Smooth Criminal: Urban Artist DOSE Takes Graffiti from the Street to the Museum and Beyond
It's painfully early on a weekend morning in the 'hood, and Phoenix graffiti artist DOSE and his homie FOES head south through streets filled with homeless crack- and meth-heads. The scene looks like something out of a Rob Zombie flick, with undead hookers and addicts plodding aimlessly from one side of the street to another.
The doors on DOSE's sleek, black sedan are locked and, anyway, it's not as though the pair are looking to score rocks. They pass through the area around Madison Street and Seventh Avenue and seek out the train yards farther south and west. DOSE drives through the yards, then follows the train tracks via back roads, going even farther west, looking for freight cars to tag.
"There's not anything in the yards right now," gripes DOSE. "Because the economy is down, there are no trains to fuck with."
They finally stop in an industrial area that looks suitably abandoned, jump out of the ride, and get busy. FOES disappears behind a train car — one of the few they see that day — standing alone on a side track. Although DOSE has a palette of spray-paint cans in the trunk, he opts to tag with custom-made markers filled with ink he mixed himself. They're quicker to hide should cops or private security roll up.
Light poles, fences, buildings, the sidewalk, you name it — they all become a blank canvas for urban hieroglyphics. FOES returns from tagging the side of a car and tells how he startled a bum lying under some plywood.
Suddenly, DOSE spots a rent-a-cop parking his security vehicle on a side street near the trio. Rather than wait for the inevitable, DOSE boldly strides toward the guard, engaging him in pleasantries. When he returns, he says not to sweat it. He told the guard they had stopped to take a leak and would soon be moving on.
"The worst thing anyone can do is run like a little girl," says DOSE, easing back in the car. "If you run right off the bat, they're gonna know you're doing something wrong. So I speak to them before they speak to me."
The day bleeds into the afternoon, and DOSE and FOES end up where they started, at a hideout doing bong hits, drinking Arrogant Bastard Ale, and jawboning about — what else? — graffiti.
Life's a ripe plum for DOSE right now. The veteran Phoenix writer (what graffiti artists call themselves) has been steadily increasing his fame over the past few years, helping to form an art collective called Forever In Control, which has sought out legal walls in spots across town, from the so-called "graffiti alley" behind stores on McDowell Road between 18th and 19th streets to the cinder block walls of Miranda's Custom Cars in south Phoenix.
Graffiti alley garnered the attention of ASU's Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts and heavy-hitters like former Herberger director of community engagement Joe Baker. This led to collaboration with established Phoenix sculptor and painter Hector Ruiz.
The products of the Ruiz-DOSE collaboration are wall-size canvases filled with social commentary, humor, and regional symbolism — explosions of color and visual references that critique the hypocrisy of modern American society, its racism, and its ruthless pursuit of the dollar. The canvases have caught the eye of Phoenix Art Museum modern-art curator Sara Cochran, who has included them in an ongoing exhibit of Latino artists called "Locals Only." Major local collector Treg Bradley has begun snapping them up. And Bentley Calverley, owner of Scottsdale's Bentley Gallery and Downtown's Bentley Projects, is representing both DOSE and Ruiz and is planning a major exhibition for both artists in November.
It's the kind of recognition that would make an art-school grad salivate. But DOSE didn't go to art school. That's to say, his art school has been the graffiti world, and it operates by different rules. That's why he still tags, even though he's in his 30s (relative old age for a graf writer) and on the verge of mainstream success.
"I keep tagging," DOSE says, "to let the other writers know that just because I'm doing gallery shows doesn't mean I'm sleeping on the streets or sleeping on the roots of what started it."
DOSE is cagey about his past. He has to be. Graffiti (or "criminal damage," as it's defined by Arizona Revised Statute 13-1602) could get a writer charged with anything from a class 2 misdemeanor to a class 4 felony, depending on how much it costs to clean or "buff" the damage.
