Chaka: Vandalism and the art of graffiti

Did you ever ride in a car on or near a freeway in Los Angeles? It could be the 101, 605, 60, 405… You name it.

Did you ever glance over at an overpass or an on-ramp? If you have been near a wall of concrete within the limits of Los Angeles County over the last 30 years you have probably seen his name. More than likely you’ve seen his name so many times it has blended in with the landscape like Golden Arches or yellow shells that reach high above the highway down every stretch.

His art is not quite the street inspired art of Basquiat. He isn’t a “clever” one-liner like Banksy. His art is what it is. In most cases it’s simply his name in various stylized fonts and representations. His name is his expression. His name is his reaction. His name is Chaka.

It’s impossible to say exactly when graffiti art goes from vandalism to collectible. When it comes to something as subjective as art, coming from a place like the streets of Los Angeles, it usually takes a nod from the likes of Ashton Kutcher or Christina Aguilera. On one hand it truly is a form expression by an impoverished or frustrated segment of society that is reacting to a number of factors from lack of opportunity to racism and prejudice or maybe even out of boredom and lack of supervision or the presence of one or both parental figures.

Graffiti by definition is an act of vandalism where one person deliberately places their own message over an intended message. A person has to have the belief that their own personal message, be it their tagger name or an elaborate painting or simply a coded message for someone else to see, is more important that the intentions of the person who had that particular wall built or that particular set of concrete erected.

Outside of the legality of tagging or graffiti there is the moral and ethical standpoint: if a community is composed almost entirely of one particular group of people and an outsider, an interloper, an invader (as they might be seen) from another group and another place decides to build something at the expense of the native group, who has the greater right to the visual representation of said location? It can be seen as petulant and juvenile, clinging to a sense of angst that one generally outgrows. You never hear of someone in their 40s getting caught for tagging.

There are varying degrees of graffiti. There is much that is associated with gang culture and that type of graffiti requires little explanation. It is usually ugly and very simple in style with little to offer and is usually intended as a means of communication indicating a territorial marking or used to pass a message. On the other side there is a sense that the artist behind it is looking to create rather than destroy.

In all honesty, most graffiti art is not what I would call art at all. It is often very boring and predicated upon nothing. It has no style or sense of history, rather it is stylized but fails to really build on anything that has been done before. It becomes a cycle of different people doing the same thing over and over again. This is not an unfamiliar concept to the art world. Andy Warhol took familiar images and silk screened them over and over and over until they became art. This is not unlike what Chaka did but rather than using an established image he made his own and put it everywhere until it became meaningless and meaningful at the same time. It became more than a senseless and isolated act of vandalism and became something of a brand not entirely unlike the swoosh on your shoes, the horse on the hood of a fast car, the bunny profile on your dad’s magazine, or those four little window panes on the bottom left corner of your screen for 90% of you.

Chaka is thought to have committed over 20,000 acts of vandalism with everything from a Sharpie to a can of paint. In 90s he was finally caught and Daniel “Chaka” Ramos was tried and convicted and did some jail time. When he emerged he was the new cause célèbre of the art world as were so many graffiti artists of the time. As an interesting side note it is rumored he tagged the courthouse elevator during the course of his trial. Now people pay him to paint their walls or, short of that, canvases to hang on their walls. He’s had gallery shows and I’m sure he’s got something up in a museum somewhere. His art still doesn’t do much for me but I think it’s a splendid example of self publicity of an anonymous persona.

Keep an eye out next time you’re headed down that stretch of the 605 freeway, just south of the 60 as you’re heading through Pico Rivera. Next time you watch the video for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, take a gander at Dave Grohl’s bass drum. I think you might spot a familiar name.

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