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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.
@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.)
"I was a different person when I returned to the street," he says. "I started to look at things in terms of art. I started sketching on a pad during long stakeouts. I'd go into a dirty alley or something and say, 'Isn't this place cool?'"
Calderon's art evolved. He started taking Polaroids of people on his beat--smiling little black girls and their scowling mother, his partner, a street scene that struck him. At home, he'd sketch from the photographic images. The "knack" his late mother once cultivated had become an obsession.
A few years ago, Calderon says, he wandered into central L.A.'s Troy Cafe, an espresso bar/gallery. He showed the cafe's owner some of his charcoal drawings. To his shock, the owner offered him a one-man show, titled "People in Custody."
The gallery sold almost all of his drawings.
"It was cool," he says. "Now I was a professional artist, even though I didn't understand half the words the art people were using when they talked about my stuff."
@body:Dan Calderon's vantage point during the Rodney King riots became the catalyst for the paintings now on display in Phoenix.
"We listened to the King verdict during roll call," he recalls of the morning of April 29, 1992. "We all had a sense that something was coming down."
Not that Calderon had sympathy for King, not for a second.
"I know it looks like the KKK beating on the innocent black guy," Calderon says, "but he was a parolee and he knew what he was doing. Police use those sticks so you listen to them. I know, for an artist, this is a very unpopular opinion."
Later that day, Calderon was one of about a dozen cops near Florence and Normandie. Among the other officers was Lieutenant Michael Moulin, who Calderon says "probably hadn't been in a street situation in years."
A small but volatile crowd had gathered where the LAPD was trying to arrest someone. The mob started to pelt the cops with rocks, bottles and other weapons, Calderon says. Lieutenant Moulin soon ordered his subordinates to retreat to the police station.
"We've handled bigger than that many times," he says, shaking his head at the bitter memories. "But we usually don't have someone working with us who panics and runs. Lots of people became victims because we weren't there to help them. Once we backed up, it was a green light for the rioters to do what they wanted."
At the 77th station, Calderon and his peers stood by as radio calls for help flooded the airwaves. But Lieutenant Moulin had other ideas.
"He ordered us to head for the command post," Calderon says, "which meant we had to drive right past Florence and Normandie. I should have done a Star Trek and zapped him: 'You are out of control, sir.'" (Moulin later retired from LAPD because of stress.)
One of Calderon's paintings depicts what happened as he drove by the intersection. The accompanying text says: "The angry mob pelts cars w/ anything they can throw. Helpless citzs trapped in their vehs wave at us as we pass by. . . . They yell 'ofcrs help, help us please.'"
But Calderon and the others didn't stop. Instead, he says, Moulin issued another order: "I want all units to stay away from Florence and Normandie. If you get any calls from there, disregard!"
The street cops milled around for hours at the command post, waiting for new orders. "It was a doughnut hut for the chiefs," Calderon says. "No one was making any decisions. It was a helpless feeling."
With time on his hands, Calderon started sketching. His efforts weren't for himself, he says, but for his fellow coppers. He photocopied the drawings and tacked them up on a wall in the command post.
The next day, Calderon and his buddies from the 77th finally returned to the burning streets of South Central L.A. But more frustrations awaited.
One of Calderon's paintings shows how his "Cobra" team was ordered to guard an abandoned intersection. "We were told to make no arrests unless someone tried to kill you," he says. "No arrests! It was chaos."
Back at the command post later, Calderon experienced something that became the last of the paintings in his L.A. riot series. As he hopped over a table to grab a cold drink, Calderon says, Lieutenant Moulin yelled at him, "Hey, you idiot! You're going the wrong way! This is the entrance!"
The painting depicts the absurd scene, with wry text by Calderon: "Back at the Command Post, Lieutenant Moulin had become chow hall commander in his shiny new CP uniform 'unusual occurance [sic]' overalls equipped with matching ball cap."
"The climate now is politically correct art, and Dan certainly isn't politically correct," Levine says, "but everything he puts into his paintings is a complete makeup of who he is. I don't have to agree with his point of view to think he wields as much power in his paintings as he does in his patrol car."
That's quite a notion, Calderon admits.
"I love to draw and to take pictures," he says. "That's a big part of me now. But I'm meant for the street. I'm meant to be a cop.