RW Interview with Graffiti Artist
Excite: Enlightenment on Concrete
Revolutionary Worker #925, September 28, 1997
Graffiti art is one of the most exciting forms of visual art in the world today. It's an art that goes straight in the face of the system. It rails against the tired formalistic rules and all of the mummies and ghosts stuffed into the boozhwah art galleries and museums. Its fresh colors and bold style shouts out and celebrates life. And the life it celebrates--in all of its aspects--is the life of the people on the bottom of society. For the most part its museums and galleries are the subways of New York and concrete walls of L.A. Even the dead and unnatural concrete embankments of a section of the L.A. River have been turned into a carnival of color illustrating the lives of the people. Graffiti is truly an art that comes from and belongs to the people. And because of that it is also a very controversial art form. Its artists are criminalized all over the U.S. and in many parts of the world, sometimes whipped and sometimes shot to death for taking a can of paint to wall. Recently, the L.A. graffiti scene has been hit hard by the police. A major gallery was raided and threatened. And in Venice Beach, while the world watched, the LAPD succeeded in their demand that the City get rid of a graffiti piece they found demeaning to police.
Excite is in his early 20s. He's a proletarian immigrant who works as a maintenance man. His father is a laborer and his mom works in a factory. When his car breaks down he travels by skateboard. He's also a hell of an artist and is a member of PTL (Prime Time Lords) one of the 17 graffiti crews involved in painting the mural in the Venice Graffiti Pit (the banned graffiti piece was one part of this mural). Excite recently contributed a piece to the visual arts portion of the Art Speaks benefit for the Nickerson 7 and the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality. Excite recently spoke with RW reporter Michael Slate about his art.
RW: Why do you think the system hits so hard at graffiti?
Excite: That's easy, they see too much power behind it. Anything we do they want to break it down. They don't want "delinquent" youth behind anything that's so powerful. They know that once you put a mark on the wall someone is going to see it. And once it's seen, it delivers a message. They want to link us to gang violence, they want to link us to anything that's negative. And, really, if you think about it, all it is, really, is the application of aerosol to a wall to create something beautiful.
RW: What attracted you to graffiti? Why did you start writing on walls?
Excite: I got into this through my brother. He was kind of like my mentor back in the days, back when it was basically just about breaking. He was with a crew called NBA, Nothing But Art. Movies like Beat Street and hip-hop itself just came up all around me and made me say Yo! this is what I want to do, this what I want to be. One of the things I like about hip-hop and graffiti, it's our own little world and we know the rules and what to do in this world. We got our own lingo, we got our own set of rules. We know what's right and what's wrong and we don't care what anyone else is saying. Look at our set of rules. The number one basic tagging rule that was taught to me long ago was that anything that's public or anything that's owned by the city--that's fair game. I don't care if they just painted it a week ago, I'm gonna catch a tag on it. But as far as someone's house, someone's apartment building, a church, a car--I'm not gonna write on it. We also got other rules. A piece can go over anything. A tag cannot go over a piece and a throw-up cannot go over a piece. A throw-up is a simple fill-in, usually just one color and it's something you do quick on a freeway just to get fame. It's first a piece, then a throw-up, then a tag. Once you do a piece, the piece is supreme unless someone else comes and does a cleaner piece.
RW: We've spoken before about some of the negativity you run into on the streets and some of the dangers you face as a graffiti writer. What's it like out there?
Excite: It's the only art where people are allowed to kill you for doing it--look at how many taggers have been shot. Our art is so taboo that we can't even really talk about it. What I mean by that is that it's hard for me or any graffiti artist to walk up into any social gathering and straight out say I'm so and so and I write on the walls. Everyone's gonna look at you like you hoodlum piece of this and that. Fill in the blanks. That's what ticks me off. People are willing to throw stones at you but aren't willing to take the time to understand why it is you're doing that. It's really going in circles cuz I know that at one point in time these people even wrote something like "Joe was here" or whatever. But they don't think that's vandalizing. What was that then? What about the guys putting up posters all over the city even when it says Post No Bills. I don't like the hypocrites.
One time we were doing some work for a movie and I asked the guy if he ever thought about doing a movie on a writer, how this writer does his art and gets away with it. This guy told me that there was too much red tape and that he didn't want to glorify tagging and send the wrong message. But he was paying us to do some work for his movie. They tell us that they're sick of what we do but at the same time they using our letters and our art for their logos. I seen on the Olympic Ice Skating the letters they had there were our letters, graffiti letters. We see all this and it's an eye opening experience.
RW: What do you see as the effect of graffiti on cities and on the people?
Excite: We can enlighten the places where we put up our pieces and that's what they don't like. They don't like someone like us having the power to enlighten. Once our piece is up someplace in the city, some dark corner or anywhere, it becomes like an art gallery. You know before this you waiting for the bus or whatever and all you looking at is trash and some ugly white wall with nasty marks on it. Now you look at it and it has this beautiful masterpiece there. It has characters and it has life to it. That's what it should be about. I can't live in a place where there's no writing. The walls would be like prison walls--off-white or beige everywhere. But the city or whoever says no, it can't be like that. They say our walls have to be white, clean, pure. That's ugly! I really think it be ugly.
