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Personal History: Documenting Gang Graffiti in Los Angeles, 2011

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The following is one man's personal history that starts with a move to Los Angeles, where he became interested and then obsessed with documenting gang graffiti and the world in which it flourished. The photos that accompany the piece represent a small fraction of the photos in eF Be's archives. You can view more here.

Graffiti is illegal. That’s really the main reason why I was initially attracted to it. We can discuss the significance of self-expression or dig deeper into the social ramifications of this ever-growing medium of aerosol exchange, but the bottom line is that it is against the law. It’s a blunt “fuck you” to authority, and that alone was enough for me to buy the ticket, and as we all know, once you buy the ticket, you have to take the ride.

My dream had always been to live in this world I had created inside my head that was composed of CHiPs episodes, Freestylin' Magazine, Thrasher, Colors and Boyz In The Hood. That was all I knew about this mystical land of danger between the desert and the ocean. In 2002 I stepped out of a cab in Kentucky and rode a horse by the name of Seabiscuit all the way to Los Angeles. Upon arrival I immediately connected with some people in the skateboarding scene. I shot photos at backyard pools, parties and shows, and while graffiti was never too far from the frame, it was never clearly in focus. It was only after returning to Los Angeles from a brief hiatus in New York that I began to read the writing on the wall.

Return To L.A.

When I returned to Los Angeles in 2009 everything I knew of the city from my first "tour" had somewhat faded away. My group of skateboarding buddies had disbanded for various reasons, and I found myself alone, trying to make sense of my return. I would go on long, aimless walks from Koreatown to Hollywood to Downtown. I always had a camera with me. You have to. You can't shoot photos without one, and when you’re shooting graffiti, you might not get another chance.

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L.A. graffiti is unlike any other graffiti I have ever seen. It covers everything. I used to play a game where I would see how many sidewalk blocks I could go before not seeing something related to graffiti. Try it, and you'll quickly begin to realize the magnitude of its canvas. It's endless. Once you understand that, as a person with a camera who is trying to document what your eye is drawn to, you need to make a decision about what it is you are trying to cover because, let's face it, you're never going to get it all. I quickly realized this after a few walks. I didn't want to just have this pile of photos and be like, "Ok, here it is folks, this is graffiti." That's not fair to the "community," nor is it fair to the average viewer, and that is the major problem with the way the outside world views graffiti. People who don't have any real interest in graffiti tend to throw it all under one umbrella so they can quickly dismiss it. "I know what that's about, that's graffiti. Isn't that what that "Bansky" (I know, it’s Banksy) guy does?" The end. People do the same thing with hip-hop, to which graffiti also plays a major role. "Oh, nah, I'm not much into that rap shit." The end. People will inevitably write off anything that they don't truly know about because it is typically a threat to their own intelligence.

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Like most people, I was initially drawn to big colorful graffiti pieces. It's a no brainer. You can't miss them. That quickly fades like the puff off your first cigarette. You initially get a head rush but once you're buying a pack everyday it doesn't really phase you. Make no mistake about it, I'm not saying that particular style is lacking in any way, I'm simply saying that for me, it wasn't where I wanted to go. Having said that, studying this type of graffiti helped me learn how to "read" and that would later prove to be a valuable tool. Nevertheless, I was finding my voice.

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From there I started to focus more on tags. I originally came up with the idea to follow a tagger. I thought it would be interesting to find out where they went, what they tagged, and what they used to tag and try to develop a story from there. I soon realized that if you're some kid with a made-up crew that tags the stop sign on his way to school, you might not have much of a story. In the "all-city" days, you could quantify your work by counting lines. You could raise your status by the quality of your work on those lines. You could deliver your work to the audience. The audience didn't have to seek you out because it was in their face every day on the train. It’s not like that in Los Angeles. Most of the time people are stuck in their Prii (that’s the plural form of Prius) listening to Pandora and your tag on the bus stop bench at Vermont and Venice isn’t making a dent. I considered all of these factors and decided to go in a completely different direction.

Ignorance is Bliss... For Some

My neighborhood was a few blocks west of MacArthur Park and occasionally I'd overhear people at the grocery store or the barbershop talking about local "bangers" who had been killed. Normal people were having these conversations like it was no different than discussing how the Lakers had played the night before. It's not like there was even really any emotion attached to the event. It was normal. It was a way of life. That’s when it all clicked for me. There it was, a real connection between the writing on the wall and what was going on in the neighborhood. There was a story there, at least for me, that transcended the glamour of the graffiti world and found its way into the numbness of the community that lived amongst it. I wasn’t from here, so naturally for me I had to learn more. There was a message, maybe not intended for me, but there was a line of communication that refused to go away. These people weren't trying to go "all city," nor were they looking to have their work showcased at LACMA. The stakes were higher than any of that and the penalty for crossing them was death. I didn't have to travel far to find it either, my hood was getting hit up on a weekly basis by a variety of gangs.

