Graffiti Gangs LA – Loaded November 2009

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At 3am on a weeknight, most of us are either socializing or snuggled up in bed, yet there’s an odd breed of folk who prefer clamoring over bridges and through railway tunnels, illegally spray painting public sights with elaborate logos and motifs, all in the name of art

Graffiti Crews have been around for a bit, since the 80’s as an element of the hip hop scene along with DJing, break dancing and rapping.. While graffiti or “graff,” harks back to ancient times, that of the aerosol variety began in the USA in the 1970s, when groups of political activists spread their messages with spray painted slogans to express political goals

Thirty years on and the Graff scene is huge in the US. Some are hardcore criminal gangs. into robbery, drug dealing and stand over tactics while others are simply into the art form, and the thrill of “getting up,” including the likes of Lo123 Clan, 7UP, AKA 7, Unstoppable Painters, Bomb Squad, and CAK aka Crazy Assed Kings, TNT (The Nation’s Top), OTR (On The Run),Top Katz, and BOE (Beginning Of The End)

Now in his early 40s founder of LA’s DOC (Destroy Our City or Devils Only Children- depending on the occasion?) crew isn’t quite a political activist, he’s more a fanatical vandal who says he does it simply for the sake of being seen. “When I was a kid, other than skateboarding, the thrill of going out and destroying our city gave me reason to live. The art of destruction and the idea of molding a smooth blank surface to my craving is a doped out feeling. Leaving a spot without getting caught by the police is an achievement.”

Twenty year old Los Angeles native Soye, also a member of the DOC ( Destroy Our City) has a similar perspective He’s a graphic arts student, typical of those attracted to the notoriety and clandestine nature of “getting up,” he’s been involved with the scene since he was 12.

“I’ve always been an adrenalin junkie; I’m into the thrill of it. I pay my taxes and see my money going towards everything else, so why not see them spend money to counter what I’ve done “It’s a way of life, after doing it for a while it just comes naturally. After you’ve seen you’re stuff up a few times, it becomes an obsession.”

Soye says he’s had many run ins with LA’s hard core gangs and everyday people or heroes’ “The gangbangers are usually just protecting their territory, they will come at you with guns or knives, it’s a pain in the ass when that happens.”

Soye says the scene has changed since he started back in the late nineties it’s easier to get a legal wall to spray on. “It’s more commercial than it was. I have some friends that get paid to spray up business names. There’s also an after school program called Juice that caters for all elements of hip hop, you can take a class in graffiti, Djing, or break dancing, it’s all above board.”

Still Soye enjoys the edgier side, having been caught by police or trespassing on several occasions. ‘I’ve been charged with three counts of vandalism, spent days in jail and received a $5000 fine. I’ve known others that have had it worse.”

Less artistically motivated Hyper T of the 123Clan has a more insidious agenda, “I’m tight with my crew, we be bangin cause we don’t know anything else. We tag cause we map our turf, I do it cause I have nothing else, If I want you wallet. I’ll get it, if I want some crack I’ll get it, I’ve done time and I don’t care We aint no graff pussies, though its suppin we do, we can use the youngins to help deal our shit they get of lightly, while we don’t, so the paintin keeps em happy, we pay em in paint and they spread the word and help us out, It’s a pretty good deal.”

Fellow DOC crew member Ian/ AKA Sonik now earns a crust as an installation artist and clothes designer says he was attracted to the daring of it all, “it was like Camelot times back then. I was into the whole hip hop thing in high school in the early 90s . It was a graffiti haven. “

“At that time we were hitting every city in California, we were 17 and just living on the edge, we’d hitch rides on buses, trains, and the whole bit to get rides. It was a great feeling when other kids at school would spot your pieces and all be talking about them at school, I remember the principal making an announcement in front of the others kids about a piece Id done once, there was a story in the local paper too, I felt like a fugitive.”

Los Angeles County has battled graffiti for decades, spending $30 million a year to paint over or clean up the emblems, names and images spray-painted on stores, concrete-lined riverbeds, rail lines, phone booths, buses, even police cars. Late last year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring convicted graffiti vandals to remove their scrawl as a standard part of sentencing

The US also has stiffer penalties for graffiti crime than anywhere else in the world. According to the California Vandalism Law, vandalism may fall under the classification of either a misdemeanor or a felony based on the circumstances under which the crime was committed. Consequences can extend to community service, probation, steep fines, and incarceration

First time vandalism charges with minimal damage (less than $400) is generally considered a vandalism misdemeanor and comes with a fine, community service and no jail time If the damage is $400 or more and the defendant has a prior conviction for vandalism, then you could be facing a vandalism felony with: Jail time, Formal probation, Restitution and Community service

In some cases a misdemeanor vandalism charge can be elevated to a felony vandalism charge. A prior criminal record, gang involvement, and hate crime implications can all elevate what would be a misdemeanor vandalism charge into a felony vandalism charge. If a gang enhancement (a crime intended to further the gang as a whole) is charged, then not only is the charge a felony but a "strike" - as in California Three Strikes Law.

