Los Angeles native Steve Grody, author of Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art, is an expert on the local street art and graffiti scene. “In my era, the youth art was psychedelic, and I did that,” recalls Grody, “so when graffiti started to pop up in Los Angeles in the mid-eighties, I was already primed to appreciate the piece work—‘piece’ being short for ‘masterpiece,’ rather than just random tagging. That led to a 26-year ongoing documentary project on graffiti, particularly in Los Angeles.” Cartwheel Art Tours founder Cindy Schwarzstein knew about Grody’s expertise, and a few years back, she asked him to head up art tours in the Los Angeles area. For a preview of the art people see on a Cartwheel tour, PRØHBTD asked Grody to discuss five essential Los Angeles graffiti murals. Here is what he shared:
This is what could be called a character piece. Character is the word used in modern graffiti for anything that's figurative. Cartoon characters like those done by Vaughn Bode were the original inspirations for the figure in the graffiti coming out of New York, but you can see in this character by Asylm that the rendering of the female form and the hummingbirds is much more sophisticated than the flat standard cartoon figure. He has a very specific and limited color palate, which makes it more effective than somebody who would paint with every color possible, but it is an interesting piece because it's all his own personal symbols, some of which I can explain.
I can tell you that the hummingbird is his own personal icon. He likes it because the bird is very colorful, but it's also very territorial. There is a crown because, as part of the graffiti traditions going back to New York, people who felt their skills were good enough proclaim themselves a king. This doesn't necessarily mean a singular, "I am the king of everybody," but rather, "I am a king. I am somebody at the top of the game." Then at the top right, you see the arrow pointing up and to the right. It points to the northeast because that's where his crew, SH, or Seeking Heaven, is from. You see a heart with a little sword in it that could be his own personal history, personal pain, and the creativity that comes out of personal pain.
Plek and Black Light King UTI
There's a bunch of pieces to the left of it, and a bunch of pieces to the right, and the whole wall was an homage to the preeminent illustrator Frank Frazetta, who did the sword and sandals fantasy covers for so many novels and record covers. That wall actually has a name, Fire and Ice, but generally speaking people just call the art a mural or production.
In the history of graffiti, there is popular graffiti, “I was here” kinds of things, and there is political graffiti that goes all the way back to Pompeii. Then there is what scholars call Latrinalia, or bathroom graffiti, like, "There once was a man from Nantucket…,” that again goes back to Pompeii. In Los Angeles in the thirties and forties, you started to have gang graffiti. Then you have the modern era, starting in New York in the seventies, that some people refer to as wild style or style writing.
The Plek piece is very individual. He is using the technical vocabulary of the graffiti that came out of the style writing movement in New York: the abstracted letters, color blends, the way he splinters and fractures the letters, the outline, the three-dimensional rendering at the edge of the letters. There's a whole host of technical visual devices he's using that started in New York, although he is doing it his own way. So there's a tag. That's the individual name, in a mono-linear style, just like a single-line style. Then you have throw up, or a "throwie." The simple bubble letters are called a throwie because it's thrown up onto the wall—somebody may want to do something very quickly because it's very illegal. This is a piece because it’s full-on multi-colored, and he is taking his time to do a very technical execution. It is all done freehand with a spray can except for a few little bits where he masks something off to have a particularly sharp line. That piece is part of what's called a production, which is when a number of graffiti writers all coordinate on a wall. Everybody knows who's going up where and what the characters or the theme is going to be on the wall.
If someone came up to graffiti writers and said, "Oh, gee, I really like this street art," he might be puzzled by why the writers looked so pissed off and insulted. That's because most graffiti writers do not consider themselves street artists. They consider street artists to be riding on their coattails. If they're a veteran graffiti writer, they have taken a lot of risks in terms of health, getting up in gang-ridden neighborhoods, crawling on bridges, from falls and climbing. They've taken risks being shot at by gangs or being arrested. Then they see street artists... the stereotype being people who drive into the local arts district in their mom's Prius and do a nice legal mural, possibly using wheat pasting, meaning they didn't create it on the spot. Graffiti writers see themselves as something more, having taken more risks and doing something that requires much greater skill. However, the popularity of modern graffiti arguably led to the popularity of contemporary street art, which includes legal graffiti. It also led to opportunities for graffiti writers to do permission and even commissioned murals, as long as they know how to adopt their style to a more muralistic type of presentation. How and Nosm are really good examples of that.
How and Nosm are actually identical twin brothers of Turkish descent, originally from Germany, living in New York since they were relatively young. They are really at the top of the game. They would do things this technical on the fly, even illegally, and they have a style which is very visually dense and full of cultural symbols. They have managed to take what they want to do anyway, but modify it for an environment that's very welcoming in places that would be interested in street art or public murals.
Else (with Each) ICR
The character was rendered by Each of the ICR crew, but it's clearly Elser who’s the lead artist. I've seen his sketches, I know his letters. That green and gray writing across the middle? That is indeed his name, ELSE, but because he had more room, there's an R at the end, so it's ELSER. One of the things somebody will do is make their name a verb, like Bash is a graffiti veteran, but if he has room to do more letters, he might say BASHER. That's what those letters say, though I know it's not easy for people to make out. It's very abstract.
He's somebody with a gang background who got out of gang life by doing modern graffiti. Even if you come out of a difficult environment, you're still interested in referencing that difficult environment. It's kind of a street scene with a flaming Los Angeles sunset and an urban setting with a light pole. He's got this attractive girl with appropriate tough-girl tattoos, including the three dots on her cheek, which is a reference to La Vida Loca, which means gang life. Black Hearts is the place he's been involved with in terms of doing tattoos. She's got an L.A. on her neck, roses on her shoulders, so she's very much an L.A. girl coming out of street life, and yet her hands are in prayer. There's an aspect reflecting a tough background yet being peaceful at the same time. She's not looking angry. It's an interesting mix of symbols. You have roses, which are not a symbol of violence. You have some wheat paste, or posters, on the right and the left, which seems to me a product endorsement of some kind.
Andrew Schultz is the initial artist. He's the person that's very busy as a street artist, even though he has a background in graffiti. He's not doing graffiti-style street art at all. He has his own personal symbolism, but the mural is interesting because, to some degree, there’s that antagonistic relationship between street artists and graffiti writers. Graffiti writers are resentful of street artists, or muralists, so sometimes they'll bomb, or illegally go up on a street artist's piece as a way of saying, "To hell with you, you're not street like we are." It's their way of disrespecting them, even though they have no idea about the street artist's background.
Andrew Schultz's mural kept getting tagged up and bombed on. Bombed means illegal graffiti, usually with the big bubble letters. What he did, very smartly, was get in touch with Steel and Zes of MSK crew to collaborate on the mural. He knows those guys are very highly respected in the graffiti community, and his thought was, if he brings them in to collaborate on his mural, it would tend to keep graffiti toys—that is the term for the knuckleheads who don't know the rules of the game—from tagging on the mural. So far, that has been the case.
Zes was on the left with the green, and Steel was on the lower right with the multicolored piece. Since they have been on that wall, I don't think there has been any other tagging or bombing on that mural. Also, if there is any tagging or bombing on the mural, those guys will probably come back and clean it up. They realize that, if you're on the street, you're vulnerable, and you have to maintain your territory on that wall. If a bomb goes up and it doesn't get covered over quickly, that's like waving the red flag, that anyone can go up on this wall. Zes and Steel are both veteran graffiti writers. If their stuff got bombed on, they would come back and clean it up right away.