Art from a can
Criminals or craftsmen? Whether you consider it evocative modern art or shameless vandalism, graffiti has been in existence for some 40,000 years, the time when our Upper Paleolithic era, cave-dwelling ancestors first covered their walls with ochre and charcoal smears depicting primitive animals and hand-tracings.Sacked (with little irony) by the group of East Germanic tribes known as the Vandals in the sixth century, ancient Romans were long known to write on the walls of conquered cities and inside houses of the vanquished.
Since World War II, “Kilroy was here” has appeared on walls during every major overseas deployment of American troops, even in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat started out with a spray can and a snide smile, bombing many buildings and wall faces in lower Manhattan with his “SAMO” tag. In May 2007, an untitled piece of his art sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $14.6 million.
Eyesore or vital inner-city outlet, unauthorized graffiti is a crime, which makes those who leave their marks criminals. While we obviously don’t condone crime of any kind, we’re not afraid to look culture square in the eyes.
Graffiti is both art and vandalism. But it’s so much more. An annoyance for local law enforcement agencies, graffiti has evolved into a vibrant subculture and is now welcome in some of the very same art galleries that used to display it only unintentionally—on outside walls in pieces of work that appeared mysteriously overnight.
Grief, Raer and Siar are 20-something graffiti writers from the DVS Crew who have been painting illegally for more than a decade. The DVS Crew is not a gang, and the three are not gangbangers. The DVS Crew works more like an artist network. They seem to be more about progressing the graffiti art form than anything. They feel the need to keep tradition going—painting trains, bombing (making graffiti) as much as possible, rocking clean styles.
Grief is Hispanic, wears a nice polo shirt and jeans and appears almost preppy. Raer and Siar, both Caucasian, are dressed artsy, with long hair and tight stovepipe jeans. They are very involved in hip-hop culture, but you won’t catch them wearing baggy Fubu or South Pole gear.
They’ve all been caught and arrested, yet they still paint. They paint the most high-profile canvases they can, like freeway spots and walls along main streets in Reno.
What happens when these paint bandits get caught?
“Well, they’re changing [the penalties] every day, it seems like,” says Siar. “When I first got arrested, it was just a probation. They gave me a fine, and I did some work crew. … When I was an adult, I had to go to jail in California for a bit. I didn’t know it was gonna be that serious. I did four or five weeks. Now they’re trying to connect it [to other graffiti incidents] and make it a giant case and give you prison time. It’s fucking ridiculous. There trying to give you two to five years … it’s just nonsense. They’ll try to pin you for anything now. It’s just an industry—the court and the criminal system. It’s a money-making industry.”
Too close for comfort
One of the biggest fears graffiti writers faced in the 1970s was being confronted by and fighting with street gangs. Thirty years later, Raer faced the same problem, except this was a biker gang.
He was at a bar on South Virginia Street about two years ago when he saw a billboard. His instincts kicked in and he climbed up to paint.
“I was doing a tag, and I just got swarmed by bikers,” he says. “I thought they were gonna do something crazy.
Raer doesn’t fear the police. “The police are easy to run from. The people you have to fear are the people who hate graffiti [and want to take the law into their own hands, Wild West style]. It just so happens that certain biker gangs are totally against impromptu painting sessions.
Siar tells a story of a time he almost didn’t get away. And it wasn’t with the cops.
It was 4:30 p.m., about four years ago, and he walked into a bar and headed for the bathroom. There was no door, but there was a large mirror. Siar had a tool, called a scriber, to carve his name. As he was doing this, a man walked in and caught him.
“Don’t worry about it, bro, I won’t say anything,” the man said.
Raer finished up and left the bar. As he was heading to the bar next door to see a local band perform, a man grabbed him from behind and put him in a chokehold.
“It’s a good thing my friends were watching,” Raer says. A fight broke out. “I’d say there were about 10 or 15 of them trying to get the [concerned citizen] off of me. My friends just let him have it.”
Raer switched clothes and went to the bar next door to watch the show. He saw the bouncer—now bruised up—talking with a bouncer from the second bar. Cops showed up. Witnesses were filling out reports. Paddy wagons were parked outside the bar.
Raer stayed for the show, then went home. Like nothing happened. He did it just for the adrenaline rush.
“I remember just driving on the freeways, and I’d see it … driving to the city [San Francisco]. Then I got into skating. There was the gangster rap influence … and it just grew from there,” says Siar.
“I remember being one of the only kids [in Reno] doing it, then everybody started doing it. … But it’s cool because I know kids who have started writing graffiti, and now they’re great … the ones that kept at it, they’re the ones pushing the envelope. You always gotta have something new. … You gotta do it. You gotta paint. You gotta hold down your spots. You gotta rep your name—it’s like a different part of you,” he says.
Rebel without a paintbrush
“A few years ago, in my rebel … I don’t know … my tough days, I loved doing tags everywhere,” says Grief. “I really liked climbing things, just to get a tag.”
He would climb construction scaling to paint bridges and freeway overpasses.
“People would walk by and wonder, ‘Oh, how did he do that?’ I think when other people see it, they’re amazed by it,” he says. “The more dangerous a spot is, the more you want to paint it.
“But it does make you paranoid … every little sound you hear. I’ve had times where police drove by as I was painting. You just stay still and hide for a bit.
“I think one of the most important things about graffiti is the mystery behind it,” he says. How it appears suddenly. That’s an important element.”
How do graffiti artists pick their spots? Location, location, location. And visibility. “If someone else has painted there before,” it’s a good spot, according to Siar. “In one instance, we had a wall we painted so much that other people started painting it. … Or high profile spots … how many people and how much transit goes past it. It’s a lot of exploring and trying to find ways to get to those spots or climb to those spots.”
A little extra freight
“When you paint trains, that’s like the highest step for a graffiti writer,” says Grief. “I prefer trains. It’s cool knowing your artwork will be places you’ll never go.”
Painting freight trains is a federal offense.
Graffiti writers consider painting freight trains the purest form of the culture. It gains more respect from peers than painting a building or wall. It is also the most dangerous.
“The scariest part is climbing down off the box car,” says Siar. “It’s fucking tough!”
A couple of months ago, he and Raer were painting a train when they heard someone come up.
“Raer and I start rocking a train,” he says. “I look to my left, and I see a silhouette of a person walking … as soon as I turned around, I saw a light and an engine coming toward us.”
They hid behind a parked train for a half an hour before returning to finish their painting.
All three graffiti wirters do legal art, too. They’re all commissioned as artists to paint murals for local businesses. They’ve all taken college art and design courses. Siar jokes that the cops here hate it, but they can’t do anything about it. But the graffiti writers realize the affects graffiti has had on their lives, for better or worse.
“There’s a lot of the things I flaked out on [girlfriends, family members], and it sucks,” says Grief. “I just love painting graffiti, man.”
“The sacrifice of the whole game, the things I’ve become so good at doing just to support my graffiti …” Raer says. “Retaining relationships with people … You have to know who to lie to and who to love.”