“We could have been called a lot of things: brazen vandals, scared kids, threats to social order, self-obsessed egomaniacs, marginalized youth, outsider artists, trend setters, and thrill seekers. But, to me, we were just regular kids growing up hard in America and making the city our own. Being ‘writers’ gave us something to live for and ‘going all city’ gave us something to strive for; and for some of my friends it was something to die for.”
In the age of Banksy, hipster street art, and commissioned wall murals, it’s easy to forget graffiti’s complicated and often violent past in the United States. Though graffiti has become one of the most influential art forms of the twenty-first century, cities across the United States waged a war against it from the late 1970s to the early 2000s, complete with brutal police task forces. Who were the much-maligned taggers they targeted? Teenagers, usually, from low-income neighborhoods with little to their names except a few spray cans and a desperate need to be seen—to mark their presence on city walls and buildings even as their cities turned a blind eye to them.
Going All City is the mesmerizing and painful story of these young graffiti writers, told by one of their own. Prolific LA writer Stefano Bloch came of age in the late 1990s amid constant violence, poverty, and vulnerability. He recounts vicious interactions with police; debating whether to take undocumented friends with gunshot wounds to the hospital; coping with his mother’s heroin addiction; instability and homelessness; and his dread that his stepfather would get out of jail and tip his unstable life into full-blown chaos. But he also recalls moments of peace and exhilaration: marking a fresh tag; the thrill of running with his crew at night; exploring the secret landscape of LA; the dream and success of going all city.
Bloch holds nothing back in this fierce, poignant memoir and ethnography. Going All City is an unflinching portrait of a deeply maligned subculture and an unforgettable account of what writing on city walls means to the most vulnerable people living within them.
Via the University of Chicago Press
DB: For the regular civilian who hates graffiti and views it as trash and an act of vandalism, how would you explain the art form to them in a way that would highlight its more meaningful side?
Stefano Bloch aka Cisco: You can’t easily change people’s taste, teach open-mindedness, or force a sense of empathy. I have never tried to convince anyone that graffiti is aesthetically pleasing or that they should appreciate it. In fact, I don’t really want people “appreciating” graffiti for how it looks without understanding how and why it is produced. Besides, graffiti, if done right, is in fact vandalism. So if that is how people see it, at least it means they are paying attention. It actually annoys me when people nowadays tell me how much they love and appreciate graffiti, when I know for a fact that if it was 1993, that same person would be calling the police on me.
DB: How do you think graffiti culture is evolving with social media? Do you think it’s become trendy, and people are doing it for the wrong reasons?
Cisco: Graffiti is public. It must be painted in public and seen in public, and social media is simply a platform for looking at graffiti. So in this way social media can only help with dissemination. But just like a picture of someone camping is not actual camping, a picture of graffiti is not graffiti. Some people do paint in safe spaces and then post the picture online, which gives them some sense of fame in that regard, but nothing can ever replace the feeling of bombing or hitting a spot, or seeing a spot in real life. Nothing that demands that much effort can ever be “trendy.” The idea and image may be trendy for people looking at their phones, but not the practice and passion for those of us who produce it.
DB: When does someone become a sellout in graffiti culture?
Cisco: You either do graffiti or you don’t. So there is really no such thing as “selling out.” The minute you get paid to do legal graffiti, well, that is not graffiti in the way I understand it, so you are not selling out. You are just not doing graffiti. It bothers me to see graffiti-style lettering used in advertising or fashion, but you can’t co-opt or “sell” the physicality and production of real graffiti, which means the two things are separate. If someone is a graffiti writer, and then becomes an artist or designer, or hell, a professor, I don’t consider that selling out. I just consider that a widening of that person’s repertoire. You can’t sell out what refuses to be sold. Real graffiti can’t be sold or purchased.
DB: Do you think the rules have changed in the graffiti game?
Cisco: The rules of graffiti have always been unwritten. Like social norms in general, you get acculturated into a scene and learn how to act. This means the rules change over time and from place to place. For example, I lived in Budapest, Hungary for a while, and there, it is perfectly acceptable within the graffiti community to write on a church. This is because they have a very different relationship to religion given their Communist past. But here in the US, even the worst gangsters who don’t show respect for each other show respect to their sky God and their religion, and therefore refrain from writing on churches. This just shows that rules are not universal, but contextual and often illogical. That said, the basic rules of graffiti concerning capping, topping, etc., those don’t appear to have changed. There have always been violators of these rules, but it is not like the graffiti community now accepts it when a toy catches a tag in someone’s throw-ups. That will never change because it is a matter of basic respect, which is timeless and universal.