DOSE claims he's never been caught, and he plans to keep it that way, though as his fame increases, keeping his real identity and his DOSE persona separate will become increasingly difficult.
"I don't care what anyone says," DOSE remarks. "I'm successful at graffiti, and I'm going to keep doing it. Am I going to stop because of the mere fact that it's illegal?"
As a condition of his cooperation for this story, New Times agreed not to show DOSE's face or reveal his birth name.
DOSE shares certain facts about his life, while keeping others in the dark. He's from Los Angeles and moved to Phoenix with his family when he was a teen. After high school, there was a stint in the military, though he remains vague on what branch. He was stationed in Latin America for a time, but ask him what he did there, and he'll give you a sarcastic answer about smuggling cocaine into the country for the CIA.
Until recently, he made money at a square job. He was recently laid off, which has allowed him to pursue his art career full time. Despite the recognition and the gallery representation, the money is not pouring in, but the promise is there.
Phoenix collector Treg Bradley already has picked up some of the collaborations with Hector Ruiz, and gallerist Bentley Calverley says she's pricing the work at anywhere from $3,800 to $38,000, but that will be for canvases offered in November. She's allowing Ruiz and DOSE to operate out of the Bentley Projects as they pump out the art.
Meanwhile, DOSE has to deal with people talking smack about him on the streets.
"Some other graffiti artists think I'm selling out," he says. "I want to tell them, 'Hey, you're not paying my bills, so why would I care about what you think.' I don't pay attention to all the hate and criticism. I think it's fucking stupid."
By all rights, DOSE should have nothing to prove. He started writing when he was 11, inspired by graffiti he saw on the freeways in Los Angeles. Though he had been into sports until then, sports didn't provide the same adrenaline rush as graffiti. He began by writing ASTEK, his version of Aztec. Around age 13 or 14, he switched it up to DOSE because his cousin's dad used to write graffiti under that name.
He continued writing as DOSE after he moved to Phoenix, despite his father's finding out and laying into him about it. At first, his pops didn't know why all the spray paint was disappearing from his garage. When he found out what his son was up to, he was pissed.
"He hated it," DOSE says. "He talked shit to me constantly about it. 'Fucking tagger, why don't you write on your fucking face, and walk around like a dumbass, instead of writing on other people's stuff?' That's kinda how I learned that you don't disrespect other people's property. They work hard for their shit."
Indeed, DOSE is old school in the sense that he adheres to the unwritten rules governing graffiti. You don't hit homes, churches, or mom-and-pop shops. Public property, abandoned buildings, and big-name commercial businesses are fair game, though. He claims to have never written on a church or someone's home. But he acknowledges that younger, still-stupid writers known as "toys" do just that. And he doesn't like it any better than the next guy.
"If I see graffiti in my neighborhood, I buff it," he says. "I don't want graffiti on my house. I don't want it in my neighborhood. It drops the property value. But on a main street, with fucking 10 million Circle Ks and 10 million billboards? Why not?"
Over the years, he's run with a number of graffiti crews — teams of writers who watch each other's backs. The most recent was TAF, or They All Fear. DOSE has a rep on the street for not taking any crap, and he looks like he can handle himself. Slim and muscular, he stands ramrod-straight most of the time, as if he's daring you to try. Maybe it's a holdover from his time in the military. Or just the by-product of being a Latino who grew up on mean streets.
His style is heavily inspired by West Coast Mexican cholo culture, though he's flipped it and reworked it to make it his own. There's nothing pretty or subtle about his work. It's strong, in your face, and full of straight lines with jagged turns. Nor is there anything about it that's been sissified for the gallery or the museum. That's why it's astonishing that the local art world has taken to it.
"No one from Scottsdale is gonna walk in the train yard with us," DOSE says. "So why not bring the train yard with me and drop it in [somewhere] else."
