You hear about graffiti legends, artists who have been there since the beginning, stuck with it through the changes, and have influenced every generation of writers that have followed in their footsteps. These are the legends that have seen it all, whose styles reflect it all, and whose love for graffiti has become a life long affair.
The Hawaii-born, San Francisco-based Estria is one of these legends, and Format was lucky enough to chat with the artist about the way it was, the way it is, and all the steps in between.
â€œRight now it’s about how I can use culture to empower, to celebrate diversity, to get folks to care about people and the environment above profits.â€
Format: You started writing in Hawaii in 1984, and have never stopped. What is it in you that has kept you so dedicated to graffiti?
Estria: You know, I’ve been thinking about this one for a while. I really don’t know why almost everyone else eventually walked away from graffiti. For me, I fell in love with painting with spray cans; it was an immediate love affair. I have tried other mediums – acrylics, airbrush, oils, pastels – but nothing has held my interest like the spray can. I also fell in love with the challenge to paint whatever I could imagine. It was Crayone who inspired me to develop that skill. I’d have to say that I’m still developing.
The competition in graffiti motivated me through the ’80s. To me, it was and is the best thing about hip-hop. I worked very hard to be better than everyone else. As much as I liked letters, I really sucked at them. I worked at that for many years. Painting characters came easier for me. That was a quick route to getting some recognition early in the game since most writers couldn’t paint them.
Being the first graffiti writers at the Academy of Art in San Francisco was a whole different thing for me because folks weren’t competitive. They were like, “Hey, let’s get together and draw and paint.” I was like, “Let’s get together so I can try and smoke you.” I had to find the motivation to excel within me.
In the ’90s, my motivation was purely the growing relationship between the art form and myself. I was getting better at painting. I was being very experimental because I painted so much. And I was gaining respect. Writers would let my pieces run for a long time. That didn’t happen in the ’80s. I also made a commitment to make a living from my murals. That was a struggle, and I never want to do that again, but it got me painting all kinds of things and subject matters I wouldn’t have imagined.
In the ’90s I also began teaching graffiti classes in San Francisco, and then in Oakland. That was a very good way for me to give back to the culture. I think I’ve now taught over 100 writers. That kept me in touch with the scene.
My motivation in the 2000s has been seeing the impact my murals have on hundreds of thousands of people. Iâ€™ve been putting a lot more political content and community and cultural empowerment into the pieces.
Format: You were a main player during San Franciscoâ€™s â€œGolden Ageâ€ of graffiti. What was it like then, and how is it changed now?
Estria: The single biggest difference between the graffiti scene then and now was the ‘newness’ of it. You’ve got to think that anyone born after 1983 has never known the USA without graffiti. Back then it was an exciting new thing. There was no one to tell you how to do it, or what was good or bad style. You learned on your own, or with friends. So the raw creativity of creating art excited my entire generation worldwide. Combine that with the freedom to defy authorities and paint whatever you want, where ever and whenever, and you had a potent [movement] that changed the face of nearly every major city on the planet.
Nowadays you have the Internet and magazines to look at. This is good in the sense that people can get very good at spray painting in a very short time. This is bad in the sense that it has eliminated the unique styles of each city. So if MSK is the hot shit right now, you’ve got kids worldwide emulating their style. I’ve seen kids in the ghettos in Mexico City rocking a Revok “R” and not even understanding where that came from, or how Revok’s crew took Cholo, and Old English, and Graff, and mixed it up to get those sorta gothic, Cholo styles. It’s no longer specific to LA. The history isn’t there now. In the ’80s it was hella exciting to go to other cities and meet writers, because we knew we were going to see styles no one else in our city had seen. I would say that most new school writers today are so trendy, and copy-cat, and are not into being the pioneers of style, or being the style master of their city. That’s sad.
Back then I remember going to Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego. Those cities represented strongly with unique styles. The hand styles of Philly, and the fat tutti-frutti styles of San Francisco, those were the stuff of legends.
Oh, one more thing about the “Golden Age” in Frisco: There were hella more pieces being painted every night back then. You had to paint every week for years to be called a king. Nowadays folks do like 5-10 pieces and think they’re running things.
Format: Do you have any favorite stories to tell about your mural painting, late-night adventures, etc.?
Estria: This past fall I painted a mural with my friend in a city called San Pedro Sulas, Honduras. He envisioned and organized for us to go down and paint a mural with a non-profit that gets kids out of the gangs. The gangs from El Salvador and that region are notoriously brutal and powerful. They are known as La Mara 13 and Mara Salvatrucha 18, and were formed in neighboring El Salvador by gang kids who were deported from the US.
In 2004, two days before Christmas, a yellow school bus used for public transit was surrounded by three cars. Men got out and shot up the whole bus with automatic rifles. They slaughtered men, women and children. Few survived by hiding under the dead bodies. The government blamed the gangs for the tragedy. This massacre gave Central American governments carte blanche to take a hard line against gang youth. Since that day thousands of youth across Central America have disappeared.
We painted a mural at the site of the massacre. We honored the dead with a yellow school bus flying away with wings, and the message “Arte es la Vida” (Art is the Life). The youth that painted were totally jazzed. Never in my entire career have I had that many people stop to appreciate our work. Buses passed every few minutes and many stopped, full of people cheering us on. Families stopped in the middle of the road to ask about the mural, talk about the massacre, or thank us for the gift of art. The mural wasn’t my artistic best, but it was unquestionably the most [significant] mural I have ever painted.
