Featured Artist Chaka
Those who grew up in the Los Angeles area in the late eighties probably remember the name “Chaka” appearing across every six o’clock news station. Not the land of the lost Chaka (though he did take his name form the popular seventies TV show), but one of the most famous (or infamous depending who you ask) graffiti artists in Los Angeles History.
At one point, the LAPD claimed that Chaka had written his name over 10,000 times across nearly every district in Los Angeles and caused an estimated $500,000 in property damage. His moniker could be seen on buildings, street signs, and even freeway over passes through out the LA area. The fire storm this ignited with the media caused Chaka’s name to be broadcast on every news station as a symbol of the downfall of modern culture. As a result, kids across the Los Angeles area took up spray cans and graffiti culture in Los Angeles spread like wildfire.
We caught up with Chaka as he was preparing for his solo show at Mid City Arts Gallery to find out the truth from the rumors about what happened, what he’s been up to, and set the record straight.
NB: So I read you had put something like ten thousand tags in the early nineties. Is that an accurate number.
Chaka: No I had more than ten thousand tags. Mainly in the year of 1989 I’d do several hundred tags a night. I was out there every single night, so over the course of 365 days it adds up to way over ten thousand.
NB: How long were you doing that?
Chaka: Mainly 89-90.
NB: And it was getting arrested that stopped you?
Chaka: Yeah, getting my face plastered all over the news is what really did it. I couldn’t go anywhere anymore because the police had files on me everywhere.
NB: How old were you at the time.
Chaka: I was 18 when I got caught.
NB: What was that scene like back then.
Chaka: It was just about getting your name out there. While everyone else was doing connection letters (wild style tags) I was doing a print style that was really legible and you could see it far away. You could walk down the street and see “Chaka” thirty times on each block all over LA. It was really a staggering amount of work.
NB: were you just addicted to getting up?
Chaka: Yeah. Curbs, street poles rooftops, whatever. I got to a point where everyone was sick of my name
NB: How would you explain why you do it to someone unfamiliar with graffiti
Chaka: I did it to keep everyone guessing. Where I might do it next. I wanted to get LA anticipated about what I was going to do next. It was like the invisible man that left his mark.
NB: What were the spots you were most proud of?
Chaka: The back of freeway signs. That was still pretty new at the time. I did those big block letter you could see from far away.
NB: So where have you been all this time?
Chaka: In 1999 I moved to Las Vegas and stayed there for 8 years.
NB: Was it hard for you to stop tagging all of a sudden.
Chaka: No, once the law knows who you are you can’t really do it like you did before.
NB: Did you ever actually get locked up?
Chaka: Yeah, at the time when I was 18 I had to spend some time in jail.
NB: I read something about you taggin up the court room and the court house during your hearing. Is that true?
Chaka: Well I’m known for basic print, but that tag that was in the court room was connection style letters and there’s another name right above that. So if you’re able to read the writing on the wall you’re able to tell who did it. I never did connection style lettering, so I wouldn’t say it’s someone else and I wouldn’t say it’s me. Like I said, if you can read the writing on the wall you know who did it.
NB: When you were doing this it was still an underground thing right?
Chaka: When I was doing graffiti in 1989 it was right on the edge of turning into a big thing. That’s why the media chose to make an example out of what I was doing.
NB: So they were using you to explain what was happening at the time?
Chaka: Yeah, more like the damage it was causing. But they really caused the culture to happen. When they made me an example graffiti exploded. All of a sudden graffiti was the thing to do and everybody wanted to get on the six o’clock news and be like Chaka.
NB: All lot of kids who got started in that time and little after, became the graffiti artists that are now in galleries and have become professional artists.
Chaka: there was some of that going on back then, but the main thing was about getting your name out there.
NB: How do you feel about going from doing this on the back of a freeways sign to doing it in a gallery?
Chaka: I wouldn’t do another gallery show in LA. Maybe a year from now I might do another show, but not in LA. Maybe in Frisco or Vegas.
NB: What made you decide to come out of hiding and do a show after all these years?
Chaka: I guess it was just time since I know make a living out of spray painting art.
NB: Have you mostly been doing commercial art up in Bakersfield.
Chaka: Yeah, I do a lot of businesses. Hair Salons, Ice Cream Trucks, Ghetto Mini Markets, Restaurant.
NB: How do you feel about working in a gallery vs out on the street?
Chaka: Graffiti will always have the feeling that your getting away with something. You can’t get that rush from gallery work because it’s not illegal. But you know your making an impact and getting yourself out there for people to see you. This is a little different for
NB: Do you ever get up using a different name?
Chaka: No, never. I’m Chaka and I’ll be Chaka till I die.
NB: What do you think is happening these days with graffiti that you like?
Chaka: There’s to sides to graffiti these days. You have the illegal aspect and you have the commercial part. The commercial part is good because it pays your bills and puts food on the table. It’s good because you’re still using the can, you’re still doing what you love. You still wake up with your cans, you still go to sleep with your cans. It’s still you.
For me personally, I can’t let go of the can. When I go inside a graffiti supply store I feel like a kid in Toys R Us. It’s just me. I’m like a walking spray can. So yeah, my thumbs are up for commercial graffiti.
