Old Habits Die Hard: An Interview With RISK
The L.A. legend talks bombing trains, documenting the past, and getting clowned by RIS crew.
Photos courtesy of 1xRun
RISK is the Zeus atop the Mount Olympus of L.A. writing culture. He’s scaled “heavens,” bombed buses, planes, and NYC trains. Name it. He’s done it. And crushed it—bigger, badder, better, and always first. Museum and gallery shows? Check. Painted on set for Michael Jackson videos and Playboy magazine shoots? Check. Launched a pioneering streetwear brand? Yup, that too. In a career spanning more than 30+ years, RISK has put in the work—day in and day out—undeniably elevating the writing game not only in Los Angeles, but worldwide.
We recently sat down with RISK to discuss his new monograph, Old Habits Die Hard. With over 350 pages of stories and personal insight penned by Roger Gastman, and more than 700 graf flicks, we had plenty of fertile ground to cover. We talked his letters as studies in architecture, innovation as a mindset, and painting trains, and getting clowned by RIS crew.
Mass Appeal: Old Habits Die Hard was a real labor of love. It took a couple of years to come together?
RISK: Yeah. It was probably around seven years ago, Roger [Gastman] approached me [with the idea] and then started to archive stuff. So, yeah it took a long time. And he really dug deep. There’s weird stuff in there. He got my parent’s divorce papers in there. Like random shit.
Everything about your career and your work is forward thinking. With the book, why go beyond merely documenting the work and opt to delve further and go into your actual personal life and story?
Well, Roger’s view on the book was that it really is the story about my life. It’s about a kid that came from New Orleans and started doing art and the history of the trials and tribulations. His idea was that it was that book first and it had obviously a lot of graffiti in it.
It’s mind boggling that you were not only able to snap flicks of a lot of your work, but that you were able to hold on to so many of them. Were there pieces that you missed and wished you had gotten?
Yeah. You know, Roger says that I have a lot of flicks and I felt like I didn’t have that many. At all. Most of my flicks, I took [with] 110 [film]. A lot of it had deteriorated and were bad. Also, I was kicked out of so many studios when I was younger. I lost so many boxes of photos every time I was going from one studio to another. So, I really didn’t think I had all that much, but Roger thought it was a ton of them. And I was like “Yeah? I wish I had all the other stuff.”
Let’s start from the beginning: the itch to put your stamp on shit was absolutely instinctual?
Yeah. I mean, I totally had that fever. I just had to write my name on everything. I wanted to do it bigger and better. It was a mindset.
I heard that you first made landfall with writing when a kid from New York transferred to your high school and showed you flicks of trains.
Yeah. I was drawing on my desk and he was like, “What do you write?” And I didn’t know what he was talking about. I kept saying, “What? What? What?” And then he busted out those photos and I was like ,“Oh shit. That’s cool.” I went that day to try to do my first piece. And that was it.
Do you remember the first time you got up?
I do. It was at my high school. I went and stole like four cans of paint—two reds and two whites. I didn’t know anything about good paint or bad paint. I’m sure it was terrible. I set up at the high school, and I’m waiting for it to be nighttime so that I could paint and do the piece. I was so anxious. It was like dusk. It wasn’t even nighttime yet and I’m like, “Let’s get up.” I jumped in there and did this piece. I tried to keep it below the windows on the bungalow, but it went on to the windows. I finished. Leaving, I was thinking it was terrible. I was like, “Man that shit’s hard”—imagining all those photos of trains I was seeing where it looked so cool. The next day at school, everyone was standing around going, “That’s so cool,” and I was like, “Really? Wow. People like it.” I was hooked and I just wanted to keep doing it. But, I never told anyone that it was me.
But you got up as SURF, right? You weren’t writing RISK yet?
Yeah. It was definitely SURF. I wrote SURF for like a year or two.
How long did it take for your talent to catch up with your taste?
For me, it took a couple of years. I remember my last SURF pieces; I started to figure out what I was doing. I started putting flames and backgrounds, borders, and 3D and sort of stuff like that.
It would be just a few years later then—in the early ’80s—that you’d come to New York for the first time to scope out the trains?
Ever since I saw those photos that was my mission: I want to go see that. You know, the first time, I failed. I went to New York and didn’t get to paint trains. I think I painted a rooftop. I picked up in ’85 and I made it to the train yards. I didn’t know what I was doing, you know. So, I just got to see it and then I think in ’87 or so is when I actually bombed the trains.
