In the age of commissioned wall murals and trendy street art, it’s easy to forget graffiti’s complicated and often violent past in the United States. Though graffiti has become one of the most influential art forms of the twenty-first century, cities across the United States waged a war against it from the late 1970s to the early 2000s, complete with brutal police task forces. Who were the vilified taggers they targeted? Teenagers, usually, from low-income neighborhoods with little to their names except a few spray cans and a desperate need to be seen—to mark their presence on city walls and buildings even as their cities turned a blind eye to them.
Going All City is the mesmerizing and painful story of these young graffiti writers, told by one of their own. Prolific LA writer Stefano Bloch came of age in the late 1990s amid constant violence, poverty, and vulnerability. He recounts vicious interactions with police; debating whether to take friends with gunshot wounds to the hospital; coping with his mother’s heroin addiction; instability and homelessness; and his dread that his stepfather would get out of jail and tip his unstable life into full-blown chaos. But he also recalls moments of peace and exhilaration: marking a fresh tag; the thrill of running with his crew at night; exploring the secret landscape of LA; the dream and success of going all city.
Bloch holds nothing back in this fierce, poignant memoir. Going All City is an unflinching portrait of a deeply maligned subculture and an unforgettable account of what writing on city walls means to the most vulnerable people living within them.
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A Night Out
I woke up at 1:00 a.m. to the beeping of a cheap alarm clock and the green glow it cast over the Krylon spray-paint cans stacked in a pyramid against the wall. I pressed the off-button and started tapping on the others' shoes to wake them.
All-night bombing missions usually started from my house. Even if my mom woke up as we were leaving, she wouldn't say anything for fear she wouldn't be seen as the cool mom. Cool described those parents, almost always single mothers, who didn't care, didn't let on that they cared, were checked out on drugs, or relished the attention they received from wayward teens who usually referred to them as "Mom."
Arest, whose real name was Ignacio, had his feet wrapped in a towel. Before falling asleep, we had made him put his smelly Nike Cortez shoes on the balcony. Arest was our reluctant comic relief. He always seemed to appear from out of nowhere and got around by hitching a ride on the back bumper of the city bus, holding onto the grill with his left hand. He was free-range before that term was applied to kids, and even after years of friendship, none of us had ever met his family. The Under Ground Kings (TUGK) had become a full crew since recruiting Tolse. After he got in, he brought Lyric and Beto into the crew, and they brought a few friends of their own. Most of us lived in gang neighborhoods and had older brothers in gangs, but we were each looking for something different. With a fully-fledged crew, we could finally function on our own, without the drama of gang affiliation.
This particular night of bombing would be casual. Each of us took four cans of paint from the pyramid — two in our waistband and one in each pocket of our oversized Starter jacket or hooded sweatshirt. The pyramid shape ensured that no one took more than his fair share, as one missing can would distort the entire formation. We planned to walk from where I lived in Panorama City at the time, up Van Nuys Boulevard, and into Pacoima. A distance of three miles that seemed so far. The route was dangerous because of gangsters and cops, but by the time we made it to the main boulevard a bit after 2:00 a.m., the strip clubs and bars would be closed, and the cops would be busy patrolling for DUIs. By the time we reached the Pacoima Housing Projects around 3:00 a.m., even the most diehard gangsters would be back in their apartments asleep.
There were too many of us to access any one high-profile spot, so we decided to just catch tags on both sides of the street as we walked. Working in pairs, one partner would act as the main lookout, and the other would be the principal writer, who would of course hit up his lookout's name. Inevitably, this caused an unstated battle between Tolse and me. He would be on his side of the street with his sidekick, Arest, and I would be hitting spots on my side of the street with Smoke, a guy who had just gotten into the crew and was happy to be anyone's sidekick.
