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Saturday, May 25, 2024

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Arts + CultureLitHow Bay Area graffiti led me to a life...

How Bay Area graffiti led me to a life of writing

From writing on walls to writing in books—and the value of seeing others publicly dream

A month ago, I was riding a train through Copenhagen on my way back to the airport. It felt satisfyingly far from home for me—a Californian writer and former high school teacher who had never been to Scandinavia.

It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a teen—to travel beyond North America so I could experience whatever existed apart from my Bay Area bubble. It must’ve started with early trips visiting my family in Mexico. The ability to cross a border to see my relatives instilled a sense of crossing government-sanctioned lines, a privilege I don’t take lightly. It meant I could imagine, roam, and maneuver myself in faraway places—something many of my closest friends couldn’t as undocumented immigrants. In that way, US citizenship—and eventually art—opened doors for me that I knew were closed to so many others in my life. It felt like a superpower.

As I sat with the Danish countryside rushing past me, I was suddenly reminded just how important it is: to go beyond my boundaries, to dream, and to see others dream. Outside my window, a train sped by on a separate track. It was completely bombed out, from top to bottom, with a graffiti crew’s name snaking in a geometric chain. At the very end of it, a metaphoric exclamation: 2022.

It had only been a few days into the new year—not even a week. Still, in this freezing European winter, a group of dedicated graffers had stuffed their paint-stained backpacks with rattling cans, hopped a fence somewhere, and, with some universal sense of creativity, spent the darkness of night assembling their dreams together to restart the calendar.

“We exist loudly,” they seemed to be saying. And by seeing it, viewers had to acknowledge their possibility to exist loudly, too.

Painting with a few “Los Chingones” crew members. Me on the left. (Photo: Courtesy of author)

Just recently, San Francisco experienced a “flash mob” of an estimated 100 taggers who illegally painted swaths of the Mission District. It’s not something I’m defending as socially constructive or justifiable, but it made me think about why, even when seemingly destructive, I’m drawn to the communal act of painting in public. 

I’ve always thought about graffiti as a sort of open invitation: I am here, are you here? Maybe that’s why most major cities around the world are often drenched in colorful dialogues between artists and renegades, activists and lawbreakers, bored teenagers and professional muralists, shit talkers and mindless miscreants. There’s a range of people I’ve met who do graffiti, and they’re not always who or what you’d expect.

Though it’s an impetuous act that can elicit extremely offensive or impressionless responses, deep down, most graffiti comes from an intuitive need to dream, or, at least, to express selfhood in some imperfect way. It’s only with careful honing of these abilities and instincts that we—as creators, as people—might eventually harness that power to do something deliberately beneficial with it.

How, then, does a dream become reachable? Where does it extend beyond our limits and insist on our growth? When is a dream too big or too small, too naive or too consuming, for it to even matter?

Sketch from my black book, 2006. (Photo: Courtesy of author)

Wielding a can of spray paint to cover a surface may not seem like much—in fact, it may even seem purely destructive, vandalistic, or aimlessly juvenile. But for me, it’s where I was first permitted to share a private form of myself with others; where I was first allowed to exist in an ever-evolving state of wander and wonder intertwined with my immediate surroundings. For those I know who started out as graff writers, it’s rare affirmation to see our hands outlining letters and color schemes we’ve chosen, to receive praise for articulating ourselves in a way we otherwise wouldn’t have as members of mandatory institutions that haven’t historically recognized our worth.

Translation: It was my introduction to dreaming.

For me, personally, I needed it as a young Mexican American growing up without much formal guidance. In school, I constantly flunked my classes, repeated basic subjects, and generally felt disconnected from my classmates and teachers. From 6th to 12th grade, school never felt like a place where I could grow through scholastic dreaming. Instead, it was rigid enforcement of obedience and imitation where I felt like I was always out of step with mass learning and forced to wrestle with a system I didn’t know how to participate in.

Each year, I had to pay by recovering credits in summer school, eventually enrolling in remedial, freshman-level courses as a senior and being told I wouldn’t graduate unless I scheduled eight periods and passed them all. Luckily, and with support from my favorite English teacher—who taught me how to dream academically and who also knew my older brother—I did graduate by a thread.

