Posted December 13th, 2012 at 06:04pm by Risky
As an artist in the 1980s, RISK pushed the limits of graffiti and gained notoriety not only for his unique style but for being one of the first writers in Southern California to paint freight trains and freeway overpasses. RISK was responsible for importing New York’s Wild Style of graffiti to Los Angeles and combining it with his own aesthetic of lettering to create something entirely new. At the peak of his career he took graffiti from the streets into the galleries and recently played a major role in MOCA’s groundbreaking Art in the Streets exhibition, which brought mainstream recognition to graffiti as a serious art medium. With a career spanning more than 30 years, RISK is continually evolving and pushing his personal limits as an artist. His story is a true testament that all artists must strive to break boundaries, and that anything can be accomplished if you are willing to take a risk.
What inspired you as a teenager to pick up a spray can and paint on walls?
Stealing bikes – BMX bikes. Because I used to be into BMX and we used to… Well, I don’t know if that inspired me, but it was the first time I encountered spray-paint, and I was addicted to the smell right off. I always loved spray-paint and after that I made haunted houses and anything with spray paint I’d get. So then when I found out there was an art form with spray-paint I went right to it.
What artists were you looking up to at the time?
Wow, at that time? I think anybody from New York because there was no graffiti art so to speak here. And I was drawing on my desk and I’d write “Surf” and draw waves. And this kid from New York just transferred over and he was like, “Oh, what do you write?” And I’m like, “Huh?” And he’s like “What do you write?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy Halloween.’” And he’s like, “What?” And I’m like, “I write all kinds of stuff.” I thought he was try to say like what do you draw, you know? And he’s like, “The letters.” And I’m like, “Yeah, ‘Merry Christmas.’ ‘Happy Halloween.’ ‘Surf.’ ‘Wipeout.’” And he’s like, “Nah, when you write,” and he showed me pictures of New York trains. And I was like, “Wow, that shit’s cool.” And that day I went and stole a can of red and white, and I came back to the high school and I did a SURF piece that said SURF, and that was 30 years ago, and I’ve been painting ever since. I was addicted.
How did you go from the name SURF to the name RISK?
I got busted at Union High with a guy named Scott Jonkey (aka OOPS). We got busted stealing paint. They took us into school in handcuffs at lunchtime. Super embarrassing. So I knew that they were going to find out I was SURF because they already suspected me. But I thought I was pretty slick because I’d write CAJUN in my books as a fake name. So when they said, “Oh, you’re ‘Surf,’” I was like, “Nah, I wish I was. That guy’s up,” you know? “I’m Cajun.” But I knew they were going to find out, so I needed a new name, so a friend of mine wrote, CHANCE, and I thought that was the coolest name every because you know, oh, he takes chances and this and that. So that night I’m looking for a name and I looked up and there was a board game that said, “Risk.” And I was like, that’s it. And that’s how I picked it.
Your style was heavily inspired by the New York Wild Style and obviously it’s motivated by your friend from New York. That was my question. What motivated you to incorporate that style?
Well, originally the guy who actually showed me what graffiti art was, I don’t even know who he is. I think he wrote A-TRAIN or something. He disappeared, as quick as he came to school he left. But shortly after that I saw Subway Art and I was fascinated with it. But shortly after that I met a guy from New York. Although he would like people to think he taught me to write I was writing before I met him and I’ll be writing long after him. He wound up being a complete fraud. He told us he was SON ONE from Subway Art as well as a ton of other bullshit. He was clearly better than us at the time but the truth always comes out in the wash…
What were the major differences in the style between the New York and LA graffiti?
Now or then?
I don’t know…I think that back then there was not as much of a difference as now because everyone was emulating New York. Everyone wanted to be New York so they were just clearly better. Their style was just clearly better at the time. It was just the same thing but just better. But I think what changed was our use of color, you know. The LA guys had way more vibrant crazy colors and color schemes going on.
What about the difference between your style and the style that was going on in East LA at that time?
