Names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of those who shared their experiences.
John got caught up with the law for the first time when he was 14, writing graffiti in the 8th grade.
He had been interested in graffiti since elementary school, throwing up a name from a video game on the playground, in the bathrooms, and on his way home.
“I used to see tags and stickers, and I thought, what does this mean? Who’s doing it? What does it stand for? As the years went on I caught my first tag with a sharpie.”
“From there it was all downhill,” he joked. “It was a ‘curiosity killed the cat’ type of situation” that got him into graffiti.
“I remember I caught a tag on a law office down the street from where my parents lived… I felt so guilty… I told my parents and they said, ‘
Oh that’s okay, we’ll go clean it up.’ It was harmless I was in like 3rd grade… but after that, it was on.”
By the time he was in middle school he was writing properly in the Bay Area. He was running with a crew and heavily involved in the scene. They found spots skating around the city, taking the city bus to explore, and as they got older, they painted under bridges, in tunnels, and on freeway overpasses. As you paint and meet other graffiti writers, you start noticing other artists and admiring your favorites. You learn style and the customs involved with the culture by being immersed in it. The scene is wrapped up in general ‘street culture’: skateboarding, punk, graffiti, raves, tattoos. For him, it was skating that put him in the street and around other artists, sparking a hardcore obsession.
In 2020 graff and street art have infected the mainstream. Banksy is one of the most famous artists in the world and writers like Mr. Cartoon have gone on to become world renowned staples of their communities. Writers are some of the most culturally prolific artists of our time, and their art is free of charge, readily accessible and available to the masses. There is no pretension that only someone with an art degree is able to understand it. Historically, it’s exactly the opposite, the lay person would likely have more of an understanding and appreciation for graffiti than a curator. That paradigm has shifted, with graff culture and street culture in general, flooding the mainstream, informing trends.
The injection of graffiti into general consciousness really began in Los Angeles in the 1980’s on Melrose. From La Brea to Fairfax a crew of writers took over the alleyways and waste walls of the city. They put their pieces up and protected the territory, taking care of the walls and making sure their neighborhood stayed beautiful, covered in their art. As the city grew and Melrose garnered fame as a cultural destination, some of those writers were hired to paint walls of stores. A writer called Mear One was one of the first on Fairfax to paint a storefront, and it opened the door for writers to paint legally and to get paid for their art.
From there John Pochna, the owner of 0-1 Gallery on Melrose, started inviting writers to exhibit their work in a gallery setting. “At a point in the mid nineties Melrose was so popular for graffiti that we had Japanese tourist busses coming down to La Brea and Melrose,” Mear One says in an interview, remembering fondly, “…they would just hop out the bus and start photographing us… somehow we had legitimized this illegal activity.”
But despite the beginning of its acceptance in mainstream culture 30 years ago, writers are still going to jail for painting, risking their lives and futures to get up.
“The first time I got caught I was in 8th grade, like the first time the police detained me. I got away with just a slap on the wrist because of how young I was… in high school was the first time I was rolling with people involved with more than just graffitti.” John says. He started writing in the 2000’s and legislation and acceptance of the arts by the government had not caught up to cultural norms. “That was the first time a case was built against me and cops came to my house and everything… I was like fuck man this really sucks… they’re threatening jail time and all this shit.”
That’s when John began trying to find ways to paint legally. Like so many others that came before him, he began thinking about how he could use this highly cultivated skill and tenacity to make a living. But he didn’t stop writing illegally.
“The thing about graffiti is that no one’s fucken telling you what to do… it’s you and the streets, the surface, the paint. There’s literally no limit, and no one can tell you that you can’t go here or paint there. You’re going to have to take that shit no matter what, and if someone doesn’t like it, you’re going to keep doing it and doing it and doing it.”
The Melrose crew that pioneered LA graffiti felt the same pressure. They had to find a way to make what they did legitimate because there was no stopping the obsession. Through galleries, murals, tattoos and graphic design, they did. The explosion of graffiti art from Melrose was in good company. Rap group Dilated Peoples came out of the same Melrose scene. “It was a mecca for creative energy,” Rakaa from DP says. “Maybe you would see Slash from Guns and Roses coming out of the bar… then turn the corner and see Mear bombing an entire two story production across a wall… There were open walls and open turntables.”
Diversity of art that was able to thrive on those blocks has to do with the accessibility. Open walls and open turntables allowed anyone who took the time to learn, and earn, respect from those already there could hone their skills alongside peers.
A finely honed skill that is seemingly insignificant outside of the insular community holds its pursuit as its highest virtue. It exists outside of economy, of business, outside the jurisdiction of anyone or anything. It exists and persists out of the pure desire to perform the act. A culture and community form around it but these are always secondary to performance of the act, of getting your name on a wall.
We see the most modern version of monkism in those who make their lives around these things. In musicians, in artists, in surfers and endurance athletes. We see zealots throw their earthly lives at these idols either to succeed in a society and become revered, or fail to monetize their addiction and be relegated to the fringes. 0.001 percent of those involved are able to ascend to fame and be praised for their talent and vision but the rest, they do it all the same, a ritual that must be performed in order to sustain oneself.
“It’s hard to make a name for yourself. But it shouldn’t be about that. It should be about yourself, how well you carry yourself, how well your art represents yourself… I don’t look at somebody’s art and think ‘oh who do they have beef with’ or ‘what their personal life is like’, I could care less, their work speaks to me and that’s it…” ATLAS, Los Angeles graffiti writer
It speaks to something we seldom account for in our lives, something the standardized American morality set has left out. It’s as natural as anything, human to its core, and to blame someone for following it, for vandalizing public property or spouting profane lyrics is trying to blame water for boiling. It feels fucking good. There is no why, there is just total faith in a feeling, something speaking truths to your head from your guts.
“Writing is expressing yourself against the public’s will,” says P.Jay, an LA writer in footage from the 80’s, “West coast is never gonna end. As long as there’s graffiti and as long as there is spray cans and there are young kids, there’s gonna be west coast.”
“We’d be getting up in these crazy ass places, and just knowing hundreds or even thousands of people were seeing your shit on a daily basis, but don’t know who you are… I was like damn I need to keep doing it more and more and more, it’s like a disease,” John says. He paints legally these days and enjoys success as a graphic designer. He was able to utilize his skill set to make a living through creativity. He does still paint illegally when he’s abroad, he admits. The rules are different in other places; not everywhere is so hostile towards artists lending public spaces their talents for free.
Like a disease, graffiti is infectious, and the people it pulls in tend to stick around and continuously expose more people to it. Everyday a kid sees a sticker or a tag or a piece and wonders, ‘Who did that? Who is this for?’ And every night, people head out to paint.