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L.A. history, written on the walls

Graffiti L.A. Street Styles and Art Steve Grody Abrams: 304 pp., $35

July 08, 2007|Michael Jaime-Becerra | Michael Jaime-Becerra is the author of the story collection "Every Night Is Ladies' Night," as well as a contributor to "Fifteen Candles," an anthology of quinceanera stories. He teaches creative writing at UC Riverside.

FIRST, you notice the colors. Perhaps a spray of pink, electric and sparkling, or regal maroon edged in silver. Perhaps a vivid golden yellow accented with thin lavender and lime stripes. Perhaps a flash of blues -- bright sky blue, ocean blue, rich and celebratory Dodger blue. You are on a freeway, passing billboard after billboard, or rushing down an alley along Melrose, or near the Pavilion at Venice Beach.

The piece before you is full of motion -- compacted forms, some stretching and twisting, the image an exercise in compressed kinetic energy. The image bursts with potential, and this potential commands your attention. Among all the curves and angles, the bits and arrows, you discern one letter, then another, although there is enough abstraction to prevent you from being certain about anything you find. Is it a G? An S? But the image does not care whether you understand it. It is one part pulled taffy, one part Cubist deconstruction. It is witnessed on its own terms and then, quickly, it is gone. Days later (maybe even the next day), you find yourself back at that same spot and discover that the image is truly gone, painted over, covered by a coat of flat beige that does not quite match the original around it. Such are the fleeting experiences represented in Steve Grody's "Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art."

Before we continue, it may be best to offer a few explanations to the graffiti neophyte. (The book's numerous photos are complemented with definitions.) First, graffiti "writers," as they prefer to be called, concern themselves with ceaseless self-promotion, unlike conventional street gangs, which pursue more serious forms of criminal activity. The activities of graffiti writers are not necessarily confined to marking territory in a particular section of the city. In fact, groups of graffiti writers, known as "crews," attempt to be far-reaching, actively seeking a variety of public spaces. In these venues, graffiti can take many forms: tags (the stylized presentation of one's writing name), throw-ups (simple, puffy letter outlines hastily filled in with a single color), pieces (highly modified letter forms, a shortened form of "masterpieces") and productions (collaborative arrangements of pieces and murals completed by an entire crew). Another distinction should be made between crews that concentrate on tagging and crews that dedicate themselves to the more florid, more imaginative bravura of piecing and productions. "Graffiti L.A." concerns itself with the latter, tracing the evolution of a distinct Los Angeles style.

This style has its roots in East L.A. gang \o7placas\f7, the stylized markings of one's neighborhood. Rendered in angular regional fonts, these expressions of territorial pride date to the 1930s, when brushes were used before the advent of spray paint. These practitioners eventually found commonality in emergent 1970s hip-hop, punk, skateboarding and avant-garde art movements.

Graffiti was an easy, natural fit with plenty of alienated youth. One 1980s writer describes the nascent culture as a "weird private communication for teenage kids.... It was basically like Misfit Island ... weird young kids who, for whatever reason, weren't happy with what was going on in their lives and felt that they wanted to create this alter ego." These aliases are crucial. Some, such as Panic, Saber, Angst and Revok, suggest disaffection and violence, but others -- Cre8, Prime and Atlas -- evoke possibility, possibly optimism. They are one's public identity, and the style in which they are rendered becomes a modern, expressionist calling card. In graffiti piecing, one's notoriety is measured primarily by the uniqueness of writing style. Recognition comes from one's peers, not the outside world. This pursuit of isolated fame is a rare common goal among graffiti writers. Grody documents how it accounts for the continuous development of graffiti styles, consistently ensuring new letter forms and arrangements, accommodating new visions. According to Siner, a leader in LTS (a crew known alternately as "Last to Survive" or "Last to Serve"): "You continue to keep burning yourself. Or learn from the last piece; you might do a little something in a section of one piece that you want to work more with in the next piece. And if you don't do it, somebody else will pick up where you left off, so you better be quick to keep developing it!"

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