This Saturday, July 28, two legendary graffiti artists, REVOK and SABER, will open new body of works at Known Gallery in Los Angeles (Gilgamesh and Beautification, respectively). In our May 2012 Public Art Issue, we sat down with the two artists to have them discuss the current state of graffiti, their personal history with authorities, and how cities can best capitalize on the positive aspects of graffiti and street art. Here, we have reprinted the article in full.
Saber x Revok
In conversation with Austin McManus
Saber and Revok have etched their names and reputations wall by wall, outmaneuvering the inevitable hardships and opposition that come with the playing field, continually adapting and impelling in their own creative directions. Such experiences creating public work in their native City of Angels (once dubbed the “Mural Capital of the World”) and beyond, have led them in two distinctly different directions.
Saber has taken his canvas to the heavens by skywriting in protest of mural ordinances and censorship, involving himself in community and panel discussions, while Revok has had to seek refuge out of California to thwart the continuous aggravation of police harassment. They say that competition and resistance have made them the artists they are today. From the beginning, asking for permission was never in their repertoire.
Do we really need a public panel and community approval to paint a mural on our own private property? And are municipal resources and priorities being used effectively by focusing millions of dollars to cleaning up graffiti and targeting individuals? There are plenty of issues to discuss, and who more appropriate to address them than these two artists? The following conversation took place over the phone with me in San Francisco, Saber in Los Angeles, and Revok in Detroit, on March 5th, 2012. —Austin McManus
Austin McManus: The police attention and focus shifted in your direction around the time of the MOCA show, right?
Revok: As far as the art in the streets thing, I’ve been going back and forth with these guys for probably two years, battling in court, caught in multiple cases. The irony is that in LA I hadn’t broken any laws in LA. Obviously, I’m a graffiti artist and I’ve got a long history of doing a lot of graffiti, but prior to the start of my legal troubles in LA, I hadn’t been actively painting in the streets for two or three years. All the years I was really active in LA the police never had a problem with me. I shifted gears in my life and started focusing less on painting graffiti in an illegal context and started doing more legitimate things, in the direction of pursuing an art career. There were some outrageous new laws being proposed in Los Angeles where businesses could be fined for having graffiti on their building. The definitions and criteria for graffiti are very vague and open, and they were basically allowing law enforcement to intimidate and prosecute business owners. When a reporter from KCAL approached me, I spoke openly and freely about it and showed my face. I think that really pissed them off. I heard that Carmen Trutanich and some high-up guy in the sheriff’s department were really infuriated by that and took it as a personal slap in the face. At that point, I think I started becoming a target because I was an articulate speaker and had a legitimate defense against what it was they were attempting to do. They really didn’t like that.
They had a vendetta and tried to take you out, correct?
Revok: Yeah, basically. Never at any time had I broken the law or violated the terms of my probation. They tried charging me with a felony for doing a legal, commissioned mural on the side of a business. We (Saber, Retina, Os Gemeos, and another friend of ours, Norm) donated this mural to the community. We were paid nothing and did it at our own expense as a gift. It was a building constantly hit with graffiti and the owner was repainting it weekly. I approached her and said, “I see you’ve got an issue with the graffiti. Let us paint your wall and we’ll do something cool to liven up the neighborhood and save you the burden of having to constantly bear the repainting cost.” She was thrilled. We painted the mural and for two weeks the police were going in there nearly every day telling her that we were organized crime, a gang, and that allowing art on her building would cause violence and jeopardize her safety. One of them said he could press charges and she could be fined $5,000. When the owner and tenant both failed to comply with the detective’s intimidation tactics, he hired a graffiti clean-up crew to show up early on a Sunday morning. They took the gate off the hinges, basically breaking and entering, and trespassed onto her property. They started painting over our mural without the tenant’s or the landlord’s consent, exactly the same thing they criticized and prosecuted us for. It was outrageous. The neighbors were yelling and screaming at these contractors saying, “What the hell are you guys doing painting over that? That’s a legal mural!” They actually called the police on the contractors! The police showed up and basically shooed them out of there without citing or arresting them.
This was right before Art in the Streets. This Trutanich character knew of Saber, Risk, and me. He knew we were all going to be participating in this event and he wasn’t happy about it. He had been bragging in interviews that certain people weren’t going to get through the exhibition without getting arrested. I went in disguise to the opening. It was the biggest thing that had happened in my life to date. Just to be included was such an honor. What it represented and all of the different aspects of this culture that we love and are so obsessed with coming together under one roof were something I wouldn’t have missed for anything in the world. I managed to avoid being arrested until a few days later while boarding a plane to Ireland at LAX, for being five days late paying a $3,000 fine. I think they were being a little overzealous at this point.