East LA was more of a block style derivative of gang writing and Chicano writing, Pachucas back from the probably 40s or something, you know? So their stuff was a lot more block style. My stuff was a lot more organic. I was kind of like, melting pot, you know, because I was influenced by New York and I was hanging out in East LA and it just kind of morphed so my stuff is just more organic.
Yeah. I’m heavy on the aesthetic of letters and architectural letters and weights and balances, which a lot of East Side writers are and the Chicanos, its all about weights and balances, so I think I molded that with New York style.
You were one of the first known LA writers to paint subway cars in New York back in 1988. How were you accepted with the New York graffiti community?
Uh, (laughing) I think when I first got there they were like, “You want to paint trains?” and I was like, “Yeah.” And they were like, “Alright, yeah right.” And I was like, “Nah, I want to paint,” and they were like, “It’s over, you missed it.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” And they were like, “They buff it, there’s the vandal squad, their hot, they know where we live. You missed it!” I’m like, “I’m doin’ it.” And they were like, “Alright, do it.” So I was just doing it, I was out bombing. So eventually they were like, “Alright, you don’t know what you’re doing. Let us take you,” and it was like REAS, VEN GHOST, KET, you know. Those guys took me to the yards and the lay-ups and I was just on fire, like a fever, and I just kept wanting to go, and they’re like, “Damn, you’re serious,” and I was like, “Yeah, I’m serious.” So they were real cool after that. They had a lot of walls up in the beginning, but after that they were cool and they took me out and I just bombed and then I was well received in New York, I made a lot of longtime friends I still have there.
And was it ever an issue that there was a well-respected RISK based out of New York?
No, not really, I knew about him, I found out about him later, he was in FC, and I had met WEST earlier. And he told me, I have a friend who writes “Risk,” and I was like, “Yeah?” and you know nothing ever happened. And I talked to that guy on email a couple times.
I think it was a different age too where there’s no Internet, there’s no way to do the research; there’s probably more than two anyway.
You kind of paved the way for graffiti artists being accepted in the art world back in the 80s. And how did you make that leap from a street artist to showing in the galleries?
Well, it was really weird for me because back in the 80s I did a lot of commercial stuff. I was in Hollywood, so they are filming movies everywhere you look; so you’d walk up and you’d get gigs doing set design and stuff like that. So I got thrown into the Hollywood scene real quick but what I did was, I wrote RISK. So when Playboy hired me, they were like, “We want you to do graffiti, this graffiti stuff’s cool. Write ‘Playboy’ or draw a rabbit or something.” I’m like, “No, I’m writing RISK.” You gotta keep it real,” especially back then everything was about keeping it real. So long story short, when I did whatever I did, Chili Peppers, Budweiser, MTV, anything, I always wrote RISK. In the Michael Jackson video I wrote RISK. So I never had a problem. I think that I got notoriety as RISK, I guess, is what I’m saying.
Yeah, you built your name; you used that corporate money and the corporate jobs to elevate your name, not their name.
So when people wanted me for galleries and stuff, they knew it was going to be RISK. My stuff never changed. I still write those four letters. A lot of my gallery work still says RISK. That’s what I like doing, you know.
Do you feel like graffiti works in a gallery setting?
Yes. A hundred percent. Like a lot of people say, “Oh, its not made for galleries.” People say “Graffiti should not have any boundaries, so it doesn’t work in a gallery.” I think it’s completely opposite. I think that when you’re in a gallery, you have the option to destroy all boundaries. That’s where you can go crazy, in a gallery. You can do stuff you can’t do on the streets, you can add stuff to your pieces. So I look at it different. I think graffiti is totally good in a gallery. The only problem would be if certain people who haven’t paid dues did gallery work.
There lies a problem: when someone doesn’t know graffiti and they just lump all graffiti artists together, like, “Oh, that’s cool. That kid does graffiti. I want to buy some graffiti.” You know, that’s the problem. And that’s just like with anything else, you know.
Do you approach a gallery piece differently than you would approach a work on the street?
