The Oakland graffiti artist "Done" says he was never apprehended in the two-plus decades he spent redecorating the East Bay. But he did have one close call in middle school. He was bombing the top of an Amtrak train, not realizing that a police officer was right below. Now 35, Done can still narrate the incident play-by-play. "He was watching me for a while, then he tells me to get down. "I said 'What for?' He goes, 'It's illegal what you're doing.' I'm like, 'There's a whole bunch of graffiti on this train.' I had a whole attitude."
At this point in the story, Done acquires an air of superiority. "And I'm like, 'First you gotta tell me what you're arresting me for.' He said I was vandalizing the train. I said, 'You know what? This whole train is pretty much vandalized. I don't think it's gonna matter what I put on it.'" That's where he'll pause for a moment, and smirk. "So I turned around like this," he said, putting his arms demurely behind his back, as though anticipating a pair of handcuffs. "And then I ran." The cop took off after Done but couldn't keep up, so Done said the officer started throwing rocks. "I seen the rocks flying next to me," he remembered. "I was wearing Converse. I was gone."
More than two decades later, Done still writes graffiti, and still looks like a teenager with his baseball cap and narrow, bony features. He told the near-arrest story with gusto while hanging out with fellow graffiti artists Soul, Vogue, and Estria Miyashiro at the latter's screen-printing warehouse in San Leandro. Collectively, they have enough arrests and near-brushes with law enforcement to rival any petty criminal. Vogue said investigators used to come to his house periodically, suspicious of the personalized "Vogue" license plates on his car, which matched one of the most prevalent graffiti tags in the Bay Area. "They were like, 'You're Vogue, huh? It's on your license plate.' I was like, 'That don't mean nothing,'" said Vogue, who now airbrushes motorcycles for a living. He managed to evade charges but purged his house of all graffiti artwork, and anything else that could be used as evidence. Miyashiro wasn't so lucky. In 1994 he got caught bombing in San Francisco's Sunset District and was slammed with a felony conviction. He dominated the news cycle for two days, until the famous O.J. Simpson car chase down Interstate 405.
Years later, these artists are finally seeing their medium get some legitimacy. They all currently run businesses that loosely relate to graffiti. Done is a tattoo artist; Estria designs posters and street wear at his screen-printing company, Samurai Graphix, and leads a youth mural workshop through EastSide Arts Alliance. On Saturday, October 18 he will hold the second annual graffiti battle in West Oakland's DeFremery Park, part of YouthSpeaks' ten-day-long Living Word Festival. The artists — all handpicked — include Done; Estria; last year's champion, Bounce; an eighteen-year-old girl from San Francisco who goes by the name Slide TMC; and several people from San Diego. Each contestant gets five hours to paint one word (drawn from a hat) on a 16 x 18-foot canvas. They'll be judged on concept, form, and color palette, said Estria, adding that normally he'd include "technique" as a category, but with this group of artists, technical proficiency is a given.
The graffiti battle's inclusion in a literary festival says something about the current status of the medium. Now that hip-hop is the domain of pointy-headed intellectuals, it's not surprising to see graffiti follow suit. The unique hagiography of New York subway bombers was already consecrated two decades ago in films like Wild Style and Style Wars (1983), which inspired a long spate of documentaries and scholarly works of literature (some of it quite good) about the art form. For writers like Miyashiro — whose was featured in the Oakland Museum's recent Cool Remixed exhibit — that's a remarkable twist of fate. In the old days, it was the graffiti artists' lot to labor on a piece for hours and hours, only to have it covered up the following day. The form was ephemeral; writers used to keep track of their work by photographing it with Instamatic cameras.
At this point, graffiti historians would consider Done, Vogue, and Miyashiro to be traditionalists within their medium. Their old crew Together With Style was a scion in the genealogy of Bay Area graffiti, said author Jeff Chang, who went to high school with Miyashiro in Honolulu and helped promote some of his early work in a student art exhibition. After high school, they both wound up in the Bay Area — Chang to get his economics degree at UC Berkeley, and Miyashiro to study illustration at University of San Francisco. Chang remembers seeing Miyashiro's graffiti (usually unattributed) on the front page of local newspapers. Chang said he could always tell by the form and lettering which illustrations were his — even in a grainy newspaper photograph for what was ostensibly a crime story.
The artists aren't shy in boasting about their accomplishments, either. Vogue says he was the first Bay Area graffiti writer to turn a fire extinguisher into a spray can. (He practiced by spraying his name on the sidewalk with water, then switching over to paint.) His biggest claim to fame was an epic stunt in the mid-'80s: Vogue drove from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, stopping at every single water tower along the I-5 and tagging it up. He says he managed to hit five out of six — one had a giant fence that wasn't worth the trouble. At present, he and Miyashiro split the rent on the San Leandro space, which is decorated with Japanese Daruma dolls and spray-paint dedications to their deceased crew member Mike Dream (who was shot and killed in 2000). Miyashiro's mother Joyce mans the front desk while two employees labor in back, reproducing the many graphics that have become his stock-in-trade — including Mumia and Frida Kahlo stencils, and the electrifying logo for the EastSide Cultural Center's Malcolm X Jazz Festival.
Miyashiro quarterbacks the whole operation but keeps a low-key presence. Like Done, he looks like a teenager with his utility clothes and the spray can tattooed across his right forearm. It's an old tattoo, he says, adding that he pretty much stopped bombing after his 1994 arrest, and now divides his time between Samurai Graphix and civic beautification projects. Not that Miyashiro doesn't miss hopping fences, tagging facades, and running from cops. It's just that now he's got a business to run, and he can't afford another felony.
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