Though few in Phoenix have attempted it, crossing from the graffiti world to the fine-art universe is not exactly a new idea in places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Paris.
In Gotham in the 1980s, fine-art superstars Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat became famous doing street art. And the trend only grew more popular with time, the rise of hip-hop culture (of which graffiti is a crucial element), and a plethora of success stories of street artists skirting the law and making big money.
Examples include poster-artist Shepard Fairey, driven by his "Obey Giant" campaign. Fairey's fame seemed to reach a pinnacle with his famous Hope poster of President Barack Obama, which Obama acknowledges helped him win the White House. However, success hasn't kept Fairey from getting collared, as he was on the eve of a major show of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston when that city's finest arrested Fairey for past work he'd done there. The incident involving several charges of vandalism only increased Fairey's fame and street cred.
London stencil-artist Banksy is another who continues to create illegal street art, even though auction houses such as Sotheby's and Bonhams have sold his work, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of British pounds. Banksy is known for his sardonic wall etchings of Queen Victoria flashing her knickers and of masked Molotov cocktail throwers. He once hung on the walls of the Louvre, without the museum's permission, an image of the Mona Lisa with a yellow smiley face on her mug. Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera are among his collectors.
For fans around the world, Fairey and Banksy are the Robin Hoods of the art world. And they are far from the only ones. San Francisco's Twist, a.k.a. Barry McGee, has had shows at UCLA's Hammer Museum and had his work included in the Venice Biennale. The grittier, harder work of Los Angeles' TOOMER, who belongs to that city's notorious TKO crew, also has mad fans, has been the subject of documentaries, and is widely sought after by collectors and those who want him to paint their buildings.
Roger Gastman is an L.A.-based graffiti authority whose erstwhile magazines While You Were Sleeping and Swindle were grounded in graffiti culture. He's authored several art books on graffiti for such high-end publishers as Thames & Hudson and Abrams and is currently working on a 500-plus-page history of U.S. graffiti for HarperCollins that, he says, should be out next year. But even he finds it difficult to put a price tag on the influence of graffiti or categorize its success.
"It's not like a stat you can find, say, like, 'Video games made so much this year,'" Gastman says. "Graffiti is an element that's been put into so much. Music videos, fashion, movies, art. It's put into so many different things at so many levels, that it's really hard to classify. But there's definitely a ridiculous amount of money being made by graffiti."
Gastman is sure about one thing. In graffiti, street cred is everything, no matter what sort of popularity is achieved through the legitimate art business. A graf writer first makes a name for himself on the street, putting in the time and effort, then trades it for bank in a gallery.
"What you did on the street is what's drawing your fans in," Gastman says. "That's your story. If [DOSE] was just showing something in a gallery and his art was cool, you probably wouldn't be writing about him. You're writing about him because he was on the street."
For DOSE, it's been a steady progression that began in 1998 with the inception of Forever In Control, a fluid art collective that's included as many as 10 other graf writers and artists and as few as five. The idea was for the collective and individual members to market themselves, to push themselves into the community and the public. For a while, FIC pushed its own line of graf supplies. Then it moved into doing legal walls, in part as a way to showcase members' talents.
Three or four years ago, FIC approached Luis Miranda, owner of Miranda's Custom Cars at Central and Grant. Miranda allowed the artists to utilize a long cinder block wall that snakes around Grant and south on First Avenue. Initially, Phoenix's Graffiti Busters program approached Miranda, asking him to paint it out. But Miranda told the program that the graffiti artists had his permission to paint there. The art has featured dozens of writers, including DOSE, SREK, SERP, FORIN, and WIES.
Every couple of months, the artwork is changed. Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, himself no fan of graffiti, used a mural done by WIES for an anti-truancy flier. The County Attorney's Office used a photo of the piece with a faux writer posing in front of it as if he was doing it illegally. Thomas' office obtained no permission, either from Miranda or WIES, to use a photo of this legal piece of street art.
