SABER On the Legacy, Tragedy, and Truth of Graffiti Culture
"Street art is commerce, but graffiti is life."
Photo by Brandon Shigeta
SABER is a true vandal. In the game for more than 25 years, he is one of the patron saints of L.A. writing culture. He is all heart, living his life as an amen to graffiti.
SABER’s latest work, a wall entitled “Too Many Names,” is a standout even among the solid offerings of the Long Beach Museum of Art’s newly opened exhibition. Vitality and Verve: Transforming the Urban Landscape, presented in collaboration with Thinkspace and POW! WOW!, features 19 site-specific ephemeral murals and installations from a killer line-up of contemporary artists, both with street and studio practices.
SABER was spurred to use the occasion of his wall to engage in a necessary dialogue far from the siren song of mere aesthetic. In his on-the-real-fuck-it style, he decided instead to focus on those who have lost their lives senselessly to police shootings in the last year. The community of Long Beach itself has been reeling from two separate incidences in the last few months where local officers killed young, unarmed men Feras Morad and Hector Morejon. In particular, it was in the story of 19-year-old tagger Hector Morejon that SABER saw himself and those that he came up with. It is Hector’s name that is emblazoned over the list of names of those whose lives were needlessly cut short.
“If the tools given to these officers,” writes SABER in a statement regarding the piece, “were more focused on de-escalation as opposed to shoot first and ask questions later, then thousands of lives could be saved.”
We recently caught up with the artist to talk more about “Too Many Names” and its implications within the context of the LBMA show. What follows is an excerpt of our conversation that ventured from the responsibility inherent in the legacy of writing culture to the real differences between graf and street art.
Photo by Brandon Shigeta
Mass Appeal: Do you think that this show is less about that usual transition of bringing the streets into a museum on canvas and more about trying to incorporate the essence of the landscape by actually giving the artists walls to work on?
SABER: I guess to their credit, it was controversial enough for them even to do [a show like this]. That alone in itself is like big nuff, especially for such a small town like Long Beach. I definitely want to thank the Long Beach Museum for allowing us to express ourselves. And POW! WOW! and Andrew [Hosner] of Thinkspace too. I would say most of the work in there is really all about aesthetics. A lot of the work is subtle with their message, which is fabulous because it’s still getting it in there. I tend to bring out a sledgehammer when it comes to a message as opposed to being subtle. As far as all the artists go, all the work is amazing. Everyone is really good at what they do. Guys like Tristan Eaton who are doing some pretty elaborate work. He understands how to keep a message going and make [people] happy with it. That’s a real difficult trick. Andrew Schoultz also has messages in his work. MEGGS too. He’s doing the same topic as me. His [piece, ‘Not The Enemy”] isn’t a direct local issue, but it’s about gun violence. I gotta give him credit for thinking in those terms as well. I am not the only one.
How did the piece happen?
I initially had this whole plan: I had this grand vision of doing some like hyper, polished, wild style aesthetic abstraction madness. I was excited, and I had a whole plan and bought all these materials. But, you know, Long Beach is a small town and there are some issues that are hitting home there. I just fucking couldn’t ignore it. I really couldn’t.
This local kid [Hector Morejon] got killed [while] tagging. It got under my skin. For me it’s like: Here we are sitting on our high horses, on our thrones saying how great we are as artists and we’ve done all these great things. “Look at us. We’re fabulous.” And the rest of the world that gets inspired by us who—not street artists, but graffiti kids—go out and write their names on stuff. We inspire these kids. I was inspired by those people when I grew up. We’ve kind of turned our back on them in a sense that now it’s not cool to be them. Now it’s like, those are the dirty kids. The street artists are the good kids of the group. I don’t know how many times myself, my crew, my generation has inspired some kid to go out and go write on something and then they got smoked or they got run over by a truck or they fell off a building. To have [Hector] go out and get a tag on this abandon building and get shot in the stomach and then basically get tortured by not being given access right away to an ambulance. He asked the police for help and assistance and they were derogatory to him and ugly as he’s dying in their custody. They kept this poor kid away from his mother. His mother is watching her son die in an ambulance. He’s screaming for his mom, “Help me.” The cops kept her away from him. It’s like fuck that. This is fucking ugly.
