5 Reasons Graffiti Art Is Even Crazier Than You Think
Public opinion on graffiti is split. Some say that it's a legitimate form of modern art, while others see it more as elaborate property damage. Regardless of your stance, you've got to agree that works like this ...
... are impressive, if only because we're not quite sure how the hell you do that without dying. Cracked wanted to know more, so we asked Cristian "Smear" Gheorghiu, a street artist turned contemporary painter from Los Angeles, to tell us more about arting so hard that you risk death.
It Can Get You Executed By Gangbangers
In the late '80s, graffiti culture became a popular alternative to joining gangs, as it combined the allure of crime with the relatively low mortality rate of the arts. Unfortunately, this pissed off the actual gangs, which up until then had been using the general aimlessness of children as their main recruiting tool. Pretty soon, kids with spray cans unwittingly became the enemies of criminals with guns, which I personally became aware of when one of them tried to shoot me in the head.
Uh, one of the criminals with guns, not one of the kids with spray cans.
One day during the early '90s, my buddy and I were cruising L.A. in his old Datsun trying to pick up the kind of girls who'll get into a strange Datsun, when out of nowhere his back window exploded in a shower of glass. We later found out that it was a bunch of gangbangers who opened fire on us because we went to the same school as one of their enemies, and also because we were "taggers." We quickly got out of there, and a few days later were caught in a second shootout with another gang that was out to get us for some other reason that we never bothered to stop and ask about.
Then there was the night when our crew was throwing up graffiti in an abandoned building in a shady part of Los Angeles. Suddenly, a group of guys was standing right behind us. We told them that we were just there to paint and that we didn't want any trouble, but they yelled out: "Fuck taggers!" and shot blindly at us, firing-squad style.
"You do NOT get to call us that! Only WE can use that word!"
Luckily it was dark, so they missed and we managed to escape, but when we checked ourselves later I noticed that there was a fucking bullet hole in my clothes. And yes, this kind of thing still happens: A tagger in Torrance was shot last September for painting on the wrong gang's territory. You're probably wondering why my friends and I kept going despite the dangers. Well ...
Graffiti Is An Addiction
I did loads of drugs in my life: weed, meth, cocaine, mushrooms, acid -- but I was never addicted to them. When I ran out of drugs and didn't have money for more, I would simply not do drugs, and I was fine with that. But after I ran into some legal trouble and had to quit doing graffiti, it made me so miserable that I had to go see a therapist. See, the thing I've always cared about the most was creating public art, and suddenly not being able to do that messed with my head to the point of depression. It made me realize that I was addicted to graffiti, and there isn't exactly a Graffiti Anonymous out there.
"Sorry. Start huffing paint. Then, we'll talk."
Street artists aren't stupid. We know that what we're doing is vandalism, and anyone who claims otherwise is a delusional idiot. But painting stuff on canvases just isn't the same. Graffiti requires you to be stealthy and to blend into the background so that you won't be caught by the cops. The rush is a huge part of our addiction, and there's nothing else in this world that can satisfy that hunger. There's a reason the sort of magazines that cater to frightened, out-of-touch parents portray tagging the same way they do a heroin addiction:
A hoodie and gloves, in November? Call the cops NOW.
It might not be a chemical dependency, but it doesn't make it any less of a struggle to resist. Sort of like a gambling or gaming addiction, only if World Of Warcraft was illegal and people shot at you for playing it.
You Have To Watch Out For Lethal Booby Traps
Some of the most popular places for graffiti, like abandoned buildings and overpasses, happen to be right where the homeless congregate. Now, I don't have anything against the homeless, and I wish them no harm. But the problem is they don't know that. That's why some of those guys have been known to protect their camps with Home Alone-esque booby traps.
The most common contraption I came across was a simple tripwire alarm, but sometimes I'd find more elaborate traps, like a deep hole cleverly obscured by cardboard boxes and old newspapers. If you're lucky, there won't be anything at the bottom of it, and the worst that happens to you will be a sprained ankle. But the less lucky ones might find themselves impaled on a spike, or neck-deep in a communal toilet filled with months of hobo shit. Which shouldn't sound any worse than normal shit, but it somehow does, doesn't it?
There were other traps, too: In the world of graffiti, the most respected pieces are the ones painted on difficult-to-reach places with high visibility, like billboards or freeway bridges -- we called those "heavens." Imagine risking your life to graffiti a heaven, only for another guy to come around and paint over it later. You'd probably be pissed, perhaps pissed enough to make sure that your next high-value piece stays there ... at all costs.
