The L.A. Louver Gallery recently hosted Roll Call, a group show with Gaijin Fujita, Chaz Bojorquez, Retna, Big Sleeps, OG Slick; about a dozen West Coast graffiti and street artists. Roll Call is the term used for gang “placas” in the Barrio, and also the name for the show. Cholo gang graffiti in geometric block letters seems to be the connecting aesthetic factor between the artists and their works. An old school Latino family graffiti style handed down from father to son through immigrant Mexican American families in California since the 1940’s. The “Roll Call” is when every member of the crew is written or “tagged” on the wall.
The show is a departure from the norm. David Hockney was the last artist of note to exhibit here, it’s the type of gallery Damien Hirst might exhibit at, not typically designated for such insurgent up and coming, “urbanites”. This is a distinguished gallery which attracts the worlds top artists and collectors. Unless it’s on Netflix, the gallery and its’ patrons are not typically accustomed to Low Riders, 50’s cholo music blasting outside, customized loud motorcycle mufflers piping flatulent rhythms, Oaxacan food trucks, dozens of graffiti black books, skateboards, leather jackets, cleavage, neck tattoos, hipsters, and what appears to be an actual biker gang twelve feet from the gallery entrance.
Retna is outside on opening night, signing black books, skateboards, designer purses, A gorgeous woman in a long couture designer dress is there, in line to get tagged by Retna. It’s obviously a gown that costs thousands of dollars and apparently they’ve set it up with some art publications or fashion magazines for Retna to tag the tall hot professional model wearing the fancy gown. He grabs the gorgeous woman’s breast and tags that portion of the dress, as cameras flash to capture the moment. The electric sweet palpable rush one feels from a favourite song fills the air. Everyone is grinning. Retna is the “Lizard King”, as Jim Morrison would say; the rebirth of an anachronistic rockstar role artists held in bygone eras.
The ten million dollar playpens of the Venice Beach rich, flawlessly line up next to the L.A. Louver Gallery. An exhibit unto themselves. The vast modern mansions serve as the daily backdrop for music videos, celebrities, muscle beach, paddle tennis, Lamborghinis, and world class skateboarding. Estates and inheritances resplendent: exorbitant counters and backsplashes, perfect California bodies, sexy and drenched in sun, the sunset….and the hunger. The hunger, and the damp painful cold, the wet cold, and the dirtiness, the voices inside. emotional torture. …and physical pain felt by hundreds, in the kidneys, when that hunger strikes you, in the feet when theres no place to wash ones socks, in the soul, when dignity itself fades….hundreds of homeless hopeless street urchins line Venice Beach. Lives so sad and lost that to truly contemplate them for more than a second, anyone with a heart would be exasperated and brought to tears. With the Chaz’s and Retna’s and rockstars of the world comes a certain blessed timing, when one seizes the day and wins in life. Even when I lived in the remote jungles in Asia the poorest people had a dignity and spirit that these Venice beach nomads lost ages ago. Perhaps the “timing” of success and luck was not theirs in this life…
Despite the miles of mansions, 25 years ago this was called “Shoreline”, or “Ghost-town”, or the “Far West”. It was as scary a place as one could imagine. Finally street cool and fancy Los Angeles gallerists and collectors collide, in what turns out to be an authentic show with strong works. The show is phenomenal, by street or gallery standards, conceptually strong, sharply executed, powerful works addressing the most powerful topics…. During the subsequent symposiums, the “gang” leader Gaijin Fujita, stresses that these are their own unique visual identities which emerged organically from the centre of the soul, styles often taking decades to craft, not merely a look or an aesthetic which they are reproducing and attempting to brand and sell. Out of a sea off hundreds a journalist stands and asks Retna if his style is a product or a process… perhaps not everyone gets it.
The symposiums in the fortnights following the show are amazing. Some of these artists have been tenured for decades but some of the other artists have not. OG Slick who is on hand discusses not being included in the Museum Of Contemporary Art’s, legendary Art in the Streets exhibit. The artist talks here are usually canned, contrived banter. Educated white artists with highly scripted lines, and rehearsed answers…Perhaps two notes different from reality but still in the same phony key as the status quo which great art, music, and great thinking seek to pierce…This is a place for presentation and canned laughter, not such a harsh sobering reflection on life and conciousness.no one is accustomed to artists pouring out their soul and displaying their wounds in a genuine manner like this…not here. Fancy galleries like this are usually way too elusive and upscale to condone this much transparency and truth…we all sit as if naked. Fujita wrestles our emotions and egos to the ground with his patient candor. When someone is in a spiritual place in life it captivates.
I dusted iff my old black book from 1988, graced by Srone, the founder of THR, my former crew …COPE2 and Bode drew in there as well. A 1982 drawing that T Kid 170 himself gave me, sits loosely on the first page… Even though I dont move the book I sometimes hurriedly open it just to make sure that the T Kid drawing is still inside… After the symposium I march up to the prodigies and introduce myself. Chaz tagged my book before I told him about my journalistic chops. “Well, you want to do an article” Chaz looked at me, “there’s only one way”, he said sternly…”come to my studio.”
