The Graffiti Gangsters Who Became World-Class Artists
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s a story about art you’ve likely not heard before.
By Seth Ferranti
To artists like Big Sleeps, who grew up in the Pico-Union neighborhood in Los Angeles during the ’80s and ’90s when gangbanging was at its height, gang graffiti, prison tattoos and getting shot were part of the program. The artist, who honed his gangster style in the penitentiary slinging ink for ramen noodles, is one of the more well-known practitioners of the art form known as barrio — a style of L.A. graffiti that juxtaposes street art, fine art and pop art. Big Sleeps is just one of the artists featured in Dark Progressivism, a new documentary that explores the evolution of barrio art in the City of Angels by Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre.
Decades of history have been recorded in graffiti, lettering and murals on the city’s walls and buildings. Through interviews with artists, ex–gang members and police investigators, Dark Progressivism gives insight into how the art form developed, evolved and came to prominence. An ex–gang member, the filmmaker says he created the film out of a sense of duty to accurately depict the influence of street gang organizations on contemporary art. Several world-renowned tattoo artists “came from the same social disorganization of streets gangs the way I did,” Ribera d’Ebre explains. “Someone needed to tell our story using real-world experience from an ethnographic perspective. I felt that someone should be me.”
Harsh, yet beautiful. Dangerous, but based in reality. A nod back to prison and the criminality that led there.
Barrio art evolved from a combination of gang graffiti and Mexican religious paintings. It combines both the distinct letterings common in tattoos and the vibrant imagery of the Catholic faith, but with a Southern Cali vato loco twist: lowriders, flannel shirts and wifebeaters. Harsh, yet beautiful. Dangerous, but based in reality. A nod back to prison and the criminality that led there.
The first street gang graffiti tags — cement carvings in the 1930s — were “a form of resistance and regional nationalism,” Ribera d’Ebre explains. Next came homemade tattoo guns, and by the ’70s, several organizations and artists worked with gang members in public housing projects throughout the city “to create murals to beautify neighborhoods, show solidarity and promote gang peace efforts.” By the 1980s, Ribera d’Ebre notes, cholo-style tattoos, murals and gang graffiti exploded in Los Angeles, but it was still considered criminal. Nowadays, barrio has become a major attraction in mural festivals, lettering workshops and tattoo conventions all over the planet, with many LA artists at the movement’s heart.
Through the stories of artists like Big Sleeps and Alex “Defer” Kizu, who calls his work a sort of “spiritual language,” the film explores the attitude behind the art and intricacies of the gang lifestyle that impacted their work. Defer talks about processing death as a 15-year-old, and Big Sleeps relates how his homeboys were killing each other over writing on a wall.
“This type of art has shaped me, given me life and helped me find purpose,” Ribera d’Ebre says. The films shows how social disorganization and ills — such as drugs, prison, violence, recidivism and death — are a direct response to the environment and social conditions from which the gang artists emerged.
Dark Progressivism is currently being screened at film festivals, including Berlin and Milan, in October and November.
- Seth Ferranti Contact Seth Ferranti