There's a saying in Latin that goes, "Ars longa, vita brevis." Translation: Art is long, life is short. Inside the Tonatierra Center in downtown Phoenix, that sentiment rings true for the pieces hanging on the walls, but not for the majority of the work that its creators paint.
Two weeks ago the center hosted the sixth installment of the "Nitty Gritty Graf Show." The irony was not lost on those whose work was displayed. It's a group of people who normally practice their true art under cover of night, hopefully with only the stars as witnesses. They spray-paint walls or freight trains with their names in large, colorful letters. They work with the knowledge that their creations aren't permanent; they surely won't last forever -- they may not even make it until next week. It's a temporary statement, to be sure, but one of rebellion and individuality in defiance of the gray urban life that palls all around them.
The "Nitty Gritty Graf Show" debuted in January of 1998, and has become a biannual happening usually held at the Tonatierra Center. Its founder, who wishes to be known simply as Pablo, initiated the event to "celebrate the writer."
Hip-hop culture and tradition are composed of four elements: the DJ, the MC, B-boys (breakdancers) and graffiti artists, referred to as writers. "A lot of shows they emphasize the DJ or the rapper or the B-boys, and the writer always becomes a leftover subject," Pablo explains. "Through the history it's always been like that at shows, in every city and state, pretty much. With this show you're coming to celebrate the writer. After that it's the DJ or the rapper or the B-boys, but the writer gets first turn."
The "Nitty Gritty Graf Show" incorporates all those elements; the most recent one featured Morse Code and the Drunken Immortals and several other local DJs. Inside the center a circle formed around the breakdancers (whose ages ranged from 4 on up), but the attendees were paying closest attention to the writers. Aspiring teens milled around with black-bound "writer's bibles," housing their sketches, showing them to colleagues in the hopes of getting them tagged by certain artists who are "up" -- a term of respect reserved for the most experienced and well-respected graffiti talents.
In the small outdoor foyer, paintings are hung on the fences. Much of the work on display strays from the normal graffiti lettering, but as is standard, 90 percent of it is done in spray paint. A two-foot-square painting of red skulls with the words "Muerto Yeah Yeah Yeah" stands near a sculpture of 14 well-used dripped-on cans of Krylon spray paint. There are several detailed portraits, including a large one of an alien figure with his arms around a beautiful young woman, done in black and white. Outside rests a large mural with a burnt yellow Aztec sun baring its teeth against a blue-green background, the faces of a Chicano boy and girl in opposite corners.
Proceeds from the show, which charged five bucks a head, were donated to causes close to the organizer's heart -- two-thirds to Tonatierra, a community support center for indigenous people, and one-third to the Akil Dream Fund. Akil was an influential Bay Area writer gunned down before his time; the money goes to his son.
Pablo conceived the show after witnessing similar events in San Diego and Los Angeles for years. "I'd tell people I'm from Phoenix and they were like, 'Huh? What? Where?' Then we did a show at the Hub, it was like half graffiti art, half skateboard art. I saw how successful that was and I thought, 'I could totally do something like this.' So I threw the first graf show at Tonatierra, and I fliered it. I try to stay away from doing the full-color rave-style fliers; I wanted our shows to have that total '80s feel -- black-and-white fliers, hand-drawn, total bootleg copies."
The first show drew more than 400, the third almost 700, including more than a hundred out-of-town attendees. "That's when it really got put on the map; everybody knew who Phoenix was by then," says Pablo.
(At this point we feel obliged to include a brief glossary of terms. "Tags" are names quickly written with markers or spray-painted; "throwups" are speedily done paintings of the writer's name in bubble-like letters using one or two colors; "pieces" are full-blown graffiti paintings, using at least three colors -- short for "masterpiece"; a "tagger" is different from a "writer": "taggers" never do pieces, but "writers" still tag.)
Phoenix's position on the graf scene map is defined by a small clique of writers who've been doing pieces in the Valley since the late '80s. For this column, the Sprawl hooked up with the infamous Kaper, of the NG (Naturally Gifted) crew, who's been working in town since 1982, and continues to this day. Few of his generation remain. Some, like Such, pursue their work in the traditional art world while others have left the game entirely.
When Kaper started writing, Phoenix had little scene to speak of. "Back then a lot of people didn't understand it or know much about graffiti art. When I was doing it, the people that knew me told me it was wack. There was nobody doing it -- maybe like five people and I knew just two of them."