ART OF DARKNESS

A TOUGH CALIFORNIA STREET COP CAPTURES THE L.A. RIOTS ON CANVAS

Los Angeles street cop Dan Calderon sketches in the air with an imaginary brush. "If I wasn't a cop, I wouldn't have nothin' to draw about," he says. "I'm not into pictures of flowers and stuff. I'm not an accomplished artist, but I'm into real life--what's real to me."

Calderon has just driven across the desert straight from a graveyard shift in South Central L.A.'s 77th Street Division. He's trying to rouse himself in a downtown Phoenix deli with caffeine and conversation.

It's a few hours before the opening of a show of Calderon's paintings at Phoenix's deCompression Gallery, a new space on South 13th Street. The exhibition is his first out of L.A. (See review on page 65.)

The focus of Calderon's exhibit is the Rodney King riots, which began April 29, 1992, after a jury acquitted four LAPD cops of assault and other charges. Calderon was center stage that day at the riot's flash point, the now-infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie.

The eight-year LAPD veteran was among those streetwise officers ordered to retreat at the riot's onset by a superior named Michael Moulin. "Instead of doing our jobs," Calderon says, he and many of his fellow cops in the 77th spent the next crucial hours staying put inside at a command post as the uprising escalated. Wired for action, Calderon had to do something after he completed his maddening assignment of alphabetizing piles of paperwork.

So he turned to art as his city burned.
"If anyone wondered . . . 'Where the hell are the police?', this is the story," Calderon wrote in an introduction to the starkly vicious dozen black-and-white paintings and accompanying text he calls "Moulin Riots, L.A."
"I'm only painting what I actually witnessed."
He allows himself a short chuckle at an irony: If he'd been allowed to do his job, Calderon says, he wouldn't have had time to do the notebook-size pencil sketches that led to the paintings. And he wouldn't be here in Phoenix, his grandparents' hometown, telling his story.

@rule:
@body:Calderon looks like a lightweight boxer in his white tee shirt and jeans. He's small of stature and appears younger than he is, but the 31-year-old carries himself in a way that warns strangers not to mess with him.

It's an attitude honed by a Southern California barrio upbringing and hard time on some of the nation's most brutal streets. He talks the talk and walks the walk of an ex-Marine who grew up poor and always wanted to be a cop.

"L.A. is gone," Calderon says. "Laws are totally ignored. We only stop people for blatant things--no time for anything else. Bullets whiz by you, people hit you, and all you hear about is police harassment. That's my world."
It's a world he loves.
"I love the feeling of knowing my turf and that nobody's gonna screw with you," he says. "It's a sense that you belong there, even though it may be a stinking alley. You belong there. It's your alley."
Dan Calderon grew up in Pacoima, a town in the San Fernando Valley famed as the home of 50s "La Bamba" rocker Ritchie Valens. Calderon's parents--his father was a shoe repairman, his mother a homemaker--raised their eight children, he says, "to be strong and make something out of ourselves."

As a youngster, Calderon developed a knack for drawing things, which his mother nurtured. "My mom opened my eyes to art," he says. "Then it went downhill."

By "downhill," Calderon is referring to "terrible art teachers in high school who completely turned me off, over-the-top gay guys always touching you and stuff."

After graduation, Calderon bummed around Europe for six months with two buddies. A part of him remained intensely curious about art, and his memories of trips to the Louvre and other European art palaces are as dear to him as visits to Wrigley Field are for baseball fans.

After returning to the States, Calderon enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, with which he spent six years as a rifleman. After his honorable discharge, he applied with LAPD. It was something he had dreamed for many years of doing.

"There was the excitement of being in chases," Calderon says, "of dealing with new situations every day. It's not a ho-hum job. And the part of helping little old ladies, that mattered, too."
Soon after LAPD hired him, Calderon took on an undercover assignment that had an oddly wonderful impact on his life. His mission was to infiltrate a Los Angeles high school and to bust students who were dealing drugs.

"I asked myself, 'Where do all the knuckleheads, dropout types and druggies hang out?'" he recalls. "Art class, right? So I signed up. Next thing I know, I've got a great art teacher and a portfolio going."
The teacher encouraged his star "student," telling Calderon he was of scholarship caliber. The school hung Calderon's drawings in a hallway. After the young cop completed his undercover assignment, he disappeared back into uniform in another part of the sprawling city. (The art class, by the way, didn't produce as many drug users as Calderon had envisioned.)

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