Yet, during that time, I’d already become a burgeoning dreamer elsewhere. I’d seen others dreaming and reaching into the crevices of society—in empty parking lots around the South Bay, on abandoned buildings, beneath bridges, on the sides of trains at the rail yard, and at spoken word gatherings. Graffiti and poetry began to morph me as fluent expressions that dared me to speak out when everywhere else I’d been scolded to be quiet. It was joyous more than it was reckless.

Sketch from my black book. (Photo: Courtesy of author)

I took that energy of dreaming, of finding confidence as a graff writer, into my journey as a community college student, and eventually applied it to my schooling. As I got older, began to drive, had part-time jobs, and juggled a serious relationship with a girlfriend who attended an esteemed four-year university, I began to shift away from writing on walls—which led to various penalties, fines, and community service that I’d seen my closest friends go through—and started to write (or, rather, dream) inside notebooks.

I somehow did my thing, flourished as a first-gen student, and transferred to nearby UC Berkeley, where I signed up for June Jordan’s Poetry for the People in 2008. That’s when dreaming became more than a luxury—it became a necessity. There, among other diverse and marginalized voices, we learned how to merge individual needs with community goals; to blend political imagination with social action; to connect historical knowledge with our poetry (and what is poetry if not the graffiti of literature, centuries of pages being tagged by the once-voiceless until they cannot be ignored? I’m not talking about John Donne here; I’m talking about the indigenous poets and orators of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the continental Americas, and what their rebellious energy represented in times of enslavement and colonization).

Sketch from my black book. (Photo: Courtesy of Author)

I’ve kept dreaming since then, equipped with a lineage of other dreamers, poets, and taggers by my side—all with deep Bay Area traditions of their own. I dreamed of teaching. I dreamed of writing books. I dreamed of making a difference wherever I could. I’m still working towards my biggest dreams, but along the way, I’ve accomplished things I could previously only dream about, yet are now a part of my everyday fabric.

Perhaps most importantly, my dreaming has never been solitary. In its most radical and purest form, the greatest dreams must become communal, collective.

That’s why I celebrate others who dream as well, and when I can, try to encourage the dreams of anyone I’m able to. Even if I’m not involved and have absolutely nothing to gain from their growth, I enjoy witnessing the process of success transpiring for others. In fact, that’s my favorite kind of dreaming: when it allows me to meet someone on their pursuit, or when they meet me on theirs.

Someone like Kevin Madrigal—a young poet and community cook from South San Francisco—whose debut poetry chapbook, Hell/a Mexican, is forthcoming with Nomadic Press. I dream for him and what he is embarking on, from the moment he reached out to me as a complete stranger on Twitter. Or Pendarvis Harshaw, a brilliant journalist and mentor from Oakland—whose talented work recently received a lauded Northern California Emmy. I dream for him, too, and what he has been able to generously pass down to me and so many others.

I dream with my friends, and the parents of my students. I dream with other artists and NBA players I’ve never met but watch on my television. I dream with my grandmother-in-law, a former factory worker from Richmond, and I dream with my older brother, a health care employee in Mountain View. I dream with my wife, a high school educator. I dream for my future children.

Sketch from LC Kruel 1’s black book, 2006. (Photo: Courtesy of author)

These are my people, my crew. I might not be tagging a wall with their names on it these days, but I exist by championing their energy and passing it on to others in the form of writing, teaching, traveling, and loving. Because what is the dream of a graffiti artist if not feeling a sense of connection to home? Of attempting to move towards something so large and beyond yourself that it does not yet exist, but perhaps, with enough dedication, will—for you and those around you?

It’s precisely that thrill and tingle that is born inside us, how it can guide itself into bigger gains, not as self-indulgence, but as an act of transference and goodwill to be passed on. It’s the graffiti of my adulthood, the prideful claiming of my people and declaration of powerful intentions through words, movement, shaping, and re-shaping on as many surfaces as possible. And like the realest taggers I know, this hunger never rests, and stays up all night chasing the next metaphorical wall.

Even in 2022, despite the mess that governments and corporations continue to predicate upon us in seemingly endless ways, I dream; I stand up when I see someone else’s name sprayed somewhere I never thought possible, up on a ledge, for everyone to see.

And I’ll never look away from that power.

Neighborhood tunnels where we learned to craft our expressions, 2007. (Photo: Courtesy of author)

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