Yes and no. It all depends. When I do my pieces or my letters, they’re just like I’m going to do them on the street. But when I approach the gallery stuff its more painterly…a lot. I’m not hesitant to take out a brush. You know, on the street you build up something, and in the gallery I tear it down; like I destruct a lot of my stuff, and I buff it and destroy a lot of it, pull it down, so it looks like its beat up or faded or worn, like it would on a street. So I do approach the stuff the same as far as letters, but it’s the complete opposite as far as the finished product, I guess.
Why did you wait until 2008 to have your first solo show, “26″?
You know, I sold to collectors since the beginning, and I sold canvases and I participated in a few little groups shows and stuff like that, but I never had a solo show because I always thought something’s gonna tell me when its time, when I wanna do it. I’ll know when I know. I just knew. Everything just lined up; twenty six, you know, 26 letters in the alphabet; I was writing 26 years at the time. It just made sense, you know. So that was it.
You played a big role in MOCA’s highly attended Art in the Streets exhibit, which was the biggest show in the museum’s history. What were your thoughts on the show?
I thought it was awesome, I mean that show was a highlight for me in my graffiti career. And that’s the thing about graffiti, it just keeps going. There’s no limits. It’s always exciting, but MOCA was just awesome to me. Just having visited the museum a million times as a spectator and then running around there in the wee hours of the night at four in the morning for two weeks straight, having just an open playground in that museum was just awesome. Especially because I respected everyone in that show so much, so every time you walk through you see something new, and it was like, “Wow that’s crazy. I never saw that before.” There’s so much stuff you don’t even think about, you know. On the side of those Keith Haring pieces, there were PRAY tags carved into them. There’s so much stuff people didn’t even see, didn’t even know about.
My favorite pieces were the address books with people’s phone numbers and little sketchbooks with drawings in them. There were so many cool, little things you’d never see, like, you know what I mean… Like BASQUIAT’s phone number, or whatever it was, I was like… Crazy stuff you’d never expect to be out there.
Every time you walk through there, especially when it’s the middle of the night and its all quiet and you’re like super-tired and not focused and you just focus on something and you’re like, “What the fuck is that?” Like, “No way. It’s a PRAY tag,” and they didn’t even know it was there because if they did, there would be a big sign saying, “PRAY Tag.” But it was just so cool.
Do you feel like the graffiti artists in the show were properly represented? And do you feel like there was anybody left out of that show?
That’s a rough question. Everyone says they should have had X, Y, and Z in that show, but the problem with that show is that show is for gallery artists. So these people who weren’t in the show aren’t gallery artists. So there are a lot of people who deserve to be in the show, but they weren’t gallery artists. So that’s kinda why. And also, as far as LA’s concerned, it wasn’t an LA show. People think all these guys from LA should have been in the show. It wasn’t an LA show; they only had a couple guys from LA. Some of the guys from LA were crying about the show but they were the same guys like, “I don’t want to do a fucking gallery.” And then it comes and they’re all mad they’re not in it. There are always people that should have been in a show, for sure, but I don’t know the politics or the reasoning, or just the space, you know. Yeah, I’d like to see some other people in there but…
…You didn’t curate the show. At the end of the day it’s up the curator.
And there are reasons for everything.
It seems like a lot of street artists make the transition into doing gallery work a lot faster than graffiti artists. What are your thoughts on this?
Let me be politically correct… I think the street artists get the attention of the mainstream a lot quicker. And it’s easier for people to relate to them. Therefore, they get into galleries a lot quicker. I think a lot of them are hipsters too, so they’re in that scene. So I think that’s it, you know.
I mean, do you think there’s something about their art that makes it more relatable?
Yeah, you know, graffiti was invented for us. It wasn’t for anybody else. We had this secret style of writing and wild-style, that was for us to read, not the public. Their stuff is billboards, mini billboards and wheat paste. Directly for the public.
Basically advertising for the public.
Yeah so like, the public is looking right at it, they see it, they either get it or don’t get it, or whatever they feel, they feel it right then. Graffiti, people had to look at it for years and wonder what it is, wonder who did it, wonder how it was done. It’s the mystique, whereas street art you don’t wonder. Someone came up and put a poster up.
To me it seems like you hit em with the repetition of the same image a million times, you have an emotion towards that image now. It’s built in, and then it’s already on a piece of paper. You know what I mean, so it’s okay, lets take this piece of paper, we’ll put it in a frame now.
Yeah, it’s like an advertisement. It does its job.
Graffiti, everyone wants to do a different piece all the time, you know, so your piece is always different. So people are like, “Oh, I like that guy who did that thing there. I like that guy who did that thing there.” They don’t know it’s the same person. But with that street artists they are like, “Oh, the guy who does the one-handed Mickey Mouse, I like that one.” They can relate right away to that.
You’ve been doing graffiti since the 80s and have had almost a 30-year career. What keeps you motivated and how do you continue to evolve as an artist?
You know, painting to me is kind of like a chronological calendar. I’m the worst with times, dates, stuff like that. I often forget how old I am, my kids’ birthdays, stuff like that; but if I look at a painting, I could tell you exactly where I was, who I was with, and what was going on in my life. So I paint – without sounding corny at all – to know I’m alive. That’s something I do that keeps me going. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I think if I stop, when I stop, I’ll be dead, you know? So, my art’s going to obviously change, I guess, but it will always be some form of art.
What is your process from conceptualization to the creation of a finished piece?
I get a lot of ideas when I’m sleeping. I have these dreams and I see stuff, and I wake up and I want to paint it. I just see the piece.
And do you go directly into painting?
[RISK's daughter walks in.] And this is one of my biggest inspirations right here. [Daughter says, 'Daddy.'] And when I paint with her, it’s always fun. That’s some of her work right there.
So you start with an idea; do you go straight into painting? Do you do a sketch?
It’s always different. Sometimes… when I’m doing those large murals I have a color pattern in mind. And you know Heal the Bay thing? It was basically a conceptual color palette: pollution, the sky, and water. That’s as much as I thought about that and then I just went and did it. Like a graffiti piece, I still sketch sometimes, do outlines, you know?
Lets talk about your Beautifully Destroyed series: focusing on painting random objects in public spaces.
Yeah, Beautifully Destroyed came to me because I’m at the age now where I’m a professional artist and I support myself and my kids with my art, and I take it very seriously. And I really wanted to evaluate it, you know, I just wanted to really dig into it and dig deep and see what got me ticking. Why did I like graffiti? What was it about graffiti that was so inspirational? Why did I paint graffiti for 30 years? You know, I’ve oil painted, I’ve done all kinds of other stuff too but nothing stuck. So the most exciting moment I can remember is driving down the freeway the next morning after doing an illegal piece, and as you creep up on that piece, you see the color…boom!…and it hits you. And that was it. And then I really thought about it and I was like, “I’m driving, 70, 55 mph, whatever, I can’t really read that piece. It was that splash of color. That’s what got me, that splash of color was the exciting thing. So I wondered if I could achieve that without doing an image or letters.” So I did the color palettes, just splashes of color, and I did, I liked it, I was like, “Wow, that’s great. I get it.” Then I started thinking about it a little more, and I said, you know what, “I love letters, the aesthetic letters and the architectural letters.” I’m like, “What is it that I love about it?” and I loved the architectural letters, you know, the weights and balances in the structure. So that’s why a lot of the line work comes in, you know the architectural lines. And to me, the bubbles, the reason I do them is because the most elementary form of graffiti is the bubble background. These are just the outline of it. The bubbles and the bubble background, was like the most iconic part of graffiti to me, so if you strip that all the way down it’s just going to be the surface – you know, how the bubbles lay on top of each other and stuff like that. So when I encompassed those two things, it’s the most stripped-down, raw form of graffiti, yet it’s the stuff that got me motivated and pumped. So that’s how Beautifully Destroyed came about. Then I wanted to paint totally mundane objects – like a house, or a car or newspaper signs, or stops signs or newspaper machines, stuff like that – to see what emotion you could evoke painting an object and what people think about it. It was cool. People would get it and they get as pumped up as they do off of graffiti so I was like, “Wow, I could paint these murals without images or letters and evoke emotion.” So then when you start thinking about that, you go, “Okay, well what can I really do with this, like maybe I could go to skid row, these places that really need uplifting, and brighten em up.”
