple query.

“The big beef most of us have is with taggers who script the walls of homes and alleys. Do you support that?” I asked.

“I support the kid but not the vandalism, even if he is considered a menace. When a kid scratches on your window, it’s not against you,” he said.”It’s my position to never turn my back on them and hope to guide them away from destroying the property.”

He also feels this form of expression enables youth to release “pressure valves” that keep them away from more nefarious adventures as they find pathways to express.Saber also said those days of running around are behind him.

The bottom line is graffiti is not going away, no matter how hard cities try and how enraged the populace gets. That’s not to say that every time I see graffiti I’ll smile and say boys will be boys. My home has been tagged before. But I’ll have a better understanding of why it’s there. I just hope they’ll leave my house alone.

Strength & honor,
Brian Deagon
Twitter & Facebook


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