FIC also got close to Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Very close. For a while, the collective was regularly adding its artwork to a legal wall at the Madison Event Center, just across from Joe's infamous Fourth Avenue Jail. Befuddled sheriff's deputies regularly walked past the seasonally themed art — one group of images had a Tim Burton-style Christmas theme; another, a Halloween theme — on their way to work. DOSE and others worked in the open, both day and night, with the permission of the building's owners. Still, there was at least one run-in with the cops.
"I think it was the sheriffs who called the Phoenix police on us," DOSE remembers. "The cop came up to me, flashing his flashlight at me. I looked down from the ledge where I was and said, 'What's the matter? Can I help you?' Real blunt, he said, 'What the fuck are you doing up there?' I was sarcastic right back: 'Fucking writing graffiti. What does it look like?'"
Ultimately, the property manager came out to explain things to the police officer. Sadly, Madison Event Center no longer sponsors the graffiti wall.
However, graffiti alley is going strong. Drive down the alley behind the row of businesses from 18th and 19th streets and McDowell Road, and you're met on both sides by walls of graffiti. There are huge letters of brown and black, book-ended by Fu-Manchu bearded homeboys, and long panels featuring graffiti with cartoon-character themes — Speedy Gonzales and Road Runner and Coyote running through an urban backdrop. There's fat, bubble-letter graffiti and a wall of graf that looks like tightly wound, gray cotton candy. It's all legal, with both residents and business owners signing off on it.
(Graffiti supply store Just Blazed is nearby and also has legal graffiti, but technically, it is not affiliated with graffiti alley.)
The alley is still controversial. Neighborhood Services, the department of city government that oversees Graffiti Busters, would love to buff it tomorrow if it could. But it can't. It doesn't have the approval of residents and business owners to do so.
The printmaking company Armstrong-Prior, one of the businesses along graffiti alley, got Joe Baker, then-director of community engagement at ASU's Herberger College of the Arts, involved.
Baker essentially helped sponsor the alley, which garnered ASU's President's Medal for Social Embeddedness, an award that, according to ASU's Web site, "recognizes ASU departmental, inter-departmental, or multidisciplinary teams that have demonstrated excellence in identifying a community need or issue and fostering mutually supportive partnerships with Arizona communities to implement successful solutions."
Academic-speak aside, the alley was a notable example of business, higher education, and artists coming together to claim a space that was once an eyesore. The graf artists took to maintaining their work, and the alley became a tourist destination of sorts for graffiti lovers. Hip-hop legend KRS-ONE even toured the site last year and added his own tag.
For DOSE, one of the more ambitious writers in Forever In Control's lineup, the connections made through ASU brought him together with Hector Ruiz, an established Phoenix artist and the subject of a 2005 solo show at the Heard Museum. Ruiz operates out of his well-known gallery/studio on Grand Avenue, the Chocolate Factory.
The men are about the same age and share a Latino heritage. They had barely missed running into each other in the Phoenix art community at different junctures. Ruiz had just had an exhibit at Scottsdale's Bentley Gallery last year. Then, shortly thereafter, the Bentley had an exhibition of Keith Haring's work and sought out an authentic Phoenix graffiti artist to tag the entrance. Someone suggested DOSE, who had already created commissioned work for other clients, including Red Bull, which has local headquarters in Tempe.
"We did it as a homage to Haring, who was famous for his subway drawings," said Bentley Calverley, referring to the illegal graffiti Haring created in New York's subways in the 1980s. "I think Haring would have appreciated that this was done by someone like him, instead of the standard issue block letters that all galleries, including us, tend to use."
But it wasn't there — at the gallery that now reps both of them — that DOSE and Ruiz met. That would come later, as people kept telling DOSE he should talk to Ruiz, about whom he knew nothing. One day, DOSE spied Ruiz walking out of the Chocolate Factory and approached him, asking if he could paint the outside wall of his studio. Ruiz said yes, and soon each man was asking the other if he wanted to collaborate.
