UTI Mural Commemorates 30 Years of Artistic Union, Spiritual Growth and LA’s Elevating Graffiti Culture
“The wall facing Olympic has been tagged just about every other day. I have to call the city’s graffiti removal service weekly and they come down and spray over the graffiti,”
said an exasperated manager at Westbrass, a Los Angeles based plumbing manufacturer whose warehouse was once on the “wrong side of the tracks.” With the ever-expanding improvement of life in urban Los Angeles, the Arts District, an area that was once only a couple blocks in the forgotten portion of Downtown Los Angeles, has expanded to literally the railroad tracks along the LA River. Over 20 years of wear and tear resulted in a Westbrass wall that was more like a peeling, cracked canvas than a wall at all, leaving an open invitation for consistent graffiti tagging and vandalism. The wall was in definite need of pampering- nothing a good old pressure wash, buffing, and new paint couldn’t solve. Nevertheless: paint, tag, paint, tag… and so it went. So, we embarked on a mission to create a massive mural production that would wrap around the two walls facing Santa Fe and Olympic Blvd., and were met with a roller coaster of challenges, as we quickly learned that with every great work of street art, there is more than meets the eye.
Photo by Steve Wysocki
Fast forward seven months, and the Westbrass wall was once again in graffiti artists’ cross-hairs. This time, however, Aise Born and BlackLight King, two artists representing the UTI Crew, (Under The Influence, Using The Imagination, Unite To Inspire, to list a few of their acronyms) a Los Angeles based graffiti artist collective, wanted to reflect on the history of graffiti art. 2016 marks the crew’s 30 year anniversary, and the Westbrass wall was ideal to use for a milestone mural production. Convincing Westbrass that they should allow graffiti on their walls that would not be removed and covered, but rather revered, took little work. After a meeting and frank telephone conversation with BlackLight King, Westbrass decided to move forward. What nobody knew at the time was that a manufacturing company teaming up with graffiti artists would result in work that would create a larger impact within LA’s graffiti culture as a whole.
Who are we talking about?
The UTI Crew grew out of the second wave of graffiti artists (otherwise known as graffiti writers) that came to Los Angeles in 1986, a time when most writers were competitive, territorial, and “lone wolves” who often acted illegally and in the dark of the night. Conversely, the UTI Crew flourished as the antithesis of this model, forming out of a bond of trust and friendship. Its co-founder, Skill, built the crew with SNAP, his childhood friend whom his mother adopted at the age of 15. Young and novice to the LA graffiti scene, Skill and SNAP came together to form a brotherhood of kids like themselves, who were viewed as “misfit artists”– creative, ambitious, and eager, but not widely known, nor with a portfolio of work to fall back on. As friendships and networks grew, Skill explains that the small circle became glued together by becoming each other’s fans and supporters. “That attitude had a lot of good energy and attracted people with bigger followings,” he tells me. “We would approach other artists as new friends, not as competition. That was refreshing to everyone, to have no ego involved.”
Skill (left) and SNAP (right), 1990s. Photo provided by Skill.
30 years later, it is apparent how the UTI Crew established themselves as a byproduct of a simple attitude which continues to instill itself in the crew’s culture. From the many artists I had the opportunity to speak with before and during the making of the mural, each one of them touched on the importance of being part of a support system who has a symbiotic relationship with one another. With dozens of artists working together, it is easy to imagine how difficult it was to deliberate space and give each artist room to shine on a production so big. Thanks to the direction of artists Aise Born, BlackLight King, and pivotal crew member Plek One, over 30 artists from the UTI Crew were able to add their contributions to the mural, from different generations, backgrounds, and walks of life.
Shining light on graffiti’s iconic landmarks
The crew shared 2 concepts behind the mural: the first focusing on Los Angeles landmarks that played an instrumental role in propelling the crew’s establishment throughout the city, building upon graffiti’s deep history, and as Plek One describes
“compelled the crew to create graffiti into a subculture as an alternative and positive outlet to the poverty, frustration, and violence often encountered living in the inner cities.”
