An exploration of graffiti in Los Angeles, and its surrounding area, Steve Grodyâ€™s book Graffiti L.A. Street Styles and Art, is an analytical and visual collection of writersâ€™ thoughts and works, culminating in a manifesto for Los Angeles graffiti. Grody introduces each chapter in the book and then generously allows writers to speak their mind on a variety of topics ranging from style to sociology. Format catches up with Grody to discuss his experiences leading up to the writing of the book, and his thoughts now that it has been published.
“they took the sharpness, and they tried to take that intimidating aspect and that angularity of the gang writing and put it into the new form of writing, modern graffitiâ€™s form.”
Format: Please speak about your personal history relating to graffiti.
Steve Grody: Iâ€™ve always been interested in letter forms. As a kid I drew my various Mad Magazine style monsters and surf monsters, but I also remember doing bubble letters very early on, before I knew what a spraycan was probably. And then in college my degree was actually in painting, drawing, and photography, but I was always interested, before that, in pop graphics in high school. There was the psychedelic poster era, and thatâ€™s something that I was interested in, and I actually did psychedelic poster art for high school events. It didnâ€™t go over really well with the football team to see melting football players and stuff. Iâ€™ve always been interested in letter forms and pop graphics, so, even though I hadnâ€™t been doing any of that for sometime, when I saw things going on in L.A. I was interested, but I didnâ€™t start to document it right away because I wasnâ€™t trained as a documentary photographer, it was more of a fine arts approach. At a certain point, after seeing one of the major battles between SLICK and HEX, thatâ€™s what I discovered Belmont Yard which was right near where I was living, and I thought ok, I have to start documenting this stuff.
Format: You mention in Graffiti L.A. that it was hard to gain writers trust at first. How did you overcome that obstacle?
SG: Two things, number one is they just kept seeing me around. If somebody saw me around over a number of years, they finally realized, well, if nobodyâ€™s been busted because of this guy at this point, then he must not be a cop. And the other thing is just that I would talk to them and just not front any attitude, not try and come off hip or all hip-hop. My interest was sincere, and I could talk about things from an art background, so they were thinking again, well heâ€™s not a cop. The first yard was Belmont, anybody can find Belmont, and then somebody was down there fixing up a piece, they told me about Sanborn, so Iâ€™m at Sanborn, I start shooting at Sanborne, I meet people at Sanborne, they tell me about Motor National. And then at a certain point, once you know enough people, thatâ€™s one of the ways that people check your validity. Well if I can say that I know SKATE and I know EKLIPS, and I know DELO, you canâ€™t fake it, you canâ€™t start making up names. And then they say, ok, well obviously you know who AWR is, you know who CBS is, you know who these crews are, so Iâ€™ll tell you about this place.
It kind of goes from there, and at a certain point it was pretty funny, because there would be a certain attitude of course, itâ€™s natural for people to be condescending when youâ€™re coming into their scene, and you would see that they would be a little bit freaked when there wasnâ€™t any yard that they could tell me about that I didnâ€™t already know. And even in some cases, I was turning them onto where the yards were. As a matter of fact, I think that one really important crew association came because I told SWANK about how you get to Commerce Yard, and when he got there, he ended up hooking up with SH and has been a mainstay of SH crew since that time.
Format: Cholo is mentioned as one of the primary inspirations for graffiti in Los Angeles, but there is not a great deal of information on the movement itself in the book. Please speak about the general movement of Cholo graffiti.
SG: The thing is there are a lot of neighborhoods, a lot of times people say, â€œCholo, OK Latino gangster, that means East L.A.â€ and it doesnâ€™t necessarily. Itâ€™s in any of the Latino lower income blue collar neighborhoods. There were black styles and Latino styles in the gang writing, but Iâ€™d really have to say that the main influence in terms of the graffiti movement, it comes from the Latino styles. There were some major writers that were associated at one point with a particular area and neighborhood gangs, and they took the sharpness, and they tried to take that intimidating aspect and that angularity of the gang writing and put it into the new form of writing, modern graffitiâ€™s form. Now some of them used the modern graffiti movement to move out of gang life, and some of them straddled the fence, and some of them got killed for that. Some of them just didnâ€™t make it out of that; they kept slipping back into that life. When they were in the gang life they would use their gang names and it was like there was no other life, and when they did the graffiti thing, it was kind of like living this double life, and those things often didnâ€™t overlap, except when they did and there was often violence that happened around that.
Format: Graffiti L.A. explores relations between gangs and graffiti primarily in the developing years. What is the relationship like between gangs and graffiti today?
SG: By and large, Iâ€™d say that there is generally a respectful distance. Right now I donâ€™t know of any graffiti writers who are also active gang members. Generally speaking of a modern graffiti guy, as long as heâ€™s respectful of the neighborhood he goes into, heâ€™ll be fine. If heâ€™s going into a neighborhood where there is gang activity that there are walls that you donâ€™t go on, or areas that you have to be very careful in, and if youâ€™re careful in those areas, or careful on surfaces, and its clear that youâ€™re not trying to make somebody feel like youâ€™re taking over their territory, then its OK, but you have to be respectful in those neighborhoods. There is no active animosity, itâ€™s not like gang members necessarily go after graffiti writers at this point, where as at one point they were actually threatened by the rise of the graffiti movement because it was taking people out of gang membership. Itâ€™s kind of a respectful neutrality in most cases.
