Last fall, I was on the Navajo Reservation working on murals for a public art initiative called The Painted Desert Project. The Rez being vast and mostly empty, I spent a lot of time driving down the highways on the plateau from site to site, taking in the scenery as it whizzed by. I started noticing graffiti adorning the few surfaces available, sometimes barely visible from the highway. Indigenous writers held down almost every spot available, covering every coverable surface with tags. Interested in what getting up on the Rez was like, I started asking around to see if anyone knew any Native writers I could talk to about their take on graffiti culture. That’s when a homey in Albuquerque put me in touch with PUCA, a Dine (Navajo) writer from Shiprock, NM that had been holding it down for the Indigenous scene. Check it out:
So what’s the PUCA origin story? How did you first get into graffiti?
When I was a young child my father taught me how to use a calligraphy pen and bought me my first set of chisel tipped pens. As I got older, around ten years old or so, I started drawing my legal name in bubble letters and played with the 3D shadowing. Kids in school started to ask me to draw their names for them. Later in my sophomore year of high school, a writer named
JACA noticed my notebook and saw my 3D letters and asked me, “Do you know what this is called?” I said, “no.” He continued to inform me on all aspects of graffiti culture and gave me the complete knowledge of what I was doing. He asked me to be apart of their crew. I started writing graffiti at 15 years old. After joining, the crew name was changed to NT.Consisting of JACA, HIRO, NOOSE, CUB, and me, PUCA. Our crew ran for 4 years until I was the last one remaining. At that point I decided to put NT to rest and continued to bomb alone.
Where did you grow up? What was it like to get up in that area?
I grew up in the Four Corners of the Southwest on the Navajo Reservation, Shiprock, New Mexico. Prior to that, Farmington, New Mexico.
What’s it like to get up on the Reservation?
I love getting up on the rez because no one is ever around. There are large surfaces on water tanks, oil tanks, abandoned power plants, abandoned trailers, old gas stations, and sometimes even a warehouse. There are billboards that sit 6 feet high from the ground making it that much easier to hit. The downside about the rez is the distance it takes to get to one spot from another. I’ve done more walking and driving than painting, and if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll get lost in the desert. Like they say, getting there is the hard part.
So what is the experience of the Native writer? What is graffiti’s place in the Indigenous community?
Like any other community, graffiti is looked down on. It’s ugly, destructive, and disrespectful. While our crew got up, the community of Shiprock had to buff out everything we hit. Obviously no one was painting murals during that time. We were simply bombing. On the other hand, we developed street cred with the Native heads in the surrounding areas. They gave us dap and some older cats had even encouraged us to give our pieces a little native flare to represent who we are. Naturally, beef developed between us and another crew that wasn’t from Shiprock but another part of the rez, trying to claim our spots.
With spots on the Rez being so limited and isolated, did style wars erupt frequently?
There was a gang member that kept tagging our bombs almost immediately after we threw them up. Ya know gang tags are shitty as fuck so it wasn’t really a battle, it was just a matter of cleaning up house. This went on for a good year. We also had another kid in our town who started getting up and was cocky enough to write over our shit. That battle went on for a little while until he was approached by my crew. He asked to be down with us. We discussed it, and although he dissed us, we accepted him. We know we should have kicked his ass, but we didn’t. We wanted to expand the crew. For the time that our crew was together we were bombers rather than artists.
What was your most intense moment as a writer on the Rez?
On the rez behind my house, my brother and I would go trail running in the desert. We always passed an abandoned car that sat further down the trail. One day I decide to go and hit that up alone. Each acre of land has a trailer residing there, but the further you go into the desert the less you see. So I am walking up the trail at about 1pm during the hottest time of the day, and there were about 4 large men sitting outside of a trailer. They see me and decide to get in their car and follow me. I panicked. I kept walking until I was out of sight behind a small hill. Then I ran as fast as I could to an abandoned hogan with a sheep corral. I ducked under the fence on the side furthest from the dirt road. The sun was beating down on me and I was sweating bullets. They drove by slowly, really slow. My heart was beating so fast. They continued down the road and as soon as they drove over a hill, I said fuck the trail, booked it straight through the brush and weeds, ran as far as I could until I found a dried wash. I jumped in and waited. I waited so long I got sun burnt. I finally peeked out and then booked it all the way back home. I realized I had mild heat exhaustion and could have been raped and left for dead out in the desert. RIP to all the Native American women who have been through this painful death, without the intention of writing graffiti, as these deaths continue to remain undocumented.
How about the best moment?
The beginning is always the best. I hit my first abandoned trailer with my cousin, EXIS. Being a toy, I was unaware of how to properly measure the height of my throwie. I made my letters so tall that I couldn’t reach the top when it came to the outline. We looked for something to stand on but couldn’t find anything. So my cousin gets down on her hands and knees, in the snow, and says, “Stand on my back.” She was a heavy set girl so it didn’t seem to faze her. That was the only time I needed to do that. Bombing with her are moments that I miss the most. She had my back always. Rest in peace.
So how would you characterize the general ecology among Native graff writers? Even among other tribes outside of the Navajo?
We are all from different tribes and that was never important information to exchange when writing graffiti. Unless you got to know someone, then maybe there was a slight chance of exchanging that information. Some of us are also mixed with Mexican American or Spanish European blood. Race was rarely discussed. I feel, when I comes to writing graffiti, race really has no place in this game. Just like gender, and any other discriminatory aspects that keep us separated. I liked the fact that I could be anonymous, and no one knew anything about me. I liked not knowing what other writers looked like.
