Only Toys Retire

My tour guide Galo Canote pointed a finger across the parking lot at the spray-painted script that read “OTR” and said the tag belonged to “On The Run,” also known as “Out Taking Risks,” one of L.A.’s oldest and most respected graffiti crews. He said that if I see “OTR” on another wall in the city, it could carry another meaning: “only toys retire.”

“Our walls are being gentrified,” he said, explaining that L.A.’s graffiti community is being pushed out of its home by a more moneyed class who enjoy authentic living in overpriced lofts, their buildings festooned with studio-perfect murals painted by street artists, or “toys” as Galo refers to them. Like many of the docents at L.A. Art Tours graffiti and mural tour, Galo is a graffiti artist, also known as a tagger or writer. The $12 tour is as much about the art of graffiti as it is about the culture around graffiti—the neighborhoods, the families, the shared memories and struggles—but to many outside of the community, graffiti is a counterculture act of defiance, an illegality that leaves behind a blemish of paint drips and bubbly letters that are difficult to read. Murals, on the other hand, are mainstream, and the artwork is easily interpreted and appreciated by those now moving into the Arts District, which is why the city of L.A. is whitewashing graffiti while supporting the installation of large-format, Instagram-friendly murals.

Galo, also known as MAKE, was raised in downtown Los Angeles and first identified as a graffiti artist in 1984. Graffiti became popular when hip-hop did and found mass appeal in New York City in the ‘80s, but by the ‘90s L.A. had emerged as a new graffiti capital, and in its streets were some of the world’s boldest taggers: ANGST, AYER, BABA, DREAM, EKLIPS, FRAME, KRENZ/YEM, SLICK, RICKONE/CRIME79, RISK, TEMPT, ZESER. L.A. became known for “heaven bombing,” which is when graffiti artists scale the giant green signs above the freeways and tag while traffic screams from below. Always fascinated by fonts and lettering, Galo built his name and gained respect by tagging L.A.’s most popular spots—Alhambra, East L.A., K-Town, North Hollywood, Venice Beach, the Belmont Tunnel—and soon became part of a tight-knit community of graffiti artists who lived in the Arts District; Galo says it was “a desolate place” at the time, and nobody bothered them, and they existed in harmony with the squatters who found refuge in the neighborhood’s many abandoned buildings.

L.A. remains home to many talented “children of the can,” but the city has no tolerance for them. In 2008 after eight graffiti writers in the “Metro Transit Assassins” crew painted the world’s largest tag along the L.A. River— “MTA” in huge block letters, a half-mile long—the City Attorney’s office threatened them with a $3.7-million fine. After members of MTA settled for several thousand dollars in restitution and a few hundred hours of community service, former city attorney Carmen Trutanich asked for a civil injunction against MTA and its future members, which gave authorities the right to treat graffiti crews as gangs. In her statement Trutanich said, “We must use all available legal tools to stop this vandalism, which taggers refer to as ‘wrecking,’ and which blights our neighborhoods and diverts scarce resources from other community uses, such as parks, libraries, and fire protection.” Today the graffiti abatement squad makes regular visits to the Arts District, its paint rollers smothered in beige primer, and police and developers shoo vagabonds from the unloved warehouses that are being converted into multi-million-dollar apartment buildings.

In a 2008 interview with L.A. Taco, Galo shared his feelings about L.A.: “I hate the overpopulated streets, the congestion, the noisiness, the pretentiousness, the Hollywood image and celebrity status, the ‘too cool’ attitude, the dog-eat-dog mentality, how failure is found in every corner, the diversity, how our streets weren’t built for our traffic, the unjust laws, the stupidity of gangs. I hate the griminess, the art scene, the graff scene. I hate me being in L.A. and hate L.A. being in me.” Galo moved out of the Arts District in ’98 after the Northridge earthquake, but he remains a member of the community, even though it isn’t the home he once knew. But maybe by staying in the Arts District and by doing this tour Galo can share stories of his neighborhood with the people who are moving in and redecorating, and maybe he can help them see and appreciate graffiti the way he does.

As Galo and I stood on a street corner, a pair of bicycle-mounted rent-a-cops coasted by and slowed down to check out my tour guide, his face hidden behind a gnarled black beard and thick black sunglasses, with a flat-brimmed baseball cap pulled down to his brow. If Galo noticed them he didn’t show it, and he carried on telling me about the cultural differences between individuals who identify as graffiti artists—artists who are usually from the community, who are typically recognized by a respected crew, and who are accustomed to “scraping pieces” or acquiring spray cans by whatever means necessary— and individuals who identify as street artists, who more often than not come from privileged neighborhoods and are able to spend thousands of dollars on scissor lifts and palettes of Montana cans.

Galo quickly ran me through the unique traditions and terminology of the graffiti and street art communities. He started, “Crews are kind of the fraternities of the streets, like a chess club or the Mickey Mouse Club,” and explained can control, which judges how cleanly and stylishly one uses a spray can, and buff jobs, which are cover-ups done by graffiti abatement or building owners. Throw-ups are tags with minimal detailing—simplified versions of pieces, or masterpieces—and a mural is a large production that involves multiple pieces and characters. A landmark is a tag in a hard-to-reach spot so that it doesn’t get buffed out. A sticky side is when an artist uses an ultra-wide marker to draw on a sticker’s adhesive, then slams the sticker on a window. An installation is a three-dimensional sculpture made of whatever, and wheatpaste is a century-old technique of using water, sugar, and flour to glue posters to walls. Galo told me that graffiti artists will use paint rollers for backgrounds, but for the main art they refuse to rely on projectors or tape guides, and use can control to follow the outline of bricks or cinder blocks.

We stopped in front of “Save the Bunny/Salt Lick,” a mural by NYC street artist Adam Dare, done in collaboration with Phoenix-based artist MadMan, Brooklyn-based artist Outersource, and L.A.’s Kwue Molly. Galo told me the mural was defaced not once but twice by local graffiti artists, until Dare collaborated with respected Brooklyn graffiti artist ewok, who did the lettering on the bottom of the woman’s dress, and the mural hasn’t been touched since. “We have rules,” Galo said. “No one will dis a legit graffiti artist.”

On the wooden telephone pole next to the wall I noticed a metal 12-point star that looked to be made from an old pie tin, hammered flat, cut with tin snips, and secured to the poll with over 100 perfectly positioned carpentry nails. It’s one of many metal oddities created by 70-something-year-old street artist Blake Shane, and they’ve become so popular that less interesting artists are aping Shane’s style, which is why Shane carries with him a metal stamping punch that reads “A FAKE BLAKE.” Even weirder than Shane is Freeart Ramone, another 70-something-year-old street artist who carries glass Christmas ornaments filled with red paint and smashes them on the ground when he feels like it. Shane and Ramone are most definitely not graffiti artists, but their strange outlaw art has gained the respect of the graffiti community, and Galo and I agreed that their work is inspired and discussed as much whenever we came across a perfectly nailed tin or a red splat on the sidewalk.


We rode our Super73s down side streets and alleys, and we met residents of L.A. ‘s Skid Row, which borders the Arts District and is home to too many of the city’s 36,000 citizens experiencing homelessness. We stopped in front of “Soul Traveler,” a mural depicting astral projection by Carly Ealey, painted in 2017 with support from Hansen’s Soda. I assumed it wasn’t Galo’s taste, but he surprised me by saying that he liked Ealey’s willingness to put herself in her art and is impressed by her can control.

From there we went to an alley off 2nd Street to see the former “Shaolin Temple,” a warehouse that graffiti artists gradually usurped from squatters and turned into a tagging haven before property values skyrocketed. A 20-foot-tall tag on the side of the warehouse showcases L.A.’s signature “gangsta” lettering, and on the far end of the tag is a roll call, which lists the members of a crew or gang; the list starts with somos—or “we are”—with each name separated by three dots, or ma vida loca. At the opposite end of the alley is Hauser & Wirth, an art gallery and event space that opened in 2016, and on the side of the building is “No Way Home,” a massive blue-green drip mural by “L.A.’s most Instagrammable street artist,” Kim West. Galo said West rolled into the neighborhood one day on a scissor lift and painted a polar bear on the top-left corner of the building’s façade, and when Hauser & Wirth moved in it commissioned West to do a mural 20 times the size. Galo thinks the polar bear is all right but he can’t stand the long paint drips that West created without a spray can, because drips are synonymous with graffiti and street artists use the technique so that their paintings seem edgier. “I actually like her earlier work,” Galo said. “Her newer work seems a little contrived, like she is trying hard to be street.”

Galo and I rode down one block to the middle of Joel Bloom Square in the center of the Arts District, where we drank beer and considered the “Bloom” mural on the back of the L.A. Fire and Police Pension building, which the city commissioned from Oakland-based artist Hueman. The mural is a memorial to the late Joel Bloom, a community activist who in 1994 opened his General Store on Traction Avenue, who helped spearhead the establishment of the Arts District, and who is often remembered as the “unofficial mayor” of the neighborhood. As we discussed Bloom’s impact on the community, Galo mentioned a name I hadn’t heard before: Marc Kreisel.

A mentor of Galo’s, Kreisel was co-owner of The American Hotel, which is down the block from the former Bloom’s General Store. Opened in 1905 The American was the city’s first quality hotel for African-Americans, and in 1979 Kreisel and his partners bought the dilapidated building and slowly transformed it into an escape for artists and musicians. Kreisel envisioned the hotel as a “money pump” for the community, circulating cash between locals. In an L.A. Weekly article from 1985, Kriesel wrote, “It was a capitalistic endeavor to support the arts by itself—an alternative to the feds and the state and getting grants.” On the ground floor of the American was Al’s Bar, which became one of L.A.’s best punk clubs, featuring performances by Beck, Hole, Nirvana, Social Distortion, Sonic Youth, and more — “L.A.’s CBGB” is how Galo described it. When Kreisel sold the building in 2001, as a “fuck you” to the new developers he tore out the bar, ripped out the plumbing, and absolutely gutted the place.

According to Galo the parking lot next to the hotel is the last spot for “authentic” graffiti in the Arts District, so that’s where we went, and that’s where we met Joseph “NUKE” Montalvo. A longtime member of the 35-year-old graffiti crew UTI, Joseph is a fixture in the community and a well-spoken supporter of graffiti. He walked me around the small parking lot adjacent to The American Hotel and explained how through the years he and fellow artists have fought to keep the territory, then turned his attention to the mural on the side of the hotel. “Abuelita” is a collaboration between NUKE and two other L.A.-born graffiti artists, EL MAC and KOFIE; EL MAC painted a portrait of a Navajo blanket weaver, KOFIE painted the top of the mural with his signature shapes, and NUKE painted the bottom of the mural to honor the ghosts of L.A.’s indigenous people. Upon completing the mural in 2015, Joseph wrote, “There has always been an abuelita looking up and to the sky, praying for the souls that keep the night suspended above us. Its black cloak filled with stars, its green ghosts swirling in the early dawn air. Abuelita, grandmother of the arts, guide our souls to rejoice in the days we create. For we are the dawn, a dream becoming reality weaving our stories of the past. Weaving them into place, from order out of chaos, from plurality to singularity. A blanket carries so much weight. It holds our dreams. But do we often wonder who weaves the blanket, or what they were thinking? La abuelita, she thinks of us when she weaves. It is not so hard to imagine that God is a grandmother.”

Galo, Joseph, and I walked across the street to see another of NUKE’s collaborative projects, “Undiscovered America.” In 1992 L.A. was preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, and that didn’t sit well with NUKE and fellow members of Earth Crew 2000, a policultural group of more than 20 graffiti artists from different crews brought together by organizer and activist Helen Samuels. Earth Crew wanted to create a mural that commemorated the overlooked achievements of Native American nations and brought attention to “the greatness of the gifts of the Indigenous cultures that were not discovered by the Spanish conquerors.” Earth Crew received support from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and a commission from L.A.’s Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), and NUKE, Erick “DUKE” Montenegro, and Rogelio “ANGST” Cabral worked together to paint the stories of the Aztec, Chumash, Inca, Iroquois, Lakota, Mayan, Mohawk, and Tongva people. “Undiscovered America” was the first city-sponsored mural in the Arts District, and in 2018 the artists of Earth Crew reunited to restore the mural. After finishing the job, Joseph said, “It was hard to work on it again because the neighborhood has changed so much. I did it in the past for a neighborhood that was marginalized, I did it for the homeless people and the native people that would be coming to the social services department across the street … working at it now, it was almost like a defensive thing, so [people] don’t forget, because with all the changes of the area, the Arts District was starting to forget the Earth Crew wall. I’m not restoring it for myself, but for the people that paid a lot of dues so that this could be named the Arts District.”

Galo and I left Joseph and rode across the Arts District to The Container Yard, a heavily spray-painted “creative compound” and event space where we connected with Hector “SHANDU ONE” Calderon. In 1984 Hector helped form the “LA Bomb Squad” (LABS), which was the first crew to tag the infamous Belmont Tunnel, and Hector has been tagging since. His style evolved over the years, and now he paints with stencils that combine cubism with traditional graffiti art, with many of his geometric designs celebrating the curvaceous female form. “You want to be anonymous and be famous for it,” he told me as we walked the exterior of the building, where Hector has installed a series multi-color panels that look like stained glass, and once we made a lap of the building Hector opened the trunk of his car and pulled out a few big sheets of paper, some spray cans, and two of his stencils, which are made from foam-core “NO PARKING” signs. He let a sheet of paper fall to the pavement, tossed a stencil on top of it, and right there he created original artwork for me to take home.

That was it, the end of L.A. Art Tours graffiti and mural tour, which welcomed me into a vibrant, deep-rooted creative community and showed me how its history is being buffed out by gentrification. L.A. is a fragmented city of social inequalities, an estuary of tradition and modernity that creates a brackish tension between lifetime Angelinos and out-of-towners drawn to the city’s siren song. If they can coexist anywhere in the city, it’s in the Arts District, because while the area is being reformed to look like the inside of Restoration Hardware, its locals are fighting to preserve as much of its past as possible. Galo, Hector, and Joseph are community advocates who are also graffiti artists, and they believe the perpetuation of graffiti will help keep local traditions from being snuffed out completely. Even if the city and real-estate developers spend thousands of dollars to keep walls clean of graffiti, artists like MAKE, SHANDU ONE, and NUKE won’t stop tagging, because it’s who they are and it’s what they love. Only toys retire.