The iconic architecture and historical landmarks portrayed in the mural not only showcase areas that symbolize Los Angeles, but were hubs where most graffiti writers started to showcase their skills and styles from the 80’s and 90s and throughout the years. These include the Sears Building, the 6th Street Bridge, Belmont Tunnel, and the Venice Art Walls, of many. According to BlackLight King,
“They were the sites where most kids started, when they had to go to alternative places to find their form of expression. We are putting these landmarks on our walls so future generations can remember the rich history behind each development of graffiti.”
However, as urban LA continues to develop economically and socially, change has caused bridges to be torn down, streets to be rebuilt, and walls to be minimized, resulting in more of a history that many will never know. In highlighting them throughout the mural, each landmark transforms into a demolished memoir of Los Angeles, exposing its history and reminding us that they are much bigger than us, instrumental to the foundation and dynamic of graffiti culture.
Graffiti as a spiritual director
The second concept embedded within the UTI mural elaborates on the importance of parental influences within the crew and their generational bonds. The towering image of a father holding a microphone, black book, and having his son sitting on his shoulders painting a graffiti piece next to him reflects on the dynamics of family and future generations, and as Plek One describes
“build on strength and unity, share knowledge, and assist in the development of the next generation.”
The father and son also reflect on parallels between individuals within the crew who have allowed older generations to become mentors to the younger ones, giving less established artists something to learn from and aspire to.
I would argue that graffiti itself acted as a parental role for many individuals in the crew who grew up in less affluent neighborhoods, surrounded by societal challenges and pulled into compromising situations. Aise Born shed light on his depiction of a father and son, and described the power of graffiti for many individuals within the crew:
“A lot of us grew up without fathers. The father figure and lineage of art and music transcends to the next generation and is important because of the sense of history. As weird as it may be, with the vandalism, there was good and bad. Some people went to jail; others were saved and their lives changed. Graffiti is one of those things where all of the bad guys have been able to pull away”.
Aise experienced this first hand:
“I was presented with opportunities that might have gotten me into trouble, but always chose to take the artistic route.” As a foster child, you are born into statistics that define you and trap you from growing. I wanted to be outside of that box.”
This became the principle for many other graffiti artists like Aise, and spread like wildfire within UTI Crew’s generations. For those who chose graffiti and art as an outlet for growth,
“their lives were transformed, they became very spiritual, they grew out of that mentality, they matured, they were converted”
Aise explained. Individuals who others knew as past gang members, continue to be shocked by where their fellow graffiti artists are to this day.
Photo by Steve Wysocki
UTI elevating the standards of graffiti
The UTI Crew profited from this spiritual and positive energy, as it allowed them to expand into the 150+ artist collective they have proudly become today. “Bloods and Crips would be in the same crew and write on buses together. Art connected everyone- from bombing and bus writing, to elite artists… 5 out of 10 members pushed to keep the crew alive and made a focus to recruit and help UTI evolve into what it is today,” said Aise. The power of this collective allowed the crew to intertwine street credibility, artistic talent and integrity, and focus on an artistic push, rather than focus on individuals’ upbringings and past. “We wanted to ‘graduate’,” said BlackLight King, and that, they surely did.
Today, the UTI Crew has left their mark on cities across the U.S., with strong bases in Arizona, Oakland, Reno, Utah, and New York. They have lifted graffiti art and writing to another level, focusing on maintaining the integrity and history of graffiti culture while elevating it past the negative connotations and stereotypes it has often received. When asked where he hopes to see the crew down the line, BlackLight King said “I want to continue pushing the envelope to creating more Fine Art while incorporating graffiti elements. I would love to see at least 10 UTI productions in the next year. If we keep creating art around the city, we can link back the lineage and culture it came from and keep this history alive.”
Since the production began in June, there have been zero instances of tagging, and Westbrass has not had to call the City’s graffiti removal service once. As the sole sponsor of the mural, Westbrass is seeking additional funding and sponsorship to continue the growth of the 30th Anniversary mural, titled “Under the Influence of Los Angeles”. Having fostered a new partnership with the UTI Crew, Westbrass hopes to complete the remaining two walls of the building in order to create the first wrap around mural created by LA native artists– a potentially new historical landmark for the city.
For more details on how you can become involved, contact Michelle by email at: email@example.com. Follow Michelle on instagram.
Photos of completed mural by Michelle Homami
Process Photos by Wendy Random: