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HECTOR TOBAR

A former tagger searches for a new means of expression

Fenix gained street fame by tagging from Slauson Avenue to Sunset Boulevard. Now he attends community college and hopes to give his stories of L.A.'s streets a new life in print.

November 10, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

A young man once known as Fenix is standing at a fork in the road.

He's 19 years old, a year or so removed from a high school life in which he was popular for his charm and for his prowess at certain illegal activities, like tagging and "jacking" supermarkets.

When he tagged, Fenix tells me, he felt free: "It's the one thing where it doesn't matter what race you are or how much money you have." I want to tell him that there are many other less-destructive activities where that is true, but I don't -- yet.

Fenix was a very good tagger, apparently. A tagging crew bought him a ticket to Las Vegas and paid him for his work there with boxes of spray paint. In the corner of Los Angeles where he lives, this gave him prestige, he says. "People look up to you."

But he's left all that behind, he tells me. He hasn't painted his "Fenix" tag in a year. It had no future. Who wants to be one of those guys who's 30 and still cruising the buses, tagging day and night because he doesn't know what else to do?

He's in a community college now, though the temptations of his neighborhood are never far away. He's a tall, burly young man with big ambitions, and he sought me out for advice on how to proceed in the legit world.

So we sit and talk at a Mid-City eatery. Like so many other young men in L.A., he's smart but impatient.

"I want to be known for something where I can use my real name," he says. In the tagging world and in his neighborhood, he's known as Fenix and another two-syllable, one-word nickname.

For obvious reasons, he would rather I didn't print his real name.

I, on the other hand, have my real name on everything I write.

He called me after he heard me speak at his community college a few weeks ago. "That was clean!" he told me. "It was mad dope!"

No one had ever said that one of my readings was "mad dope" before. I was flattered, though Fenix explained that it wasn't so much what I read that impressed him.

Instead, he noted how the English professor who introduced me had recited my biography and read selections from my books.

I stood behind a lectern as other professors, and some students too, asked me thoughtful questions.

That's what Fenix wants from life. He wants to be able to command a stage and have people see deep and meaningful things in what he has to say. More meaningful and more enduring than a tag on a wall.

"Books last forever," he says, and this brings a smile to my lips because I thought reverence for the printed word was going out of style. He likes to write, though "I need to work on my grammar," he tells me.

What's the magic potion, Fenix wants to know?

So I give him Hector's 15-minute recipe for writing success. I talk about the importance of reading widely and seeking out good teachers and lots of other things that don't seem to impress him so much.

"The hardest thing is to learn from all the teachers and editors you have and still stay true to who you are," I say finally.

For some reason, this last point seems to resonate with him. He's brought a portfolio for me to look at.

There are a few pictures of his tags in there, but that's not what he wants me to see.

Instead, he produces some poems and fragments of stories he's written about growing up in Mid-City and Koreatown, and about his adventures in crime.

He describes putting his single mother through nights of worry and agony.

In one story, he's about to leave for the streets when he says goodbye to his mother. "I told her it was going to be the last time," he writes, "but those eyes of hers told me, 'You're like an old show [my son]. Nothing but reruns.' "

This is a good start, I tell him. You've got to fill out the details. Then he asks me what kind of cars the "top" people at The Times drive and how much they make, and he's sort of disappointed by my answers.

I can see it's not just fame he wants.

He'd already gone on the Internet to study how the book business works. "So you get an advance. And you make 15% off each book," he tells me, and he's already started to calculate how many he would have to sell to live well.

Most people don't get rich writing books, I say. "You don't do it for the money. You do it because you love it."

This is not exactly music to his ears.

Earlier that day, he tells me, his mother broke down crying because she had to sell her old junker of a car for $175 to pay the rent. So he gave her his car.

Much of his young life has been defined by the pursuit of money and by finding ways to get things without spending any.

He shows me his counterfeit MTA bus pass, for example, and tells me about various grocery-store scams, including one he used just that morning to get a $3 bag of grapes for 75 cents.

Just the other day, he ran into an old acquaintance who invited him to a meeting to plan a serious crime.

"No, I won't go that way," he says. That's the route his father took, and he spent much of Fenix's childhood in prison.

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