Bringing a healthy dose of that old school NYC funk mixed with the aggressive, almost gothic style that L.A. and surrounding areas are known for, Drama has carved out his spot in the pantheon of West Coast freight train painters and wild style aficionados. Hailing from the Inland Empire, Drama came up with the elite D.E. crew and was integral in the early days of train graffiti culture. He took a few moments to discuss his and his crew’s history with us.
What first drew you to graffiti and what locked you in and turned you into a dedicated writer? What about it keeps you involved?
As a child the first graff I remember seeing was gang writing on my older sister’s Pee-Chee folders. I remember the choppy block letters and the elegant cursive. I would always see gang graffiti in alleys, train tracks around Colton and San Bernardino in the early ’80s. Around 1990 my older brother became a tagger. He and his friends had a crew called Chicano Street Taggers. They introduced me to the culture, the tools, and rules of the game, but I was a bystander for a couple of years, not participating. I started catching tags around 1992. Myself, my older brother, and my cousin, who would later become Japan, started doing graffiti as a unit around that time. I did strictly tags for about 2 years, then came the throw ups around 1994, then came fill-ins and bombs around 1996, then came the piecing. It wasn’t until around late 1997 that I started experimenting with attempts at actual piecing. Being blessed with family roots in the graffiti culture and also being blessed with a circle of trust-worthy and supportive crew members is what has kept me involved through all these years.
Can you tell me a bit about DE crew, how it started, what it’s about and what it means to you?
I’ve been in a handful of crews since 1992, and I started rocking with the Dark Empire around late 1996/early 1997. Right now, it’s the only crew that I rep. Which may seem odd to some, since these days its become very popular to write 6 or 10 crews. DE is a really special thing to myself and all the guys in it. It was founded in 1995 by 3 cousins in the Inland Empire, from the ashes of two or three other crews that had recently disbanded. There’s been a small handful of cousin teams that have been in the crew throughout the years, as well as adopted brothers, life-long best friends, and even children created through relatives of crew members within this extended family of ours. It’s actually a pretty small and tight-knit group in comparison to a lot of other crews. There have been different generational line-ups, but there are a handful of people who have stuck around and kept it cohesive from one generation to the next. And the newest generation has taken it to the next level and knows how to properly keep it alive into the future. We’re a well-rounded team of dedicated writers. Each member has their own distinct style, on some wu-tang type shit. Every member got their own unique superpower like the fuckin x-men. We form like voltron across many lands and shine hard! But on the real, we all came up together in one way or another. To me, DE crew represents integrity and consistency. Dedicated Eternally sums it up well.
Did anyone mentor you early on and if so, how did that affect your growth as a young writer?
As a young writer, my older brother, who wrote Fresko, was probably a mentor to me without even knowing it. Just overhearing him talk to his crew about what types of tips to rack, or how to make homemade mops, or watching them make scribes out of spark plugs, or watching him make fat caps with a needle over the stove, how to soak tips to keep them reusable, where to rack markers and cans, and hearing stories about the writers and crews who were killing it at that time. Hearing him and his crew talk about the rules of respect in the game, and the reasoning behind why we do it. All that helped me to understand the game before I actually started participating. So once I did start getting up, I wasn’t some completely new jack toy. I already understood the foundations of the culture and had done the blackbook thing for a couple of years. Also around 1997 two OG’s from the crew Rage and Sick showed me the tools I needed to grow to the next level, and broadened my perspective of what was possible fa’sho!
What was the scene like in the I.E. (Inland Empire) when you first started and has it changed a lot since then?
The IE has had different eras of graff throughout the generations. Prior to around 1990, the Inland Empire did not have a huge graff culture, there were only a handful of people who took it seriously before that. It was gangster style, mini-trucks and low riding that ruled the land before that. Then around 1990 the tagging scene just exploded in the IE. That shit was insane! Everything was killed with tags everywhere. Crews were forming overnight and recruiting hundreds of people. Stylistically, the IE got a lot of influence from LA and San Diego writers, but generally didn’t have aspirations to be known outside of the IE. Eventually the line between graffiti culture and gang-banging became too blurred, and a lot of violence ensued. A lot of people started dying regularly. That, combined with a ton of raids and arrests by law enforcement basically killed the scene. Kids started getting their kicks through the party scene as opposed to freeway mobbing. Then around 1997 or 1998 there was a bit of a resurgence of graffiti culture, this time there was more emphasis on bombing and piecing. That was the wave that DE really rode into the future, although most of us had already been writing since the early ‘90s. That era eventually died due to heavy raids and arrests, old beefs that resurfaced, and the loss of a handful of major yards. These days I don’t see much graffiti, and what I do see just isn’t the same as the styles that I grew up on in the IE. There are a handful of young killaz out in Riverside and San Bernardino though.