DB: My uncle had a mechanic shop right in front of the Belmonte tunnel, he was double teamed and stabbed fifteen times there and survived. As a kid I was mesmerized by the graffiti and the seediness of it. My uncle always told me ‘stay away from there or you’ll get killed.’ Tell me about your experiences and dangers there?
Cisco: Your uncle is right. Belmont was a pretty deep hood. This is why many writers wouldn’t go down there unless we were rolling deep. I used to go when there would be a dozen writers painting, and a few dozen guys playing palota tarasca, the pre-Columbian ball game they used to play there. There would be señoras selling food and kids playing. And the guys from Head Hunters 13 would just sit at the top and watch. It always felt safe to me because of the activity and diversity of users. But stories like your uncle’s, they are too real and too common, and I am sorry that happened to him. For me personally, it was the police who gave me more of a hassle than anyone else in that neighborhood.
DB: Do you think The Belmonte tunnel is an iconic spot for the LA graff scene?
Cisco: Belmont is possibly the premier graffiti spot in LA. I don’t think any spot for painting will ever compare in terms of the lore and legend of the location. Its history alone, as a former subway tunnel and train yard, makes it one of the most interesting and iconic places in LA history. Venice is also iconic, but that is due to it being a tourist destination. The graffiti in Venice is to graffiti what the Wax Museum in Hollywood is to real actors. It is an ersatz version of itself. But Belmont was as real as real gets. The Motor Yard and places like that come close, but there was only one Belmont.
DB: Name your Five favorite spots in Los Angeles that you tagged and why?
Cisco: My favorite spots in terms of how it felt to write on them would include almost every spot I ever caught. But my favorite spots in terms of how the final product looked when I was finished, or the quality of the spot itself, are different. I was not much of a spot person for most of my career. I just went out and wrote on things… everything. I was influenced by writers like Oiler and Chaka who actually went bombing, on foot. Going all city was about putting in mileage on your shoes, not driving to high-profile spots to get immediate celebrity status. By about 1995, “bombers” became spot jockeys in this way. They sought out individual, high profile spots to maximize exposure. They were not bombers in the traditional sense. That said, some of those writers who caught “spot fame” in the late 1990s and early 2000s did a great job, but it was more akin to advertising than bombing.
My favorite spots actually include tags as well. To name a few iconic spots of my own, I would say my giant black and silver letters on the 110 just south of the 10 is one of my favorite spots, but so is a single tag on a wall in Cudahy that I caught in 1993. Something about the S and the unbuffed wall, and the memory of that night of dirty bombing makes it one of my favorites. Also it is the fact that I have a picture. We didn’t walk around with cameras in our pockets back then, so photographs are often hard to come by.
I also had a spot in the 110 just north of 105 that I hit with Mear in 1996. It didn’t last long, but it was one of the best bombing experiences. I had a spot on Venice Blvd. that lasted for a long time, and the letters were huge, so that is also one of my favorites. I also caught a tag on a wall on Sunset Blvd. in Silver Lake in about 1994, and I loved that tag and it lasted for years, but I never got a picture of it. In about 2003, I hit an Airstream trailer in East Hollywood, which I really liked because of how I wrapped my letters around the entire trailer. Oddly enough a billboard I hit in Echo Park in 2004 is not one of my favorites. It was huge and high in the air, but I didn’t really like the letters. So having favorites is subjective. Overall, my favorite spots were all the e-boxes I hit for years. There was a time in the early 1990s when I had the bottom of every e-box from the Valley to Downtown. So those are my favorite given the feeling of flaring the can down as I squatted in the gutter to be able to hit the low base.
DB: You touched on so many topics in your book from poverty, immigration, drug addiction, gangs, the welfare system and prison system, but no one ever talks about the role women play. A quote from your book, “Bitches cause problems… but in truth, women economically and emotionally sustain the men, who then get caught up in the drama and blame the women who support them.” I felt that deep and it rang true in my family. Can you tell me how this influenced you in your life?
As I say in the book, men often disparage women, but it is the women who raise them and pay their bills and take care of their children. It is one of the many reasons sexism has never made sense to me. Men bite the hand that feeds them, which is almost always a women’s hand, and then like to walk around like they are in control of their lives and “don’t need women.” Most of the men I have known wouldn’t last a week without a woman in their lives. The sad fact about many men is that the harder they come, the most likely they are to have to rely on the government, women, drugs, and alcohol in order to live. You lose control of your manhood when you let it get out of control. Too much masculinity lands you on a prison bunk bed or on your mom’s couch or in an alley, having to sleep like a little baby. Real manhood is knowing how to control your urges toward violence and aggression.
DB: What are the most tags you’ve done in one day and biggest without getting busted?
Cisco: I have never been caught in the act of painting, even when producing letters that are seven feet high and seven feet across. Some of those take hours to paint because I had to pause every few seconds as cars drove by or helicopters passed overhead. One spot I hit in Hollywood took all night because I got chased from the wall by gangsters and had to come back to finish, twice! This was Hollywood before the tourists replaced 18th Street. I honestly don’t know which group of people is worse for the neighborhood though… idiot tourists or idiot gangsters. Anyway, the biggest spot I have ever caught with spray paint alone would have to be the spot on Venice or a freeway spot I hit the night I got into CBS. I have done larger letters with Mear in the LA River, but those don’t really count because I used a roller and was in the river, which makes it different.
As far as the most tags I have caught in a night…. I honestly don’t know. There have been nights when I decided to hit every sandstone light pole on a single street, or every e-box in downtown. I must have caught 75 paint tags in a single night on those missions. But during a battle I was in with KRS, I was writing on everything in order to win, so I must have caught over a hundred per night, but many of them were low-quality fame spots that got buffed soon after the battle was over.
DB: How did you get the name Cisco and are there other names you’ve used?
Cisco: When I first wrote on something, illegally, I was in 7th grade and wrote “El Loco Bear Oner” on one of those old blue wooden bus stop benches in about 1989. That sounds like a name from a bad movie about graffiti, but it is what I wrote. By 9th grade I started writing Cisco after bragging to my friends at school that I had drank some Cisco wine cooler the night before. “Liquid crack” is what people called it. I was lying, but the name stuck because I was in a graphic design class at the time and started printing it on all my work. Cisco notepads, Cisco posters, Cisco lithographs. Soon after that, I started writing Cisco on walls. The first time I ever did, I was with Tape and Myer, two Valley writers I went to school with. My brother was also a writer, but we never actually wrote together. I was just always trying to impress him. I went to Walter Reed Junior High, and the number and quality of writers to come out of that school in North Hollywood is amazing.
DB: What crews do you rep? What were the requirements to become a member?
Cisco: I have never been one of those writers who is from a bunch of crews at once. I always thought it was funny how writers are from two or three or even four crews that have all the same members. I was in TUGK when starting out, which was like my family. And then got into KRS, which was my favorite crew in the Valley. I never felt so honored as when they asked me to get in. I write about it in my book, actually. Then, in 1996, I had lost touch with the older KRS heads who I still admired and was disillusioned by the newer KRS heads. One day at a piercing shop on Melrose called House of Freaks (how 1990s is that!) I met Exist from CBS and he invited me to a meeting that night at Fairfax High when Mear, Anger, Rob One, Natoe, Posh, Ares, Tren, Axis, Duel, and few others got me in. That felt like the pinnacle of my graffiti career and I never got into another crew since. I am loyal and believe if you are from more than one or two crews, it means the whole idea of the crew system is unnecessary.
DB: Is there any one that’s new to the graffiti game that really stands out to you and why?
Cisco: I lived in Providence, Rhode Island for a few years, so many of those writers are new to me. Sloe, Reak, and Zester are dope. And Guyer who also lived in Oakland was one of the best writers ever in my opinion. He died last year and I never met him, but his style was almost as dope at Rage from TCF in LA who I consider the best of all time. But when you start getting old, what is new to you might not actually be new. Some guy who writes Pabst around the Dodger Stadium area had some cool letters a few years ago. Also Biafra from CBS. His letters are crazy innovative. He is from my crew, but I have never met him, so to me he is new. But as far as classic writing… no one’s style resonates with me like Oiler, Chaka, Sleez, Triax, Geso and those writers from back in the day. There is some guy Merch from OTR whose style had that deeply authentic LA feel to it, and to me he is a relatively new writer whose sheer power to destroy walls impresses me.
DB: If you were twenty years old in the era of mass surveillance, 2020, would you approach tagging in a whole different way? I would think it’s harder to get up now than back in your day.
Cisco: I actually think it was harder to paint in the early 1990s than now. While everyone has a cell phone now, they are not calling 911 if they see a tagger. And if they do, it is not a priority, so you will be gone before a cop responds. As far as surveillance cameras go, no one is actively monitoring the video feed, so it plays little role unless a full-scale investigation takes place. So cameras are not really an issue. But in 1993, for example, there were over 1000 homicides in the City of Los Angeles that year. There haven’t been more than 300 killings in a single year more than twice in over 20 years. Think of how much more violent the streets were for those of us bombing in those days. LA was a very different city and many of us were going all city in its midst. Also, cars full of gangsters, the LAPD CRASH units, vigilantes were all on patrol. Now you just have to worry that some nerd with an IPhone gets a picture of you and posts it to their sad Twitter or Instagram account. Back then, you have to literally worry about bullets hitting you.
DB: What was the one place you’ve always wanted to hit but were unable to execute?
Cisco: There is a curved roof top with a gold finish right on the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire that I always wanted to hit. I had a plan to hit it when I got into CBS, but then I got arrested after a big investigation and my house got raided (which I describe in my book). After my court date in late February of 1997, I was still ready to hit it. I was scoping it out and had all my paint and was waiting for the right night. I figured I would hit it on a Sunday night since it would be dead out by about 3am. Three hours before I was ready to hit it, Biggie Smalls got shot and killed right across the street from my spot. That brought so much attention to the corner that I never got a chance, and then left for college by 1998. I still feel I missed out.
DB: In the book you talked about countless brawls and shootings and assaults you witnessed. You also mentioned that you never threw the first punch or pulled a trigger. Your crew always backed you up. How were you able to maintain yourself in the vicious and violent environment without losing your cool?
Cisco: I have always had a calm attitude and have always been a coward. I watched tough guys get killed and get their friends killed as well. But by being afraid, I could navigate the world of violence around me and put my mind to something other than survival. My best friend Tolse died because his new friends in his new crew were so busy being arrogant and tough and thriving off machismo. But I would rather go bombing and then go to school. My ego was caught up in improving myself, not in beefing with or defeating others. I never lost my cool, and I realized from an early age that drama and beef was a sad and destructive waste of energy. Like anyone else, I get mad and bitter and even petty, but I don’t let it manifest and take over. I don’t let negative feelings for others dictate my actions.
DB: You talk about a friend getting shot and how going to the hospital wasn’t an option. Looking back at it, do you feel like it was the right thing to risk one’s life to avoid law enforcement, knowing it could possibly cost you your life?
Cisco: For us, being confronted by police and how they always made situations worse, even if you were the one calling them for help, was the worst option. So yes, we made a rational decision to not get help. This is especially so since the bullet wound was not life threatening. Had it been life threatening, we would have gone to the ER and took our chances, but it was something that we were able to address ourselves with bandages and peroxide.
DB: You talked a lot about how nerve-racking it was every time you hit a spot. With all the anxiety this caused, what fueled you to keep going?
Cisco: What fueled me to keep painting, despite how scary it was, was the desire for fame and the feeling of being recognized for those efforts. I suppose it was low self-esteem to some degree. There is no better motivator than that. Had bombing been easy or free from fear, I wouldn’t have done it. It was not the adrenaline that fueled me; it was the feeling of basking in the recognition once I was done bombing. It is one of the reasons I have never been a piecer. There is no fear in love. It is more of a creative process, and that just doesn’t have a payoff in the same way as being asked “how did you do that!?”
DB: Has anyone approached you to do a movie biopic based on your book? If not, someone offer him a deal!
Cisco: I don’t want to say right now, but you will know the answer to this question if you ever see advertainments for Going All City, the series!
DB: Where can people pick up your book?
Cisco: My book is available wherever books are sold. I like to get my books from independent bookstores like Skylight in Los Feliz or Stories in Echo Park, or Antigone in Tucson, but it is available on Amazon, IndyBound.org, and everywhere else.