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Ignorance may be bliss, but if you live in Los Angeles, I don’t see how you can afford to ignore graffiti. As a matter of fact I think you owe it to yourself to educate yourself on at least the basic differences between normal graffiti and gang graffiti. Gang graffiti does a really good job at telling the reader exactly what they need to know. It lays out boundaries, it lists enemies, it lists allies, it claims territory, it tells who's calling the shots and it also tells who's going to die, signed, sealed and more often than not, delivered. The one thing you must understand about gang graffiti is that, aside from the largest gangs, you aren't going to see local neighborhood gangs trying to cover the city with their tags. They cover turf, and they typically don't stray too far outside of it unless they are trying to expand, and that doesn't mean they just want their name on another wall.

Most graffiti is disguised or coded to keep the honest people out. It requires a particular eye to decipher it. Gang graffiti is particularly difficult to read and for good reason. How else are you going to get the word out on some illegal shit without the general public catching wind of it? In a way, they use the public's typical attitude toward graffiti to their advantage. If people dislike graffiti, are they really going to take the time to try to figure it out? They're more likely to call to have it removed than spend the time to read it, and by that time the message has already gone out.

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The first important gang graffiti photo I shot I was a Clanton 14 St tag under the 101 at Heliotrope & Melrose. It’s almost fitting that it was a “Clanton” because they are one of the oldest gangs in Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, 18th St broke off from Clanton in the mid-sixties. Gang tags are huge. These aren’t “pieces,” they are tags. This particular tag was as high as the hand could reach and as wide as the wall that supported the overpass. It wasn't beautiful. The letters weren't even. It didn't have particularly great style. It did, however serve a purpose. It told me where I was and who I could expect to find there. It wasn't the first time this spot had been hit up either. I could still see the roller marks from the last buff. The paint had to be an inch thick at this point (not really). The relentlessness of gang graffiti writers is second to none. They hit the same spots over and over again. That fact should raise an eyebrow for anyone that takes a moment to think about it. If I tagged the same spot every week at the same time and the police wanted to catch me, they'd have a pretty good idea of when and where to find me, and you can bet they would. So why do gang graffiti writers, many of which have injunctions, seemingly get a pass?

How it All Started

So this is how it all started. I narrowed the field from big colorful pieces to tags to gang-graffiti. I went from walking everywhere to riding my bike to cruising around in my 1993 Honda Accord on daily missions to places I had no business being in to decode messages I had no business reading for no other reason than my fascination with this violent underworld and it’s seemingly unfading resistance to the LAPD. I didn’t really have a game plan, I would just go out and follow the tags. Sometimes it would keep me occupied in my hood while other times I’d take trips as far south as the 130’s to see what type of activity was taking place. Sometimes nothing would go on for weeks at a time. There were also times when I found myself in the middle of war. Let’s be clear, I wasn’t interested in the gangs or what they were doing as much as I was interested in the way in which they chose to communicate on the streets. In 2011, grown men were using spray paint to deliver messages on walls. They weren’t using “gang territory” apps on iPhones. They were using one of the crudest, oldest means of communication known to man: writing on walls.

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There were many situations where I had to come up with ways to get shots. I couldn’t just get out of my car and stand in the middle of the road and set focus and be sure everything was perfect, but I tried. I wanted clear, mostly human-free images of what I was interested in. I wanted the aesthetic of something beautiful underlined by something evil because that’s exactly what Los Angeles is to me. When I would take someone for a drive that had never been to L.A. before I would always take them to Hollywood and the Sunset Strip and maybe Beverly Hills or UCLA and on out to Malibu, but on the way back I’d take them through Watts or across Imperial to Main or Broadway and eventually make it to Skid Row. That’s reality, and that’s exactly what I wanted to convey through my photography.

