Review written by Luís Torres
Chicano Graffiti: Is it Art or is it Vandalism?
It might surprise you to learn that Western Europeans, particularly Scandinavians, are captivated and intrigued by Mexican American contemporary culture, everything from art to music — and a lot in between. It could be argued that sophisticated Swedes and intellectually inquisitive Frenchmen (and women) know more about Chicano culture than your average American.
Given that, it might not be too surprising to learn that the latest book to investigate a particular aspect of Mexican American gritty urban culture is produced not by an American mainstream publisher, but by a respected publishing house in, of all places, Sweden. Dokument Press has just published a fascinating and beautifully rendered book titled “Cholo Writing: Latino Gang Graffiti in Los Angeles.” And it is worth digging into. For several reasons.
Mention the word “graffiti” and you’re likely to get immediate, strident response to the term. “It’s vandalism, plain and simple,” many will proclaim. Some, with a faint voice, tinged with a bit of awkward rationalization, will offer a strained and tortured explanation that it is somehow rebellious urban art that should be accorded at least a modicum of cultural legitimacy.
Graffiti may be both, however contradictory that may first appear. Those who produced “Cholo Writing: Gang Graffiti in Los Angeles” focus their energies and their analysis on a very specific and particular type of graffiti. And they make no bones about calling it graffiti. Graffiti (the singular form of the word is graffito) is the Latin word that describes any markings on a public wall. Some form of graffiti has been around since the days of ancient Rome. But the authors of the book don’t regard Chicano wall-writing as vandalism nor a public nuisance. They regard it as an expression of cultural identity with deep, deep literary, political, cultural and historical roots. No kidding.
The creators of the book are photographers Francois Chastanet of France and Howard Gribble, a California native son. Their photographs — shot over a 30 year period in Southern California — and their long, detailed narratives about what they shot and what it means are accompanied by an analysis provided by Los Angeles-based Chounard-trained artist Chaz Bojórquez. Bojorquez writes: “Los Angeles may have the longest history of street writing in the world. Before the invention of spray cans, most L.A. graffiti was painted with paint and a brush, and the young men who lived by the Los Angeles River would use sticks and paint with the tar seeping from the ground. Those tar tags still exist today and trace our graffiti history back to the 1940s.”
Chicano graffiti, or placas, have been a mainstay in Southern California, from East L.A. to the San Gabriel Valley, for a long time.
Chastanet and Gribble trace the roots of “cholo” writing back much farther than the post-World War II era. The identity issues revealed in cholo graffiti are linked to Aztec and post-Spanish conquest Mexican imagery, they assert. And they argue that the “black letter” design of the type of calligraphy written on the walls by Los Angeles gang members can be traced to the 17th century “type face” that was prevalent in England and Germany until it was supplanted by what we now regard as “Roman” type. Black letter type, with it’s stark but “fancy” bold lines and sweeping flourishes became the characteristic style of cholo graffiti. (It has now been largely supplanted by the kind of sweeping, colorful balloon shaped mini murals first developed by New York street artists in the 1970s and 1980s who used the exteriors of subway cars as their canvas and by “taggers” who just use stylized, highly individualized, initials or a street moniker.)
Chastanet and Gribble emphasize that cholo graffiti sprang up in Southern California as a way for street gangs to mark their territory. It was rudimentary at first, but then evolved into a system of refined craftsmanship and a code of rules strictly adhered to. The word “cholo” has evolved over many years. It generally refers to someone who appears to be a street gang member. The writings of cholos on the walls of East L.A. and other parts of Southern California are captured in both black and white and color photographs.
The photographs that are the core of the book are remarkable. And what is remarkable about the book overall is that the images of graffiti are the catalyst for a sweeping exposition of the social and political history of Mexican Americans. Chastanet and Gribble generally succeed in illuminating these issues through the phenomenon of cholo writing. Yet, the book bogs down when the narrative veers from accessible historiography into a questionable sociology-tinged explication of “what all this means.” A bit too academic.
Yet, on balance, it’s a readable, visually engaging book that will let you know a bit more about urban Chicanos than you probably knew. And, whether you regard it as art of a public nuisance (or perhaps both), it’s worth learning about.
But I can’t help but recall the chuckle-producing graffito I saw spray painted on an L.A. wall back in the 1970s, during the height of the vibrant Chicano movement. Some poor guy who was either in quite a hurry or who was not the winner of his local spelling bee attempted to write: “Chicano Power.” However, he wrote instead:“Chicano Powre.”