Your crew seems to be mostly train focused these days. What do you see as the reasons behind this?
The crew was exposed to a lot of trains, and those trains carried into town styles from other areas. We understood at an early time that the trains would gain an audience outside of our immediate area. Japan was really into this concept and he absolutely loves painting freights. A lot of the earlier generation of the crew put in a lot of work on the rails between 1999 and 2004 and a lot of that was because of Japan. Me and Japan kinda became known as a freight duo since we hit the rails together so much during that time. At some point people started recognizing our crew as a freight crew. Which then attracted other freight painters to link up with us. Guys from the crew like Lost, Kaer67, Optimist, Morgan, Amuse126, Plantrees, Celer, Reak, Kayah, Aider, Rage, Japan, and myself have all killed the rails in a real way at one point or another. To me freight graffiti is the most fun, it’s more carefree and raw. It’s the closest thing to the old subway car graffiti in the modern day situation.
If you had to describe your lettering style to someone who has never seen it before, what would you say? What’s the logic/thinking behind how you develop/create your letters?
I try to embrace all the things that I like about the old school West Coast and New York flavors, and also try to stay open-minded to embrace newer techniques like the stuff my man A126(Amuse) does. In the past, I’ve put a lot of attention into letter connections. I try to have a flow to it that you can follow if you’re paying attention. It’s all tagging-based really. My stuff can kinda be all over the place too, which I like. I like there to be a certain amount of unpredictability with my pieces. I like living up to the name I chose in the sense that I like really dramatic styles. Stuff that expresses some real attitude or emotion through letters. Someone once called my style Phunkadelic. I like that. It’s got a traditional old school funk, but sometimes has a psychedelic or rock edge.
In your opinion, how has the West Coast affected your style and what do you think traditionally characterizes West Coast graff as opposed to any other region of the country?
Because of visiting family, I’ve always travelled up and down Cali and had exposure to the Bay Area styles and SoCal styles. I think my early ’90s tagging definitely had more of a Bay Area swag to it than any of my SoCal peers, since I had been exposed to Orfn and Revers flows in SF. Also seeing Dream and Spie pieces at Psycho City, definitely made me want more of the Bay Area funk. And in LA there’s a certain sacredness that I feel when I saw guys like Gkae, Sahl, Oiler, and Chaka killing the freeways in the 90’s. The further in history you dig back, you find that in the beginnings there was a lot of unity and communication between the OG’s of each area. Estria has told me stories of him and Crayone linking up with Hex and painting in LA back in the 80’s . Spie has told me stories of him and Dream getting up with Sk8 and Mear in the 80’s too.
What areas outside of graffiti inspire you the most and how does their influence show up in your work?
Music. I relate styles of graff to styles of music in my head all day. Sometimes I’ll see someone’s piece and I hear some old school De La Soul in my head. Or some people’s styles make me hear some improv bebop jazz in my head. Other styles make me hear some hardcore thrash metal in my head. If you look at a lot of my pieces, you might have an idea of what kind of musical mood I was in that day. Also, old muralists inspire me a lot. Los Tres Grandes, and Dali are heroes for sure. I do mural work outside of graff as well, but generally keep those two worlds separated, for now anyway.
What kind of lessons has graff taught you over the years?
You get what you give. Both product-wise, and energy-wise too. Vibrations reflect outward and ricochet everywhere. Try to send out a harmonious vibration as much as you can. And keep your shield on deck to protect your vibe as well.
Do you think the fact that you can just look on Instagram or the internet and find a style has homogenized graff at all? Do you think it’s possible to be completely original today and if so, how do you think people can do that?
This is the question that comes up a lot. I don’t have the answers. But I know that you can’t live your life looking in the rear view mirror. The internet is here to stay. It ain’t going nowhere. I think it’s definitely possible to contribute something original stylistically, to the extent of humbling yourself and acknowledging that everything has already been done before you. You might think you stumbled upon some new concept, then see an old mag where someone did your concept in 1981 on a subway car in NY. But you can shine that style through your own soul’s kaleidoscope lens and make a unique contribution in your own unique way. It just takes being brave enough to do it. I like brave graffiti.
