Los Angeles 'CHOLO' Style Graffiti Art
by Charles "CHAZ" Bojorquez
My bond with graffiti has been long and committed. I did not seek to do graffiti, but in reality it confronted, and demanded me to make some understanding of it. It asked of me "What is graffiti?, What the hell does all this mean? and most important, Why do I need to do this?!" The graffiti that I started with in 1969 is our own, west coast 'Cholo' style graffiti, and it's still the same style of graffiti that I paint today, 27 years later. I say paint, because I almost always use a brush. The brush was the weapon of choice before spray cans were introduced in the early 1950's in Los Angeles.
Our history and age of 'Cholo' Latino gang style have been documented in the book, Los Angeles Barrio Calligraphy (by Jerry and Sally Romotsky, Dawson's Book Shop, 1976). They interviewed a sixty-year-old plumber who stated that graffiti was "in full bloom" when he started as a teenager. Roughly we can date the beginning to the mid-1930's. Beatrice Griffith refers vaguely to graffiti in American Me (published in 1948). I believe, and have heard stories that the practice goes back further than the 1930's. Some believe that this style evidently goes back to the early part of this century with the shoeshine boys marking their names on the walls with their daubers.
The most important and influential time comes from the early 1940's. Here in Los Angeles, the Latino Zootsuiters were defining their Americanism. The Zooters were formed by forces like non-acceptance by the Anglo-Americans, mass deportations of Mexican-American citizens back to Mexico, and in Los Angeles, the beatings by U.S. servicemen during World War II. New York Harlem black Zooters, and of course, Jazz and Swing music also had a big influence. Los Angeles Zootsuiters felt and wanted to be different. With their hair done in big pompadours, and 'draped' in tailor-made suits they were swinging to their own styles. They spoke 'Calo', their own language, a cool jive of half English, half-Spanish rhythms. The term applied to the slang the gypsies and bullfighters of Mexico and Spain used at that time. Here the 'Old School Cholo' L.A. graffiti style still has its most direct influence. Out of this experience came lowrider cars and culture, clothes, music, tag-names, and again, its own language.
Los Angeles graffiti has its own visual presentation. It is a public announcement. L.A. gang graffiti writings are called 'Placas' (plaques, symbols of territorial street boundaries), and are pledges of allegiance to your neighborhood. Its letter face has always been called 'Old English' and is always printed in upper case capital letters. This squarish, prestigious typeface was meant to present to the public a formal document, encouraging gang strength, and creating an aura of exclusivity. The Placa is written in a contemporary high advertising format, with a headline, body copy, and a logo. These three major building blocks of corporate public advertising can also describe the type layout from ancient Sumerian clay tablets to the Constitution of the United States. The headline states thang or street name, the body copy is your rollcall list of everyone's gang name, and the logo refers to the person who wrote it by adding his tag at the end. Placas are written with care to make them straight and clean. They are flushed left and right or words are stacked and centered. Rarely are they ever done in lower case free-script, or other than in black letters, one of the many differences from N.Y. style. This tradition of type, names and language rarely deviates drastically and is handed down from generation to generation.
The Los Angeles walls are an unofficial history of the Mexican-American presence in the streets of East L.A. This traditional form of Los Angeles graffiti is a graffiti seeking RESPECT (something all graffiti has in common). They are markings by generations of rebellious youth announcing their pride and strength to all outsiders. I feel that by writing your name makes you exist, how you write makes you strong, and by writing on the wall, it makes you immortal. It is graffiti by the neighborhood, for the neighborhood. That's another difference between Cholo and Hip Hop. In Cholo, usually one writer writes for the whole gang, and only writes within their own territory. In Hip Hop graffiti styles there is an individual focus, where 'getting up' all-city or all-state with your tag is more important. Generally speaking, the typeface of Hip Hop tags changes to a more personalized upper and lower case free-script.
Our lowrider, oldies music and old school graffiti style in Los Angeles have been getting a new revival in the last few years. Cholo graffiti is still strong and is a big influence on the L.A. Hip Hop writing crews. I see many young writers today still use some forms of the Cholo style in their work. The large, black Old English letters, highly abstracted and carefully designed, reveal strength and control. Besides just looking at the surface, this is an image that demands to be read and understood. These inscriptions achieve incredible sophisticated aesthetic heights and disclose the concerns of the neighborhood.