So I went to Miami, this year I didn’t go to Wynwood at Art Basel; I went to (Miami’s) Skid Row and painted some of these Beautifully Destroyed pieces, and it was awesome. The week I was there, watching all the homeless tents gravitate toward the piece and move there, and then talking to the people, and having them sit out there playing the harmonica, they were just so much happier over that week; and when I talked to a lot of the people and became friends with a lot of the homeless guys, and they were like, “Man, thank you so much for decking out my house; you pimped my house.” And its cool, you know, it worked. It did what I wanted it to do. It evoked emotion and that particular mural made people happy. That’s why I’m going to skid rows and dilapidated areas and doing these blocks of color. And not only skid rows but places you just wouldn’t expect it, like a newspaper machine, stuff like that. So that was the concept.
What was the reaction from Art Basel?
Really positive, and it really surprised me because I really didn’t think it was going to be positive. I was really expecting people to be like, “Well, what’s he gonna do? It’s a backdrop.” Because if you look at it in a photo, it looks like a backdrop; it looks like a typical backdrop we do on graffiti and you’re ready for the piece, but what people don’t really get about those pieces is that there’s so many layers, that’s like 50 layers, to get those pieces. And when you go up to the piece, its all dots, its not just a fade, its not just a two-color fade. Those murals, like the one at Crazy Gideon’s, started out fluorescent orange and pink, and it came out magenta and dark purple. And that’s from 50 layers – layers of tints, lacquers, and stuff like that. And then you throw in the metal flake and a lot of California lifestyle, custom culture stuff like lacquers and tints and flakes and stuff like that. So those murals are made for people to stand in front of and evoke emotion but you really have to be there to get it because I don’t think they translate on photo. Because when you see it in person, you can look into it and you can see layers, but in a photo you can’t really tell.
You received a scholarship to Pasadena Art Center, as well as to study fine art at USC. How did this affect your artwork, and would you recommend formal training for someone interested in the arts?
Yes, I recommend formal training one hundred percent. It’s awesome. I was too immature and young and stubborn when I got the scholarship to Art Center. They had me doing figure drawing and I was like, “I don’t want to; I’m never gonna do this.” And they were like, “Just do it.” And I was like, “I hate it.” I was close-minded, so I was doing stuff to piss them off, like doing figure drawing in graffiti colors – like all my figure drawings were in pastels and chalk, and the people looked like Martians. And I thought I was being really funny, but they didn’t care because they were just working on the shading. I was just stupid. I was too immature, so later I went to SC and it was awesome for me because luckily I was already pretty well known in graffiti. At that time, I was one of a few guys that were consistently on the freeways with legible pieces that said RISK. and at the same time I did “Eye on LA” with Chuck Woolery or whatever that guy was. And I had a little TV exposure and I had traveled around the world and did that world competition, so my art teachers knew that that was my path. So rather than going to school and having them help you find your way, they already knew that’s what I was gonna do. They knew I was all about graffiti, and I was very lucky because they would assign the class a project and then they would come to me and say, “Stay after class,” and they would assign me a different project based upon what I do. A lot of kids were pissed off, saying, “I’m a graffiti artist. He can do graffiti, why can’t I?” And the teachers were harsh; they were like, “Because you’re not a graffiti artist. He’s a graffiti artist.” The teachers were just ruthless. But they were really cool to me and they really helped me. I don’t know how it happens, but you get out of school years later and you realize what you learn and you don’t realize you learned it there. You don’t realize it at the time, but years later, you say, “Oh, yeah, I guess…”
So how did that help with the evolution of your artwork?
It opened doors. I pushed a lot of boundaries in graffiti, whether it be getting way too complicated or getting way too simple. I guess I just don’t have any boundaries in what I’m gonna do. And I realized I could apply graffiti aesthetics to any other form of art. I made a piece at SC called “The Art of Plumbing,” and I made it with all plumbing fixtures and pipes, but it was all based upon graffiti. I guess it showed me that graffiti is not just a spray can on a wall. You could mix things with it, mixed media, I guess it just opened my mind up that there’s more going on than just an aerosol can in the world.
