“Roll Call” unites 11 artists who’ve defined L.A. street art for decades

By Christina Campodonico

Patrick Martinez’s
“public school
pee chee” illustrates schoolyard scenes from the San Gabriel Valley

Walking through Gajin Fujita’s landmark curatorial project “Roll Call,” you get the sense that you’re seeing L.A. through the internationally renowned artist’s eyes. Tags and graffiti scripts once known only in the back alleys of Boyle Heights, where Fujita grew up, make a stark and vivid statement on the white walls of L.A. Louver’s fine art gallery, which has represented Fujita since 2001.

Jesse Simon’s sculpture “Tessio’s Territory (Area Code Remix)” recalls a crumpled up piece of street trash, but here the beauty of its curled up folds — polished foam, resin, fiberglass and wood — are revealed and sanctified, illuminated and glistening under the glow of gallery lighting, like a crucifix hung in an urban Catholic Church.

Ricardo Estrada’s “Coatlicue con su arete de luna” — a striking face-to-face encounter with a half-face, half-skull on canvas — feels like a brush with death after a curbside tussle.

And Patrick Martinez’s paintings of blown-up Pee Chee folders with drawings of kids scrambling for a basketball or getting wanded for guns are a reminder of long school days spent doodling on whatever surface was available during the nooks and crannies of passing period, or the doldrums of a long bus commute across town. (As a youth, Fujita spent many hours traversing from East L.A. to Melrose Avenue’s Fairfax High to attend the school’s arts magnet program.)

For Fujita, each work not only shows a slice of Los Angeles’ urban fabric — “Hopefully you can see with their works a little glimpse into the city of L.A.,” he says — but also his connection and deep respect for each of the 11 artists featured in the show.

“I wanted to kind of show a group that I have worked with, that I have been in touch with and connected with throughout my career,” says Fujita of curating the show, whose title references when members of a graffiti crew tag their names on a collaborative work.

For instance, Fujita, who’s known for his whimsical collisions of Japanese ukiyo-e style illustration with L.A. graffiti scripts by his friends, feels deeply connected to Estrada’s work “because he paints the Boyle Heights community and he’s on the street studying the interesting characters of Boyle Heights.”

Martinez’s work resonates with him because he “brings in his region, which is the San Gabriel Valley. He paints what he sees and what he interacts with in his community” with a “very powerful energy.”

Fujita owes Simon for letting him into the KGB (Kidz Gone Bad) graffiti crew, which gave him street cred in the ’80s, and looks up to Chaz Bojorquez because “he’s been like a mentor — not only to myself, but all the artists here. He’s been a champion of L.A. graffiti.”

The respect is mutual for Bojorquez, a godfather and pioneer of L.A.’s graffiti movement.

“I’m really happy to be part of this group, because this group represents our unique style of artwork, our West Coast style of graffiti … our unique history, about being kind of gangsters and surfers, skaters and cholos. What West Coast graffiti has made us do, it has given us the freedom to do anything we want,” says Bojorquez.

But with freedom has also come responsibility, the responsibility to represent the true spirit of street art in the ever-critical and competitive world of contemporary art.

“Real graffiti is still in the streets,” says Bojorquez, whose work is in the permanent collections of MOCA, LACMA and the Smithsonian. “But when you want to talk about its issues and its history and intent — its purpose, its identity — that’s when you have to bring it indoors. The canvas really serves our function to be a better graffiti artist, [to] expand the definition of being a graffiti writer and a graffiti artist …

“Now, it doesn’t make it easier. One bad stroke and you could lose your reputation. It’s easier in the streets, even though there’s police and other gangsters and other writers hassling you, but in some ways there’s a lot more freedom, a lot more acceptance out there. You come to the gallery, it’s very critical. So you have to come up to the plate. You have to come with your
best work.”

If there’s one feature that defines Fujita’s cohort — especially the K2S (Kill 2 Succeed) graffiti crew, whose members Alex “Defer” Kizu, Jose “Prime” Reza, David “Big Sleeps” Cavazos and Slick are also featured in the show —  it’s the drive to constantly innovate and improve their craft.

“We try to basically work with what we have and push ourselves individually and collectively,” says Kizu, who befriended Fujita over their shared love of street art on long bus rides from Boyle Heights to their middle school in Mid-City back in the ’80s. “L.A. was like a big playground back then, where we jumped on the RTD bus and cruise. There wasn’t like designated places to paint … it was kind of like you had to jump over the brown fence and then turn this corner, or go in this alley.”

“A common thread I think that runs in all of us is courage,” adds Fujita. “Because to be able to go through the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of life, in general, and to make it this far, I think it took a lot of courage.”

Bojorquez, 67, knows that from his firsthand experience of the gallery world’s initial rejection of graffiti art when the artist was first working in the medium during the ’60s.

“When I was young I would tell gallery directors and curators, ‘I know this beautiful work. It’s up this alley.’ They won’t go up there. I could never prove that graffiti was art,” says Bojorquez. “What I had to do is make a painting of graffiti. I had to create graffiti art to prove it.”

Over time, through shows at museums and galleries across the world and guerilla art pieces throughout L.A., Fujita and his multigenerational class of street artists have gone on to prove that graffiti art is legitimate both on city streets and in the elite world of contemporary art. But a rebellious streak still unites them all.

“We’re all graffiti painters. And we still go up live and we still carry a marker in our pockets. All of us. We’re still tagging. We’ll still put up a sticker where we’re not supposed to,” says Bojorquez. “No. 1 rule of graffiti, there are no rules.”

But there is a sense of loyalty.

“All these young men feel like not only companions, but family,” says Bojorquez. “That’s the beauty about us. We’re a gang.”
Of artists, that is.

“Roll Call” continues through Jan. 14 at L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Call (310) 822-4955 or visit lalouver.com