Having grown up together painting, REVOK and SABER continue to evolve together as friends, individually as artists, and as advocates for the medium that gave them both an identity and put them on their current path. Their recent show at Known Gallery in Los Angeles was a reunion for the painting partners who’d been painting collaborative walls together since ’97. The energy between the two men is like kids, with their own language, unspoken understanding, and, when painting together, the apparent ability to read each other’s minds.
The Los Angeles graffiti scene that spawned these towering talents has a long lineage and draws from multiple sources. SABER explains, “I think what makes LA unique is that we had the almost hundred year old gang writing culture that formed the typeface for us to build from. So our form is a mix of old school New York train mixing it with gang Southern Californian hand styles and it created a new font, a new style that hadn’t been explored yet. I think that’s what makes what we’re doing really interesting, is that we had a whole other form of writing that influenced us. Then you had all the other cultures taking part at the same time, skateboarding, surfing, street wear, gang culture, punk, everyone was doing it, but everyone also loved to write on a wall.”
Graffiti bears the weight of these subcultures, which are all born out of creativity and frustration, as well as a shared reason for inception. The most evident purpose of a tag is the simple statement “I am”, as is true of all invention and conception. “It’s a human experience, which is the need to fucking write on something.” SABER maintains, “That’s all it comes down to, is the will to write on something. It’s a very addictive feeling because it’s necessity. You exist. When you drive by in a car, and you see your name written on a wall and your friends give you a high five for it, when you’re young, you’ve built a sense of identity. That’s important.”
Over more than two decades REVOK and SABER have painted thousands upon thousands of pieces that no longer exist, and both artists continue to struggle with graffiti’s natural enemy, impermanence. “Especially being a graffiti artist in Los Angeles, the forces against you are trying to erase everything you do.” REVOK laughs as he continues, “A kid that goes out to paint graffiti here, they paint a piece and it lasts two weeks that’s a victory. The work that SABER and I are focusing on these days, we’re trying to make works that will out live us and tell our story generations after we’re gone.” Not satisfied to rest on the names that they built up, layer after layer, on walls and trains, they continue to evolve, carrying that legacy into the future. Both artists continue to, as REVOK says, “Keep the movement moving.”
The work that both are invested in today is similar in intent, but incredibly different in medium and context. REVOK’s latest body of work, entitled “Gilgamesh” is technically based off a collage style he started playing with in Miami a few years ago, and has been refining ever since. Emotionally REVOK’s work is entrenched in his recent relocation to the abandoned motor city, Detroit. As a graffiti writer, REVOK had carried his cans into a space to leave a piece. In his work today he goes in with a crowbar and comes out with elements to repurpose for his works, which are collages made up of thousands of tiny pieces of signs, walls, and items he collects from the ruins of the once booming American city.
The Detroit Beautification Project. Chapter 1 from TheSeventhLetter.
That same adventurous spirit and natural curiosity, which led him to climb a billboard on a ten story rooftop, is present as REVOK excavates, “Going into abandoned schools, hospitals, police stations, courthouses, convenience stores, mom and pop hardware stores. It’s an entire abandoned city, having that to explore and draw from, you end up learning so much about the buildings. So much has been discarded and you might bump into somebody who grew up around the corner and knew the owners and will tell you about the place and why it’s in the state it’s in. All of these little fragments of peoples lives, all these stories, all the triumphs, the tragedies, and every aspect of humanity. We leave behind all these things that we don’t even pay that much attention to, but they absorb our energy and absorb our life. We imprint on all these things. The buildings that we build, these physical manifestations have traces of our lives, all of our conflict and struggles on them and, each one of those pieces is now part of a bigger piece. I really enjoy that, learning about that and putting them all together.”
Detroit has embraced the L.A. native, even the police officers, seeing REVOK painting a mural, stop to shake his hand. In Detroit cops thank him for bringing some hope and inspiration to their community. REVOK became LAPD’s public enemy number one when he was arrested for a small unpaid fine after the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Arts exhibit, “Art in the Streets”. Having once been told that their objective was to bankrupt him, by the LAPD, REVOK has been overwhelmed at the sincere appreciation from the community, including police officers, in Detroit. With such a robust welcome REVOK began the “Detroit Beautification Project” where he invited some of the artists he admires to come paint and bring some color to an area that no one else is paying much attention to.
Graffiti as a gift rather than a curse is a common thread between both artists, as SABER’s latest collection, aptly named “Beautification”, attests. Themes of the struggle for identity, immortality through paint, trailblazing, city government’s policies, and buffing are explored in this hyper realistic tome to graffiti. Whether it’s the city worker rolling out the colorful wall, or spraying the bright tags down the gutter, the pieces are rendered in such detail and thoughtfulness that you feel the sadness of seeing the removal process, even in the context of a piece of art, hanging in a gallery. With a mind open enough to see and incorporate “the other side”, SABER reflects, “I think we represent an uncontrollable factor that they don’t understand. Some people don’t follow the creative spirit, or understand the creative path, so they don’t understand why we do this. Therefore it’s easy for them to write us off as a nuisance or something that should not exist, because there’s not a necessity in their minds. But that’s the beauty of art, is that we all find our own way and we do it because we have to. This is part of my life.”
His commitment to his work has propelled SABER into paying attention to politics and policies in ways he couldn’t have conceived in his early days. Artists draw from their life experiences, and as SABER battled with his own health issues, he has epilepsy, which is a preexisting condition and is therefore uninsurable; he’s become a vocal advocate for universal health care. SABER’s “Tarnished” series and “American Graffiti” solo show brought attention and some notoriety to his cause, as he was working with the US flag, which to some is a crime in itself. His defense of his Constitutional rights to paint in public spaces, led him to fight the LA City Council’ Mural Moratorium on the only turf LAPD couldn’t arrest him, the sky. It was like watching an invisible can bomb bursts of white spray onto the seamless blue sky over Los Angeles’s City Hall. With the hash tag ART IS NOT A CRIME, SABER electrified the city and mobilized the art community.
SABER’s passion is so clearly expressed in his work and as easy to hear, “My personal path at the moment is to form more of the art side, the esoteric side, the thinking side, the story side of what we went through for the last twenty years, to me that’s where the future lies. Without the story you don’t have a legend, you don’t have a myth. You have to create the story for people to understand what we were doing. If we were just a weird little group of artists, it wouldn’t mean much to the bigger picture. But this is a worldwide movement, in every city in the world, that all happens at the same time. It’s pretty wild when you think about it; that we can go to any city in the world and understand each others language without knowing each other and go into a cityscape and understand what it offers and what its’ traps are just by looking at the graffiti. Where they are in their thinking. Where they are advancing as a society. Where they are in their accessibility of materials. Where they are in political strife. Those are a lot of things to read on a wall and to have that gift is something that I really take pride in.”
Well aware of the struggles and challenges that surround them, neither of them take for granted how fortunate they are, SABER articulated it with the same poetry that’s in his work, “Not everyone gets to follow their hearts path and win.”
To follow the evolution got to revok1.com and saberone.com.