As we walked, we rarely spoke. The idea of walking down the street wearing headphones and listening to music was strange to us. We couldn't afford such blissful wandering where we lived. We were constantly scanning the streets for certain cars or listening for certain sounds, acutely attuned to our surroundings. It seems like everyone I have seen arrested, beaten, or killed over the years had been "caught slippin'," unaware of danger until it was too late. Posttraumatic stress was good for one thing at least: it kept us on our toes.
Tolse and I were the most prolific of our crew, which had about twelve members at the time. Tolse was notably good looking, even to a bunch of teenage guys who were reluctant to acknowledge such things. He also got teased for not looking Mexican, as did Arest, who was Mexican but got teased for looking Armenian. Years later, all the guys in our crew learned that Tolse was actually Peruvian. We didn't really know what that meant, but we made fun of him for it. Tolse also got teased for the small black mole at the inside corner of his left eye. We called it his chocolitio — Spanglish for his "little chocolate." We were best friends, spending every day together from the moment we met in another friend's driveway.
When we met he asked me what I was. I knew he meant what was my race or ethnicity, or maybe more generally where I was born, but I wasn't offended. It was an honest question.
"My mom speaks Spanish, but she's Italian."
"Oh," he said, "so you're not, like, really white, right?"
"Ya," I said, and it never came up again.
I was always "from here," which meant American. But my uncles, the guys standing in front of their low-riders and sporting pompadours in pictures from the 1970s that hung on my maternal grandmother's wall, told me I was a "true Latino," which meant "not white" but "definitely not black." I was not white when it kept me from getting jumped, but I was sometimes just "sort of white." Sometimes I was "Chicano" by way of a wanting and wayward father, but mostly I was "Italian," which allowed me to distinguish myself from other kinds of whiteness, yet still included that historical otherness that comprised my mother's side of the family: part-Jewish, North African by way of Sicily. No one ever made fun of me, because I was too ambiguous for any good jokes or stereotypes. I had green eyes and black hair with olive skin and a muscular build. I was whatever anyone wanted me to be. But first and foremost, I was a graffiti writer.
Aside from when we were ripping on each other, race didn't come up that often. Sure, we were aware of racism as a vague concept, but, on a day-to-day basis, it was our identity as writers that dominated our every conversation and our worldview. If anything, it was white people who had a race, whereas the rest of us identified by what we did and how we lived our lives.
When vigilantes chased us, it was because we were writers. When guys from MS13 beat us down or pulled guns on us, it was because we were writers. When people crossed the street to avoid us, it was because we were writers. When teachers kicked us out of their classrooms or clerks followed us down the aisles of their convenience stores, it was because we were writers. Even when cops threw us on the hoods of their cars to search us after jaywalking or during minor traffic stops, crushing our fingers and breathing their hot breath and insults into our faces, we thought it was because we were writers.
That night, Smoke was lookout. He stood on the curb looking down the street for square headlights, which would signal an oncoming early-90s model Ford Crown Victoria police car. I was hitting every sandstone light pole on the northbound side of the street. On the other side, Tolse was using his lanky frame, acrobatic prowess, and strength to quickly climb atop metal gates and write on awnings, shinny up drain pipes to catch tags fifteen feet above the sidewalk, and pull himself up gated access ladders to hit rooftops and building facades. For every three light poles I hit, he would catch ten tags. He went for saturation, whereas as I was forced to gain fame for repetition. I had to have a gimmick to compete with his prolificacy.
His lookout was nowhere near as good as mine — not that Tolse needed one, with his stealth and speed. Arest kept catching his own tags on bus-stop shelters and white walls when he was supposed to be looking out. Smoke, in his oversized Chicago Bulls jacket and Malcolm X glasses and hat, never strayed from his role and never seemed to care if I hit him up at all. At times, it seemed as if he went on these bombing missions simply because he had nothing else to do and no-where else to go. His brothers were Crips who lived in South Central, he used to tell us, but we never knew anything else about him.
Years later, a few of us from the crew would realize we never even knew where Smoke lived or how we had met him. He just showed up one day. This night of bombing would be the last time any of us saw him again, aside from one possible sighting years later, when Lyric, one of the heads of our crew, thought he saw him playing basketball on a crowded court in the park. Lyric joked that Smoke had returned to the safety of the hood after thinking he saw me get killed.