"I said, 'Hey I've got some panels in the back. We could pull them out, start messing around,'" remembers the laid-back Ruiz. "He came by. The rest is history."
That was in June, and it snowballed from there. The two artists fed off each other, creating museum-size canvases using their own recurring series of symbols. Huge, round, cartoon-like bombs seem to represent graffiti "bombing," or tagging, as well as a revolutionary impulse. Eagles representing America and its imperialism arise from landscapes featuring the wall along parts of the Mexico-U.S. border. Foreign influence is embodied by Godzillas wearing Kanye West-style glasses. Ladders leading nowhere show the futility of social climbing and getting ahead. A coyote with X'ed-out eyes bares its teeth under an angry cartoon sun. And DOSE's tag makes an appearance on each canvas — sometimes huge, sometimes small.
Soon, folks were coming by to check out the collaborations. One was art collector Treg Bradley, the entrepreneur behind the Chandler hydrogardening company Botanicare. Bradley collects works by Phoenix artists only (Ruiz being one) and showcases them at his residences. He snapped up two of the Ruiz-DOSE collaborations for his sleek, ultra-modern Scottsdale home, designed by architect Michael P. Johnson. The house has been featured in several magazines, including Western Living and Desert Interiors.
One of the collaborative paintings was created over another work by Ruiz that once hung in the Smithsonian. The dense, multi-layered artwork now hangs in a hallway of Bradley's Scottsdale residence. Among the images in the piece are DOSE's tag, the border wall, UFOs (no doubt transporting illegal aliens), several angry suns, and a Spanish version of a Star Wars character called "Vato-D2."
"To me, it's very ballsy that they painted over that Smithsonian piece," Bradley said during a tour of his home, with its vintage Italian '70s furniture, wide glass doors, and negative-edge pool. "There's a lot going on here, and it's going to take me a long time to break the code. There's a whole language going on here."
Another visitor to the Chocolate Factory was the Phoenix Art Museum's curator of modern art, Sara Cochran. She was so taken by the collaboration that she chose two works to be shown in the exhibition "Locals Only," featuring 12 Valley Chicano and Latino artists. She envisioned this smaller show as adjunct to a larger traveling exhibition, "Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement," which opened July 12 at the museum. The post-Chicano art show features Latino artists in their 20s and 30s, and Cochran thought it would be the perfect opportunity to showcase local talent and attract a new audience to the museum.
"In 'Phantom Sightings,' the artists are primarily from Southern California, Texas, and New York," Cochran says. "I felt very strongly there should be a platform for local artists. That was initially when I started talking to Hector. This work, I certainly hope it will encourage especially younger people to come in and see the museum in a different way."
Cochran said she appreciated the "rawness" and "energy" of the work, particularly a piece by Ruiz, DOSE, and two other local artists, Lalo Cota and Mykil ZEPata, which serves as a sort of allegory of Mexican migration across the brutal Sonoran Desert. In it, coyotes, the sun, religion, and capitalism conspire against indigenous people and the undocumented.
"As soon as I saw it, I knew that I would love to have it [for the show]," Cochran enthused. She said she had no reservations about using art that included a graffiti artist who expresses himself illegally on the street. She also pointed out that the museum had featured graffiti once before, in the 2007 exhibit, Graffiti Art in Fashion.
"I think those who only see graffiti art as illegal probably have a very traditional mindset," she said. "That's been superseded by the way in which contemporary culture has moved forward. If you look at the influence of it on design, on music, it's there. We can stick our heads in the sand and say this is all bad, all illegal, but I don't think that's a particularly progressive way of looking at it."
"Locals Only" continues at the Phoenix Art Museum through October 25. Then the Ruiz-DOSE collaboration will get another boost from a show that Bentley Calverley's planning for early November. It will take place at both her Scottsdale location and at Bentley Projects in downtown Phoenix.