You were a student of the culture before you were a master. Do you think that the legacy of apprenticeship, and the passing down of the history of writing still happens today? Do think the kids coming up have any sense of what came before? Is that aspect of the culture fading?
Yes and no. I think it is a dying breed. I think it’s super important. I think you have to know where something came from to know where it’s at. I think it’s super important, and you can see it in people’s work. You can tell the old souls and the people who studied the guys that were masters in the past, and you can tell the kids that are just learning how to do it from a video and don’t know anything about it.
Were you able then to be an innovator because you were a student first?
I believe so. I think you have a mindset. The mindset is to be different, to stand out and to try to really do something, whereas a lot of people who don’t do that are just followers.
Your letters are a study in architecture. I feel like a family of four could bunk up and weather a storm in some of those pieces. Can you even pinpoint what influences helped birth your style? Of course, there’s the New York influence, but was it the landscape of L.A.? Cholo writing? The TV you grow up on? How the hell did this happen?
It’s definitely a combination. They have a lot of heart to it. They have to be funky, which comes from all the hip hop stuff. Like my letters look like they’re dancing. They have to look mean, which I guess comes from the cholo stuff, so they look like they’re soldiers on charge. They are all in suit, following each other. Then, I think architecture is a huge influence in all my artwork. I wanted to be an architect when I was very young. It’s hugely important to me in terms of my letters. So, I think it is a combination of all those things. That’s how it comes out.
Would you ever rank color above the importance of the line?
No. If you look at my earlier work, I strive to make everything look like a sticker or a sign. Every line was perfect. Then Dennis Hopper once said, “Get tight. Paint loose.” And I was like, “Oh shit.” I realized how organic paint drips and all these things were so cool. So, now my stuff is a lot looser. I also think that to me, color is also super important—one of the most important things. If you look at all my pieces in the beginning, it’s all the color scheme. I think that’s what makes L.A. stand out from New York: the use of these vibrant colors.
What do you remember most about bombing trains in New York just before the Clean Train Movement? There’s that story that you went out with KET, REAS, and GHOST. They took you to Henry Chalfant’s studio and tried to clown you.
Yeah. It was super cool. A friend of mine, Donte, who wrote BRISK from AOK, came to school out here. I met him at my school. He was already done with writing. He was kind of over it. He’d had some bad experiences and basically was like, “Don’t hang out with those guys.” He was kind of that guy, you know?
So, we went to New York to go paint on some trains and went to his friend REAS’ house. ZENO, KET, and GHOST—they all happened to be there. Donte was getting fidgety and was like, “C’mon, let’s go.” And I was like, “No way. I’m staying here.” He took off and I wound up staying there and they kind of weren’t very friendly to me. They were like, “Dudes from L.A., what the fuck are you doing graffiti for when you don’t have any trains?” And I was like, “Let’s go bombing,” and they were kind of laughing. I had to earn my respect and they took me out. They did try to clown me, but they did teach me a lot of stuff as well.
They also created a monster because when I went to Henry’s, they thought they were clowning—“Hey Henry, what do you know about L.A. graffiti?” He’s like, “Well…nothing. But, I don’t know, this guy, RISK has really interesting colors…” And he pulls out photos and my head was just super huge. I was like, “Oh shit.” Like that’s the dream: to go to Henry’s and flex. So, that was cool. And then LEE walked up and they did the same thing. Here comes my idol, right? And I thought, “Oh fuck. They’re going to clown me.” And they’re like “LEE, what do you think about L.A. graffiti, dude?” He said, “I don’t know shit about it, but on the way here, I saw that dude RISK had a couple of trains running.” And I was like, “YEAH!”
That’s like you just won the Olympics. I asked KET what he remembers about that meeting. He said you guys had gone on a mission and you had found a dope spot in the tunnel leading out to the Williamsburg Bridge that you had for years.
Yeah. Yeah. That’s one of the pieces that I never had a photo of, but that would have been a cool piece to have. I loved that spot. I forget what it was exactly. I think it was pillars. As the trains came out, it spelled my name: R-I-S-K. I did it at like the break of day. It was like a weird fluke that I happened to be able to catch it and yeah, it lasted for years.
He also said the one and only thing you complained about was all the walking.
Oh yeah. You know, in L.A., we drive just around the block. I was like, “Jes-us Christ.” We have to walk all day and night and then had to be in shape. I’m like “How do you run?” I was like hiding under the train. I had no energy.