Still there are no cut and dry measurements to prosecution. Aptly named DOC member Insane landed a year in jail for simple trespass. It was a complex scenario, after scaling a three story building, while teaching other members of his crew how to climb, he lost his balance and fell, fracturing his skull and back. Cops found him, took his details and waited two hours before calling an ambulance. While recovering in hospital, cops visited him and due to a lengthy record he landed a year inside.

DOC’s Sonik offers his insights on getting caught, “The severity of the sentence ultimately depends on an offenders age. They will sometimes give you chances, there’s also the chance of community service or home arrest. I had a specially made coat that could conceal eight cans, which people couldn’t detect even if they searched me and I never dressed the part, no hoodie or shaved head

“I had some close calls with the cops, climbing way out on a ledge on one occasion to avoid capture. One time I had to dangle on a two inch ledge for four hours to evade the cops. On other occasions I’ve been shot at and had time hide for hours on end,” Sonik adds

“Ultimately, to be a true graffiti artist, you have to know and understand your environment, then you will be ok. I was pulled over by cops once and I had just finished a piece, but as I was dressed normally they believed me when I told them I was on my way home from an art project. They even gave me a body bag to put my cans in and drove me home.”

Cops aren’t Sonik’s only threat, “Random members of the public or security guards who try and stop you are far worse than cops, we call them heroes. Bored security guards will shoot at you. Gangbangers who are protective of their turf will also shoot at you, that’s a pain.”.

Cyrus Yazdani is a classic graff artist case. A 24-year-old San Jose State University graduate with a degree in art and a job as a convention planner in Las Vegas, his Buket moniker adorned hundreds of freeway overpasses, concrete walls and transit buses across the state and southern Nevada. He was believed responsible for $150,000 in property damage.

After being busted last year, he was held on $250,000 bail, with the case still pending. If convicted of the current charges, he faces up to 20 years in prison..According to Sgt. Augie Pando of the sheriff’s Transit Bureau, the investigator on the case had been tracking Yazdani’s alleged activities for around a year.

In 2008, after spraying the concrete LA riverbed with three storey high, half mile long graffiti spelling their moniker ,MTA, the Metro Transit Assassins crew were raided by the LAPD. Authorities estimate that it took about 400 gallons of paint 300 gallons of white and 100 gallons of black to create three block letters that cover a three-story-high wall and run the length of several blocks between the 4th Street and 1st Street bridges. Seven members of the gang were subsequently busted, receiving hefty jail terms.

Artists being precious about their work is another issue that can have fatal consequences. Over the past 2 1/2 years in Southern California, three people have been killed after confronting graffiti vandals. A fourth died after being shot while watching a confrontation between crews in a park.”We have seen a marked increase in these graffiti-tagging gangs taking to weapons and fighting to protect their walls, their territory, their name,” said Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Robert Rifkin.

Last August, Maria Hicks, 58, was shot in the head and died after flashing her headlights and honking at a teenager spray-painting a wall near her home in Pico Rivera, a blue-collar suburb east of Los Angeles. Four people were subsequently charged with murder.

Ten days after Hicks died, Seutatia Tausili, 65, was fatally shot and her grandson wounded when he told taggers to stop vandalizing a trash can outside their home in Hesperia in San Bernardino County. Three men were charged with murder.

Robert Whitehead was shot to death in 2006 in the Los Angeles County area of Valinda when he tried to keep taggers from marking a neighbor’s garage. Investigators arrested one man with alleged ties to the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang.

In stark contrast to all this edgy street behavior, and 30years since its inception, graffiti is also a big favorite with ad agency art directors, with the likes of Sony, Puma, Disney and Nike embracing it to plug everything from trainers to gaming consoles. LA based company Alt Terrain and many others internationally now specialize in matching graffiti artists with corporate clients, commanding rates from $1 -100K for a wall mural ad.

Still the graff scene’s renegade factor prevails, and there are still thousands of graffiti crews throughout the US ( and the world) content with nothing more than “being up,” while off the payroll, no matter what the consequences.

DOC’s Feevo sums it up, “I do graffiti for me, myself, and eye. It's a personal rush that drives my blood in fierce force through the arteries and heart. I love the act of doing our crime, destroying our city, disobeying cops is a soul sick thought that keeps my sense and abilities awake. It allows me to defend myself against media hype , corporate master, and government control. Graffiti is my marijuana, it opens up my third eye.”


THROW UP -A quick tag with paint ( or to vomit up loads of 50c canned ale after scaling a bridge).

BURNER – A quick tag with ink/, done by pen or sharpie

SCRIBE – Etching into glass using a metal object

TOY – An amauteur/ beginner graff artist

BOMB – A major piece usually painted at night

FUZZ – Umm, the Po lice

GHETTOBIRD – Helicopters used for surveillance by cops

Written by Craig Stephens

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