Well, your bail was $320,000.
Revok: Exactly. A $320,000 bill for not paying a $3,000 fine.
Saber: Everyone complains about the costs to clean up graffiti. What they don’t realize is that the million dollar budgets for graffiti removal go to an entire industry that thrives off graffiti itself: graffiti removal companies, law enforcement, special units. One time we were doing an event and police helicopters were circling the mural the entire day. There were at least fifteen to twenty officers mobilized in that area. That’s a lot of money spent just to arrest a guy with a spray tip.
Revok: That’s the excuse they use. We were at a local graffiti shop in LA and at the time I was working with a spray paint brand. It’s not often that LAPD, Sheriff’s Department and CHP work in conjunction with one another. But this particular day all three agencies decided to show and created a perimeter around the entire place with helicopters circling overhead. Keep in mind that this is a completely legitimate event. Their detectives said that if they didn’t send me out they would shut it down. Not wanting to cause problems so I left. I was arrested a few blocks away for having a spray can tip in my pocket. There is no law against that and no stipulations in my probation that say that I’m not allowed to have that either. These dudes just targeted me. I’m just trying to make a living and am not breaking any laws. The lead lieutenant said to me the other day, “I don’t care that you haven’t broken any laws. I hate you. I hate what you stand for, and if I can’t keep you in jail I’m going to put you out of business because I’m gonna arrest you every chance I get.” He’s made good by his threat. They continue to harass and threaten me and cost me a shitload of money.
The logical side of me asks why anybody would put up resistance against public art. Art enriches communities and brings color and life and culture to neighborhoods. Graffiti can be a nuisance and sometimes it’s rude vandalism, there’s no doubt about it. But it’s just a coat of paint on the wall. And it doesn’t cost the astronomical amount of money that these people claim. The last real case where they were actually trying to charge me with vandalism, they claimed it cost over 40-something thousand dollars to paint over three separate pieces. They say that every tag and every little small piece of graffiti is over $500 damage and is, therefore, a felony. It’s absolutely outrageous.
Why the fuck would they spend supposedly millions of dollars a year painting over graffiti when our public education system is in such dire straits? It really makes no sense at all. I think the public should be offended and outraged by this. Again, bringing it back to the issue of public art, at the end of the day, we actually care about the community. We don’t get paid money to go out and paint, at least most of the time. It’s nice when that does happen, but those opportunities are few and far between. Usually we’re doing it on our time, with our own resources and our own dollars. We’re not asking anything in return. It does serve us, but the larger picture is that it is a gift to the community. I just don’t understand why anybody would be offended by that.
Saber: We are passionate about painting and we’ve learned how the world works through painting. Unfortunately, it’s been a crash course for both of us, for all of us, but at the end of the day we get to learn about the world through a different perspective.
Revok: I can’t speak about other places but in LA major crime, like burglary, homicide, is down to 60 or 70%. Obviously, gangs used to be the big bad guy and the more crime, the more need for funding law enforcement. Now that major crimes are down, a lot of the detectives working graffiti-related stuff are ex-burglary, homicide, gang counselors. They need to justify the spending so it’s a very tactical thing they’re doing. 1991-1993, there was a thousand times more graffiti in LA. The city is as clean as it’s been since the early 80s, the late 70s. But they make it sound like it’s worse than ever and they’re spending more money than ever. They’re vilifying graffiti writers in order to justify their spending and their budgets.
Saber: So here we have this city attorney who’s willing to run rampant and waste all these funds and switch over departments and basically do what he wants to serve his own personal vendetta at the behest of the city’s funds. It’s so scary that these are the type of people that basically run this world. These are the kinds of people that we are up against. If creating art is a crime, then by all means we’re all straight criminals, because at the end of the day, making art is what we truly love.
Revok: On the flip side, I think it’s been a very positive thing, too. In all the years Saber and I painted graffiti, we thrived on competition. The more opposition and forces that were against us, the more we pushed ourselves. We blossomed and grew because we were so challenged and that has really made us into who we are today. I think all of these experiences have awakened things within me and made me see things from a different perspective. As a result I feel really motivated. For example, one really positive thing that came out of this was Saber doing that skywriting thing. Had the city not been so opposed to what it is that we do and tried to bully us out of painting murals, Saber wouldn’t have felt motivated to pull off such an outrageous stunt. That was fucking incredible. I never would’ve imagined I would see my name, all of my friend’s names, our crew’s name, blasted in huge block letters by jet planes over City Hall in downtown Los Angeles. From fucking Burbank to East LA you could read that. To my knowledge, nobody has ever done anything like that before. That would’ve never happened were it not for these guys’ determination to try and stop us. All this negative energy is inspiring a lot of positivity, not just within our group of friends but within the community as a whole.
Saber, it also got you involved with the mural ordinance, getting signatures and attending panel discussions. Where is it headed right now? It’s in its final stages, correct?
Saber: From what I understand it is. There’s a part of me that’s taking a step back. I’ve voiced my opinion but I don’t want to be too involved with the process because that’s for someone else to do. I just randomly stepped into this. Originally I wanted to do the skywriting because I wanted to do a #FreeRevok over the county jail. I found out the cost and the woman in charge realized what I wanted to do and wanted to work with me. Revok got out and this mural thing came in place, and the biggest issue was the fact that the Sheriff’s Department was using the mural ordinance to harass and try to end us. We needed to make a bunch of noise around that. So it fell into place; we raised the funds and realized the power of Twitter and connecting the hash tags. I was able to route that to Villaraigosa’s Twitter account and smashed it for three or four days. It was nice to be able to take the energy from the sky, put it into Twitter, route it, and then use that momentum and energy. It was quite an experience. I felt good. There’s more that has to be done. I don’t want any laws telling anyone what they can and cannot do with their own buildings. The fact that we even have to discuss this bothers me. For some reason, art has lost touch with society and I think a lot of that has to do with the way the political system has been arranged for us. We have to do what we can to try and change it. Or help it in any way possible. Making art is the one thing that we do best, so that’s the thing that we’re going to continue to do.
Europe has amazing festivals where small towns invite international and local artists to create locally. The residents and business owners immediately notice a complete change in commerce with visitors spending money on bars, hotels and food. They’ve seen a success with it and I think we’ve seen something similar with Wynwood Walls in Miami. This may not necessarily be a remedy, but do you think it’s a potential outline of something that could happen in Los Angeles?
Saber: Well, we’ve already talked about it with people who work with the City and it’s pretty much virtually impossible to do it here. They say that because of all the zoning requirements why would they allow an entire portion of the city to be painted? It’s tough. The places where we used to be able to do that all got torn down or are gone. I hope one day it could be possible. What do you think?
Revok: Come to Detroit where you can paint whatever the hell you want!
Yeah, there are numerous articles lately and lots of artists pointing to Detroit as the next major hub for street art.
Revok: This year this city is gonna be nuts. Tony Goldman has got some big project going on here. Obviously I’m going to be doing a bunch of stuff once it thaws out. They love art here. They actually appreciate it and they’re not jaded. The neighborhoods here are desolate and so in need of any thing inspiring. You come through and paint something here and people are just in shock. They’re really moved and excited by it. I’ve had old ladies come up and bring me homemade mac and cheese! Here’s a first – I’ve actually had police officers come up to me and say, “I just want to shake your hand. Here’s my card if you ever have any problems. If you have a speeding ticket or you just want to get a beer you call me any time. Thank you so much for coming and painting in these neighborhoods, we appreciate it.” I’ve had police tell me that. It’s crazy. I would recommend to anyone interested in painting large scale murals to come to Detroit because they will greet you with open arms. If they don’t try to rob you.
Is there anything optimistic or evolving in Los Angeles? Or is it a downward spiral as of now? What can people do to get involved?
Saber: Well, I’m definitely optimistic because of the response. The fact that people acknowledge that it’s a problem and are trying to do something about it is good. The whole point is that we never sought permission to paint anyway. We did it with or without ordinances or with or without laws. I think it’s in our spirit to try to do it without having obstacles in the way, so for other people it’s probably going to help them.
Revok: I think that as far as LA is concerned none of these new ordinances and laws are up for public discussion or participation. It seems to me that law enforcement ushered them through and kind of rewrote policies without public debate. If people care, they have to be active and speak up at city council meetings and demand some kind of change and involvement. On the flip side, that’s what makes graffiti so awesome and that’s why I love it in the first place. It’s about not asking for permission and just doing it. There’s always going to be kids who are going to go out and just take it upon themselves to claim neglected space and all the forgotten nooks and crannies that people overlook. Again, why would anybody have a problem with that? If a property is in a state of decay and dilapidation and no one’s maintaining it and someone takes it upon themselves to improve upon that space or inject a little bit of color or life, what’s wrong with that? It’s like graffiti is a dirty word or it’s something awful. I love it and it’s done nothing but bring positive things into my life.
Saber: I’ve met kids where graffiti straight up saved their life, directed them onto a course or path that kept them away from doing other things or took up their time in a way that wouldn’t endanger them. It’s a life path, a lot bigger than just dibbling and dabbling into it. There’s a lot of work and dedication to keep up with everything that goes on with it. But I think a lot of good things are happening.
Opens: July 28, 2012 | 8-11pm
Runs: July 28 - August 11, 2012
441 North Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, California