If you could’ve told your younger self what to avoid and what to embrace within the graffiti culture what would you have said?
Avoid narcissistic egomaniacal sociopaths, and embrace trust-worthy, humble people. Just Kidding. But on the real, I wouldn’t change much about my journey. I’ve had some extreme highs and lows in graff, but you gotta just keep learning and moving forward. I’m still a new jack in the bigger picture of this culture, and I have enough sense to humble myself and recognize that there’s a lot left for me to learn.
If you had to make a painting playlist, what artists/musicians would be on it and why?
Beastie Boys, Guns n Roses, Joan Jett, Sade, Suga Free, Tesla, Funkdoobiest, Steel Panther, NWA, Whitesnake, Aceyalone, Skid Row, Cypress Hill, Debonaires, Sangre, Okiramyth, Brujeria, because I just looked at my desk to the right of my keyboard and those are literally the tapes and cd’s sitting next to me right now.
How important do you think it is for newer writers to learn about the history of the culture and those who came before them? Do you think the newer generation has the same respect for the founders of the culture that maybe you or I had?
It’s very important, if we wanna keep this culture we’ve built growing in a sustainable pattern. If not it could eventually die. Studying graff history, knowing who did what, who invented what, who did what first, the origins of different styles, the outside factors that shaped a regions styles, who influenced who, and in what ways, the history of the tools of the craft, the history of techniques, the history of terminology, etc. All that stuff makes a good writer into a better writer. My advice to the newer generation is to ask the OG’s in your area about their experience, ask them who influenced them, then find out who influenced those guys, and so on. Dig deep. Then study about the history of other areas too. The best thing you can probably do is hunt down as many old graff mags as you can get your hands on, and actually read the interviews, don’t just flip through them. Try to imagine those styles being new at the time, and imagine the mentality behind the styles.
As you’ve gotten older, has your outlook regarding graffiti changed at all? How?
I guess I try to preserve the things about the culture that I think keep it sustainable. I see the value in certain traditional, non-flashy styles and techniques. I see the value in the steady rock, and traditional style staples. Whereas a lot of newer writers are just drawn toward the most “insane looking” shit. A lot of young men use graffiti as a right of passage from adolescence. It’s a platform to show off their bravado and recklessness, then they abandon it once they get past that little phase of their life. A lot of kids just rape graff culture and leave it. They disrespect the game, use it for their own purposes and abandon it. If you’re a real writer, you’ll nurture it, plant seeds, water them, and contribute to the culture. Give back to it.
It’s easy for one to get a big head when they get a little bit of fame from putting in work, how important do you think it is to stay humble and what do you do to help keep your ego in check?
At some point in everyone’s career, if you’re actually putting in that real work, most people will get bit by the fame bug. That shit can take over if you don’t check it. It feels good to be king, just for a while, but that ego can run away with you. At some point there’s an invisible line that you cross, and you start getting outside yourself. Acting like an asshole without realizing it. Hopefully you got some good friends to reel you back in. If not, God will let you know in one way or another eventually. It might hurt, but it’ll be good for ya. I been there.
Where do you see graffiti culture heading within the next ten years or so? It’s about as popular as it can get so the future is a big question mark.
Longer names. Louder colors. Less letter tech. More catering to the eyes of non-writers. More money involvement. I feel a reality show or a Netflix series is just around the corner. Televised graffiti competitions, a la Chopped Chef type shows. More podcasts. More fame-hunger. More graff celebrities. Graff Jeopardy? Less underground, basically. But the strong will survive, as always. Hopefully the history will be preserved. That’s important for any sub-culture to survive.
What writers/crews of writers out there do you think are doing it right and deserve some shine?
My taste has always been drawn toward smaller crews, that are a little bit cutty, not all about world domination, but that just hold it down correctly. I guess I see DE in that light also. I like crews like RF, GTB, HTK, I2W, FC, TCI, BA, DF, COD, and so on. There’s a bunch.
Any last words/shout outs?
Give thanks, bless up. RIP AKER, SPECIAL G, VOTE. FREE G-BIZ.
By Paul Lukes