Sunday, May 8, 2011

Revok's Crime of Passion

Although we can agree to disagree about whether "graffiti" as a monolithic entity is "art" — after all, is writing art? It can be, but it's far more likely to be garbage — I will take you on anytime you'd like to debate whether graffiti can be art. I have not a shred of doubt that many people who create images anonymously in dark, dangerous places are making the most profound kind of art — art at its purest, free of any expectation of reward, driven by a passion and need that overcomes any consideration of the inevitable repercussions. I would contend that each and every surface graf virtuosos Swet One and Smash137 have been gracing with even their most casual efforts has been elevated from its former humdrum or blemished existence. It's far more of a crime to paint over such miracles than it is to create them in the first place.

"RIP Heath" Dark Knight billboard by Revok and Augor

So we're talking about Revok here, who was hunted down by the LAPD a couple of weeks ago and slapped in jail for six months, ostensibly for owing $3,764.97 in unpaid restitution, with the aggravating factor of his rather antagonistic public stance toward law enforcement's more disgusting violations of justice. Now, Revok is in the very highest echelons of the vast international brotherhood of spraycan slingers, certainly one of the most respected practitioners of this infamous crime of passion. Having started writing 20 years ago, when he was just 14, he has honed his craft to a razor edge, so that even his most rudimentary tags are a work of art, and his grander pieces are the stuff of legend.

Revok tag from KZER


As a featured artist in the "Art In the Streets" exhibition currently running at MOCA, Revok created one of the most iconic pieces in the show, a freeway heaven tribute to his friend, the late great Ayer, king of full-color burners in impossible spots. He also collaborated with his friend Rime on a dynamic celebration of the MSK crew and its offshoot, the street culture brand The Seventh Letter.


Many seem to feel that given his legal situation, Revok should lay down his weapons and retire to the studio, where he can fiddle around on paper and canvas to his heart's content, and venture out now and again to paint a legal wall — if the terms of his probation allow him to own spraypaint and tips, which is unlikely. If Revok were able to speak for himself now, I expect he would say that it's simply not possible for him to stop painting graffiti illegally, for in a very real sense, at this point in his life, he is graffiti — and graffiti is risk.

Revok heaven from Dove

As Revok told Acclaim last year, "If you do something for long enough and you put enough work into it, put your blood sweat and tears, really pay your dues, really believe in something — you love it, you live it, you believe it, you eat it, you sleep with it, you fuck it, you shit it — it's your end-all be-all, it’s your existence, it’s your entire purpose, it’s your everything." Without this outlaw passion which has defined his being, he has no identity — so he has no choice but to face the consequences when they come. "There’s no other artform or culture I can really think of where people go out and risk imprisonment and massive fines, their lives, destroying relationships and putting all kinds of shit in jeopardy, laying it all out on the line to create a piece of artwork," he said. "That’s what graffiti is, and to me that’s what I view as the single factor that makes graffiti relevant."

Revok heaven from No Future

Arresting Revok won't put even the tiniest dent in Los Angeles' graffiti problem, as the LAPD well knows. Revok and his fellow high-profile artists aren't the problem, the problem is the thousands of gang members and tagbangers littering their own neighborhoods with clumsy scrawls to define their turf — territory they need to hold down because they have literally been offered no other options in life but to try to survive in the situation to which they've been born. In truth, the police department isn't really concerned about the walls of a back alley or an abandoned lot remaining in pristine (albeit weedy, rancid and peeling) condition, rather than being embellished with colorful designs and characters, but they will tell you that allowing people like Revok to go free just encourages kids to go out and write their moniker on things, and those kids have no compunction about what or where they mark.


What the police won't admit is that graffiti is often the only alternative to joining a gang for many of these kids — writing graffiti is one of the very few nonviolent things that gang members respect enough to leave someone alone. Why do we go to such an effort to train our soldiers to understand the culture of Afghanistan, but let our police departments roll over our own neighborhoods with no grasp of the social structures underlying them? Ultimately, I'd say it's because the authorities see poor people as worthless and unredeemable. Yet the truth is that more opportunity and less punishment is the only way out of that particular inner-city death spiral. As MSK sensei Eklips once put it, “Creating fear isn’t going to make a problem go away. Sending a kid away for eight years for painting on a wall and housing him with killers is just going to make another killer.”

Revok from phill burner

If the authorities were to sanction beautifully painted graffiti that appears in ugly public spaces by not buffing it out — perhaps even regarding it as a legitimate tourist attraction — it wouldn't encourage more tagging. Rather, it would keep those places clear of new tags — there's nothing a tagger likes better than a freshly buffed wall — and would encourage younger writers to ramp up their skills so as to keep their work in public view for as long as possible. If urban school districts brought back the art programs that have been lost to budget cuts — perhaps with some of the millions being spent to overpaint miles of graffiti in a filthy concrete drainage ditch that almost no one ever sees — these kids might discover an outlet for their passions that would lead to a real future. But at the moment, the authorities still can't see the forest for the trees. Even the groundbreaking art program at South-Central's Manual Arts High — see that word "art" in there? — is on the brink of being shut down.

MSK does the L.A. River

Now to get back to the catalyst of this particular exegesis, our own art world rebel, Revok. Though he's currently serving a six-month jail sentence for a probation violation for misdemeanor vandalism, Revok is likely facing another day in court before long on felony vandalism charges, as the police say they're building a case from evidence they found at his home last week. Felony vandalism, defined as damage that exceeds $400, carries a three-year prison sentence in California, and writers like GKAE have gotten even harsher sentences — while rapists and child molesters often get away with a year or less. So keep your ear to the ground for more developments. In the meantime, here are a few ways you can make your voice heard about this latest miscarriage of justice, and maybe help Revok out a bit if you're so inclined. After all, what's so great about grey walls? Wouldn't we all be better off if we had dozens of eyepopping murals to look at while sitting in traffic on our daily commute, instead of mottled patches of civic beige? Someone truly needs to rise up and make a stand.

"Murakami at MOCA" billboard by Revok and Augor

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