I always thought of graffiti as vandalism until Rick and I visited some Eastern European countries and I saw it along walls as our train passed by. It was often stunning, beautiful, vibrant with colors, shape, and form, even if I couldn’t understand the words. This graffiti wasn’t a letter and numbers spray-painted in haste, but took thought, time, and talent. It wasn’t all beautiful, of course, but much of it was better than some of the “modern art” I’d seen in museums.
While having our house painted, one of the young men on our crew came into my office and noticed some of my notes on graffiti. He said he’d been a homeboy and tagger for a cartel. I launched into a list of questions and we had several lengthy conversations. He mentioned Banksy, one of his idols, a notorious, unidentified graffiti artist who has left work in the UK, Europe, the Middle East, and US. I took a look at his work, read a few books, bought Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Graffiti is nothing new. Archaeologists have found it in ludi where gladiators were trained and housed. It’s come of age. Graffiti seems to be hitting the mainstream with movie stars and investors buying it at warehouse shows.
Who are these artists? Where do they come from? What are they saying to us? Those were questions that birthed my character Bobby Ray Dean, the mixed-race child of a Tenderloin prostitute, a boy filled with anger, sorrow, confusion, unable to bond because everyone he loves ends up dead. Bobby Ray Dean, the gang tagger, morphs into a graffiti artist with a voice and then turns into the alter ego, Roman Velasco, a rising star in the art world who doubts his own talent, but instinctively knows the market well enough to make himself rich.
They say art is in the eye of the beholder. In my opinion, graffiti can be stunning, evocative, valuable in more than monetary ways. It is communication in art form, and you don’t have to buy a ticket to see it. Bobby Ray Dean came alive for me and went on a journey, dragging me along, sometimes unwillingly, to painful places I didn’t want to go. He went from hit-and-run graffiti to speaking his mind with cans of spray paint to canvas work that was good enough to catch the attention of a museum curator. It took several drafts and months of work, and plenty of writer’s angst.
Ultimately, God gets His point across. It’s never about the work, but the life in the palm of His loving, almighty, all-creative hand.