Above the amazing iconic tag he did in my personal book, he put his contact info. Two weeks later I head to his house in the hills. I grew up in the suburbs. I forgot they existed. I forgot the smell of cut grass and that time around 2pm when time just seems to last forever. These are the hills where Obama sold weed back when they called him, “Barry”; a detail I was specifically asked to omit. I march up to the last house on the lane. Trees, beauty, silence. Besides the immigrant workers doing gardening every few blocks, I haven’t seen anyone for miles…I can hear myself think as I walk, counting the 20 or so comics I needed to round out my collection, trying to brainstorm a warm place to stay, for a sweet older homeless lady who I keep bumping into.
“Chaz” lets me into his amazing home and starts showing me his art. He breaks down the theories of lines within his tags, what influences he uses, and what every single line, stroke and mark in his works mean, and what culture the lines come from. Every element in his tags has a history and meaning. I spend hours in his home, which also has several studios for art and several rooms dedicated to art books and the various hundreds of toys, skateboards, shoes, and racks of clothing and products he has designed, tagged and created over the decades. I am in shock, the landscape drawings, paintings, and rooms full of products which he has licenced his art to appear on, amount to several lifetimes worth of work…We take a break as the hours roll, by and look from the view outside his deck; awe inspiring…
We look at works and art books, we draw a bit and talk. He laughs at my bravado to actually take the sharpie out of his hand as he is drawing to ask questions and discuss line making. “ I like your style”, he says laughing, as I grab the marker from his hand without asking…We talk about art and personal history, we talk, and talk for hours, on and off camera. Books can be written about this mans approach to art, not the they aren’t already. I want to get to the core, though, what are the theories and dialogues happening in his own internal narrative as he creates.
We talk about history and how he had to fight for his style to get recognition, from the East coast and ironically the West.
Chaz Bojorquez is a man who stuck to his principles and knew his worth, and unique contribution. Now blessed to be in the Smithsonian collection and many other museums, his influence over the history of graffiti and street art, and international style as a whole is undeniable. According to Chaz, his art far beyond the museums and books and galleries which he “walks right through”, as he says….this man is prolific, addicted to art making and the genuine cultural shamanism and history lessons which emerge from his creations. The unique provenance of Chaz Bojorquez personal and creative influences is gangster lifestyle, and his education combined with the street code: you get respect, if you give respect. One senses the he could have been a professor or alternately a bit of a tough guy.
Neither are mutually exclusive with his warm, genuine, yet profoundly complex, tough nature. Respect and street power mixed with unusually powerful intellectual capabilities and a morally sublime compass is what makes up the unique masterpiece which is Chaz Bojorquez. Smart as they come, but also that cool guy at the bar who you can talk to, and that guy who will step to you in a heartbeat if you dent his car, or otherwise try to fuck him over.
He continues to be immersed in meaningful powerful art making. After hours it is clear that all the museum collections, products and books aside, that this man had to fight for decades against un believers to manifest his vision. Other artists mentioned it to me as well when speaking of Chaz. This fight that Chaz won, the other artists discuss it their own career scenarios. Fighting for power and dignity; this ugly, dirty, embarrassing part of life when uncertainty rules; the stuff that either shatters beings or compells their ascent.
The worldwide explosion of tens of millions of pieces of clothing featuring West Coast graffiti, day of the dead imagery, and gang style tagging is undeniable. All of it and several trends in murals and street art, and indeed this show at the L.A. Louver, all trace directly back to Chaz Bojorquez. In various continents, t shirts and hats with cholo graffiti and hispanic West Coast American graffiti art are sold by the millions each year. I saw this South of the border as well as in South East Asia, and in Europe, as well as the Middle East. Tattoos, graphics, murals, gallery shows, all breathing life into a Latin street style with roots tracing to the 1940’s. A discreet but fundamental component of Mexican American cultural history that would have become extinct, if it had not been carried for so many decades by this one man, Chaz Bojorquez.
Chaz, resuscitated a unique Latino style that was supposed to be for just the neighbourhood and just for the family, and bravely shared it with the world. Graffiti didn’t just originate in Philly or the Bronx, as the Gastmans and Chalfants of the world may have us believe. Thanks to Chaz Bojorquez’s historic contributions, we now know that there is a style of graffiti tagging which predates both the Bronx and Philly taggers. We can thank Chaz Bojorquez for setting the history books straight. Gang “placas” dating back to the 1940’s in California are a tradition, but it took decades of Chaz fighting hard, with photos in hand, for this elusive history and unique original tagging style to be acknowledged internationally. The association with gangs and streets initially caused West Coast street and graffiti artists to reject this style decades ago. Chaz explains to me how theses styles are handed down from father to son in the barrio; and one never deviates from the exact style given, or the local neighbourhood to be tagged. He was the first one to expand the style both conceptually and geographically, the same way his counterpart taki183 in new York, went “all city” and wound up inadvertently creating a unique American Art Movement. They both did this merely by taking what was subculturally designated for ones own neighbourhood and sharing it globally. “All City” is a slang phrase denoting prolific tag coverage of an entire city at once by one individual. Its’ undeniable that Chaz has influenced style globally on several fronts, all with the subtext of a powerful street style which screams and has come to represent Latino Pride.…For decades Chaz has been sharing photos and sketches of these cholo tags from the 1940s, campaigning for historical accuracy and fighting for the truth. The style which he promoted and brought attention to it is now famous worldwide, but for decades East and West Coasters denied the history, and sought to suppress the truth. Chaz is a success story with an attitude. A fantastic example of a man who rewrote art history and pioneered an international trend in style and cultural history. All done, simply because deep within, he felt that the truth needed to be told.
Written by Dan "Plasma" Rauch.
Images by Jacob Sousa.