GETTY L.A. GRAFFITI BLACK BOOK

Written by Karen McDonough

Perched high up on a hill, peering over the 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass, is one of Los Angeles’s most majestic buildings and esteemed art institutions. The Getty Center moved most of their collection from the Getty Villa in Malibu and opened their doors to the public at the new location in 1997. What took over one billion dollars to build, the museum boasts just short of two million visitors per year. Free to the public, visitors come to admire, study, or sketch collections from Medieval through Contemporary Art eras from all over the world. Funded primarily by the Paul Getty Trust, the Getty has been ranked one of the richest museums in the world. 

Meanwhile, at the foot of the Getty, amidst the vast landscape of Los Angeles, kids and teenagers run amuck, scouring freight yards, crawling through tunnels, hanging from overpasses, and hide in abandoned buildings, holding a spray can in their hand and an idea in their head. Most coming from immigrant families and impoverished neighborhoods, as the Getty Center was opening, these kids were out putting their own mark in their own worlds. With very little money in their pockets, they stole spray cans and used the city as the canvas for their work. Their mark is their name. Their mark is their art. Their mark is their life. And the blending of what these immigrant cultures’ art brought, and still brings today, is a richness to the art in the streets that became and still remains the graffiti culture of L.A.

With very little money in their pockets, they stole spray cans and used the city as the canvas for their work. Their mark is their name. Their mark is their art. Their mark is their life.

Being worlds apart, would an art institution high up on a hill ever meet up with the graffiti down in the depths of L.A.?

Well, yes, they would.

Artwork by © Gasoline

Flashback to 2012. Two worlds collided when the Getty invited 151 Los Angeles graffiti artists together to assemble a “Black Book” documenting the history of Los Angeles’s graffiti culture to preserve and archive for generations to come. 

So, what is a “Black Book?”

City K.’s article “Graffiti Terminology” article for UP Magazine states it simply.

“Black Books are used to practice tags and sketches. They are often passed around for other artists to draw in during writing sessions. Once an artist has mastered their craft in the Black Book, they can move on to practicing in the streets.”

However, the purpose of a Black Book goes beyond practice sessions and mastering skills. It’s the artist’s journal. A chronicle of the evolution of skills. The historical documentation of the artist’s art. Over time, similar to photographs, the pages can trigger memories of childhood and maturity. Amusement and anguish. Euphoria and heartbreak. Success and defeat.

However, the purpose of a Black Book goes beyond practice sessions and mastering skills. It’s the artist’s journal. A chronicle of the evolution of skills. The historical documentation of the artist’s art. Over time, similar to photographs, the pages can trigger memories of childhood and maturity. Amusement and anguish. Euphoria and heartbreak. Success and defeat.

Appropriately, this Getty Black Book not only serves to offer its audience a historic compilation of this unique Los Angeles art culture, but, also, the sentiment of each stand-alone artist.

As illegal street art was gaining popularity in the 2010’s through the works of artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey, the stigma attached to graffiti still remained synonymous with gangs, violence, and vandalism. Communities weren’t ready to accept it as art.

Yet, there were two Angelinos who didn’t see it that way.

Introduce the Sweeneys. Ed and Brandy Sweeney were the outliers of society when it came to appreciating graffiti as an art form. Independently, Brandy became a graffiti enthusiast after she was introduced to it in high school by a classmate who shared his sketches in his graffiti Black Book with her, and Ed was impressed by a letter forms exhibit at a local Los Angeles museum. He began to recognize the similarity of the graffiti out in the streets to these letter forms. While frequenting galleries and art shows in their quest to expand their collection of graffiti art, they met Heaven, a graffiti artist prolific on the streets of L.A. He introduced the Sweeneys to several graffiti writers and they quickly found themselves wrapped up in the provocative world of this unique culture. They began to understand and respect the spontaneity and ephemeral state of graffiti out in public spaces as part of the essence of the art form, and the lack of that essence in graffiti gallery art became less palatable.

Artwork by © Heaven

As they frequented barbeques and get-togethers with graffiti writers who shared their own Black Books, they had an idea. As prior donors to the Getty, they approached Marsha Reed, Chief Curator and Associate Director of the Getty Research Institute, with the idea of documenting the history of Los Angeles graffiti in Getty’s own L.A. Black Book.

Perfect timing! The Getty Research Institute had just started setting its sights on obtaining art of the contemporary era in Los Angeles in preparation for upcoming exhibits. Reed recognized that this project would not only fit in with their vision for Los Angeles art but be the perfect project for the Institute’s Associate Rare Books Curator. Being a graffiti enthusiast, this was an instant sell for David Brafman, a kid from Brooklyn who had always been drawn to symbols and letters. He recalled when he was just a scrawny kid, some of his toughest friends who took to the streets with spray paint in hand tagging trains for fun let him tag along. Grateful for the invite, he timidly stayed out of their way and watched the fun unfold. A short time later he picked up a spray can himself and took to the streets hitting the D trains with the Eye of Horus for a few weeks until he got it out of his system. He was the perfect person to spearhead this project.

With the help of the Sweeneys, Brafman recruited graffiti crew leaders who, in turn, pitched the idea to their crew members. Considering that the graffiti artists may find a commonality with works from the 1500 through the 1600s sitting in the vaults of the Getty Research Institute, Brafman pulled illuminated manuscripts and books and invited the artists and their families to come and browse through them.

Similar to the Black Books of today, the 16th century aristocrats passed around their own books to their contemporaries at get-togethers where they would autograph each other’s books with their coat of arms, calligraphy, or sketchings. This autograph book was called the Liber Amicorum (translated ‘Book of Friends’).

Similar to the Black Books of today, the 16th century aristocrats passed around their own books to their contemporaries at get-togethers where they would autograph each other’s books with their coat of arms, calligraphy, or sketchings.

Brafman guessed that the artists may find similarities to their own work and draw inspiration from this one Book in particular.

And he was right. The Book spoke to each artist profoundly yet for different reasons.

“I found that a lot of them were really struck by, I know some, by the perspective, some by the emblems, some by the micrography, they would just look at pen work, scratch work…and they recognized the similarities of the techniques that they use,” Brafman recounted.

AiseBorn, one of the younger black graffiti writers who grew up in the Inglewood area, talked about how this book undoubtedly validated him and his work,  

“It just made me feel like, oh, okay, like, I’m not crazy. I’m not stupid. I’m actually looking back in time. These guys are doing the same thing we’re doing right now. You know, we probably have so much in common…” He went on to say, “It kind of validated, you know, our lifestyle a little bit, because I feel like there’s a stigma attached to it.” 

Current mural by AiseBorn on S. Burnside Ave. and W. Adams, Los Angeles

Big Sleeps, a Latino graffiti writer from Pico Union, a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles, who has always been drawn to letter forms ever since he can remember, was stunned that the Getty drew a parallel between the depictions in these rare books and 21st century graffiti and considered the history of Los Angeles’s graffiti culture just as meaningful.

“It kind of validated, you know, our lifestyle a little bit, because I feel like there’s a stigma attached to it.” 

He expressed to me,

“Just to realize that we were in the Getty, in that space, looking at that, but even on a bigger scale to realize that something that we’re being a part of or that we’re actually partaking in is going to be also presented for other people in the future.”

Petal and Blosm, a graffiti team of two women, were two of the few female artists asked to participate. Petal, who grew up on the west side of Los Angeles and came from Armenian heritage, has been hitting the streets since she was in junior high. She is obsessed with languages and was especially fascinated with the Arabic and Hebrew language letter forms and books from the Iraq and Armenian regions too.

She told me,

“I was thoroughly impressed with the manuscript books and they just gave me chills. Like I just feel the energy and it just, it was interesting cause it feels like, you know, just carrying on the same kind of human tradition…”

“I was thoroughly impressed with the manuscript books and they just gave me chills. Like I just feel the energy and it just, it was interesting cause it feels like, you know, just carrying on the same kind of human tradition…”

Now armed with motivation and inspiration, the graffiti artists were ready to make their mark. 143 pages of archival paper were distributed amongst the crew leaders who would then hand out to their crewmembers. They were given only one page for each artist or artist team. They couldn’t mess up, but there was only one restriction: Whatever they put on the page needed to allow for the page to be bound in a book. Otherwise, they had complete freedom to create whatever they wanted.

Artists had different ideas on how they wanted to be reflected in history. Big Sleeps thought it was important to document the roots of his early letter forms,

“If I was going to be a part of this project…. I said, I’m going to give them something different, totally simplified classic historical content that traces back to my early roots of learning lettering, like my age, my early influence. So, I didn’t sit there and go for the super refined, fancy look.”

Artwork by © Big Sleeps

AiseBorn took more of a playful approach. Inspiration came to him from a quirky little boy he used to babysit. He recognized such a unique character in him that he thought it would be fun to have him interact with a cartoon character, specifically Donald Duck. In addition to the playfulness he wanted, he felt it was important to reflect the neighborhood and the crews that were historic of Los Angeles.

Artwork by © Aiseborn

While most of the artists were given a few months to submit their page, Petal and Blosm were given the opportunity only a few days before the deadline. It didn’t take them long to devise their plan for the page and put it into action. They felt a strong need to represent their feminine side as female graffiti artists and document Los Angeles’s history through the lens of their own experience, especially representing the MTA block letter tag along the L.A. river, being 30-feet tall and a half mile wide, the biggest tag in America. Of course, Petal’s signature bees needed to buzz across the page too.

Petal explained, 

“If people are looking at that book hundreds of years from now, hopefully the way we got to look at those old manuscript books, that, you know, they’ll get to see what our city looked like, and where we were at, and kind of like get a deeper insight to our world.”

Artwork by © Blosm and Petal

The 143 pages were then collected, collated in alphabetical order by artist, and bound in the 2×4-foot L.A. Black Book and sent to the vaults for the archives of the Getty Research Institute for a look back into history for generations to come.

But would this Black Book serve as the vehicle to take graffiti to new recognition?

Needless to say, David Brafman wasn’t ready to wrap up this project. Not quite yet. In 2014, the El Segundo Museum of Art (ESMOA) agreed in conjunction with the Getty to exhibit the L.A. Black Book along with many of the other rare books to be displayed on iPads. Brafman had an idea that “blowing up” the L.A. Black Book would only seem fitting for artists who paint on walls, but it also meant finding a space where the graffiti artists could paint. The ESMOA was that place where the artists had free reign to paint any wall and floor of the basement of the museum. The exhibit was called SCRATCH.

AiseBorn told me,

“The book didn’t really cut it. I think, you know, us being able to demonstrate… and work with the actual spray paint, the actual tool…you can do it in the book, yeah, but can you do it on a wall?“

“The book didn’t really cut it. I think, you know, us being able to demonstrate… and work with the actual spray paint, the actual tool…you can do it in the book, yeah, but can you do it on a wall?“

Crews claimed their walls and got to work. Brafman was at the museum morning, noon, and night with these artists. Giddy with excitement, once again, he was standing on the sidelines watching the fun unfold, although not so timidly this time. He watched artists reconnect, shed old grudges, and meet other artists for which they had deep respect. He observed artists paint the walls and floors with intensity and passion that one only expects to see out on the streets with the threat of being caught.

SCRATCH Exhibit at the ESMOA, June 8-September 21, 2014

Unfortunately, with graffiti being a male-dominated culture, Petal and Blosm, as well other women graffiti artists, were overlooked when it came to painting up the museum. Surprised that the ladies weren’t asked to paint, ESMOA gave them the entrance and small exterior wall where they could throw up a few tags. The museum also offered them a chance to do a presentation on women in graffiti and invited other female graffiti artists who did not participate in the L.A. Black Book. The artists ended up creating a mini exhibit within the entire show to exemplify their well-deserved representation.

Current mural by Petal and Clover on De La Torre Way & E 14th in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles

The exhibit as a whole was very well received. At the beginning, Petal noticed about 30 people down in the room, and, when she returned later on, found about 150 people had showed up.

The positive response was so overwhelming, that one had to wonder: Were communities beginning to accept this ‘vandal’ art that’s been screaming to be heard in the streets for the past couple decades?

The positive response was so overwhelming, that one had to wonder: Were communities beginning to accept this ‘vandal’ art that’s been screaming to be heard in the streets for the past couple decades?

Fast forward to 2019. David Brafman couldn’t let this project go. If the L.A. Black Book just sits in the vault, unable to be viewed by only a few upon request, how can they bring greater exposure to the Los Angeles’ graffiti culture?

Chief Curator Marsha Reed agreed that this book should come out of the archives and into the light. They spent so much time destigmatizing the art form that they wanted to make the book available not only within Los Angeles but outside the city’s boundaries as well. They couldn’t replicate a 2×4-foot book so they decided Brafman would write a “mini-me” book. Along with input from Reed and Mary Miller, the Director of the Getty Research Institute, Brafman put together a book with photos of all the art included in the original L.A. Black Book and writings of his own experience with it. Maybe, with the Getty name attached to it, graffiti would finally be recognized as having a place in the art world. 

Artwork by © Prime

I don’t know if it’s the Getty’s distinguished reputation that has influenced graffiti’s trajectory for de-stigmatization; or because there is generally more graffiti featured in galleries and used as backdrops in films; or even because of the rising popularity for workshops on how to write and read graffiti—I actually did one of those. But graffiti does seem to be becoming a more ‘cool,’ predominant, acceptable part of the Los Angeles culture. With still a long way to go, it’s encouraging to see artists such as Big Sleeps, Petal and Blosm, and AiseBorn who have grown up in tough neighborhoods, running in the streets with the spray cans in hand, and breaking barriers now making art for a living. 

With still a long way to go, it’s encouraging to see artists such as Big Sleeps, Petal and Blosm, and AiseBorn who have grown up in tough neighborhoods, running in the streets with the spray cans in hand, and breaking barriers now making art for a living. 

So, when you drive through Los Angeles with the top down and you spot some sick graffiti on the side of the road, consider the artists behind those letters. Their passion. Their skills. The risk they endured. The neighborhoods they came from. Their heritages. Learn and hold that history sacred for, as the Getty has demonstrated, this is just the beginning for the acknowledgement of graffiti as a flourishing art form and deserving of a place in history.

Current mural by Big Sleeps at Guerilla Tacos on 7th St. and Mateo St in the Los Angeles Arts District

L.A. Graffiti Black Book by David Brafman will be available online and in bookstores on April 27, 2021