As one of the original members of the AWR/MSK families, Fuse has witnessed firsthand what it takes to climb to the top of graffiti culture. He takes a second to talk with us about paying dues, coming up in Los Angeles and graffiti writing in full blown adulthood. We dig deep with the veteran about what it means to be an O.G. of this culture, while building a life outside of graffiti and being a loyal family man.
What first drew you to graffiti and how many years have you been writing?
I was born in 1973 and I grew up in West LA. I’ve been painting graffiti for close to 30 years. I first saw graffiti in 1985 pop up in a few places around LA when I was in junior high and I was immediately hooked. Neighborhood alleys, Venice Beach, downtown…as the scene developed in LA, guys in my school were breaking and emceeing, but graff was what did it for me. Not having a clue how to do an actual piece with paint, I sketched letters on paper for a couple years. I remember I found a book at the library. I think it was called Hip Hop or something to that effect, but I remember there were sketches from Phase2 from New York that were insanely technical that blew my mind. Then I found Subway Art and I was floored. That was it. These guys were insane—Skeme, Lee, Zephyr, Seen, Dondi, and Erni to name a few. Around this time, I remember my neighbor, Edit (RIP) from WCA (West Coast Artists) pieced his street address on his parents’ garage door and it was a burner with technical fill ins, so my intrigue to paint continued to grow until one day I accidentally stumbled across the Pico/Sepulveda yard, which was torn down in the early ‘90s, and saw a bunch of dudes painting burners—Dream, Risk, Rival, Flame, and a few others. Bam. That was it. Watching them paint was my intro to the whole piecing process—not that I was rocking burners the next day, trust me, it took a long time to get good back then. Think crappy, high-pressure paint, stock caps if you didn’t have Testors (basically NY thins), and you had to work it out and move fast so everything wouldn’t run and because the spot was illegal. Remember, this was way before the internet and even before color graff mags so the mystery surrounding graffiti back then was vast and the players in the game were few. I always had a camera with me and I took thousands of photos over the years because that was the only way to capture a piece because the majority of the time they got buffed or dissed within a day or two.
Can you tell us a little bit about how AWR/MSK came about and what role you played in the crew’s inception?
It was late ’88/early ‘89 when I first started seeing AWR tags on the 405 and 10 freeways, and pieces appearing at various yards. Eklips, Coax, Senate (Path) were the names I kept seeing, so one day I was painting with my homie Tell at Motor Yard in West LA and I met Eklips and mentioned to him that I was seeing him up a lot and he told me he was going to Culver High, and he had recently started AWR, which stood for All Writes Reserved. Then he asked if I was in a crew and I told him I was in some small local crews, but that I wanted to be down with something legit so he put me down. I was stoked. I did an AWR piece next to one of his, which seemed to solidify the deal. Shortly after I got in, the crew grew fast with heavy hitters like Krush, Phable, Haze, Krises, Bles, Tyke, Vision, Aero, Myte, 2 Tone, etc. MSK formed in the late ‘80s, but didn’t get super active until ‘92 or ‘93. It was our minor league team, more or less. Guys like Saber, Fate, Bus, Gank, and Push were bombers early on but weren’t technical piecers…yet. Little did we know that they would take MSK and our crew to the next level and then some.
Can you describe the climate in the graffiti scene in Los Angeles back when you first started? How was it different from how things are now?
It started out pretty chill in the ‘80s and there weren’t that many crews back then, but it grew increasingly tense during the gang era of the early ‘90s. Tag-bangers started taking over and rolled deep so you never knew when you were going to get rolled on by some of them or crazy gangsters from the hood that were pissed you were writing on their walls or just blowing up their spot. There were so many war zones back then, it didn’t matter where you were—Venice, Downtown, LA River—you were the enemy and everybody was out to get you. The cops back then were out of control as well; there weren’t cell phones with cameras so you were at their mercy. I had my first legal wall in the San Fernando Valley in 1991 and I got arrested with a permission slip in my hand. They hated us and the feeling was mutual.
