Growing up, I remember seeing Cisco all over Los Angeles with his patented style, taking out huge illegal spots. Then stumbling upon his rollers with Mear in the LA River inspired me so much. From lighting up streets & highways around the world to shaping the minds of future generations, it has been an honor to chop it up with this West Coast legend! AND..he has a book coming out very soon documenting his journey which was officially reviewed by Chaz Bojórquez, the “godfather” of LA graffiti & acclaimed author Noam Chomsky.
– Jehu OSD
Much like the time I saw Sento tags in Paris, for me seeing meanstreak tags from you on State St. in Santa Barbara was like seeing a unicorn in the wild. What inspired you to be such a thorough & prolific bomber?
I have always been inspired by equal parts self-obsession and insecurity, as contradictory as that might seem. But it is also planning routes, collecting supplies, and accessing spots that makes me feel alive, and then the fame that comes from it simply feels good. Having other people recognize you for those efforts is affirming. Graffiti makes me feel like the city belongs to me, like I have a role to play in its production. I am able to personalize it regardless of what the laws may say or what moral hang-ups people may have. That is a pretty special thing to be part of. Graffiti is the most emancipatory practice and community I have ever been part of in my life.
Who were you early influences and what crews did you / do you represent?
I was from the TUGK crew for the first years of my graffiti career, from 1989 to about 1993 when we broke as all the members got absorbed into other crews. My brother and Pike from TCF started it and I ran with it, recruiting the best writers at my junior high, including Other, Spread, and soon after Tolse, Lyric, Bet, Mage, Seren, and Fose. Then from about 1993 to 1996 I was from the great crew of KRS whose members lived mostly in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, and I have been from the legendary CBS crew since 1996.
Some of my early influences were writers I may have only seen up a few times, but something about their tags or the way they hit a particular spot stuck with me. I remember seeing a writer up who wrote “Trooper TSS.” He hit just a few bus stop benches in North Hollywood in about 1989, when I was in 8th or 9th grade, and something about his letters, ascending from a small T to large R had an impression on me. But it was also seeing my brother write that influenced me. He wrote Jester and later Case from a crew called Artists In Crime and of course TUGK, and he got me interested not just in writing, but in recognizing that there was a whole community of writers out there. It taught me how to look for graffiti and recognize who was up. It taught me how to see the nuances of the city. It opened up the world for me.
Once I started to branch out as a writer myself, it was Chaka, Sleez, Oiler, Triax, Geso, Poize and Panic, and a few others like 125 who inspired me to get up and go all city. There was a guy in South Central who wrote Awsom who I really liked too. But for some reason Rage from TCF has always been a writer whose tags make my head spin. His tags and his prolificacy in the late 1980s was mesmerizing. And of course some of my own crew mates, like Tolse from TUGK, Mear from CBS, and Oak Dee from KRS, had styles and bombing practices that really help me elevate my own craft. And aside from writers, it was gang graffiti that always caught my attention. I avoided the members of the gang as best I could, but was inspired by their placas. I lived in their nieghborhoods all around LA, so their tags were the aesthetic backdrop for how I saw the urban environment.
If I provided a complete list of the writers I have admired over the years, it would be two pages long. But one thing is for sure, I have never been inspired by a piece or legal graffiti production. I don’t mean to say anything negative since some pieces are really great, but I just don’t get inspired by colorful artwork that takes so much time to produce. I get inspired by sheer effort, risk taking, uniformity, and prolificacy. I am a bomber, not an artist.
Posh was one of my graf mentors & schooled me on CBS’ history and the mindset of Skate, the legendary founder of CBS. How long have you repped CBS?
I got into CBS after meeting Exist on Melrose Ave near Hollywood. He brought be to a meeting where Mear One and his partner at the time Aura Bogado advocated for me and Anger made the call to vote me in. I think everyone was present that day including Axis, Az, Ares, Tren, Lynk, Rob One, Posh, Duel, and others. Like getting into KRS and being around my TUGK brothers, it changed my life in so many ways.
What music was your pre & post bombing soundtrack?
“Battery” my Metallica for sure. I also listened to a lot of classic rock and oldies while driving to spots, but Metallica and later Pantera provided my soundtrack otherwise. I even started a crew with Blunt from TUGK and THC called “Ride the Lightening” (RTL), named after an early Metallica album. My younger brother, Ism, carried RTL forward and made it a pretty powerful player in the late 1990s. Rage Against the Machine also influenced how and why I wrote.
Did your family know about your graf addiction and how did you carry out your secret identity/double life activities?
People who knew me personally knew about my street identity. There was no way of hiding it even if I tried. Being a writer is who I was and to some degree who I still am. But in school I worked hard to keep it secret for so many reasons. Most of all I enjoyed being someone else and feeling safe and carefree when in school. For as great as graffiti is, it is also a stressful endeavor, so school was where I went to be free from the stress.
I started going to school as a way of getting away from the drama of the streets, and I never left. Being on a college campus felt so good and so safe for me. So I transferred from a community college at Los Angeles Valley College up to UC Santa Cruz, and then back to UCLA for graduate school in urban planning, and then did a Ph.D in cultural geography at the University of Minnesota before continuing on to a post-doc at Brown University in Rhode Island. Now that I am a professor of cultural geography (at the University of Arizona), I use graffiti as a way of talking about the right to the city, everyday structural manifestations of power, subcultures, and issues related to crime, criminality, and criminalization.