We got a little tour of the workspace you’re constructing. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah, I’m building a 2,400 square foot machine shop, where we’ll be actually building sculptures and frames, and doing some metal work and fabricating a lot of the actual canvases. When I say fabricating the actual canvases, you know, a lot of my gallery work. You know because with graffiti you are out in the urban setting and painting on a lot of these different surfaces and that’s kind of what makes it cool to me, so I’m working a lot on painting on these things as my canvas; so lately I’ve been working on a lot of license plates, but I want to work on canvases made out of steel, cement, or glass, or whatnot. So that’s gonna help me do that. And then the other studio I’m building is actually for all the paint work, and that’s 1,500 square feet, and that’s gonna be a full paint studio with all different kinds of paints and applications. I’m really excited about it. And I made it all out of reclaimed stuff – like the whole thing is old railroad bridges or shipping containers, or streetlights and stuff like that.
And you bought an online paint store?
Yeah, we found a store that went out of business and we bought it online. Some hardware store in Jersey, and we just bought the whole paint department.
You were involved with the early beginnings of street wear with the launch of your brand Third Rail with Dante. What motivated you to put your designs onto clothing?
Third Rail was actually for galleries. We were showing art in galleries and calling it Third Rail, and we wanted to pull in Volkswagen or a refrigerator door, and it was gonna be called Third Rail. So we started that. Long story short, if a canvas sells for $10,000, you are going to sell very few, and we needed to make money; so we decided to print some of the artwork on t-shirts to sell, and that’s what I did. And eventually I met some guy from Japan, who wanted to buy some clothes, and he gave me this order that was $30,000 worth of clothes, and to me at the time it was like $3 million. And it took me well over a year to make it because I was printing the stuff on the pinball machine. I thought that was normal and he laughed. But this old Japanese guy taught me as I went and he mentored me into the clothing game without telling me I was a total screw-up and I didn’t know what I was doing. So he’d come every couple months to see how I was doing, and he would tell me to go see a silk screener and an embroiderer, and within a year, I got it. I went and designed some stuff for Guess and Warner Brothers and traded for some samples and had a little clothing line going. Kiyoshi was the guy who did the clothing with me and we went to Japan one time, and he told me I outgrew him, and I told him he made me, and he just dumped me, changed his phone number and just left because he wanted me to go. And that was awesome, but that’s how it happened.
Now you have a lot of street brands that are going for that graffiti aesthetic but they don’t have that background, but at the time, you were like I’m the artist and I’m going to do the brand.
Third Rail was made for graffiti artists by graffiti artists. We didn’t believe in Fat Cap and all that stuff with the markers and stuff. No graffiti artist wears a can on markers; we were doing everything illegal. Any real graffiti artist doesn’t want to advertise that he’s a graffiti artist. So I hated those companies. Third Rail was against all that stuff; we just wanted to make stuff that was cool. So we didn’t have markers, spray cans, or any of that stuff on our clothes.
How long did the brand last and why did it dissolve?
I sold my portion of the company about five years ago. We did a huge license deal with a guy who became terminally ill, and we got the brand back, but I was at a crossroads, sitting there saying I have the brand, this is what I do, I could keep going with the brand, or, I’ve made enough money, I could just be an artist. I thought I made enough money, I thought I had enough money saved. And then after four kids, a couple cars, and all the dumb stuff – not the kids, the cars – I didn’t have enough money and I had to depend on art. I decided I didn’t want to do it; I just wanted to become an artist. So I just hung up the towel and just wanted to be an artist. And it’s funny because I’m talking to them right now and they want me to take the brand back, and I said that I can be the front guy for the brand, but I’m not going to do it 24/7 anymore. So if that happens I might do it, like do a license deal with them and head design some pieces and have a team design around that.
Los Angeles has been cracking down on graffiti and has claimed to be enforcing the “Mural Moratorium,” which was a cease in mural permits back in 2007. What are you thoughts on this, and what can be done to stop it?