What do you think separates L.A. from other major cities, both in terms of graffiti and in general?
I can answer that question past tense, but not the current state, as I haven’t lived there in a couple decades and I honestly don’t know what it’s turned into. Back then, styles were so regional and LA was at the top of the pack for innovation. New York had a crazy graff scene way before LA, but early LA crews like KSN, BC, TCF, WCA, DTK, K2S, STN, UTI, and LTS were trend setters and took the graff game to the next level. New York, Chicago, Philly, and San Francisco all had their own distinctive styles partially based on their geography. Now it’s different. The internet and the digital age in general have been around for so long now that the styles no longer look regional.
What do you think has contributed to your crew’s success and being as prolific as you guys are? Is there a secret sauce to getting to level you guys have grown to?
It’s extremely rare for a crew to remain active for close to 30 years. Honestly, I feel there always has to be a strong leader, diplomat and visionary. One person. And originally that was Eklips. Then he passed it on to Bles. And then GKae. Here’s a few key elements:
• There has to be a leader—somebody to be the person to hand pick and select the talent.
• Somebody to step in and squash beef when tensions rise between crews, which is a constant thing
• Somebody that can alleviate the turbulence and beef that can arise between crewmates, over money, chicks, whatever.
• Always keep your crew exclusive. Always recruit top notch talent—quality over quantity, not just any writer that’s getting up gets in. Too many crews make that mistake and the majority of the work they do is crappy, so what’s the point?
• New recruits have to fit in with the rest of the crew personality-wise—that’s key. There also needs to be an overall dedication and loyalty to the crew, and not a bunch of crew hoppers jumping ship constantly. It’s really like a sports team that has a manager and a ton of people contributing at different positions toward a common goal to be the best.
• Quality crews that can maintain that exclusivity will always have top notch talent on the sidelines dying to get in. I remember a couple of crews I wanted to get into early on that I would’ve done anything—literally—just to have the honor to write those three letters. But it wasn’t my time and it wasn’t an option.
Who did you look up to when first starting out and how did they influence your work and work ethic?
Alright, here’s just a few from LA early on (trust me there’s so many more): Charlie, Rival, Krush, Risk, Miner, Dream SMD and TDK, Tempt, Skept, Defer, Skill, Master, Relm, Rev, Rise, Dread, Ash, Doom, Phyn, Pyro, Slick. I’m just getting warmed up. I could keep going, but the point is these guys were pioneers and boundary pushers. They were always taking the game to the next level in their own fashion. I wanted to emulate them—to be at the level at which they were. Then I moved from LA in late ‘93 and got out of the game for a few years. I painted off and on, but it sucked painting solo and not having my crew around, plus I wasn’t seeing anything new or exciting. And then around ‘95 or ‘96 I started seeing what guys in my crew were doing—Saber, Tyke, Bles, Zes, Revok, Sever, Push, GKae, Ewok, Reyes, and Retna, and I started getting excited to paint again. I saw my crew pushing the boundaries hard and I got inspired once again. Now I try to make an effort to paint with my crew at least once a year, to keep the connection going. Bles and I have made it happen almost every year for the last 10 years, which is great.
Do you think starting out in L.A. helped form your character in ways that coming up in other areas wouldn’t have? Please describe.
Absolutely. I just so happened to be at the right place at the right time. Everything I was into back then had a newness about it—graff, skating, hip-hop, punk rock, metal, and I was in the epicenter of it all. If I grew up in some small town in Montana that would not have been the case. I’ve been called lucky more than once
What kind of challenges did you have to face/deal with, coming up in L.A.?
Gangs, tag-bangers, other crews, crackheads, cops, and vigilantes who wanted to be heroes by stopping vandals at any cost. Pretty much everyone that you weren’t affiliated with were a potential threat. It wasn’t socially acceptable back then. At all. There weren’t legal walls to paint-permission spots or whatever, so it was 100 percent illegal. We were a select few honestly that mostly related to one another because outsiders didn’t understand us. Most chicks didn’t like us either [laughs]. The “I do graffiti” confession didn’t usually come up until the third or fourth date.
