And there are those who fall somewhere in the middle, having grown up with graffiti and spent enough time in urban areas to know that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, no matter what their personal stance is.
I would say I fall somewhere in the middle, with an inclination toward the graffiti-is-art crowd. On the one hand, it would really piss me off to find some juvenile delinquents scribbling their names on the side of my house or car. On the other hand, I think a lot of so-called graffiti is beautiful. I’m also fascinated by the whole concept of graffiti’s public forum. I’m forced to look at billboards and bus stop ads all day long, and I get no say in the placement, style, or content of that imagery. So why shouldn’t I also get to enjoy public displays by street artists who often risk jail time and physical injury just to put up their work?
Clearly, there is more to know about this divisive subject, and I knew exactly where to turn for some insider info. The 1:AM graffiti supply store and art gallery has recently started hosting a monthly series on graffiti technique. The classes are taught by a rotating staff of well-known artists, each one focusing on a different aspect of graffiti style, history, and technique. After reserving my spot online, I got to spend a Saturday afternoon immersed in “Graffiti 1.0: The History and Art of Graffiti Lettering.”
I got there a little early, so I had time to check out the current gallery exhibition, titled “Outside In.” About a half dozen artists had each been given a section of wall space to cover with their art. Although a few used actual canvas, none of them hung their art in the conventional sense. The writer KEB covered a thick pillar from floor to ceiling in a wash of fairy-tale colors with a piece that mimicked his work on a public wall visible directly across the street. An artist known as PEMEX used a corner of the gallery to create a swirling, psychedelic piece that spreads across both walls, creating an awesome 3-D effect.
Once a small crowd of the day’s students had started to gather, we were called over to some chairs lined up in front of a projector. The class was taught by head coordinator and legendary artist Nate1. He now runs his own clothing line, but Nate1 still writes and is an SF graffiti legend. He has the knowledgeable and relaxed demeanor of an elder statesman. We were also lucky to have BAM TWS sitting in, who served as the unofficial class TA.
Together Nate1 and BAM ran us through an hour-long slide show covering the history of graffiti, from Corn Bread, the first documented tagger, through its early roots on the New York subways to its current high station in the galleries of Paris and Berlin. The presentation was informal, reminding me of some of my favorite art history classes from college. Nate1 and BAM spoke off the cuff about each piece, describing the technique used and its place in the progression of graffiti style. Conversation was encouraged and both teachers often deviated from the lesson plan to answer questions and add anecdotes from their own lives and artistic experiences.
(Side note: During this portion of the class I learned that the term “graffiti” actually has negative connotations. The implication with “graffiti” is that it is inherently vandalism, so the artists prefer to be known as “writers.” This is especially the case for those whose style centers around the creative manipulation of the letters in their nom de plume. I’m still going to call it graffiti for the most part, though. In my opinion, describing a complex piece of artwork as “writing” just comes off a little awkward in print.)
One of the most interesting things we discussed was the hierarchy of different classes of graffiti. Like those Buddhist monks who use grains of sand to paint elaborate mandalas only to have them blown away, writers know that their art is ephemeral. An elegant and detailed piece that took hours to create can be covered by a landlord’s whitewash in just minutes. Still, there is an unwritten law about who can paint over what and when.
Basically, it boils down to size and complexity. A simple tag is used to get a writer up – to spread his name around the city. It can be legitimately covered up by a burner – a two-color tag with greater size and depth. Moving up the scale, a burner can be covered by an ornate, subway length piece known as a top-to-bottom, without starting any beef. But if some toy (slang for a no-talent douchebag) writes his tag on another crew’s top-to-bottom, then word will get around. If he’s lucky, his crew will have to face off against the offended party in a graffiti battle. If he’s unlucky he will just get his ass kicked.
Which is not to say there is a lot of hostility floating around the graffiti community. I quickly realized this as we finished the lecture part of the class and moved onto technique. After a quick tour around the gallery, during which BAM and Nate1 pointed out helpful approaches and styles, we moved over to a large table laid out with art supplies to work on our own tags. Four of us were total beginners – too old and removed from graffiti culture to have ever done any writing ourselves. For us, Nate1 assigned work on basic lettering, copying the style of a famous writer known as Dream. He walked us through general concepts like maintaining girth and line, and showed us a few easy tricks to add depth and ornamentation.
There were also two teenage boys in the class, both of whom had more experience and artistic aspiration than the adults. They had their own writer handles and brought their own notebooks filled with ideas and rough drafts. Both Nate1 and BAM homed in on these kids, encouraging their questions and complimenting their work. They happily walked both writers through a series of options and possibilities for upgrading their tags. Both men clearly relished their role as teachers and it was heartening to watch the way they genuinely sought to help their young students.
In fact, this is the main reason Nate1 gives for putting these classes together. “Having mentored students in the past and being active in the game for over 20 years, I felt like it was my responsibility to the art form to give back and teach what I know,” he says. Nate1 and BAM were both enthusiastic on this point, showing off their own notebooks and regaling the boys with stories about how they came up in the graffiti world.
When we moved outside for the spray paint tutorial, the teachers really had a chance to shine. Manipulating a can of specialty spray paint in order to produce flashy lines and hazy edges is hard. Very hard. Go too slow and the paint drips. Go too fast and you overshoot your line. Too far away and there’s not enough paint; too close and the can scrapes over what you just painted. I couldn’t even pull off a single one-color letter without BAM coming in for a crucial assist on the shading.
Watching Nate1 paint, however, was like watching a chef at Benihana. With a deft flick of his wrist, flawless straight lines would shoot out from a perfectly crafted “R” or a strangely serifed “T.” He would demonstrate a technique and then stand back, shouting words of encouragement while we each gave it a shot. “Don’t be timid!” he’d say. “Go for it! Commit to that line. Yes! Check out those skills!” It was obvious that I sucked at writing, but Nate1 made me feel like I might have a chance. For the two young guys just starting out, I’m sure they walked away not only inspired, but with the confidence and desire to start work on new pieces of their own.
Eventually the young guns were picked up by their respective moms and the other students bundled up and struck out into the rain-soaked evening. I lingered a bit, not quite ready to face the cold, wet trudge back to BART. I asked BAM and Nate1 if they felt like they were engaged in a PR campaign on the behalf of graffiti. Nate1 thought a moment before responding.
“You know,” he said, “I’m an adult. I have a wife, kids, my own company. I’m not running the streets and dodging the cops anymore, so I don’t feel like I have to defend my street credibility or my art. But there are a lot of writers out there that do. If I can help them by adding another perspective to what we do while passing the torch to the next generation, then I’m good with that. I don’t know if you’d call it a PR campaign, but I’m proud to have that as part of our legacy.”
Visit the 1:AM Gallery online or in person for books, videos, and a wide selection of top-of-the-line paints and markers. You can also get a schedule of upcoming classes and find out which special guests might be dropping by. For an awesome crossover between youth fashion and graffiti art, check out Nate1’s clothing line at www.shopnewskool.com