NAVIGATING THE CITY
Whatever apartment my family lived in at the time became the kickback spot. Guys like Arest would stay for days and sometimes weeks at a time, whereas others typically showed up on school days around 9:00 a.m., just after checking into homeroom and jumping the fence to leave. Female crew members, who were more likely to stay in school and have some sort of domestic commitment during the week, showed up with overnight bags for long weekends. Those who had already dropped or aged out of school usually slept in and showed up later in the day. We didn't have jobs, responsibilities, or rules; our motivations were fame and adventure.
Going all city meant perfecting certain rituals. Before going out painting, we had to stock up on supplies and hone our skills. We stole markers — Mean Streaks, Sakuras, Pilots, Uni-balls, drippers, and Ultrawides. We sat in circles practicing our writing styles in sketchbooks and personalizing our JanSport backpacks. We made fake bus passes and traveled to faraway hardware stores to steal spray paint. We were constantly looking to come up on Thomas Bros. atlases; we'd mark them up and tear out their pages so they'd be more portable as we navigated the city. We would spend our evenings cataloging and stacking our paint, cleaning our tips in nail-polish remover, and studying old maps to identify new neighborhoods.
We had a system by which we would look for parts of the city that were accessible by bus after 10:00 p.m., identify particular routes, and then trace that route to meet up with another bus line that would take us back home again as the sun came up. Next to the opened atlas would be bus schedules and transit maps for every line in the sixty-mile city of LA. Even with such meticulous planning, we had to walk as many as five miles a night. The chaotic scribbling, as people interpreted it, was practiced, purposefully placed, and planned well in advance.
We had to contend with more than just distance when we went out bombing. We had to know when, for example, club-goers in Hollywood would cause 2:30 a.m. traffic jams, when bread and newspaper delivery trucks would make their way from the industrial districts of South and East LA to the residential districts of the Westside via Caesar Chavez, Atlantic, or Western. We had to navigate surface-street traffic that usually lasted until well after 11:00 p.m. and started up again soon after 4:00 a.m. From not a minute sooner than 3:00 a.m. until not a minute later than 3:59 a.m. was the sweet spot, when the streets in LA were the most desolate. Accessing and hitting big spots with large and sometimes brightly filled-in letters that took time to complete had to be done during that one hour of relative calm. The hours leading up to 3:00 a.m. and after 4:00 a.m. could be reserved for catching quicker tags when there would be shorter lulls in the stream of traffic.
During that hour, there were also fewer police cars and helicopters patrolling the neighborhoods where we wrote. When the gangbangers, drug dealers, prostitutes, and johns went in for the night, the cops would take a break from their constant surveillance and return to the station for shift changes. Homeless people were still in the industrial and commercial areas, but they never posed a problem for us. They usually watched us with a disinterested curiosity from their sleeping bags or from under layers of cardboard as we accessed spaces along freeways and under bridges.
One danger remained, however: concerned citizens and vigilantes, whom we called heroes, who kept the same hours as us. Heroes — almost always middle-aged white guys — drove and walked around the city with an air of threatening confidence and ownership. They sometimes proved to be perverts and predators, but most often they were simply on the lookout for something, anything — and were emboldened by the sight of wrongdoing.
When I was in high school one of my crewmates and best friends, Beto, had a problem with a local writer from another crew called CFK. I can't remember what those letters stood for or what the beef was about, but I do remember walking up to this guy who wrote "Insta" and telling him to leave Beto alone. I wasn't a tough guy, but my notoriety as a writer carried all the weight I needed to be listened to. The next night Insta was dead. One of those vigilantes, William Masters, shot Cesar Rene "Insta" Arce in the back as he finished writing his name on a freeway underpass at around 3:00 in the morning. Masters had been discharged from the military and was carrying an unlicensed handgun in his fanny pack when he killed the teenager and shot Insta's friend in the back as well, but Masters was not charged. Rather, he was celebrated by some members of law enforcement, the media, and the local community as a "do-gooder," "observant neighbor," and "white knight" for combating graffiti and the "Mexican skinheads" who painted it.