Also important, it was in ’86 or ’87 that I met Razor, who was considered the King of Berkeley. He made a skinny cap by cutting the plastic top of the spray can. It was messy and it leaked paint everywhere. I took that idea and refined it. Today it is used all over the world. Here in the Bay we call it the skinny cap. In LA they call it the stencil tip. I think it’s my biggest (or littlest) contribution to the graffiti world. Whenever I travel I teach the local writers how to make it.
Format: You gained a lot of fame (or notoriety, depending on your viewpoint), from your 1994 arrest. What is the story behind that?
Estria: Getting arrested for graffiti was part of the game. Old school cats laughed and teased me for getting busted so late in the game.
I was out bombing, and it was my first time out with this one guy. I got the instinct to cut out, and he said, “Naw, one more block and we’ll go home.” Well, next block I get run down by this off duty cop. Always listen to your first gut instinct.
That arrest gave me worldwide fame for a second. It was on CNN, the National Enquirer, The Stars and Stripes. It was top of the news for two days until OJ sped down the highway! (Thanks OJ!) I did a heck of a lot of community service with every city department in SF. That further opened my eyes to politics and corruption. That community service definitely informed my murals and infused them with more consciousness.
One good thing about getting arrested was the lesson that crisis defines character. I learned who my real friends were and were not. It was like it washed all the fake people out of my life. It left me with life-long friendships.
Format: How have the messages in your murals changed over time?
Estria: Initially I just painted things kids my age were into. Then I became more conscious about what my pieces were saying. I tried to do my part to get folks to evolve in their messaging. The first Bush administration really got me going, and I did some anti-war pieces during the first Iraq War.
As time went on, I got tired of doing fist-in-the-air, anti-this and anti-that messaging. Currently, I’ve been moving away from the anger bit to more positive messaging. Right now it’s about how I can use culture to empower, to celebrate diversity, to get folks to care about people and the environment above profits. How do I do it without sounding like Sting talking about the rainforests? I use my murals to level the media playing field. I pretty much paint people of color exclusively now. I feel that the sheer number of white people you see on TV or in movies does not reflect the world that I see. I mostly see Asians, Latinos, and Blacks, so that’s what I’ll paint. But then I don’t live in the Oakland hills, I live in the flatlands. I try to always consciously represent for youth in our communities. I feel that many times their voices aren’t heard. With a mural, they are.
Format: It seems like you have a big heart for non-profits and being a positive role model for youth. Can you tell us about some of the ways youâ€™ve been involved in this?
Estria: I’ve been involved with non-profits since I was 13. My mom sent me to the YMCA for summer and I learned about leadership, government, and values. I learned to hope, dream, and work for systemic change at an early age. Later, I found my way to contribute was through my artwork.
Of all the non-profits and foundations I’ve come into contact with, I constantly [connect to] the ones helping youth. Perhaps that goes back to my YMCA days. I just feel that the future will be better if we bring awareness, good values, and skills to youth at an early age. We have to show them alternatives to all the fucked up stuff they see on TV, or in their hood, or at home.
In 2002 I opened Tumi’s Copies and Design. We thought our neighborhood needed Kinko’s services. Turns out it didn’t, but all our non-profit contacts needed graphic design. We became simply Tumis, and pressed our design and website development skills into the service of non-profits and foundations.
Format: Graffiti art seems to be one of the most unified, innately collaborative art forms around today. What role do seasoned artists like yourself play in shaping the graffiti artists of tomorrow?
Estria: Graffiti has been around since the ’70s. Which means we are still in its second and third decades. If you compare that to Jazz, we are still young. This first generation of writers is still alive and painting, which means it falls to us to teach the youngsters. Nowadays there are graffiti classes in many cities and schools as after school workshops. You will know graffiti has finally been accepted into the canon of American and world arts when it is featured in history books and covered in accredited classes in high schools and universities. I think that’s a couple decades out.
Graffiti is very collaborative, possibly the most collaborative 2D visual art ever. One of the best things about graffiti is the freestyle collaboration that occurs. It is spontaneous and fun. It has transformed some of my so-so pieces into memorable burners. [Whatâ€™s] interesting is that this [was necessitated by] the very roots of graffiti: Having a partner to help watch your back, having a partner to bring some of the paint.
Format: You recently started a new screen-printing company, Samurai Graphix. Can you tell us about it?
Estria: Samurai Graphix is an offshoot of Tumis. I had built the line of business of screen-printing there, but it didn’t quite go with website development and offset print design. In 2007, I left Tumis and took the screen-printing business with me. Where Tumis had a Peruvian and Latino culture, now Samurai Graphix has Japanese and Asian flavors. Over the years, I have been learning more about my roots, and I like to put this into my enterprises. I chose the name, Samurai Graphix, because it stands as a constant reminder to all our staff and clients of the values we strive to uphold. Now in its second year, it is doing quite well. We have very exciting paths ahead of us. We print for a lot of schools and non-profits, but are currently expanding to music bands and corporate clients as well.
Format: Anything you want to say to young writers?
Estria: Be creative and original. Try new things and new styles. Don’t copy much of what you see on the Internet.
Look at legends in other fields. Take Michael Jordan or Lance Armstrong for examples; these are not folks who are merely trying to win first place. They are trying to be the legends in their fields. Michael Jordan took the Bulls to six championships, and Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times and beat cancer. They were trying to be the all-time best of the best. Like Mike Dream, a king among kings.
More Info: http://www.estria.net/