Behind the Paint
Jose Garcia, Graffiti Artist
Q&A, Words: Amanda Peterson//Video: Min Lee//Fernando Barajas
YO! Youth Outlook , Aug 22, 2006
graf fi ti n. 1. pl of graffito 2. markings, as initials, slogans, or drawing, written or spray-painted, or sketched on a sidewalk, wall of a building, or public restroom, or the like; These graffiti are evidence of the neighborhood’s decline.
Graffiti is, technically, vandalism. People associate graffiti with a negative stereotype –that of street punks tagging crude words and images on other peoples’ property. That sucks – considering the fact that graffiti is one of the main components of underground culture. Even in this dictionary definition of the word itself, graffiti is portrayed as a mere community pestilence.
I live in a suburb so the only graffiti I was exposed to as a kid growing up was grade school punks writing “FUCK” on fence posts and fire hydrants, not appealing in the least. I resented these rebels-without-a-cause because they had nothing to do and nothing to prove. For the past, I’d say about four years … I’ve gotten to be a more cultured individual. I have experienced various outlets of self-expression in our midst and graffiti has become one of my favorites.
Graffiti is beautiful because it’s something you can’t prepare yourself for – it just appears in your path. If you stop to consider who might be the hand behind that tag you see every day on your way to work or school, a whole other world will open up for you. By looking at their graffiti, you get a quick vision of the questions and aspirations of the person behind the paint. I see graffiti as a privilege, because I get stuck in my own world lots of times. People, in general, are always trying to figure out new ways to improve their own lives-we forget that other people have worlds too, and graffiti is the sharing of them with us.
I got a chance to sit down with one of the people behind the paint: José Garcia, 22, of Oakland. I walked into the East Oakland Art Alliance and timidly introducing myself to this startling person in front of me. He had a tight black braid running down his back and stirring, distinct features. He had a wide nose and sleek black hair, both proof of his Native American Heritage. I was completely surprised because for someone so known in the art community in East Oakland for his political rants and radical bitterness towards oppression, José was borderline quiet – almost soft. I expected some baggy jeans, maybe even a swagger, and I definitely expected a smirk – a defiant, stick-it-to-the-man grin. What I got was an easy smile, regular jeans, and a t-shirt – that fits – and says ‘Thanksgiving.’
I followed him through the art center and he showed me pieces of plywood everywhere plastered with paint – saying things like “STOP DEPORTATION” and “RESISTENCIA.” I was curious about what it means to be a graffiti artist in our day while at the same time being a community activist. José, I’ll secretly call him an artist, prefers to wear the activist shoes. “I see art as a part of a bigger struggle, a bigger picture besides these canvases and walls.” he says.
He grew up near Seminary in East Oakland as a “po’ kid” and was inspired by people like Dream of T.D.K., a locally legendary crew. Dream ended up opening a tattoo shop near his home so he spent a lot of his free time there, soaking it all in.
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When José bombs graffiti, all of his Native American, Mexican and African American culture is incorporated into the process. He spreads messages of hope, strength and solidarity because he believes these are the messages that youth of today need to hear. They will help youth prosper and deal with social problems like racism and other injustices.
I asked José how he felt about graffiti today compared to the graffiti of his youth and teenage years and he paralleled it to the current rap scene. “A lot of new artists are self-proclaimed kings. They think it’s all about getting up on walls. They don’t try to improve their styles or learn from other people. It’s all about some fame thing. Now you get rappers and graf writers a dime a dozen. In the Bay Area, the quality of the art has gone down while the amount of people participating goes up.” Obviously, he doesn’t go around tagging things like ‘King José’ or ‘José Was Here,’ so there must be something different about this tagger.
According to José, a lot of graffiti artists are only using tagging for ego-tripping. And lately, it seems like they are facing the consequences. Just recently a well-known San Francisco tagger was arrested and fined $20,000. The mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, is banking on some pretty medieval punishments to rid Vegas of graffiti. He wants to build a stockade to put convicted taggers on display and give passersby the opportunity to paint the “destruction addicts.” Even though authorities here in the Bay won’t resort to cruel and unusual punishments, they will fine you within an inch of your life. Wherever you are, the risk factor of tagging is huge and I wanted to know what makes graffiti worth losing your freedom. José makes the point that if you risk your freedom for something and you don’t have any cause or reason behind it, than it is a senseless act of vandalism.
“Whenever I tag,” he says “I have to make a conscious decision that whatever I am putting up is meaningful and has a purpose. I have no regret.”
I have new eyes for young ne’er-do-wells with sharpies and shoe polish. I still don’t know what’s going on with them when they write FUCK on the gutter drain in front of my house. Maybe they are frustrated, or maybe they think they are cool and hardcore. It doesn’t matter because I got a glimpse of that person’s life for a billionth of a second. Had I not seen the graffiti, I never would’ve known that kid existed.
Amanda Peterson, 17, lives in Richmond, CA.1 of 1