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Writing on the Wall

A bit of Kaper's freight-train artistry

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."

At the time, Kaper went by the moniker SKB-One, and later by Zest. As for memories of those halcyon days, Kaper says, "I consider '88 the center pivot point in the hip-hop graffiti art type of thing. A lot of it went mainstream in '88. Anything before '88 is old-school -- a lot of people in New York will argue that and say that old-school is before '82, but that's because New York is New York; we deserve to have our own theory of old-school."

Stylistically, the aesthetics of the pieces were shifting as well. "Before '88 graffiti was more about styles: arrows, complexity . . . pieces had more of a linear design," Kaper explains. "It was about making your shit really hard to read, trying to make it all crazy, complex and eccentric. After that it turned into like a font style, easier-to-read letters. Throwups became more popular -- those bubble-style letters you always see."

By 1992, media hype over the proliferation of graffiti changed the scene dramatically. "That's when the tagbanger [a contraction of "tagger" and "gangbanger" -- kids who tag their name on everything but never piece] thing happened," Kaper says. "It's when the media bastardized graffiti. Television played a big part in the way things are now, exploiting graffiti. It was never about tagbanging before that. It's like when the movie Colors came out. Before that everything was cool and peaceful here in Phoenix; after that movie came out, all of a sudden people were hating this color or that color.

"I still have old videos of like Dateline, when they talk about graffiti and showed stuff about tagbangers -- even a little thing in there about Phoenix. That's when I had to struggle trying to defend graffiti art. Before that it was more welcomed; now we have to fight for it."

The escalation of tagbanging strongly damaged the already tenuous public view of graffiti as a legitimate art form. To this day, graffiti writers face huge fines and jail time if they're caught, and legal walls continue to be taken away. Kaper tells of one wall that he started five years ago in Maryvale. According to statistics compiled by police and civic watchdog groups, the wall reduced graffiti by 90 percent in the neighborhood.

"If [District Attorney] Rick -- dick -- Romley were to stop taking away legal graffiti walls, then there might not be so much illegal graffiti around," he says. "You know, sometimes I don't want graffiti to ever become altogether legal because then it wouldn't be fun anymore."

Kaper paints about three times a week. His particular passion is freight trains, though he has to travel to areas like Queen Creek and Mesa to avoid heat from authorities. Despite the illegality of his freight work, he holds an extreme reverence toward the railroad icons. "To me freights are very sacred; it's like a religion, like a ritual," he explains. "A lot of people think I'm stuck up because I won't go paint with them, but they don't understand that painting a train is something that you gotta respect, and have knowledge of. I try to know as much as I can about the railroad industry -- that there's 2.3 million boxcars, the different names of the trains, where the companies originate from. I also know when I paint a train exactly where it's gonna go in like two days because of the tracking numbers. I get faxes sent to me of where the trains are at; it's all computerized. I also know about which trains are going to get sent to the shop to get repainted. All that stuff is a knowledge that I'm proud to have learned."

A graf writer faces the constant threat of authorities catching him in the act, an obvious part of the appeal -- the rush of adrenaline in being on guard at all times. It's not uncommon to hear of cops or rail security guards beating up writers they catch. And that's not the only danger. "I've had my car destroyed before by train workers and security guards, and the cops let them do it," Kaper recounts. "The cops saw it and just turned around and drove away knowing what was going to happen to my car. I was hiding in a canal the whole time, watching, waiting for them to get away from my car so I could run to it and take off. They just smashed it, slashed the tires. It would've been like $5,000 to get it back the way it looked. That happened about three years ago. I was spooked for like two or three months -- I wouldn't paint. I was just spooked. But then I started doing it again and was like, 'Oh, no big deal,'" he adds, laughing.  

Despite the inherent danger, Kaper continues to paint both freights and walls around Phoenix. And he's no longer the stereotypical teenager with a can. He's 30 years old and has a family, holds down a rigorous full-time job, and considers his art a contribution to the beautification of the city he's lived in most of his life.

"I think all walls should have some kind of murals on them. I understand maybe there's some you wouldn't want to put a mural on, like if they have an attractive-looking brick design. But I really think a lot of walls should be painted with some sort of mural or something. I think it's even uglier when there's big buff marks on walls -- where they've got patches where they've covered graffiti up -- that's way uglier than graffiti."

Kaper's gone as far as attempting to partner up with a local ad agency to create an urban renewal company, where he would hire local graf artists to paint murals on blighted walls. The plan never materialized, yet Kaper is determined to continue with similar projects.

As for legitimate efforts, Kaper has attempted forays into the world of gallery art, recently showcasing his work at Thought Crime, and hopes to continue working toward those ends. "A lot of artists consider that a sellout, but those are people who haven't done an eighth of what I've done. To me it's just about, 'I gotta make some money.' I've got my kids, my family, I'm 30 years old already -- but I'm still gonna be piecing illegally, you know."

Even 10 years from now? "Yeah, probably 20 years from now. I'm sure I'll still be walking around train yards, maybe doing stuff with markers only. But also I've gotta try to watch out with the paint, 'cause I've gotten sick from painting, where I have to chill out. I've been to the doctor because I'm told I'm messing my body up, like memory loss and stuff."

Despite the many risks and hazards, the Sprawl hopes that veterans like Kaper, and new-schoolers like Pez, 21rak, Mac, Sinek and the others leading the scene, never fall by the wayside. Though the art of graffiti remains illegal and largely unappreciated by the masses, it's a critical part of urban life -- a street-level symbol of rebellion and artistic expression that helps define an entire subculture.

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