RW: What inspires your work?
Excite: The main power source for any graffiti artist is hip-hop. Everything revolves around hip-hop. My inspiration is hip-hop. When my piece comes out I want it to be offensive. I want somebody to say, damn what is this fool doing. I want them to get pissed off cuz I think that then it stays in their head more. I want people to say what gives him the right to say that. I want to hear them say they wish they were there when I put the piece up. I like to hear their comments when they disagree with what I say. You know one time up in the hills I did a piece, I did a Roll Call (a list of the members of a graffiti crew) and I put up the newest member as Pete Wilson and said, "Big Ups Pete." And this photographer was there and got mad saying Wilson was totally against all this. I said I know but I wanted to go up in his face and say, "Look, I'm an illegal and I'm writing here in the United States so Fuck Pete Wilson." I was mocking Pete Wilson. I like doing pieces that mock them and whatever they're doing at that time. I like to include big things that are going on in my art. We don't block things out. We see reality and we're saying ok I'm gonna do this with this reality or I'm gonna do that with this reality. I did another piece with a friend of mine, Spine, that got noticed a lot--it was just a little character in a space ship and it said, "The aliens are coming." People asked me what we meant by that and I said you know, all these people are gonna rush the borders and we're gonna take this back. They got offended and I told them hey, this is our land and you're the illegal here. Another reason I said the aliens are coming is cuz on the card some immigrants get it says, "Alien Resident." It's like we got five eyes or something but I guess it's their way of calling us n*gger. There's still too much racism out there. And so I just took off with the idea.
RW: Graffiti art really proves the point that art comes from everywhere. And it's a wild and open style--one that rebels against all of the things that art is supposed to be about. In that way it really catches the spirit of the oppressed people living in the cities.
Excite: Yeah, being a graffiti writer is kind of like being a pirate. We collect from everywhere. In graffiti we jump from media to media and this is what pisses off a lot of brush artists. We don't have the set rules others arts have. We can show a character giving a lot of love and have him all in black. There's no guidelines saying it's gotta be done like this. When I took art lessons at LACC I was kind of mad all the time. I thought this sucks, I don't want to paint no banana. I don't got no time to paint a banana. I know what they were trying to show me, things like discipline and taking my time to do the work. But I kind of think that on my own I already got the discipline but I got it in a different way. I remember in that art class one time I showed them my sketch work and some people were saying that these colors don't really match and all that. But who's to tell you what's supposed to be and what's not. They say the great master Van Gogh or Picasso would do it this way. I say no, no, no--I don't care. I'm gonna do it like this and that's that. You know, we ain't working with no budget. Our moms ain't buying us these cans. We either got to rack them or we got to save up to get them. And sometimes we go on an adventure and we don't have all the colors we need but we got to fill things in so we need to do little shade actions or whatever.
And being with a crew is really important. Graffiti is individual to a point but your crew really means a lot to you. The crew has to be tight, there has to be a lot of communication and you got to know the mentality of everybody who comes into your crew. We have sketchbooks and photo albums cuz whenever we do a piece we know that it isn't gonna last forever. We work together all the time. We have a meeting and everyone has worked on the sketchbook and you know what you're gonna do. We get ready to go out and everyone brings their sketches and we piece it together--we bring things together from our sketches, we merge letters and we help each other decide how to do it--so when we go out we all know what we're gonna do. If you put two graffiti writers together on a piece they are gonna figure out the ways to work together, to merge their letters and all. We're like musicians getting together to jam.
RW: There's a tremendous amount of repression coming down on graffiti artists these days. What do you think the effect of this will be and how do you deal with it?
Excite: I like going up against them, being a problem for them. They say graffiti is a problem. I have no problem with them saying that. It is a problem for them but I like the problem and I'm contributing to it. Yeah there is a lot more repression out there now and we got to be careful. The whole bombing strategy has changed. I know people who have dressed up like street people to get tags up. It's perfect to go bombing like this cuz no one ever looks at the street people twice so when it's night time you're like a ghost roaming the city and then the next day we go look at our tags.
I'll tell you something, they'll never win against us. No matter what they do--they can put snipers on the roof but they'll never beat graffiti. They wanted to whip us for a while. Now they saying if you get caught three times writing then it's a felony. People are still writing, they not gonna stop. Mandatory jail time--we still write.
You know this is the art where the great masterpieces just disappear. They get rolled over. It's sick. Think about the archaeologists and wouldn't they have loved to have seen everything the Egyptians left up on their walls. I know those fools would give their left arm to see more of what was on those walls so they could learn from it. Now here we are doing the same thing years later and no one wants to learn from it. You know these guys didn't learn shit. They went to Harvard and this and that and they studying this ancient shit off of the walls. Some fool was tagging one day in Egypt and now they are reading and studying that tag to see how people lived. Well here we are doing the same thing and they don't want to get hip to that, they just want to call it vandalism. That's stupid and ignorant.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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