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Graffiti artist's past is tagging behind him

COLUMN ONE

Cristian Gheorghiu scrawled ragged images and his nickname, 'Smear,' on L.A.'s lampposts, walls and riverbeds. Now that his gallery career is taking off, an injunction is threatening to bar him from profiting from art bearing his telltale 'tag.'

March 15, 2011|By Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • Graffiti artist Cristian Gheorghiu, emblazoned with his street nickname "Smear," in his East Hollywood garage studio. Gheorghiu is gaining acclaim as an artist and is trying to make amends for his past mistakes.
Graffiti artist Cristian Gheorghiu, emblazoned with his street nickname… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

For years Cristian Gheorghiu craved the thrill of the chase. Spray-paint can in hand, he lived on the edge, always a step ahead of the law.

His canvas was L.A.'s lampposts, brick walls and concrete riverbeds where he scrawled ragged images and his own nickname, "Smear" — probably thousands of times.

The graffiti made him a subculture sensation. Fans compared his art to that of another graffiti artist, the critically acclaimed Jean-Michel Basquiat.

But just as the East Hollywood graffiti artist's career was taking off, his past has threatened to overtake him.

First came jail and a whopping fine. Now, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is seeking a one-of-a-kind court injunction to bar Gheorghiu from profiting from art bearing his telltale "tag."

The American Civil Liberties Union calls the lawsuit an assault on artistic freedom. For Gheorghiu, it is something more: an attack on his cherished outlaw persona.

Smear "is the beast over there, and I'm over here," said Gheorghiu, 34. "I'm not going to turn my back on it," but "you got to evolve."

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The slight, bearded Gheorghiu is the most recent in a long line of graffiti writers to wow the art scene.

Traditional graffiti, a bold style of writing done with spray paint or markers, harks back to at least the 1920s. Its current artistic form developed in the 1970s, when New York City's painted subway cars became iconic. Today, the work of people once considered vandals can be found in chic galleries, auction houses and even suburban shopping malls.

Some former miscreants have become household names. Basquiat, the internationally known neo-expressionist artist, burst onto the New York art scene in the late 1970s. Today, a piece by Banksy — the secretive British graffiti artist nominated this year for a best documentary Oscar — may command hundreds of thousands of dollars. Shepard Fairey's art is found on the youth-oriented Obey line of clothing.

Graffiti writers have had an "incredible influence on culture, music and art," said Roger Gastman, one of the authors of "The History of American Graffiti," to be released soon by Harper Collins.

Smear has not yet achieved the stature of a Basquiat or Banksy, but his path is similar.

Born in Bucharest, Romania, he grew up in the '80s in then-rough East Hollywood. He drifted into gang life as a teenager, he said. By his early 20s, graffiti had become his obsession.

He held various jobs: stocking bottles at a bar, working in a retail clothing shop and a video store.

But this was a backdrop to his shadowy after-dark existence. Sometimes he traveled with tagging groups with brazen names: Racing Toward Hell, Metro Transit Assassins (or MTA). Mostly he spent his nights alone with a small backpack and a few cans of Coors and beef jerky, spraying poles, newspaper boxes and rusty utility boxes.

He hopped gates and hunted for forgotten access ladders. He dodged guard dogs and crunched across gravel roofs, always searching for that blank surface that, in his words, "screamed to be hit."

There were moments of chest-pounding fear. But he also found peace, perched on some high outcropping, smoking a Parliament cigarette, gazing down at the city lights as treetops swayed in the breeze.

"It is a Peter Pan existence.… There is nothing like it in the world," he said. "It is better than sex. It is better than drugs. It is just you and the city and your thoughts.… I don't know if it is some primitive instinct or what. It just feels right."

His repertoire quickly expanded from tags with markers and stickers to characters and his trademark, shadowy depiction of his own face.

By his late 20s, he had begun to make his first mixed-media pieces on canvas. He was living and painting in a court apartment off Normandie Avenue in East Hollywood. His paintings were unique renderings of human forms with vivid colors and rough, emotional strokes.

He developed a following. Soon he was living a dual life: graffiti painter by night, budding artist by day.

His work was noticed by artsy folks in Silver Lake and downtown Los Angeles. In 2006, he made his professional debut when an art show in San Francisco included his work. A gallery in Long Beach followed suit. After that, his canvases were exhibited in L.A., Ventura, Philadelphia, Berlin and Bucharest. There were group shows and solo shows.

Anna Bermudez, curator of collections at the Museum of Ventura County, said Gheorghiu's art is a reflection of his urban life. In 2009 the museum exhibited what she called his almost folk art-like pieces in a show titled "Immigration to Integration."

Mayra Baligad, owner of the popular Monkeyhouse Toys & Art Gallery in Silver Lake, said that like Basquiat, Gheorghiu "is one of most honest artists out there. He has not got any formal artist training and his work is raw."

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