by Alex Munoz

The first thing I saw as I walked into Beyond The Streets 2018 was an uncannily familiar courtyard filled with graffitied cement benches and structures. Only later did I realize that I had seen this space before—it was the famous Venice Beach tagging grounds, but meticulously recreated in DTLA. I was already impressed, but turns out I was only witnessing a sliver of the self-proclaimed premier exhibition of graffiti and street art. 

Little did i know that 40,000 square feet of art from luminaries like Shepard Fairey, Lady Pink, Basquiat, and Keith Haring were packed into the warehouse before me. Diversity being the key word, it became very clear that this was a show less about any specific point, but more a celebration of the field of art itself, and the people who dedicate their lives to it. 

The sheer rawness of the Venice simulation before me was so actually cool, that I became all too aware of my wardrobe choice - an Urban Outfitters cardigan that I got at the mall. Oh well, I thought, that’s what I’m here for: to rub up against a world I might usually not mesh with, to learn about the most immediate and hands-on modes of artistic expression. 

Walking through the immense gallery, it quickly became hard to pay attention to any official talk; big, graphic shapes were everywhere. The warehouse venue had allowed Beyond The Streets to take full advantage of the room sizes. A cop car cut in half for all of its guts to see, graphic characters covering entire walls, and a fully constructed stone mausoleum were just some of the many eye-catching exhibits. My inner child wasn’t just awakened, he was jumping out of bed on an early Saturday morning to grab the nearest object capable of making a mark.  

I settled down with curator Roger Gastman to enlighten me on what I was viewing. Having broke MoCA LA’s attendance record with Art in the Streets, I naturally had so much to ask him, but I settled for the first topic being the highly Latino-ized Mister Cartoon take on a church service behind us. 

“Cartoon kind of says it all on the sign here outside, ‘REPENT NOW OR PAY LATER’. After sitting with him and hearing all he has to say about religion, and growing up in a religious family, I took away that everyone has their own beliefs. He’s in here giving his own sermons; talking about his life lessons, and in a sense that’s his religion.”

Religious symbolism was all over, including the wall of Chinese art before us that included traces of spirituality - crystals, candles, all the good stuff. 

"When you think about it, most art shows that you go to have a lot of religious influence on them. Of course with the classic paintings of the world, they’re all about spirituality. The beauty of this whole thing is that you can come to this show and see that angle, and then you come to the back room over here and there’s amazing, fun puppets that were made out of mostly trash.”

Michael Jackson’s Thriller flowing gently out of said puppet room, it was all too clear that you couldn’t pin this wonderland down to one topic precisely; the pop culture references mixed so seamlessly with the religious, and also with the real world points on socioeconomics or police that one really felt a slice of life being shown before you. 

Not one to keep the party away from anyone, though, Beyond The Streets is a partner of STOKED, a non profit dedicated to mentoring low income youth in the fields of art and design. 

"We’re doing a program where we’re gonna bring in a bunch of kids about a dozen or so times, and have them work with the artists themselves. Education through entertainment is something that we really want to bring more of to the city.”

This theme of shared tradition with the older and the younger was well on my mind when I was walked out to the Venice Pavillion (the graffiti-covered area I mentioned before) and was fortunate enough to be able to have a conversation with RISK, one of the many artists behind the authentic recreation of the 80’s Venice environment. In such a loud and stimulating environment, my caffeine soaked mind was brought to a gentle but sudden halt by RISK’s tempered artistic point of view. 

What inspired you to begin assembling everything together for this project?

"Well I just wanted to make sure that it was the original guys that were there in the 80’s. I grew up with a lot of these guys - we’re still friends, so I called them to come down and make it authentic, with the same spirit. A lot of this stuff was done drunk, was done with scrap paint, and a lot of this was done just hanging out and socializing. When you’re doing this you’re just talking to your friends and writing on the wall."

Yeah, because there’s a lot of names written here.

If you look it says “Dale Got Laid” up there, you know, that’s from when Dale got laid, and we all ran around and wrote on the wall because we thought it was funny. This whole thing is not so much an art installation piece, but more of an exercise.”

He points to the giant letters spelling out his tag

"That piece that I did in ’88 was done with scrap cans."

This is a reenactment of what you already did?

"Yeah, the original piece looks just like that. To paint like that now was really hard because I’ve learned so much since then. I had to really lead with my wrist and try to keep it loose. It was really fun to do, and it was a lot more challenging than I thought it was gonna be - I consider this to be kind of painting in reverse.”

What would you and your friends 30 years ago think of all this?

"Back then, we never thought about this future and had no idea where this would go. Like, we were very serious as artists and about our careers, but we spent a lot of time messing around, so obviously all this would be so strange to walk through. 

