Spirit Is A Muscle: Spanto
Venice OG Spanto grew up picking big fights. Now he battles Leukemia in between snapping gritty flicks
Lead photo by Estevan Oriol
Venice, California. Up the bike path from the new skate bowl and a short walk through what used to be the graffiti walls, you find the handball courts—monoliths of concrete. One of the last original icons left here on the sand, as well as one of the few intimidating places left standing on Venice Beach. The mismatched grey squares of buffed tags and the gathered groups of men all dressed the same, seem to be enough to keep most curious “pink” and “yellow” tourists away from the sacred playground. Nobody’s here unless they’re somehow invited in, or spirited enough not to care…The court butts up against the sand. The sounds of the racket balls pinging throughout the concrete walls mesh with the breaking waves crashing in the background. A shitty AM radio plays a Mexican folk song that, to me, is the same tune looping for millennia. To those less ignorant than myself, the song tells drug-smuggling stories and love poems of revenge. The trumpets and AM static fall behind the fresh saltwater breeze that flaps through the palm leaves above. The smell of smoldering organic cannabis mixes with the familiar scent of old beer on concrete, and the police just bike by…
Ben Davis cut-offs, Cortezes, and white tank tops, the fatigues that cover the mostly brown humans here, revealing only glimpses of the armor of scars and tattoos underneath. A personal collage of words and wounds acquired only through a life of brazen spirit and a comfortable “fuck you.” Here sits SPANTO. His hair is perfectly combed, skin a perfect golden tone, and a sparkle of light in his eye like he knows something no one else does. He’s dressed immaculately in all black with creases, and dabs the handball-victory sweat from his forehead with a perfectly ironed black bandanna, putting his pristine black shirt back on to cover the V-13 on his stomach and reveal the “BORN X RAISED” on his back. The sun sets into the water and the orange California light glazes everything in warm nostalgia. He’s handed a wet Budweiser from a hidden cooler and given a pat on the back, as twangy Mexican Spanish congratulates his 15–12 victory. He smiles, doesn’t open the beer, and in a fast mischievous tone says, “Let’s go.”
“The other day somebody stopped me at a party, looked deep in my eyes and told me, “Hey man. I’ve know you’ve done a lot of fucked-up shit in your life and I’m glad you’ve turned your life around for the better.” Let’s get this straight, I am a gang member. Yes. But I’ve never done anything immoral in my life. This is the truth, man: I was never a purse snatcher, I never sold drugs to kids, I never hurt anyone that wasn’t trying to harm me or my loved ones. All I was doing was protecting my tribe from the other tribe. I was protecting my friends, family, and loved ones with fire. You push me, I push back. I would have been honored and given a fucking medal for what I’ve done, in a different era. We are gang members, but we are proud and noble and have very strong moral codes. I think a lot of people get it fucked up.”
Mass Appeal: What the fuck is SPANTO?
Spanto: Spanto means ghost or spirit in Spanish. It’s been my nickname since I was a preteen. Even my mother calls me Spanto.
Where were you born and raised?
Why were you born there but didn’t leave?
I have no reason to leave. We were here first motherfucker. You leave.
Do you consider yourself a gang banger?
Absolutely, and a damn good one at that—22 years of loyal service.
When did you start bombing?
I started writing on shit in 4th grade.
How does the spirit of bombing shit translate into a life of spirit, strength?
When I’m out there painting in the midst of chaos—bums, trannies, gang members, crash unit, helicopters—I don’t think about my day-to-day problems. All I’m focused on is getting in and getting out. It’s a nice break from reality.
What crews are you with?
I’m from Venice 13. That’s it, that’s all.
What makes Venice Beach so fucking awesome?
I’m not from Venice Beach, I’m from Venice. I’m not a tourist, that’s what tourists call it. Venice was the most awesome place on the planet in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Gentrification has pretty much driven it into the ground and made it look like everywhere else. They basically bulldozed everything that gave Venice its identity. It was our own private Idaho. We had the beach, we had the boardwalk, we had Oakwood, all the bars, all the restaurants. It was pretty dangerous and scummy. No one really wanted to go there. It was ours and it was paradise.
Do you still feel at home there?
I do and I don’t.The comfort that I get when I go back home I can never get from anything else. A woman’s touch, drugs: nothing makes me feel the way I feel when I’m back at home. I’m in love with my neighborhood in a literal sense, but at the same time, they’ve knocked down all our restaurants, all our liquor stores, all our mom-and-pop businesses… [they’ve] all been taken over by outsiders with too much money, too much time on their hands, and poor taste.
Most of my friends and family’s homes have been ripped from them; most of their rent has been raised, so they can’t afford to live there anymore. The gang injunction has ripped apart our friends and families, so a lot of people don’t live there anymore. It’s still home, but it hurts. I’ve been aware of the change happening since it started, and it’s been slowly breaking my heart for a long time, which is why I’m so passionate about it.
How did you come up with the idea for a clothing line?
I did two months in solitary confinement the last time I was in jail…you can only jerk off and do so many push-ups.
What does “Born X Raised” mean?
Over my dead body.
I see your shirts as canvasses and the messages as post-modern mantras. Talk about how gang writing and gang culture has made its way into the art world.