I definitely agree with that. The ambiguity, the almost super-hero like alter-ego status with graffiti seems like a universal appeal that goes past identity politics. BUT representing their cultural roots is not something the white suburban graff writer cares or thinks about—probably for the worse. But incorporating cultural aesthetics into their graff is writers from POC communities are more likely to do. Arab writers using traditional calligraphy, Chicano writers utilizing religious iconography, Japanese writers and kanji/manga aesthetics for example.
Why do you think that is?
Yes, it has importance when there are places in the world that lack the knowledge of a culture, an artist can travel to keep the culture alive. This can also spark conversations about any similarities that may be between cultures, forming unity. We break the racial barrier when we put it out there for a first impression, but based on how close minded a person can be, this can also spark conflict. Nonetheless, communication is being made and the motion is being put in place to grow our consciousness.
This is what captivated me, and I see us as one of the biggest art moments against an unjust system. In a way, that makes the writing community unifying.
Is that experience different for native females?
Native American female graff writers will be accepted without question if they show an interest in being serious about graff. Writers will teach her everything they can to make sure that she gets it right the first time. They would never make women feel less than them. Afterwords, a woman has to prove herself, just as a man does. Quick Shout out for Native American female writers: EXIS (RIP), CMOE, LIVE, Lady Rise, TEA, YUKUE, REZMO & ILASH.
So the cultural ties, the need to preserve and disseminate that culture…unifies most Native writers under a common cause you’d say?
Of course the competitive male ego will always be there, but overall I feel that Native writers will most likely unite if it had to come down to race for whatever reason. There is a form of unity between Natives on a world level. Standing Rock being a great example. Realistically, graffiti is about freedom and not being forced to go down a road like that.
To the average Joe, the Native graff scene would look as if we are all one big happy race, but as humans we all have our subtle differences.
Some prefer to be solo and some prefer to be a part of mixed race crews. Some have beef between each other just like any other race would. ON THE OTHER HAND, there is an entire Indigenous community consisting of Native American muralists, who are also social and political activists informing the masses of their tribal existence. Most if not all, have started out as graffiti writers or street artists and are now professional muralists. They figured out how to make a living while sharing their culture with others around the world. They love collaboration and there is no competition. There are no mural crews. Which leaves room for each artist to shine and display their style.
Do you think there’s a dissonance between those two worlds?
Writers would say they sold out and didn’t stay true to the game, but I believe, if a graffiti writer wants to become a professional muralist, he must keep his underground persona “underground” and cannot exploit his graffiti art and his writer name. To do this successfully you must develop a new name for yourself before entering the world of Mural Arts.
Professional Art Murals and Graffiti Art Murals are completely different animals and serve different purposes. (We can go into the differences of these two worlds, and it would start with class-ism, as far as how much someone would pay for what they believe to be “tasteful art”.) At the same time they can both serve a political purpose. Art, in general, is a voice and an expression OF the people and is used for communicating and reflecting current issues that we face as a human race. Just like music and any other form of human expression. Bottom line is, there is no wrong way to paint or express something.
How you choose to do it, is how it would be categorized. Ether it’s through bombing, graffiti art, street art, or murals it‘s all expressions of the SELF.
So what kind of nods to Native culture and aesthetics have you seen incorporated into graffiti that you dig?
A writer from the Pueblo of Jemez, UNEK, uses the influence of his cultures’ pottery art. Pottery art in all tribes is used to tell a story or has a meaningful purpose. UNEK does the same with his work, and in his own style. Growing up, he has been my biggest influence. Another writer by the name of SABA, paints pueblo buildings, and has a pueblo building throwie. He uses his graff as a form of political means against Native American suppression. Several Native writers use tribal designs as their fill ins and that is the extent of Native expression in their graff.
Muralists, who started as street artists, such as Ehren Natay, Randy Barton, and Adam Closer, paint Kachina dolls using their own style and flare. Most Native American muralists paint realism portraits of our people and animals with tribal patterns surrounding the subject. Jaycee Beyale, Gregg Deal, Yatika Fields, J Redhouse, Dwayno Insano, Tomahawk Greyeyes, Warren Montoya, Nani Chacon, and many more.
So of those two, how do you identify?
I consider myself a graffiti writer. I’ve slapped up a few stickers of my characters, but that’s as far as I go with street art. My favorite aspect of graffiti is bombing. That’s the best feeling in the world. It tops everything. Nowadays, I like finding chill spots to piece. I’d love to hit freights more, but those spots are extremely territorial. Being from Shiprock with no freights, I am not welcomed very much in the Albuquerque freight scene. Which is fine with me cuz I ain’t about to dick ride anyone to get there. The few that have taken me to the yards have gotten shit for bringing me. I said fuck it.
And for parting wisdom: What is your personal philosophy on graffiti?
Graffiti and the influence of street art has taught me how to be independent and stand on my own. It has shown me that I don’t need anyone to take care of me. I got this, and if shit isn’t going my way or I messed up, it’s super easy to move on to the next spot and keep trying. It has taught me how to respect others that are better than me, and how to claim/ gain respect from others as well. I’ve never dissed another writer because I never wanted my shit dissed. If I painted over someone, I had come harder than they did. Graffiti taught me life skills and is the foundation who I am today.
Remember my name, PUCA, as is stands for Practice Universal Conscious Alignment because I believe we are all one and we are all here to ascend together. Graffiti is the first sign of a fighting spirit trying to stay alive while facing a tyrannical government. We are the warriors of light shining in the darkness of a cruel reality that our government has place us in. So we bomb the system as an act of protest to say, “I exist! I do not, and will not agree with your system! You do not own me!”