As part of this, I have published several articles on graffiti as a way of helping students and scholars understand that graffiti can tell us so much about social norms, moral geographies, and hierarchical power structures that form our cities. Understanding graffiti, whether you like it or hate, helps you understand how social and spatial politics play out in our communities. So I am still writing, but nowadays it is more writing about graffiti than actually writing graffiti.
If I’m not mistaken, I’ve seen pictures of you painting in other countries as well. I’m a big proponent for taking one’s graffiti abroad. Where have you painted outside the US?
I lived in Budapest, Hungary from 1999-2000, so I hit big spots there, but otherwise have always caught tags while on the road, with a few smaller throw-ups here and there. I even have some landmarks lingering around all the places I have travelled or studied—from Ireland in the west to Slovakia in the east, and down south to Egypt and all the way up north to Iceland, as well as across Central and South America.
I have always travelled and I have always been a writer, so catching tags and hitting spots is always part of my travel itinerary. Most of these landmarks are small, but since they don’t buff as aggressively in many places outside of the US, the tags remain and tiny little bits of evidence of where I have been. But it is back in LA where I spent over a decade doing the vast majority of my huge, topless, silver and black letters. So LA is and always will be home.
Noam Chomsky said, “the intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn’t betray it I’d be ashamed of myself. Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below.” What parallels are there in your mind with the revolutionary act of doing “people’s art” and Noam Chomsky chronicling the people’s will?
In addition to being a renowned linguist as well as one of the most influential and prolific social critics and political activists of all time, Chomsky is an anarchist. By that I mean he is morally opposed to hierarchies and unjust manifestations of power in any form. Graffiti is about marking and making space without subscription to political, economic, or moral authority. So, in this way, graffiti is simply a visual incarnation of non-dominant forms of communication and expression. That is what Chomsky values in humanity. So the connection between the “people’s will” and their art is a matter of visualizing that will. Graffiti is evidence that some of us want and demand more out of the structures and surfaces of society.
I became politicized as a writer and a human being when I started reading the books displayed on the inside cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Evil Empire” album. Some of those books, like Fanon’s Wretched of The Earth, really woke me up. Two of Noam Chomsky’s books are also included in that pile, as is Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, which inspired Metallica’s song “One.” So everything started to connect for me… graffiti, music, politics, and more music. And all of that led me into the classroom, where I still am today as a professor.
Kind of that “voice of the voiceless” dynamic, very much taking the power back. Or as Mear would say, “non-violent, civil disobedience.” Speaking of Mear, I saw some incredible spots from you & Mear. It looked like you guys really worked as a team. Super hot illegal spots, big rollers in loc’ed out neighborhoods, tell us about that brotherhood & dynamic between you two.
Mear sees bombing as his obligation and moral imperative. He is providing an example of what it means to live outside of the confines of power structures that otherwise regulate our every movement. For Mear, graffiti is about providing visual evidence that humanity exists wherever we choose to manifest it. Like Chomsky, Mear is motivated by liberation and questioning those who have power… too much power for their and our own good. While he expresses this through his murals and fine art, it is while out bombing that Mear truly embodies the performance of visual protest. And no one has as much fun while out bombing than Mear.
I have hit some of my biggest and boldest spots with Mear and every one of them was an amazing adventure. He turns bombing missions into all-out guerilla warfare, and he enjoys every minute of it. I have never felt so safe with anyone else, because with him, you feel you are doing something so much bigger than yourself and something so just and so necessary. It is as if you have no other option and nothing can stop you.
He is a graffiti ledged for what he does on the wall, but for me he is a hero for how he approaches painting walls politically, philosophically, and personally. In my book coming out this year I tell just one story of bombing with Mear, but in reality, I could have dedicated the whole book to recounting adventures with him. I am sure there are more spots by us to come.
You have a book dropping soon, documenting your history, correct? That of which, you have Mr. Noam Chomsky himself involved. That is truly incredible. How did that happen?
Even more than being an anarchist, Chomsky is a humanitarian. He sees humanity endure in the struggles placed upon people by those in power, and he speaks out when the powerless are being silenced. So, in the review he provides for my book, he comments on the “the warmth and companionship that somehow survive the horrors” of the neighborhoods I grew up in and discuss in the book. To be able to identify that “warm and companionship” can survive horrors inflicted upon us by those in power, including the police, is evidence of his empathic and radical insight. I wanted a review by him since it was, in part, his writings that inspired me to think above mainstream existence.
He is a professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona, where I am a professor of geography. So we met one day on campus, and a few months later I just asked him if he would look at my book and he graciously said yes.
When does the book drop, how can people get their hands on it & how can people find you online?
Going All City: Struggle and Survival in LA’s Graffiti Subculture comes out November of 2019. It will be on shelfs of local bookstores, and you can call any book store and make sure they have a copy on hand to buy, which is the best method since it supports those last few real bookstores like Skylight Books in LA. But of course, you can also order it on Amazon as well as through places like indybound.org and even my publisher, University of Chicago. In other words, if you want it, and I hope you do, you can get it anywhere.
It focuses on navigating poverty and violence at the hands of police and gangs as a graffiti writer during the 1990s in Los Angeles. It is an accessible book that I wrote in the ethnographic tradition of research that has long come out of the fields of cultural geography and urban sociology.
Chaz Bojórquez, the “godfather” of LA graffiti, put it pretty well in his review of my book, writing “Tagging graffiti is a voyage of self-discovery mixed with the danger of street gangs, police, and vandalism. Through his book, Cisco is still tagging his story and name on the walls inside your mind.” What more can I say than that?