With so much attention, DOSE may be poised for acceptance by the art establishment and collectors, but is Phoenix ready for a crossover artist who continues to engage in illegal graffiti?
It's not that Phoenix lacks writers who've obtained fame. Box-car graffiti artist KAPER is known by graf-heads nationally for his work. Roger Gastman's 2006 art book Freight Train Graffiti featured KAPER, among the many spray-can immortals of the genre. (KAPER was the subject of a 2002 New Times cover story, "America's Ogre of Train Bombing," by Brendan Joel Kelley.)
And then there's Phoenix's El Mac, whose aerosol art can be painfully beautiful and channels the talents of Old World masters. The July 12, 2007 cover of LA Weekly was a photo of a wall-size image of the Buddha on which Mac collaborated with L.A. artist RETNA. The photo illustrated a story about L.A.'s successful Seventh Letter Crew, of which El Mac's a member. He has murals up, mostly on legal walls around Phoenix, and he travels internationally to showcase his art, from Barcelona to Mexico City. El Mac does any non-legal stuff mostly out of town.
Not so with DOSE, for whom Phoenix is a canvas. Also, unlike El Mac, DOSE's work is brutal and uncompromising in its street aesthetic. In other words, it's the sort of graffiti that Graffiti Busters loves to buff.
William Hogans, who heads Graffiti Busters, says the program costs Phoenix taxpayers $2.1 million annually. During the 2007-08 fiscal year, 95,000 sites in Phoenix were painted over or buffed. And Hogans claims that Graffiti Busters has found that even legal walls, such as those at Miranda's Custom Cars and at graffiti alley at 18th Street and McDowell, increase the prevalence of graffiti elsewhere, rather than stifle it.
He says the price to the public of graffiti is far higher when the costs to private businesses and utilities, such as the Salt River Project, are included. Added up, Hogans claims, graffiti costs the local public $6 million annually.
"In addition, we find by talking to the Realtors," states Hogans, "that graffiti, once applied to someone's property, can reduce that property value 15 to 20 percent. It deters individuals who want to be investors in that community from investing."
Hogans cites an emotional component to graffiti, as well. Residents, he says, sometimes worry that graffiti suggests gang activity or that they're being targeted, even though it's usually just a writer getting his name up.
On the law enforcement side, the Phoenix Police Department has a five-cop graffiti detail. Three of the officers work graffiti full time, while the other two incorporate catching graffiti writers into other duties. Detective Diane Rowe says 500 people — most of whom were juveniles — were arrested last year for doing graffiti.
Rowe estimated that about 10 percent of those arrests were directly related to gang activity. About 25 percent were "tag-bangers," who sometimes pull a gun or a knife to defend their turf. The remaining 65 percent were considered non-violent.
"They're just out there to show their art, or what they believe is their art," said Rowe. "Some are artistic. That's probably about 5 percent of the stuff we see."
Neither Hogans nor Rowe were familiar with DOSE, but Rowe said she picked up a few hits on DOSE on the online database of graffiti images maintained by Graffiti Busters. (The two agencies share information on graffiti vandals.)
The problem for police is, more than one person could tag under the same moniker — which is one reason Phoenix cops pretty much must catch a graffiti writer in the act to make a prosecution stick.
Asked about the cost of graffiti, Roger Gastman, one of graffiti's biggest boosters, is unapologetic.
"Graffiti is vandalism," says Gastman. "Sometimes it looks great, sometimes it's a tag on a stop sign. But at the end of the day, graffiti is vandalism. I'm not going to argue with that fact."
That, he says, is part of what makes it cool and why he admires it.
As far as DOSE goes, he plans to keep doing it. He doesn't want to get arrested for practicing his art, but it's a risk he's willing to take.
"Graffiti is the voice of the streets," DOSE states defiantly, adding, "and I'm going to do it regardless. It's like breathing for me."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.