All the friends we’ve lost over the years that are dead or in jail and stuff like that, it’s just a very humbling but very weird feeling. People see this and they just see a bunch of graffiti, but we all step out here and it just *snaps* takes us back to a time."

Can you answer finally what I’ve always wondered: what is that? 

I point to one of those traffic cone-looking Venice concrete things - you know the kind - they’re all over the beach and act as a backdrop to shenanigans. 

Because I recognize that as a piece of Venice iconography, but I never actually learned what it is.

"That’s a fire pit. So that was for the public to come, start fires, and actually have a picnic. Definitely a center for community and all that." 

I ask because my generation came up learning about this whole scene through things like Sublime and Warped Tour, and, at least my friends and I have always been curious about learning more. What do you think the younger generation is taking from all these memories?

"I think that no matter what hobby you get into, you should know the roots and know where it came from. I hope that younger generation takes away that - the historical relevance and where all this stuff comes from. What I think they’ll take away from it? Probably nothing, they’ll just think it’s a bunch of tags on a wall."

But are these people that you know?

I point to the tags behind us.

Jimbo, Bagel, all of these names are people you’ve stayed connected to since you painted the original tags.

"Yeah definitely. DJ Dash was here to paint, Vision was here to paint, Cell was here to paint, Jimbo tried but he ended up getting sick, Bagel will be here, these are all people that actually came and painted this weekend. 

It’s kind of like the hieroglyphics on the caves - our version of hieroglyphics. Over here it says “RIP Murph”, because he didn’t make it, you know? He unfortunately just died recently, and there’s tributes all over like that “Forever Pure” painting over there."

And with this intimate connection to growing up and the people around you, I keep coming back to that “S” symbol over there. 

Yes, that very “S” symbol both you and I drew on every notebook in middle school homeroom. 

I know that me and my friends would always draw that growing up, and it doesn’t even mean anything, at least as far as I know.

"Totally. That 'S' was the first graffiti a lot of kids ever did. I think it came from Suzuki, someone else said it came from somewhere else, but that’s the first thing you learn to draw is either that or “Kilroy Was Here”, you used to see that everywhere. The first graffiti I ever saw were those two and Led Zeppelin/Black Sabbath. It really just represents how you get your first can of paint, the very first thing you ever draw is that 'S'."


And going back to hieroglyphics and graphic lines, how do you go from that “S” to something as elaborate as this Risk logo you have up here?

"A lot of late drunk nights.”

I give a chuckle, but RISK stayed stoic .

"No, we really took it very seriously. After so many days and nights of practicing, you start adding a little more style to it, and then a lot more style. I got to a point where I wrote my name a million times, and then people started asking 'so, what do you want to say?' and I would respond, 'I want to evoke emotion with color', and they just told me to drop the letters. I was like, oh, that’s a good point."

So it naturally just becomes more abstract over time.

"Yeah, if you look at my public murals, there’s no letters. If you look at my gallery work, there’s no graffiti. It’s one genre in my art, life, career - what have you - that I cherish, but it’s all just so different. I really love it all, I love street art, I love murals and I can appreciate where it all came from." 

What, then, would be your distinction between graffiti and street art?

"People ask me all the time the difference, and really it’s they’re ultimately cousins. The new generation’s interpretation of that idea is more of the 'work smarter, not harder' philosophy. Kids today with have the ability to work in the studio, do something on paper, post it online, and they’re done. When you’re a graffiti artist, it’s a lot more of the old idea of a craftsman where you go out and spend all night on one single piece."

It’s a completely different culture of art where you had to physically ask your friends, like “come get out of bed and hop over and see what I did.”

"Yes, social media raised the bar tremendously. It would take two months to get a piece of art around the world before, and now it takes as short as two seconds. This is really a celebration of when art had time to sit and cook for a while before the tempo got raised to the point that it is now.”

When I left RISK to sit at that concrete table, receiving congratulations from everyone packed into the pavilion, I realized how much of the layer of pretense he had peeled away for me regarding the exhibits. It’s easy to place street art into one box that is apart from who one is, but one of the most poignant messages of Beyond The Streets 2018 is quite simple, that the art of the people is fundamentally born out of a part of everyone. That anyone can embrace their own artistic side no matter what background, privilege, or lack thereof that one comes from. Roger summed it up by saying, 

“Anyone can do it if you work hard at it. The old way was to go to school, major in art, take some slides of your paintings and send them to some galleries. At this point, you can kind of make your own path which most of the artists here have done.

Graffiti and street art definitely has a reputation that everyone who does it is underprivileged. In this field, the artists come from all walks of life. There’s people here that may have grew up on trust funds, and others that grew up on the streets. What we all have in common is that love; that passion for rule breaking and mark making is what brings them together.”