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When I lived in Brooklyn I had a brief job shooting photos for a real estate business that specialized in selling property foreclosures. I basically had to shoot a picture of the house or building from multiple angles and get a shot of the street sign to verify the location. This was typically in really bad areas where people weren’t too thrilled about seeing a white boy cruising around on a bike with a camera. In some cases I had to document the inside of houses that people were still living in that hadn’t been foreclosed. I learned to get my shots fast. I used that same mentality on the west coast. I found that if I shot what I needed without making a big deal about it I could get in and get out without causing a problem. People typically tend to leave you alone if you look like you aren’t concerned with anything else but handling your shit. I think the only time anyone ever said anything to me was on 6th and Union when I shot the Rockwood “list” that had a bunch of names crossed out.

“What are you, some kind of narc?” he said.

I blurted something out like, “If I was a narc do you think I’d be doing this shit in front of everyone in broad daylight?”
When I got home that night I though about it, and decided that if I was a narc I probably WOULD do that shit in broad daylight. Regardless, for a year of covering something like this, having one short verbal dispute was pretty good.

By the end of the year, things were winding down, and I was shooting less and less. The gang graffiti had not stopped, nor will it ever stop, but for whatever reason, I just wasn’t motivated to go out and get in the “shit.” I have to be honest the project had become depressing on multiple levels. I started to feel a little bit overwhelmed and somewhat hopeless that anything would ever change.

My Arrest

A few weeks after the New Year had begun, a brief relationship ended, and after a strange turn of events I found myself in the back of a black & white near Crenshaw and Adams with a felony DUI and a $100,000 bond over my head. Not only was this my first arrest, it was my first time in jail, a South Central jail no less. I was wearing brown Dickies and a “BLUELINE” shirt and had just cut off all of my hair the night before. I was representing brown, black and white. I was eventually placed in “F” block, with 24 other individuals, many of who were clearly members of gangs. After further review I realized that one of them was an 18th street gang member that I had seen before. Not only had I seen him before, I had pictures of him being arrested on Adams. I asked him about it and he remembered the day quite well. I told him I was shooting some graffiti in the area of La Brea and Adams when I saw it going down. That was my in. Just like that, the story was back on. Everything I wanted to know that I couldn’t figure out from the graffiti was all right there, and for the next 4 days I basically conducted interviews in the day room. I really couldn’t believe what was going on. This was not like what I had expected at all. I mean I didn’t even own a television at the time so the day room to me was almost a step up and I was filling in the blanks. This however wasn’t County, and by the time I was arraigned I had no intention of ever going back if I could help it.

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I went in on a Friday night so I wasn’t arraigned until Tuesday. I wasn’t getting out on bail so that was that. I made the most of a rather grim situation. I survived my first jailhouse shower without complications. Tuesday morning finally rolled around and we got shackled up to board the “gray goose” in 2 by 2 formation. As soon as we entered the holding tank we were split according to race. You stick with your own kind in County. Whites got split with Hispanics away from African Americans. I learned about trustees, meds, the “books,” etc real quick. There was probably just as much dealing goin’ on in jail as there was outside and some of that was going on too by people who were being arraigned on other charges. I think one of the worst memories was seeing the look on this one guy’s face after he came back from court. They gave him 25 years to life. It was only by the grace of God that my charges were reduced, and I avoided being processed. It still wasn’t over though.

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Royal Palms Recovery Home

I had to go to at least 16 AA classes as part of my sentence, so where did I go? I went to the Royal Palms Recovery Home on Westlake & 6th, right in the heart of 18th St territory. The people here had just gotten out of prison for various crimes and this is where I chose to attend AA meetings. I went to well beyond the required amount. I ended up tutoring there and occasionally got the chance to discuss gang graffiti with gang members. There was nothing glamorous or exciting about any of it. It was just another reminder of what was really going on all around me.

Last but not least I had to complete 104 hours of community service. Of course I chose to work for the “graffiti removal” team, but the reality was that we wouldn’t be cleaning up graffiti, we would be cleaning up trash at every bus stop from County to South Central. Once again I found myself in the midst of gang members going to places I had already seen while covering my “story” for the next 13 days straight. I honestly didn’t mind because I was getting to tour spots like the “jungle,” for instance, that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise including some Black P Stones graffiti. I didn’t take any pictures.

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When it was all said and done I had managed to collect more than enough information for the story I set out to cover. I could never have imagined that it would evolve into such a life-changing event, but I am certain that it did not happen by coincidence. If nothing more I realized that my return to Los Angeles was indeed necessary but not for the reasons I may have originally thought. I was sent back to the city of Lost Angels to uncover the truth about gang-graffiti and in the midst of the struggle, I found myself.

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View more photography at http://efbeeyephotos.blogspot.com/

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