Paying the hobo to carry a shotgun costs just $1.50 an hour.
This is generally achieved by smearing the ledges around a heaven with grease to stop others from accessing it. This is not often accompanied by high-visibility "Warning: Slippery Heaven Lube!" signs, so it's not unusual for aspiring taggers to overlook the grease trap and wind up in a heaven of their own ... or at least an emergency room.
Anti-Graffiti Laws Are Both Harsh And Bizarre
Some years back, I ran with a tagging crew called the Metro Transit Assassins. I left in 2003, but in 2009, the group painted a gigantic "MTA" tag on the side of the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River.
The paint contained almost as much toxic chemicals as the water.
Three stories tall and several blocks long, the tag required 400 gallons of paint and was a thing of pure beauty ... which I was accused of masterminding. It didn't matter that I had left MTA six years earlier; I had a prior relationship with the crew and was still doing art, which was apparently enough to arrest me for property damage to the tune of $3.7 million.
I was eventually released due to lack of evidence, but that wasn't the last time the city of Los Angeles would go after me. In 2011, the city prosecutor filed a lawsuit against me for selling paintings under my tagger nickname, "Smear," because it apparently violated California's unfair competition laws. The city actually claimed that it wasn't "fair" for me to profit off my fame because I acquired it the wrong way (doing graffiti), which is hilarious coming from the place that gave us Kim Kardashian.
When that didn't work, I was arrested for posting pictures of someone else's illegal graffiti on my website. I got 45 days community service for that, because it violated part of my 2007 parole for graffiti vandalism. The conditions of my parole also forbade me from owning "vandalism tools," which the authorities found during random raids on my house. These included: paint, stickers, posters, my computer, and markers. Hell, my lawyer told me that, for four years, it was technically illegal for me to own a pencil.
It Literally Changes The Way You See The World
Doing street art has made me see the world in a completely new way. For instance, I now just glance at a piece of graffiti and instantly know how it got up there. There's this guy in L.A., "Borat" (no relation), who's slowly becoming a legend for the risky billboard spots he hits. Like the one advertising the cop drama Gang Related, which he sprayed last year.
Honestly, if they'd followed his suggestion the show would probably still be on the air.
To execute that spot, young Borat would have had to scale an exposed water pipe that runs along the side of the neighboring building, then grab ahold of the very narrow and very shaky bottom rung of the billboard's ladder before he could climb up onto the catwalk, just for the privilege of doing some hasty art. That takes balls. But you know what takes even more balls? Spray-painting an elephant. Let me tell you a story.
The year was 1971, and a Philly graffiti legend, "Cornbread," was mistakenly reported as dead by newspapers. He figured that he'd better do something big and flashy to announce his non-deceased status, so one day he jumped the fence of the Philadelphia Zoo and spray-painted his name on both sides of an honest-to-God elephant.
"This will prove those newspapers either wrong or retroactively right!"
Let's be clear: I personally think that writing on an animal is fucked up and deserves an aggressive ass-kicking, but I'm not exactly in a position to get on any kind of high horse and spray-paint my initials onto it. I'm just saying: The guy had to slowly approach a several-ton beast and keep it calm as he marked it like a bagged lunch in the office fridge. It was a risky move, considering how huge and unpredictable elephants are ... although not as huge and unpredictable as a drawbridge. Let me tell you another story. Don't worry. You'll like it: It features a giant penis.
"Go on ..."
One night in 2010, about 40 or so members of the infamous Russian art group Voina painted a 224-foot-long dick on a major Saint Petersburg drawbridge. It's one of my all-time favorite acts of vandalism ever, simply because of how beautifully coordinated it all was. Voina members stated that they "practiced drawing the penis as fast as possible" before bombing the site. They probably had to bum-rush the bridge with plastic containers full of paint and pour it onto the asphalt in a perfectly coordinated pattern, all while trying to avoid being tackled by angry security officers. The whole thing reportedly went down in 23 seconds flat. I wasn't there, but I can see it all with my graffiti vision whenever I look at photos of the Cockzilla bridge. Truly, it is the most beautiful dick in the world.
You can stay connected with Smear via his Instagram @smearski, or check out his new website: www.smearski.com. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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