Format: Outside of how gangs influence graffiti and violence, please speak about the general violence, or lack of violence, within the Los Angeles graffiti scene.
SG: Compared to gang life itâ€™s very peaceful, but itâ€™s hardly peaceful. There were, very commonly, particular in the earlier days, a lot of fist fights and group fights and what not, over if somebody felt that they had established a wall as an area that they could go up and then another crew starts to go onto that spot, there could be some pretty violent encounters. And if somebody from a crew went over somebodies piece that could be grounds for a violent encounter. Even recently, a couple of weeks ago, that happened where there was a particular spot that a crew felt was clearly established as theirs, so the person heard about it, and showed up there when the person was still working on it and actually beat him up pretty well. But itâ€™s rare for it to go beyond a beating, itâ€™s very rare, although not unheard of, that some body would pull a knife, and for every time somebody pulls a knife, it would be even more rare that somebody even pulls a gun, so I suppose that thatâ€™s at least heading in the right direction.
Format: How is the content, as opposed to style or technique, of graffiti in Los Angeles unique?
SG: Thatâ€™s a tough one to think about as distinct from style. In L.A., the thing is, besides the unique styles, the content has to do with cultural narrative in the character work, the way street life is depicted in the character work surrounding things, itâ€™s a little bit more sincere in L.A. than in other cities. I think that in Portland itâ€™s going to be a little more of a pose, for example, than L.A. I think thatâ€™s where youâ€™d see the biggest differences, just in the character work, coming from a little more real experience.
Format: What is a chapter, or section, that you would have liked to put in Graffiti L.A. but werenâ€™t able to?
SG: On the legitimate complaints of the public, and actually there was a whole legal section with the laws and the codes and all of the kind of functioning of permits, the legalities of permitted productions and anti-graffiti organizations working to clean things up, that was all taken out because they felt there wasnâ€™t room. Besides that, what Iâ€™m sorry there wasnâ€™t more of, is the voice of people that are struggling with their businesses and are legitimately pissed off that a lot of young toys in particular are fucking up their store fronts, even though I will say that the world destruction is very sloppily used. The word destruction is used in regards to graffiti where there is often no destruction. Somebody tags on a wall, the wall has not been destroyed. The back of a street sign being slap tagged has not been destroyed. Very rarely has anything actually been destroyed. I do think that scribing and acid bath tagging, and tagging on storefronts, in particular storefront windows, sucks, absolutely sucks, and I think that any of these kids that act like anti-graffiti activity comes from a repressive atmosphere are kind of not being honest with themselves. Theyâ€™ve created the anti-graffiti attitude because of the toy activity, which is to a large degree created by the younger, less understanding graffiti writer.
Format: There is not a great deal of focus on tags in Graffiti L.A. â€“ How come you chose not to expose this aspect of graffiti in-depth?
SG: Well, in the beginning of the book, I say OK, here these are what tags, hereâ€™s the Cholo writing and here are modern tags, hereâ€™s a dripper tag, hereâ€™s a throw-up, and then beyond that there are millions of tags in the backgrounds of pieces. The reason I didnâ€™t go further into that is because thatâ€™s what everybody is able to see. Nobody that drives around the city for five minutes couldnâ€™t see a tag if they werenâ€™t looking. But, what is something that people havenâ€™t seen enough of is the really high end work, and since there is so much of that, that people havenâ€™t seen, thatâ€™s really what I wanted to bring out. I wanted to emphasize not just the breadth of the movement, but the aspects of work that people less often see. Also, any of those people that are in there with their really strong piece work, their tag will be in there. As a general rule, anybody can see what a good tag is on the piece thatâ€™s done by whatever artist it is. So I think that the tags are inclusive in that whole thing of representing the pieces.
Format: Graffiti L.A. explores the influences which developed the graffiti scene in Los Angeles. How has Los Angeles influenced other graffiti scenes?
SG: Tremendously. I tried to be very neutral and kind of objective as much as you can be in a scene talking about aesthetics, but Iâ€™ll just go out on a limb now and say that itâ€™s interesting that thereâ€™s this thing about New York as the home of modern graffiti. And a guy that I know that was an L.A. writer in the first important generationâ€”heâ€™s in Brooklyn now and heâ€™s an animator, and he was on this panel I did thereâ€”said, you know they may have started this thing off, but weâ€™re responsible for what it became in L.A., and thereâ€™s a lot more story to be told, technically, stylistically, aesthetically.
I think about Jazz, and it was always New York Jazz guys, New York Jazz guys, and it was only years later that the West Coast was given more appropriate acknowledgment with Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus and a lot of other people. And people finally, often after somebody died, acknowledged that were just as important as the New York Jazz guys. At this point thereâ€™s no shortage of people in the world that consider L.A. the cutting edge of graffiti. You will see the influence of L.A. writers in Japan, in Europe. The guys that travel, they see people not only writing like L.A. writers, but dressing like L.A. writers, wearing the clothes that L.A. writers might wear. So people like REVOK, and SABER, RETNA, and ZES, are very influential at this point around the world, so I would say that L.A. writers are probably the most influential group of writers in the world today.