My personal involvement with graffiti started in the late 1960's, but art has been a part of my entire life. I had spent a summer at art school in Guadalajara, Mexico and had started to attend art classes at Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts) the year before I graduated from High School. I had always seen and understood graffiti, even in grammar school in the 1950's, but it wasn't until I was out of High School in 1967 that I became truly aware what graffiti was all about and also the current international art movements. Minimalism, Pop and early Conceptual assemblage was in. I hated it! I felt that the gallery art market was thin and shallow. Too much head and not enough heart. I turned away from the painting/gallery/money scene for fifteen years. I needed to find my own voice in art that described my existence, my surroundings, and what was important to my generation, not mentally formulated solutions. I wanted In-Your-Face Art.
Cholo graffiti's inner meanings had not been thought of as art. No one thought that graf was art, as some still believe today. They said that graffiti was "A socioeconomic response to a repressed portion of our society." No one really looked at it for its sheer beauty of control. When done well, it would glow with pride. I could feel that spirit, like all of us do. I went for the graffiti. I felt that in art, the absolute perfection of a line is a greater awareness of truth, and graffiti was Word! Also, it is said that a person's inner character can be read by their handwriting. In graffiti, so can a group's character and attitude be identified by their writings. This very essence that letters, words and symbols could be my building blocks to build by character and define my desperate, rebellious need to express myself. Graffiti spoke to me at this time and said that these writings are more than threatening words of defiance, but a path, a spirit of choice, a true voyage seeking self-esteem.
By the end of 1969, I had created a symbol that represented me and my streets. It was the Skull. Written Cholo letters turned into an image. Senor Suerte (Mr. Luck), with a Super Fly big hat, and fur collared long coat, a skull with fingers crossed and a Dr. Sardonicus smile. To the Latino people, a skull's representation is not about death, but about rebirth. A tradition from our Aztec heritage, these images are still manifested in our Latino festivals today. My Skull is the gangster image of protection from death. Here in our local neighborhood, the old homeboy street gang, The Avenues, has claimed the Skull as their own. Many have the Skull tattooed on their body, from the top of their skull to the sides of their neck, arms, chest and full backs. (Check out the movie, American Me). The Skull has become a lowrider gang icon. You have to earn it to have it tattooed.
I was not a gang member. But in my neighborhood of northeast L.A. you live with the gang style next door your entire life. I still do. I took up stenciling my Skull/tag and writing rollcall names in the streets all through the 1970's, until I stopped in 1986. With three friends, Brian Jones spray painting running bulls, Tom Rudduck with his colorful long dragon symbol and Leo McIntire with the Aztec symbol of Quetzalcoatl, we tagged all summer in 1970. They all stopped that year, but I kept on. Later, I would go tagging with a friend or my girlfriend, Blades, but at times I would go to the riverbed myself. There were no crews, only gangs then. Another strong influence here in Los Angeles is the attraction of the Pacific Rim philosophies. Graffiti script demonstrates the Oriental work ethic of one hour of preparation for one minute of execution. Some of Japan's most famous war generals were poets. Before the battle, they would write their feeling through their calligraphy by writing a poem of solemn beauty or righteous strength. I took a class in Oriental calligraphy at the Pasadena Pacific Asia Museum under Yun Chung Chiang, himself a student of Mr. Pu Ju, brother of the last emperor of China. I needed a better understanding of line, to better understand the calligraphy of graffiti.
In 1975, in collaboration with a photographer, Gusmano Cesaretti, I wrote a book called Street Writers, (Acrobat Books). In this small photo book of L.A. graffiti I described the streets and the attitude of graffiti writing. There were many stories coming out of New York about Taki, Dondi, Futura, Lee, Lady Pink, Seen and more. We heard about the Fun Gallery and finally the blocking of the train yards withdogs and razor wire. But New York was so far away.
