Painting graffiti has many facets and very few writers out there do more than one of them well and prolifically. Naka has both bombed the streets of the Bay Area and crushed the freight scene steadily enough to earn himself a spot in the pantheon of Bay Area greats. Perfecting a distinctly unique yet legible style, he’s carved out a path in a scene cluttered with trend hoppers and disintegrating originality. He’s managed to keep his work fresh, original and funky. We were lucky enough to get a chance to chat with Naka about how he’s managed to crush for so long and what he plans to do in the future.
What first drew you to graffiti and how many years have you been writing?
As far back as I can remember, my family and the media portrayed graffiti as gang writing. It wasn’t until I moved to the SF Bay Area from Los Angeles I began to notice that it was much more than gang graffiti. The first tags, sketches, and pieces I remember trying to do were around 1994-1995 but skateboarding was still my main interest. A combination of a foot injury and moving to San Francisco in 2001 made me focus on graffiti. After I made some friends in SF that wrote I was hooked. So 20 years give or take. But I really didn’t even get good at this until about 4 years ago and I stopped about 2 years ago. I predated a lot of stuff up to 2020 but the statute of limitations has passed on all of the photos or stories herein.
Can you tell us a little bit about the crews you push, how you got in them and what they mean to you?
We’re really all just like one big happy family, don’t believe everything people tell you. Sometimes I hear cool tough guys talk about their crews, how they got in them, beefs, or the other stuff they’re involved in. That can sound real negative to other people. But it’s not really like that, we just all hung out together at different times so we write the same 3-4 letters just thru painting and other interests. Some of the older crews there was a lot of history prior to me getting in them so that’s special, like a family tree.
What motivated you to choose your name and is there any deeper meaning to it? What inspires you to write other names/are there special names for different purposes?
My family is Japanese, it’s just a Japanese word for center or in the middle. Some other kids I knew in the 90’s told me it was a good name so I just never changed it from 1995. I thought the letters were good and it sounded funny in English but was visually memorable. The main reason I’ve wrote so many other words is I just really wanted to play with other letters. It takes me a few hundred times to get the connections how I want them.
However, once a cop came into my buddies community service and said “here’s 10 tags, real names and whereabouts of any of these taggers and your community service is done today.” ironically mine was in the middle of the list. But I was painting a lot at the time and I wanted to keep painting so it seemed like a good time to move houses, ditch some acquaintances, change phone numbers and switch words for awhile. It worked.
What is your favorite letter and why?
I don’t really have a favorite, but I am always impressed by anyone who can actually pull off Q, V or X and make them look good. My brain just can’t connect the shapes of these letters properly in a way I like.
Where outside of graffiti do you look for inspiration?
I really like listening to books on tape about our minds, manifestation, spiritual and inspirational stories of all kinds. The Law of Attraction, The Invisible Man, Catch-22 and The Art of War are some recent ones. I used to be real into gardening. I spend a lot of time outdoors with my dog and like going on trips.
How has the Bay Area and the scene there changed over the years?
There was still a lot of earthquake damage when I was first there, that made way more great spots to paint that were more public. The tech industry, property values rising, gentrification, and new construction changed all of this. At first in San Francisco I could ride my bike around and paint abandoned buildings and spots in China Basin and Hunters Point in the daytime on the weekends, I don’t think you still can do that. The whole graffiti scene, again, is just like one big happy family. So the younger guys still learn things from the older guys and the traditions get passed on even though technology is changing everything in our entire world in so many ways.
Who did you look up to when starting out and did anyone mentor you/show you the ropes?
Noser was one of my first real painting partners and we met a lot of other people together. A few of the SF OG’s i met who were around in the late 90’s were kinda dicks when I was super toy and were not helpful. Of course, a few years later they all wanted to buy me drinks and be cool. Renos, Kem (Skizm), Lewse and Pastime were some of the first ones from the older generation of the SF Bay that I looked up too that brought me around and pushed my style of painting forward a lot.
Do you think the OG’s and older generation of writers has a responsibility to teach the next generation the secrets and “code” of our culture?
No I don’t, I think if someone wants to be a part of any subculture or have a hobby it’s their responsibility to learn to do it correctly. I think the problem with graffiti is it tends to attract people who have problems with rules and authority. It’s harder to conform to the code of any culture if you’re already an outcast in most. While graffiti seems like a no-rules kind of sport there is a lot of rules still. I think the graffiti teaching often happens thru hard knocks, you do toy stuff, people paint over you or treat you like a toy. You stop and pay attention and surround yourself with good talented people, you get good at whatever you’re doing.
What is your opinion on the inherent narcissism in graffiti and do you think it’s healthy to be involved in something that is so ego-centric?
Definitely not healthy. I think if you can really break the graffiti down into just the art of letters and a tradition then you can move past the ego driven part of it. I had someone say once “you shouldn’t write different words, people won’t recognize who you are.” I really felt in that moment that changing words was also a great way to try to move past some of the ego-centric part of it. You’re not just adding to the same scorecard that way, you’re starting multiple, and people don’t need to know you have more than one. If you don’t need to validate your ego with others, you’re ok with no one immediately knowing that’s you.
If you could only focus on one aspect of graff (tags, piecing, throw-ups, freights, legals, etc. etc.), what would it be and why?
Pieces on trains, because they go everywhere. I think it’s something a bit bigger than local graffiti that more people like. Even though my 2nd favorite would be just driving around all night doing fat-cap tags in the city, I feel like with city bombing people often feel victimized by people tagging on their stuff. For the most part, I do not feel like you have that aspect with boxcars and hoppers.