How did you get your name and is there any deeper meaning behind it?
I struggled to find a name early on. I think the first name I wrote in junior high was Reck, and then there were a few others. I came up with Fuse in 1988, and I honestly can’t remember if it just popped in my head or how it came to me, but I remember thinking it sounded cool, had decent flow, and basically summarized my personality at that point. I still have a filck of the first colour Fuse piece I did.
How is your outlook on graffiti and how you operate today different from when you started many years ago?
Good question. I actually think about that often. I’ve retired from graff a couple times for a couple years because it wasn’t fun anymore and I was burned out. I missed the adrenaline rush and the pressure to rock a dope piece in a crazy place or somewhere highly visible. A friend of mine who permanently retired from graff told me he quit when he couldn’t rack cans anymore and couldn’t risk painting illegally and getting caught. I’m in the same boat. So now what? Basically I’ve had to rediscover it in a different light. If it’s no longer fun or exciting, then why bother? Well, I’m a different person now than I was back then—thank God—and way more secure so it’s way different now. I used to be a troublemaker, but now I’m more of a peacemaker. This is all temporary in the grand scheme of things so be on your A game and be positive and give back in all aspects of your life. I like teaching now and educating kids coming up that don’t know anything about this art form, and hopefully helping them avoid some of the lessons I had to learn the hard way. For me, I don’t feel I’m done yet, maybe I’m on the quest to do a piece that I really like so I can find something else to do in my spare time. It also goes back to the loyalty thing—helping to keep my crew going is important, almost a personal responsibility that I feel. Creatively speaking, there still isn’t anything as gratifying as doing a piece or big production. I still get that lingering buzz that I miss if I don’t do it for a while. Also, I get to connect with some of the most amazing artists on the planet and actually paint with them. How cool is that?! Walking away from that would be stupidity.
What do you think it takes to make a well-rounded, respected writer, both in terms of putting in work and character?
First and foremost learn your history, especially locally, if possible. Know your roots and respect those that came before you. Then at some point, pay it forward by passing it along to those coming along behind you— knowledge in, knowledge out. And as far as respect goes, pay your dues. Paint a ton and do it well. Just because you got out of art school, caught a couple episodes of “Street Art Throwdown” and landed a couple legal walls doesn’t make you a rock star. The sad thing is, with Instagram it actually can.
How do you balance growing up and handling adult responsibilities with staying active as a graffiti writer? Do you think it’s possible to do both fully at 100 percent?
I don’t know that balance yet. Still trying to figure it out. Most of my crewmates are in the same boat. There’s not enough hours in the day to be clicking on all cylinders at 100 percent, so I’ve got to pick and choose when and where to paint. The good thing is my amazing wife lets me go out of town on a “spraycation” a couple times a year so that’s usually when I try to knock out a few pieces. The problem is the more I paint the more I want to paint. And I have two businesses that are non-art related, as well as three kids and a wife, so the juggle is real. The good news is, unlike athletes, once the kids are gone I can still be rocking burners in my ‘70s during the golden years, even if I’m laid up in a wheelchair.
What did you learn from your experience in graffiti that informs your career and regular life today?
Attention to detail, perseverance, leadership, thriving under pressure, discipline, playing well with others (for the most part), confidence in my abilities…to name a few
Can you tell us about an interesting chase or bombing experience?
There were a few harrowing experiences that involved ghetto birds and running across busy freeways. Here’s one in the Cliff’s Notes version: I got popped in the LA river and it was pretty nightmare-ish. We were painting a wall in the riverbed when we noticed two cops on the next bridge over watching us paint. We packed up quickly and hopped in my friend’s truck but the problem was in order to exit the river we had to drive under the bridge and past the twp cops. In hindsight it would’ve been ballsy but that’s what we should’ve done. So we opted to go the other direction, hoping to find another exit somewhere. There wasn’t. Eventually the water on the riverbed got deeper and deeper as we drove so we had to turn around. Shortly after there was a police helicopter that appeared overhead, following us while we were driving back toward the entrance/exit, and then eventually a second one appeared, basically blocking us from the exit! All this for graffiti. It was getting dark so we exited the vehicle under a bridge, crawled up under the span of the bridge. The 6th st bridge I believe, as far as we could physically go. And then waited. I remember there were pissed off crackheads that were living under the bridge screaming at us to leave because they didn’t want the cops coming down there. So while we were hiding, up above they closed off the bridge on both sides, and no exaggeration, at least 12 cop cars and 20 or more cops were up on the bridge. A few, maybe five or six came running down under the bridge and a couple cops actually crawled under there and pointed their guns at us! So we surrendered and came down and they basically threw us to the ground and put their guns to our heads and dragged us up to the street. The scene up on the street was like something out of a movie, it was surreal. I remember this one cop kept asking me, “what set you from?” I was like ‘Yo, man I’m a white boy graffiti writer not a gangster! There’s a big difference!’ and he kept saying, ‘You from 18th street? Compton Crips?’ I think he was actually serious [laughs]. Anyway, my homie’s truck matched the description of another truck in the area so it was mostly a case of mistaken identity. We spent the night in LA County and were released in the morning. Good times.
What are your favourite surfaces to paint and why?
I still love the cinder block—the texture, lines and the way the paint soaks into the pores. It’s what I learned on so I’m partial to it. Metal on a big box with wheels under it is a close second [trains].
What’s your opinion on how knowledge should be passed down to the next generation? Do you think veterans like yourself have an obligation to school the younger cats coming up?
For sure, but there needs to be the desire to be schooled. Drop the ego, stop posting your terrible pieces on social media and do your homework. Learn who’s who in the game and practice, practice, practice. Know who the big crews and players are. Learn your local history, and then branch outward to the big players nationally and internationally. Educate yourself, be teachable and always be learning! In the early days I found a mentor for a brief period and he schooled me on hand-styles, throw up’s and wild styles and he gave me constructive criticism. It really helped-but I asked! That’s the key, be teachable and us old guys will let our guards down a bit. If you want to be a basketball star it might be a good idea to learn as much as possible about Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and Wilt Chamberlain to name a few. They’ve been there, done that and have the rings.
If you had to come up with five things to tell the younger generation to ensure they conduct themselves properly, what would they be?
Drop that ego. Don’t blow up the spots we work hard to keep and maintain, pick up trash, don’t tag the surrounding businesses. Crawl before you walk. Learn hand-styles, simples and two-three color fills before trying to do wild style pieces. Those of us that actually know the difference will call you out.
Do your homework, talk to the OG’s respectfully and learn the rules. Yes, there are rules.
Work your way up the ranks. Don’t paint a highly visible wall before you know what you’re doing. Don’t embarrass yourself with something nobody but you wants to see.
What non-crew writers do you think are out there doing it right these days and why?
I’m not sure. It may sound lame, but there’s too many people painting these days and it’s not possible to keep up on it, at least not for me, so I’m pretty selective on who I follow. Honestly, all the writers that come to mind are in crews so I may need to pass on that question
How important do you think it is to maintain your spots and keep less experienced cats out? Do you see it being done enough these days?
Well, one example is I have a huge shop that’s all graff’d up on all four sides. The front side is mostly for friends and crewmates and is super visible from the interstate. So we try to keep it looking good. The other three sides are for whoever—beginners, people passing through, basically anybody that asks. But the key is asking. If you paint there and don’t find a way to get ahold of me you’re going to get buffed in the least. I caught a guy going over my spot I just buffed and it took everything I had in me to keep myself from pummeling the guy. I scared him off and that was that. Luckily the scene where I live is small and that’s the way I like it. I don’t have time for the drama.
Any last words or shout outs?
Shout out to my crew and crew mates in AWRMSK, to my homie and painting partner, Bles, to Eklips for being at the helm of this ship of misfits from day one and holding it all together; to Paul for considering me for the interview spot…Peace!
By Paul Lukes