It hits real close to home.
You know what? Maybe he knew who I was. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe some of my friends inspired him. Maybe he would have met me and been awestruck by meeting me or REVOK or RETNA or whomever. Maybe there was an inspiration to this kid. Maybe he wanted to be like us. Maybe I’m being…I don’t know…I don’t know what the word is.
With writing, in writing, it is a story of legacy. But there comes a responsibility with that legacy.
Exactly. Exactly. You just landed it right on the fucking button. That’s what that piece represents. Obviously, the museum isn’t a custodian of that legacy of responsibility. They’re just an open house. You’ve got street artists who didn’t come from writing on walls. They don’t understand that responsibility. But, I fucking do. I feel this shit. The climate has shifted. I love street art. I love all of it, but let’s be real: street art has taken over the narrative. The kids who do graffiti are the dirty kids. They’re hood. They’re the brown kids. Half of the Caucasians are the ones doing street art, you know what I mean? And I’m a fucking white boy, so I can see right through this shit. I’m not criticizing street art or the institution. That’s not my motive at this particular time, but these kids are looked upon differently. If you get caught tagging, you’re from the hood. You would be looked upon differently than if you where a white kid putting up paper. Like, let’s be real.
100%. There’s a difference between putting up beautiful rainbows versus the kid getting his name out in the streets and saying “Fuck you. I exist. We’re here.”
Exactly. There definitely was some reservation towards me in the museum because they would get quite a bit of backlash.
Basically, I approached it like, “Okay, where is the database of people who get killed by police?” There isn’t one. There’s no official database. Only until recently, some activist groups have actually tried to start creating this database. It’s killedbypolice.net. I was able to print out a list of 534 names of people killed this year alone. And that’s not a full list. We print the fucking thing out and I’m looking at it, and it’s 15 pages of names of people killed. I’m thinking, “How do I approach this?” So, I painted [their names in] black and the American flag real subtly, like super lightweight touch so you can barely see it. Almost like it’s a ghost of black. I start writing the names and I only got to like three pages by the time I filled up the whole wall. I couldn’t even write all the fucking names. “Too Many Names” is now the title of the piece.
Originally, I was going to spray Hector’s name in red. Just aesthetically, it looked cool. And then I came to the conclusion that actually blue makes a lot more sense. Once Hector was killed by the police, the first thing they do is defamation of character. They found photos of him throwing up you know Long Beach Crips or whatever on his Facebook. You know, he’s a young kid trying to fit in his environment, so he’s throwing up Crip signs and he’s wearing blue. So, they write him off as a dirty, filthy gang member who deserved to die anyway, you know? That’s really sad. Is he an active, hardcore gang member who’s murdering, raping, and pillaging? No. Is he a kid who this is his environment and he’s trying to fit in? Yes. We’ve all been there. I mean even my punk ass, white ass from the suburbs tried to get jumped into a gang when I was a kid. They didn’t look at [Hector] taking care of his cousin or hugging his mom—the human stuff. It’s real easy to pick up all the ugly young male stuff.
Of course. That’s the shit that sells.
I’m still an outsider and I’m still looking in from the outside, but I see the subtleties of it. I don’t know. It’s kind of an emotional piece. Long Beach is a small museum and they are trying their best to accommodate all of us. At first, there was a bit of a backlash when they were like, “Wow. This isn’t really what we expected. It’s not really that nice looking. Everyone else in here is painting real pretty pictures. And yours is a fucking mess, dude.” And I go, “Well, yeah. I’m using a fire extinguisher on the wall with fucking five hundred dead people’s names on it.” So, I have to commend the museum for getting cold feet and then going, “Oh, wow. Okay. We actually have to keep this piece because it is an important message.” Especially locally.