Have you ever struggled to find a balance between real life and graff life? Please explain your experiences.
Yes definitely, graffiti has both ruined and saved my life. I’ve quit for a year or so a few times to deal with life stuff. Some balance and triumph came after I started growing weed in 2004, which sounds chill now since it’s legal, but at the time the D.E.A. was still raiding homes with a few lights in them and people were doing time. I eventually got bored with all my time being spent bombing, racking and growing weed. So I decided to go to college since SF city college would pay me to go there. Because I didn’t have any real job, I studied hard and got almost straight A’s. I got a generous grant offers from CCA and San Francisco Art Institute, the one from SFAI was a bit bigger so I went there. VOTE 1810 did as well, my only friend who went to City College and SFAI with me. I’d heard writers talking shit about other writers going to art school or being rich kids that can do whatever. I still really wanted to go. I never envied the kids whose parents just paid for school. I didn’t think they could appreciate being there as much someone who did what I did to get thru college. I didn’t think they could appreciate being there as much someone who sold drugs and racked stuff to put themselves thru college. I think the school made my mind and graffiti stronger. These were also some of my most active years painting in San Francisco. That part of being a writer and balancing life I’m still very proud of.
What lessons has being a writer taught you over the years?
The greatest lesson it has taught me is to have the courage to do whatever you really want to do in life, regardless of what anyone thinks. If you don’t do it you’ll look back and wish you did.
If you had to make a list of five rules for painting and establishing yourself for the long haul, what would they be?
Don’t mess with any kind of drugs. So many writers and people I know have died or ruined their lives with drugs and alcohol.
Keep to yourself as much as possible. Clicks and crews often have a lot of problems and they won’t be there when you actually need them. No one can really hurt you unless they are truly close to you.
Be smart with your moves and don’t bomb drunk. When I moved to SF I used to ask people when they got caught how it happened. About 4 out of 5 times the story begins with “well I was really drunk and then….”
Always throw or hide the paint, markers or any evidence immediately if you’re getting chased or think you’re hot, losing 50$ worth of paint is way better than losing thousands to fines or time to a cell.
We’re here as humans to learn from everyone. Wack fools, toys, haters and real enemies can often hold more valuable lessons than the “yes men” in your crew.
How have your methods of operation changed and evolved over the years you’ve been painting?
I think you just get better at doing something the more you do it. New technology changes our world in so many ways everyday. The thing that really changed how I operated was when Rustoleum changed to male cans. I acquired some paint and got home and all the cans were male, very frustrating. I quit painting for a while. I began buying all my paint from there on out. I decided I had to make adapters because the ones I was buying were too expensive, hard to get on and off, and often fell apart at the most inconvenient times. That changed my whole life because now I own a legit business and I stopped being a professional shithead. Also now I get to hook up friends I paint with caps and that always feels good. I remember when I never had enough caps and now everyone around me always has caps. Just like you wouldn’t want to paint with a dried up brush, using a brand new cap each time you paint you’ll get the best results.
What mistakes have you made over the years and how would you change how things unfolded?
Drugs and alcohol is the main one, you make bad choices on them. It ended up hurting people around me I cared about and most of all myself. Starting fights, waking up in beds I shouldn’t be in, and dealing with the police are all things I could’ve avoided by being sober.
What are some of your greatest accomplishments/successes and how do you think you made them possible?
The story above about going to college is probably the greatest. The adapter company has worked out well also. I had some art in the YouTube building with Chez and Alex Pardee years ago. Shux hooked up painting the inside of Pixar. One time I had multiple things in the SFMOMA at once. Jesse Hazelip let me do tags all over his art that was for his show in the outdoor window gallery of the SF MOMA and I had my photos and interview in the Bay Area Graffiti book which was being sold in the book store. A lot of it was luck and just who I knew and had met. But I’m sure putting in a bunch of work on the street helped out.
Can you tell us your best painting story?
Too many to be a best, but a funny one is when I was painting in El Cerrito behind a building in 2003 police caught me and the guy I was painting with red handed because they were looking for a guy that had robbed a gas station around the corner. It was day time and I knew we were fucked because the cop had come up behind us and seen everything. When he said “freeze” and was putting his gun away realizing we weren’t the guy. I said “What? No! The owner here wants me to paint the back of this building.” I just turned my back to him and kept painting as if I actually knew the owner. He had already seen me painting so I figured this was my only shot at walking away from this. The guy I was with was clearly freaked out, and stopped painting. Fortunately he kept his mouth shut. “Stop painting now or I’m going to arrest you.” said the cop. “Did you not just hear the part about the owner wants me to paint this wall?” I said as I stopped. I finally let him run my ID. We didn’t have any warrants so he let us go and told us not to come back unless we got a letter from the owner. Clearly we did not come back since we never had any sort of permission to be there.
What do you do to stay original and keep your work from getting stale or looking too much like the next cat?
I don’t worry about that too much. I just try to do different stuff to keep my self interested and look at fine art and all kinds of graff and non-graff stuff on the internet for inspiration. I feel like if I’m into what I’m painting at least 1 or 2 other people will probably like it too and that’s good enough for me.
Any last shout outs?
Big ups to Steve Rotman and a few of you “urban explorers” from flickr. I jacked a few flicks for this interview and I appreciate you letting me download them. Big ups to my happy family of crews and homies. The most important and real ones all know who they are. To the ones who have passed away we all miss you very much.
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BY Paul Lukes