In a career spanning 30 years, RISK has impacted the evolution of graffiti as an art form in Los Angeles and worldwide. RISK gained major notoriety for his unique style and pushed the limits of graffiti further than any writer in L.A. had before: He was one of the first writers in Southern California to paint freight trains, and he pioneered writing on “heavens,” or freeway overpasses. At the peak of his career he took graffiti from the streets and into the gallery with the launch of the Third Rail series of art shows, and later parlayed the name into the first authentic line of graffiti-inspired clothing.
Before he’d ever heard of graffiti, RISK was unconsciously writing it. As a kid, he filled sketchbook after sketchbook with images, not just of people and things but of letters too. He even had spray paint in his hand before ever applying it to a wall, using it to paint BMX bikes. “Even back then I think I was addicted to spray paint,” he recalls. “I just loved painting with it.”
In 1983, his family moved to Los Angeles, and 16-year-old RISK enrolled at University High School on the city’s west side. RISK made the high school his personal canvas, tagging his name everywhere during the day and returning at night to do pieces. He turned some of his buddies onto graffiti and started a crew, Prime Crime Artists, with them. In 1985, RISK was painting in mid-city when RIVAL approached him and asked if he wanted to start a crew. Just like that, West Coast Artists (WCA) was born. One night, RISK and fellow writers RIVAL and MINER were sitting on an overpass above the Pasadena Freeway just north of downtown L.A. when RISK decided to hit one of the signs hanging over the freeway. To get to the sign, he had to shimmy across a piece of wood supported by two cables. His friends, scared for his life, begged him to come back to the overpass. RISK didn’t listen, and managed to get his name up.
The next phase of RISK’s career came out of the Hollywood lifestyle he was living. He partied with rock stars, and he found himself being asked by some of them to get involved in Hollywood projects. His first was a photo shoot for Hot Rod magazine, and after the issue hit newsstands, he started getting more recognition as an artist outside the graffiti world. RISK continued to work on movie and music video sets, including the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and videos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Bad Religion and Michael Jackson.
In 1988, RISK went to New York and painted subway cars, making him the first L.A. writer to have his work run, and probably the last (in 1989, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority mandated that all subway cars be free of graffiti before they ran). The following year, RISK and SLICK were invited to travel to the U.K. to represent the U.S. at the Bridlington International Street Art Competition. They won the competition and took home a silver cup and silver spray can as trophies.
Back in L.A., RISK was determined to keep pushing the boundaries of graffiti, and he and fellow WCA writers embarked on a series of tours: “Bum Rush,” an all-out bombing effort in the San Francisco Bay area; “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” a quest on which they hit everything from Elvis Presley’s limo to private planes; and “Hitting Metal,” a tour aimed at vehicles, street signs, heavens and any other metal objects they could find.
Meanwhile, RISK had started putting his graffiti on canvases. Along with DANTE and SLICK, he created Third Rail, a series of gallery shows. Knowing that many of the people at the shows couldn’t afford his canvases, RISK started making T-shirts to sell. RISK turned Third Rail into a successful clothing brand, with RISK winning designer of the year awards and sponsoring celebrities like Kid Rock. While other clothing companies tried to co-opt graffiti images to present themselves as streetwear, Third Rail prospered from its authenticity.
Today, RISK is still involved in graffiti, surrounding himself with writers and supporting them in their art. WCA evolved into other crews, first CBS and then AWR and MSK, and both are proud to have him as a member. “I’m probably one of the only writers who’ve come full-circle with generations,” RISK says, “to see what I started go where it went and then be a part of it.”