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Best Underground Artist Phoenix 2011 - "Ike"

Ike doesn't consider himself a street artist like Banksy of Exit Through the Gift Shop fame. That film presents street artists as talented, cerebral, invested, politically clever, sometimes disturbed guerillas, and it's brought street art into the public consciousness. Some might argue that these artists do us all a public service. They make us laugh and think. Others, and the law, label them criminals, which is why they fiercely protect their identities and practice their art under cover of night.

Ike — a college student who studies art and marketing — is part of a local graffiti crew that actually accepts commissions and participates in competitions, which means he lives with one foot above ground and the other deep underground.

Ike's been busted. The first time, he was 13. He tagged a bathroom and the school pressed charges. Then, when he was 16, he was arrested for painting downtown — a felony carrying serious consequences that bleed into his adult life. Ike is undeterred. "I'm gonna get my message out there whether you like it or not," he says, and describes some anti-SB 1070 writing a lot of crews have been putting out there. But there isn't a trace of aggression or threat in his voice.

In fact, Ike might be considered a pacifist. He says, "Trying to bang on each other through graffiti — that needs to stop." Along with competition among top crews, there are rules in this world. When one writer goes over someone else's graffiti, it can escalate to violence. "Some crews hook up with the gangs for protection," admits Ike, who's seen and been in the throes of serious violence, even gunplay. But, he's careful to emphasize, graffiti and gangs are not mutually exclusive.

There's legal painting — businesses like carwashes and pawnshops, skate parks, fundraisers — that brings graffiti into the mainstream, but not without a cost to the artist. "People call you a sell-out, bitch, pussy, artsy-fartsy when you try to go legit," he acknowledges.

Staying underground is harder work, more purposeful, and dangerous. "The craziest thing is painting the freeway signs," he says, then describes running across five lanes of traffic, shimmying up a sign pole, hanging over it and onto it for dear life while painting one-handed and upside down as traffic thunders by below. Painting train cars is safer footing but requires ninja-like skills in getting over fences and past security.

"We are like ninjas," says Ike. "We're really smart. That's how we gotta be."

As a kid, Ike got into graffiti through skateboarding and hip-hop. Now it's all about letters and depth. He likes text, and that affinity is literally expensive. He uses mostly spray paint, favoring Montana, a high-end German product designed by and for graffiti artists, and he budgeted about $1,500 last year for paint. A local hardware store cuts him a deal.

"Writers are doing graffiti for a reason. You have to have some emotional problems. Other people smoke pot or read the Bible. It's my way to stabilize myself," Ike says before pausing and becoming thoughtful for a minute. "Probably in an unstable way."To see more photos of Ike's graffiti, visit www.phoenixnewtimes.com/bestof2011.

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