There is no influence here until the beginning of the 1980's. In my mind, the early New York style was about 'getting up' writing individual names, it was about 'identity'. While here in L.A., it was about defining 'territory'. My own work was about finding the soul of graffiti. I started to shift from the streets to my first graffiti canvas painting in 1978. I needed to have longer conversations with the image. The streets were not giving me enough time to draw what I wanted to say. I needed months on one painting. You see, the image is the teacher. It says what you draw and how you draw, describes your life. For example, do I need straightening? Do I need more definition? Keep to the subject! Do I need more light on my thoughts and ideas? Do I need to be clearer in my mental vision? These are some of the questions solved by doing canvas graffiti. A major change in my life happened when Blades and I traveled around the world for three years, visiting thirty-five countries. I looked at customs, art and tattoos in the South Pacific, Asia and Europe. I came back having found a more common understanding to all languages and writings. We returned in 1980 and I determined to paint more graffiti art. I have also worked at many movie and product advertising agencies as my day job. I had the opportunity to design a few movie titles: The Warriors, Boulevard Nights, Turk 183, Caveman, The Cheap Detective, and parts from Star Wars to the Muppets. I have painted backgrounds for commercials and designed logos, for Reebok, Arco, album covers, rock bands, and line illustrations of stereos, food, tractors, anything and everything. I designed and built commercial art for fifteen years until 1986.
That experience made me understand the true nature and sheer power of mass advertising. Talk about "getting up"! The many issues that we dislike about advertising are the same issues we dislike about graffiti. Issues like who 'violates' or who 'owns' the public space? Who has the right to speak or place billboards in your face? EVERYONE does some form of graffiti.
The real war against graffiti is all about materialism, and materialism is politics. Any dialogue about graffiti that does not talk about the image is just politics. I've been on many panels and have spoken to many groups. Nothing changes with the opposition. Your arguing is a lose-lose situation. We as artists, writers, and taggers should only concern ourselves with the image, not just arguing the politics of graffiti.
You are only remembered and respected by your image, not what you say, or if you are black, brown or white, male or female, young or old. The strength of your work must be able to speak and endure. Our best known writers are our best artists, and many today writers are graduating from major art schools. What will the graffiti for the end of the millennium look like? I can't say, but it will be better and more exciting than today, because I believe graffiti art cannot stay the same. Even we, can't stop it!
In my own work, I take 'Old School' further and further. Making images that not only speak, but can bite! I believe taggers, bombers, and piecers should take their own styles to the absolute limit. Then do it again. But some would say that "it's not real graffiti!" There will be always be another generation or core group to write in the old traditional graffiti styles. I am speaking to the artist in all of us, to the leadership of the movement. We must all think about improving! That's the future of graffiti. What IS real graffiti? Piecers, bombers, canvas graffiti? to me, it's all graffiti. Any drawn line that speaks about identity, dignity and unity, that line is art. Graffiti art is like a wide spectrum with different kinds of styles, each no better than another. I don't like elitism in my life, and I don't like it in my art. I see the whole movement of graffiti is like a big book. It does not matter who came first, or who is the real rebel or true visionary, we all contribute. We are all pages of that one book, pages to be read later by the graffiti writers of tomorrow. I feel that if the city was a body, graffiti would tell us where it hurts. By cutting out the pain, you risk damage to the whole. No one part is more important than another.This is an example of what I think about New York style and L.A. Cholo style. Ninety-eight percent of the graffiti that we know today, the graffiti that circled the entire world is Hip-Hop style, straight out of New York since the early 1970's. And I give my respects. I think that the oldest graffiti in the United States, here since the 1930's or earlier, is from East Los Angeles. The lowrider culture is still going strong here and still has an influence on L.A. Hip Hop graffiti.
Even though the Cholo and New York styles look different, the purpose and intent are still the same. We all have the same mother, rebellion. Just a different father, style. We are all the children of a bastardized language, but we have more in common than we have differences. In the last five years I have been written about nationally and internationally, from television to magazine interviews. I have shown my artwork in local underground events, art galleries to museums. My work is collected by Hollywood stars, respected art collectors, and major art museums, including the Smithsonian Institute. My current street observations are that Los Angeles may be on the verge of being a dynamic city of the future. It is becoming a world leader in all art matters. Our future influence is yet to be known. Here we have our own unique history of Pop culture. Our homegrown arts are our own best, west coast inspirations. Here skateboard and surf art, lowrider and hot rod art, lowbrow cartoon art and the Hollywood entertainment industry all come together. We are at the crossroads where graffiti art meets the internet and cyber-pop. Some examples of my work can be found on the internet with New Brow Art.
In L.A. we live in a movie world where the outcome can be written in for the future that we want. No other city in the world has this cultural art heritage. Los Angeles could become the future graffiti capital of the world and that would be a spark for all the arts everywhere to shine. Because once you understand and appreciate graffiti art, then we can all understand and appreciate one another.