Guys like Masters were a greater threat to us than the police or gangsters. There was always the possibility that they would see us accessing a spot, such as the roof of a building or a freeway bridge, and come after us, encouraged by the fact that the law was on their side, regardless of how lawlessly or violently they acted.
Getting on rooftops was already risky, even without vigilantes like Masters. It was not much different from breaking and entering as a burglar, although instead of taking things, we left things behind. On the rooftops, along the freeways, and under bridges, we felt safe, even with all the detritus left behind by drug addicts and drunks. Being on rooftops, like standing on billboards or high up on freeway signs, was the most peaceful part of bombing. These out-of-the-way spaces gave us refuge and stillness. We were able to let our guards down and, if we were up high enough, we could look out over the city and sit in relative silence against its dull hum.
There were times when Tolse and I would get up on a rooftop and suddenly lose the urge to paint. After walking across tar and gravel roofs, carefully stepping over utility lines running through zinc and copper pipes and around air-conditioning units, vents, and skylights, we would line up our cans along adjacent walls, slink down, and sit. Sweating, out of breath, and often bleeding from scratches and cuts suffered when climbing over barbed wire or through thick brush, we would start to talk.
Tolse was quiet except during these times, when he felt secure. We would talk about places we wanted to live and how great it would be to build a house that no one could tell us to leave. It was during one of these moments that he told me he missed his dad, whom he had barely met, and about how he was scared and ashamed to live in the projects. His eyes filled with tears when he described how he couldn't go home during certain hours because he would get jumped in the complex's courtyard, but if he stayed on the boulevard, the cops would throw him against the wall and rip his shirt. One time he told me his goal was to find a quiet place to read. He knew the names of a few Greek philosophers, the famous ones, and he wanted their books. It was also on a rooftop where I found out that Tolse's mom was from Lima. I didn't reveal his interest in Greek philosophy, but I couldn't wait to tell everyone that Tolse was Peruvian. It was pure comedy, whereas everything else was straight tragedy.
By 3:00 a.m., we were only a block from the Interstate 5 Freeway overpass at Van Nuys Boulevard, the invisible boundary between Panorama City and Pacoima. Panorama City was one of the most crime-ridden and impoverished parts of LA and the site of the largest fires and the only National Guard presence in the San Fernando Valley during the 1992 riot. Still, Pacoima, a mixed industrial and residential neighborhood on the northern edge of the Valley, was far worse in terms of everyday street violence. It was a deep hood, where gangbangers patrolled with apparent impunity and did their part to make LA's homicide rates one of the highest in the country.
Pacoima's tiny airport, seemingly endless supply of auto-body shops, salvage yards, and clusters of nondescript warehouses made it seem somehow both threatening and empty at night. The fear of crime in the area was as detrimental to our well-being as actual incidents of violence. Anyone out on the streets of Pacoima after dark had to be up to no good, so everybody avoided everybody. The reality about violent crime, though, is that people hurt their own: those they love, those they hate, those they are related to, those they have dinner with, pray with, study with, have sex with, those they do business with, whether legally or illegally, and those they live with. As a result, intraracial violence like "black on black" crime is real. About 89 percent of black victims of homicide are killed by black perpetrators. But what about "white on white" crime? It's real, too, though almost never mentioned in the same breath, if at all. White people kill and get killed by other white people at just about the same rate. This isn't because of some sort of intraracial and race-based hostility within either group. It is because of race-based urban development and histories of segregation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Going All City"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
1 A Night Out
2 The Under Ground Kings
3 Getting In
5 Where We Stayed
6 Left Behind
8 Small World
9 Kids Rulin’ Society
11 All City
12 Can’t Be Stopped
List of Gangs, Crews, and Groups