It’s total bullshit. That whole “Mural Moratorium,” Trutanich totally has a personal agenda against graffiti artists and they hide behind facts with this “Mural Moratorium.” Its pretty funny because they said I couldn’t write Risk, no one can have more than 3 percent text, write their name repetitively, or more than 3 times, etc etc….So I do this huge abstract mural with no letters at all just a wash of color and minimal architectural shapes and lines, etc…and they say its not a legal mural because its not decipherable ? So now they’re saying there is no abstract art legal in LA? pretty crazy that they continuously use tax payers time and money to fight this bullshit fight against artists. Its constantly getting exposed, yet they keep digging and manipulating for their personal agenda. And yes, they did come against some of the billboard guys because I think they had to, but until people brought up the fact, they didn’t go after those guys; it was just targeting us. I think you can only fool the public so long before the public realizes this is bullshit. It is slowly changing and they’re making progress, and I guess Trutanich has his own issues right now. He got caught, he’s not as squeaky clean as he likes to portray. Unfortunately for him and fortunately for us, I think he’s backed off because he has his own issues to deal with. That whole “Mural Moratorium” is just so unfair, man, because you have to get a permit, and if you ask, “When’s the last time they gave a permit?” They never gave a permit. You can get a permit and do a mural, but you can’t get a permit if you do graffiti. If you do it with aerosol, they’re not gonna give you a permit.
I had three lawyers for a while during MOCA, and I had detectives calling me and harassing me; they would email me, they would text me. Even after my lawyer said, “Don’t call him,” they called me. My lawyer had to give an official threat saying, “Listen, this is harassment. We are going to go to court,” and that’s all because of one person, you know.
What do you think pushed him to take this stance against graffiti?
When I first had that debate/conversation with him on the radio, he made a statement that all forms of graffiti are negative and have no value or substance. There’s no redeeming quality in any form of graffiti. And I was like, “No.” So I went on the radio and he goes, “Okay, I guess you’re going to say what you do is pretty.” And I’m like, “No, I’m not here to ask amnesty of leniency on anyone who breaks the law. You should prosecute them to the fullest. That’s your job; that’s what you do. I understand the risk of what I do. If you arrest me for doing illegal graffiti, I’m not going to cry about it. But you can’t lump all graffiti artists as gang members or taggers, because that’s just not true.” And he says, “You’re pissing on the turf, you’re marking your territory,” and I’m like, “That’s not true at all.” So my whole purpose of that debate was to make him say there are all different forms of graffiti and not all graffiti is bad, because that’s like saying every hardware store is selling to vandals. So if you spray-paint on your car you’re…So I’m like okay, let’s go arrest all the NASCAR drivers because they’re promoting people that drive fast and kill people. It was just illogical. So he reluctantly said, “Okay, I see what you are doing is positive,” and this and that, and he shook my hand, told me we would work together in the future, and then I never heard from him again. But I think it all comes down to education. My whole plight was to educate the public on different forms of graffiti, whether it be graffiti, tagging, or aerosol art. I just want people to know there’s a difference. Just like anything, there are good apples and bad apples. Not all graffiti artists are terrible and not all graffiti artists are great.
What newer artists are you inspired by?
I’m inspired by so many people, its not anyone in particular per say; it’s just I might see a piece and just love it and I don’t know who did that piece. I’m inspired by so much. I’m inspired by my daughters, that inspires me – not so much the finished product, but watching them do it is awesome; it’s the most raw form. When they stand back and say, “I need to add this color,” that’s awesome to me. That inspires me, you know?
What direction can you see your artwork going in the future?
That’s a hard question because I never thought my artwork would become as stripped-down as it has become. I’ve always strived to go more complex, so I don’t know where my art will go.
What’s in the future for Risk?
Just a lot more painting.
From director Roger Gastman—a producer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop—comes Wall Writers, a documentary on graffiti in its innocence.
Through unprecedented access to TAKI 183, CORNBREAD, and a host of other legendary writers, Wall Writers tells the story of a time when underprivileged city kids refused to keep lurking in the shadows, when the streets were so wild that fame and infamy became indistinct, when art became a democracy and self-promotion became an art.
And the narration is done by John Waters!