I’m not a fan of the culture. This is my culture; I don’t have to think about it. This isn’t an art project, this is my life. I grew up this way and couldn’t change it if I wanted to. Gang writing is beautiful. They are modern-day hieroglyphs. They tell a story. They give a message. They’re extremely aggressive and they’re always painted with a lot of emotion, whether it’s love or hate, which is where most true art work comes from. I think Retna took it to the next level; he polished it up and presented it to the art world in a form they would appreciate. I just don’t like to see it exploited by those who are not part of our culture.
You sent me two XLs, but one was like def an extra-shmedium, why come you didn’t hook me up?
You got free BXR flow for the rest of your life. Don’t even trip.
How did you find out you had cancer?
Went in with the flu 20 months ago, came out 60 pounds lighter.
What exactly is it, by a clinical definition?
I have type T lymphoblastic leukemia lymphoma.
What is cancer?
Cancer is the scum of the earth.
Talk about how SPANTO recognizes and overcomes his fears.
When I was a kid, I programmed a switch in my head, like a no feelings switch—I learned to be robotic. I trained myself to be immune to emotion, fear being one of them. Growing up the way I grew up, if you don’t have that switch, you’re destined to fail. I’ve been fighting since I was little. I always pick fights with things way bigger than me. So after I fuck up this cancer, I’m going to pick something way bigger and fight that too.
What’s your chemo regimen consist of?
Chemo is the most awful thing I’ve ever had to experience in my whole life. I don’t wish it on my worst enemy. My doctor told me I’m too young for this shit. Most people that have this are way older and their bodies are fragile. For them, the chemo is a balance between saving them and killing them, and he said he has to be “reserved” with the amount of chemo introduced into their systems. But because of my age and my young body, my doctor said he’s going to take me to the brink of death, literally almost kill me with this poison. He’s pumping me with ultra-high levels of radiation so I can beat this shit and never look back.
Can you feel that shit in your veins?
I feel that shit eating my brain and my soul.
What’s something this has taught you?
I know I’m supposed to learn something monumental from this experience, and I haven’t exactly figured it out yet. But when I do, everybody will know.
Was that a moment of clarity or complete terror? Talk about that.
For some odd reason, I decided that cancer was going to help me fix me life.
What’s it like to have been given a taste of death’s breath?
Shiiiiiiiit…This ain’t my first barbecue.
Are you scared?
I AIN’T NEVER SCARED!
What do you fear?
Did you change any aspects of your life after you found out?
A few things, but for the most part I’ll never budge.
What do you tell yourself inside your head to keep going?
I don’t have to tell myself shit. I’ve been set on overdrive since I was born.
I always said I wanted to die first so all my friends would come to my funeral. Is death on your mind like that, or is this just me?
Nah, I think everyone fantasizes about death. I’ve already given my last wishes to my loved ones. So when it happens, you better be there.
Why do you think dying young makes you a legend?
Because you quit while you’re ahead. You end at your prime.
What does your mother tell you about all this?
Momma knows I got this.
What does “You’ll miss us when we’re gone” mean?
You love us, you just don’t know it yet.
When you have a sense of time crunch, does it aggravate you to see idiot, monkey-mind humans doing nothing but take up space and air?
Nah, everyone has some shoes to fill. That’s what separates me from them.
What’s something positive that’s come out of this crazy parade you’re on?
It really gives me a more defined timeline and makes you realize if you want something, you better go out and get it before it disappears. Life is short—extremely short. I have a ticking time bomb in my body, and I have a lot of loose ends to tie up before it explodes.
Do you consider yourself a photographer?
I’m not a photographer, I’m an anthropologist.
When did you start taking photographs?
In my neighborhood, I started selling crack in the streets of Oakwood when I was a preteen. A lot of the smokers who come ask for credit because they didn’t have any money; I would tell them no. I would send them to Ralph’s to steal me Alize because I thought it was dope back then. That’s when disposable cameras first came out and they used to have vacation packs with 10 cameras in it. From age 15 and on, I would shoot everything that was going on in my life: Pictures of homies that aren’t with us anymore, people getting jumped in, Venice and Los Angeles in the ‘90s. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous content. I had six or seven years worth of photos in an album that I had saved for myself, and the gang unit took it for evidence. I can never have it back. I would give anything to get those photos back—anything. So, I guess I’m going to have to do it all over again.
What is it that makes you put the camera to your eye and capture an image? People? Family? Good lighting?
Power. Pain. Pride. Love. Hate. Emotion. Real life, not Jordans and snapbacks.
You shoot film?
Yes, I shoot film. Everybody shoots digital, it’s like fast food. I feel it’s way more sexy and grown-man. It’s romantic.
Where do you process your shit?
I process it at D&J photo on Vermont. Shout out my nigga Franklin.
Who inspires you?
I hate the overuse of the word “inspiration.” I gather inspiration from real life everywhere. People that have guided me. Obviously my right hand, 2tone. He’s really guided me in the right direction. Also, Estevan Oriol has really helped. There is a long list of people who are amazing: my family, my mother, my grandfather. We’re all artists in some way shape or form. My close friends, my homies, everyone around me.
Is it better to be talented or in the right place at the right time?
Little bit of talent, little bit of luck, and good timing is the proper recipe for success. Also, it’s not about what you know, but about who you know.
What are you thankful for?
Family is the most important thing on the planet.
What’s something you hope to leave behind for people?
A little bit of anger and clarity. You should be pissed the fuck off.
Why am I going you miss you when you’re gone?
I’m telling you man: you love me you just don’t know it yet.
What’s the most important thing in life? What do you hope people take from this interview?
I just told you.
Leave us with a quote, my G.
“Aho Mitakuye Oyasin.”