Yeah but you guys were also scaling “heavens” like trapeze artists, so I don’t know if I’m totally buying.
So, all along you held the belief that this was a certified movement?
Oh yeah. For sure. I though it was too dynamic, too powerful, and too good not to be. People always say, “Did you ever think you’d be in a museum or a gallery?” And I’m like, “Yeeaah. I did.” I thought this art form definitely was as good as any other art form out there. And I did. I did try to do all those things. I think it’s funny that people try to say, “Oh, I never did it for those reasons.” Ok. As graffiti artists that bomb, we are egomaniacs. We want to see our name everywhere. At every opportunity, we get up bigger and better. And we do. So, I think that people aren’t really true when they say, “Nah, I never did it for that.” Then why did you write your name a million times over and over if you didn’t want to be noticed?
Did you see it more in the IGT/PHASE 2/VULCAN vein—as a true people’s movement—or as solely an art movement, or a combination of the two?
A combination of the two, but an art movement first. In New York, it was important to hip hop culture, but by the time that it got to Los Angeles, we were into punk rock and stuff like that. We didn’t have the same thing. As much as we were into hip hop, we didn’t have the same die-hard hip hop roots that New York had. For us, it was art first, culture second.
In other interviews, you have made reference to the Ferus Art Gallery of the 1960s and loosely compared it with MSK and AWR. Do you think that some of the L.A. writing crews have earned their rank among some of the more formal fine art scenes and artists collectives?
Yes and no. I think that when you get to the younger galleries all spread out through Culver City, up there on Washington Boulevard, yeah. They grew up watching us, and we are celebrated over there. But, when you look at the old dudes from Ferus Gallery—I’ll call them the old guard. I don’t think that a lot of those guys want us in, you know? They are some of the guys that are on the board at MOCA and were very opposed to the Art In the Streets show. I think it is just a generation thing. I think it’s just a changing of the guard, and the old guard doesn’t like change.
I find it hard to deny the significant contribution that writing culture has made to the vernacular of the L.A. landscape. Pieces by RETNA or EKLIPS are as indicative of the California aesthetic as any work by Ed Ruscha.
Correct. I’ve meet all these people, the art critic for the LA Times, who all talk shit about graffiti and stuff like that. But when they get in front of me and you show them facts, show them photos and you talk about it with them, they can’t deny it. It is easy to deny it when you are not looking at it. You’re just looking at it like, “Uh. Oh yeah, these kids from the ’80s were writing on things. So what?” They never get past that. Then you start pointing out all the stuff that we’ve done and they can’t really deny it. It is a really easy defense mechanism for them until you confront them, and then you can’t deny it.
I wondered some of your thoughts on SABER’s demarcation between the age-old battle of writing versus street art. He feels that ultimately it comes down to the simple fact that writers have paid a higher personal price to perpetuate the movement than street artists.
I agree with that 100%. You can look at it this way: a writer is out there spending all his time on the streets. Let’s just take one piece for example. He might spend four or five hours. It takes hours, illegally in the hood, painting that piece. Whereas when some street artist comes up and takes a little time to put up a wheatpaste, he’s not experiencing the interactions of the streets—the junkies, the hookers, the gang members, the police. He’s not embracing all that stuff.
Also, he’s not creating enemies. A lot of people don’t like your shit in their neighborhoods. “Why have you written all of over my street?” You know? It is a different beast. I think that the graffiti writers have paid a lot more dues in the streets than street artists. I don’t fault street art. I think it’s cool and everything. I think it is a cousin of graffiti. But, it’s just different, you know? Kids now a days have found a quicker, easier way. We didn’t have computers. We didn’t wheatpaste. We did it the old way: hand to medium to surface.
Let’s talk about the future then. What do you see for yourself?
You know, I never want to have an end goal. I’ve said it many times: Life is like a ride. I don’t want it to be over. I feel like if you have an end goal, it’s over. I’ve just wanted to do the next best thing to out do myself and challenge myself and keep going and keep doing cool stuff. It’s work so far, so I’m going to keep doing that.
Please tell me that there will be another book that will chronicle the next 30 years? Is Roger on stand-by?
Well, that’s the thing, I don’t know a timeline, but there is definitely a part two. My next book is the book that will really be showing my gallery stuff. It’ll be more of an art book, not a bunch of stories. Roger said you have to document the past before you move on. And I get that.
Old Habits Die Hard is available through 1xRun.