Then again you have another aspect which isn’t really graffiti, but I think the future of graffiti is a generation of spray paint artists that have never done it illegally. They’ll either learn it through schools, backyards, or just working on canvas.
NB: That brings up an interesting question. There are some people out there who would say that you just write your name on a wall and graffiti isn’t really art. What do you think about that?
Chaka: Yeah they call them taggers. I don’t really like the word “tagger”. The media came up with that name. You have people who are “bombing”, which is tags or bubble letters or basic block print letters. Then you have graffiti artists who can do murals or really artistic types of work. (At the time I was in the news) I wasn’t mixing my art with my bombing. You can walk down a street and see a piece and maybe it’s nice work, but it’s the bombing that gets everyone hyped up.
Right now the focus in LA is on piece work (more artistic pieces), getting up some colorful art. Which is good because it gives everyone a season to practice their skills. So hopefully if and when they do go out bombing they’ll have some skill when they do it.
You still have some who are strictly into bombing, but but their skill doesn’t really improve. It’s just really basic and illegible. But when you have bombing with skill it stands out above the rest. When you travel by the side of the freeway it all look basically about the same skill level. You got semi-whack, semi-good, and so-so. But how about some stuff that just shits on everybody?
NB: That’s a good point, because a lot of what you’re known for is stuff you did nearly twenty years ago. Should we expect to see more of that or are you doing something different now?
Chaka: I’m still going to bomb it up, but I’m going to use imagery with it. I don’t want to give to much away, you have to come see the show to find out. My things is walls and more walls. Even though it’s not on the street it’s still my name.
NB: Are you excited to see Graffiti get bigger?
Chaka: Yeah, we need that. It should be a community, we need it to come out from the sub culture.
NB: So you grew up in LA doing your thing. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Chaka: Wow, well.. Me and my brother, when we’re little kids, maybe about five or six, we were playing on tricycles, and we turn around the corner we see this guy hung from a tree with his guts hanging down all the way to the grass.
Chaka: That was one episode. Another one was there was a bad shoot out right in front of my house. The walls were made out of plaster so bullets went through them like cheese. So bullets were flying through the living room, and my Dad throws us in the tub (it’s an old steel bathtub, to thick for bullets to penetrate). Right after that there was two bodies on our front lawn, so my Mom calls the police. When she called to get them to come take the bodies they gave her some instructions.
They said they wouldn’t come until the next morning to get the bodies and they told her to got out and cover the bodies with blankets. So she went out and covered up the bodies on our lawn until they could come and get them the next morning.
Chaka: When I was a kid when I’d go outside to play we’d see blood trails. So that was our game, “You want to go follow blood trails? Hey lets go follow blood trails.”
There was this one time we followed a bunch of stairs with big drops and little drops and when we got to the end there was this bloody hand print on the wall. Where the trail finally finished there was just this huge puddle where it was still really fresh.
From the time I was in graffiti I was in the projects and there was so much gang violence there was a period of maybe three years where you wouldn’t see one kid playing in the projects. The projects were about a mile and a half long and a half mile wide. It was huge and there was no kids playing there.
NB: What area of LA were you in?
Chaka: 1st Street and Mission Road. Where the 1st Street bridge is. Just on the east side of Downtown there was some projects there and they tore them down because of the violence. My Brother joined gangs and he completely lost it. He became blood thirsty. He wasn’t messing around with guns, he was all about assault rifles. He became a gang leader and he sent five guys out with guns and this one guy come back back shot in the abdomen. So I called 911 and the lady told me, “Sorry, we don’t service that area” . She told me I’d have to find him a ride to the Emergency Room.
NB: Did doing graffiti keep you out of gangs? Would gangs give you a reprieve because they knew who you were?
Chaka: At first it was like, if they catch you in the act they wouldn’t ask questions, they’d just start shooting.
NB: So you were doing graffiti knowing that gangs were going to shoot you (or at least shoot you) if they caught you.
Chaka: That was an automatic offense if they caught you. You were asking to get shot if you were in a really gang infested area. So you have to watch out for cops and gangs.
But one day I did get caught in west side 18th Street area. They were running from across the street and I could see them coming towards me. I was with one of my writing partners, and we both looked at each other. I told him don’t run. Just stay still because if the run they’ll start shooting.
So they run across the street towards us and they both have big pistols pointed towards us. So I lifted my hands and said “No, no, it’s me, it’s Chaka.” Suddenly they put there guns down and said “Naaaaaaah, no way. Let me see, write it right there on the wall.” So they made me write it, and then they shook my hand and said “Sorry, but don’t do that again because someone will shoot you. You’re asking to get shot.”
NB: So graffiti put you in danger, but it also saved your life.
Chaka: Yeah, as far as the gangs where I lived it was an outlet for me that kept me from joining a gang.
NB: You mentioned your brother as involved with gangs, so you probably would have joined one if not for graffiti?
Chaka: More than likely, yeah. I think maybe 70% of those guys I knew in gangs are dead, and 20% are doing life in prison.