Photo by SABER
Let’s be honest. Without this whole street art thing, what would I be doing? I don’t fucking know. Stealing? Dealing drugs? Working at Home Depot? Who fucking knows? You know what I’m saying? Thank God there is an opportunity for us within this context. But, the narrative is being taken away from us. No doubt about it. The narrative is the most important thing in the long term. I think the celebration of street art is not celebrating the roots of what all this shit was built on, the house that this thing is built on, this foundation that we come from. Certain people didn’t have to fight as hard for this. To see—to know—what I’ve personally been through, what my friends have personally been through. To know what these little kids from the hood have been through who are tagging to get a name for themselves. The weight is a lot more on their shoulders and the price is paid a lot higher. I think the price I had to pay and some of my friends and the tragedies that have been around us to perpetuate this movement are far greater than the average person who steps into this game now doing street art. I think that is important to make people very aware of because that also informs the art and the style they do and that’s part of the reason my style is aggressive and sharp. That’s definitely part of it.
You’ve begun a conversation that might not have happened otherwise. You brought some truth. It can’t always be about escapism.
Yeah, I’ve seen the whole movement really go in that direction. The message in the meat of the movement is really being watered down. It’s getting commodified. It is becoming a product. It is becoming a show and a spectacle for people to say, “Oh wow. You can use spray paint! How pretty! This is so fun! This is hip hop!” Or some shit. But [with someone like] Banksy, I’ve got to give him a lot of credit though. Some of the work is what it is. But, when he spends his time and energy and money to get to Palestine and go through tunnels and risk his life and freedom to get his message on bombed out buildings: Kudos. Fuck yeah. He did it. JR too. JR’s piece too for the Millions March NYC of Eric Garner’s eyes [is another example].
Absolutely. Cover of the New York Times.
I honestly believe it’s one of the most powerful pieces of the decade. I commend those guys for using their medium as a voice. Those guys who have made it, who have that which they need to continue, you know the support. They have institutions. That would be working backwards as far as the top would go. “Oh, you’re thinking about dirty things. Brown people being killed. Ew. Don’t talk about that. That’s ugly.” The fact that they did that, I commend them. I think the JR piece for Eric Garner is easily the most powerful piece of the decade. And that inspired me to go, “Fuck. You need to continue to try to speak out.”
We’re at a point in time where I’m seeing graffiti being pushed out. And even me, I can’t compete on that. That’s a young man’s sport. The guys that are out there now are putting in the work. I’m not out there and I’m not putting in that work. I’m 40 years old with severe health issues and two children, so if I go out and spray paint on the walls of this town, my doors are going to get kicked in. If I do have an opportunity to say something though, then I feel it is a responsibility. I give credit to these kids who are still doing graffiti out here in L.A. and risking way more than even we did, and we were risking everything back then. Now that there are so many less of them, they’re taking that much more of a risk by doing it.
There’s also a militarized police department after them.
We were dealing with SWAT when I was a kid too. They want you, they’ll get you. That’s a young man’s sport. I’m lucky to still be standing. I’m lucky to still be here after everything I’ve been through. I mean, I don’t know. I guess we’ll see. It’s a difficult time now that money is involved and people are curious about this, not for the movement’s sake, but for their own pockets. Now it’s the big time. Not because of this show, just in general in the culture. It’s the big time. You’ve got Coney Island Walls. You’ve got art gurus and you’ve got museum shows and fucking major corporations trying to figure out how to commodify this in a way that perpetuates their narrative, you know? Obviously, we did something right when the devils want it.
[I mean] could have been [Hector]. I have had bullets whiz by me. I’ve had friends murdered painting. Rest in Peace TIE. The list is long. Rest in Peace TRIGZ recently. There’s no shortage of tragedies that I’ve personally experienced through my friends. It hasn’t been easy, and I’m not singular in that aspect. There have been quite a few tragedies along the road the whole movement has had to deal with. To me, to have the right to call myself a graffiti writer is a real badge of honor. Only a very few can really, really, really truly look someone in the eye and say I’m a fucking graffiti writer, you know? Maybe I’m not a graffiti writer right now, but I carry that legacy with me. I don’t know. It’s about life. Graffiti is life. Street art is commerce, but graffiti is life.
Vitality and Verve: Transforming the Urban Landscape is on view at the Long Beach Museum of Art now through September 27, 2015