Graffiti legend Kelly “Risk” Graval‘s art career started on the streets of Los Angeles about thirty years ago, and he has been making art in and around the DTLA Arts District, where Cartwheel Art is based, for a long time. He recalls visiting the Rendon Hotel over twenty years ago. “One of the first art shows that I went to in L.A. was there, an underground art show.” The Arts District was his creative home for many years. He says, “I had studios there on 1st St, 3rd St, 5th St, and 15th St for years. All the way from little bitty rooms to 10,000 square feet.”
A mural that Risk painted on the outside of the Rendon is still there, and the hotel’s new owners are planning to preserve it. Earlier this summer, he revisited the hotel to design a room (top) for Art at the Rendon’s Hidden Rooms event, which was curated by Cartwheel Art’s Cindy Schwarzstein. Although Risk moved to Ventura County several years ago he still feels connected to the Arts District neighborhood. “I’ll always paint there, you know? I just did Lupetti’s Pizza. I’m doing the whole building actually. Probably this week or next week, I’ll start working on that. I just did the back of it.”
That’s not all Risk has going on this summer. He says, “I have the Montauk show in August, and I just got back from Iowa doing some other stuff. I have a show in Canada coming up in September. This Friday, we have the opening of the Mayfair Hotel.” Originally, the newly-renovated DTLA hotel contacted him about doing a mural. He says, “They had some permit issues, and we were laughing about that I’ve never really obtained permits. Recently, through Cartwheel, actually, and some other people, I’ve been able to get permits. It just turned into other stuff, and they scrapped the mural and hired me to curate the hotel. It’s still not quite done, but it’s getting there. It took two years, and we did all the different floors, all the different artists. It’s really cool to have Shepard Fairey, Retna, Revok, Craig Stecyk, Cryptik… a ton of people.”
Friday, August 17, the newly re-opened Mayfair Hotel is throwing a grand opening party, and it’s open to the public. The event will feature music from Mickey Avalon and Landon McNamara along with art by RISK, Evidence, TAZ, Stephen Vanasco, SEEN, Jason Goldwatch, Estevan Oriol, Jason Revok, Joey Colombo, Geoff Melville, Herbie Fletcher, Alex “Defer” Kizu, Billy Morrison, Mario M. Muller and Cryptik. The Mayfair also gave Risk a permanent gallery in the hotel, and he expects the first show there to happen in about a month.
Meanwhile, Risk has been working with fellow graffiti artist Seen to create what’s basically a private art compound in Thousand Oaks. A bar and outdoor lounge/meeting area are currently under construction, and thanks to city planners, Risk will have even more studio space than he originally wanted. He says, “Their issue with the studio is it was too big to be a detached structure, so to get around it, they’re letting me attach the studio to the house and go two stories.”
Risk recently completed an assemblage sculpture of a massive shark (above), which is now en route to the Hero Beach Club in the Hamptons for a show that opens next week. The mold he used to make it is still in his studio. He got the giant fiberglass shark from a seafood restaurant in Texas that went out of business. “I guess it’s been in some guy’s warehouse for years. He has a bunch of old one-off molds, and I bought this and a couple other pieces from him.”
Shark sculpture by Kelly ‘Risk’ Graval
Kelly ‘Risk’ Graval with a fiberglass shark mold
Despite all the success, he hasn’t forgotten where he comes from. In the studio where he paints, net baskets of old aluminum cans and spray cans hang from the ceiling. He uses them to sort his recycling. He says, “I’m from New Orleans. All my uncles were fishermen and crabbers and shrimpers and stuff like that. As a kid, they always had the bushels of crabs and they never put the top on. One time I was talking to my grandfather about something, and he said ‘That’s crabs in the basket.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘The crab will never get anywhere, because once he gets up, the rest of the crabs will pull him down. That’s why we don’t have to put the tops on, because the crabs always pull the crabs down.’ It’s kind of deep.”
“The baskets to me, the reason I put my cans in there, is because I do a lot of different stuff with graffiti. I started doing the color washes of buildings you’ve seen downtown. There’s no letters or imagery, and a lot of graffiti artists talk shit. I keep this to remind me of crabs in a basket. Never think like the rest of the herd, and don’t worry about what other people do—or else I’ll be stuck in this basket.”
If you’ve been to the Beyond the Streets show (which was extended through August 26), you know Risk has a piece in it that’s a cop car, cut in half lengthwise. He says, “The funny thing is, it started out as a shark. I was looking at Damien Hirst’s Natural History collection, and I thought that was awesome. I was working with Ed Moses before he passed away on this thing, and he wanted spiders on it. I was like, ‘Why spiders?’ and he said ‘I’m deathly afraid of spiders.’ I said ‘So why are you doing it?” and he said, ‘We embrace what we’re scared of.’ It’s a whole Buddhist thing. I got into the Buddhist thing, and long story short, my shark took a drastic turn into the cop car.” He later built a shark, but it didn’t turn out quite like he expected, so he built a second one—and that’s the one headed for the Hamptons. Fun fact: The shark will be unveiled on Frank Mundus’ home dock. Mundus, a fisherman, is said to be the inspiration for the character Quint in Jaws.
Another piece made from found objects hangs on the outside of the studio. “I collect everything in the studio—all these saw blades and stuff. That’s a differential from my truck. I collect all this stuff, and at one time or another, I’m like ‘Let me put something together.’”
Risk’s sculptural work is influenced by the Ferus Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles that closed in 1966. He says, “Those guys were so influential to me. Southern California artists should be into surf and car culture mediums, I think. Billy Al Bengston and all those guys did that stuff and the fine finish paintings. That’s why I was messing with resin to get that really gloss look. All that stuff comes from them. The shark, the assemblages, Edward Keinholz—all that stuff. It’s very important to me that I continue that dialogue.”
He feels a personal bond with the artists that showed at the Ferus Gallery. “If you look at all those guys, it definitely reminds me of MSK, my crew. It’s the same kind of like… being better than New York, but not being accepted. Being this underground whatever and becoming these powerhouse guys that stuck to what they believed and got through all the shit, you know? Those guys to me are my heros.”
A door off of Risk’s studio leads to a room with a single bed. He says, “This is a little residency so people can come and stay here for a couple weeks and work in the studio. There’s a lot of old graffiti writers that just kind of got lost in the shuffle. Seen and I are trying to help them, so we bring them out here and do some stuff.”
Risk says he and Seen bonded as soon as they met. “We did a project together for the Dennis Hopper Foundation. We’ve known each other for years through graffiti—he’s been an East Coast guy and I’ve been a West Coast guy. We did this Dennis Hopper thing, and we were sitting across the table from each other, and we just started laughing. At the time we were like, two of the only long-haired graffiti dudes, we’re both into rock, he has motorcycles, I have motorcycles… We started hanging out.”
Risk has 128k followers on Instagram—but he calls the social media site a “double-edged sword.” He says, “It’s great because it’s instant gratification, which is cool. When I had pen pals and sent graffiti photos around the world, it would take weeks. I sent pictures to people in London and different places, and it would take weeks to get there. By the time we saw people’s stuff, it was weeks old.”
He thinks Instagram has boosted the quality and ability of artwork by showing people what’s possible. “It’s crazy, because people see so much and the competition is so high, and I think that’s a great thing. That aspect is awesome. But it also makes a lot of stupid people famous, so to speak. A lot of people are great at marketing and know how to market themselves, and they become very famous for no reason at all. I hate to say anyone’s art sucks, but a lot people do it for the wrong reasons, to get this false notoriety or popularity. I was a victim of that, too—I just wanted followers, followers, followers, and then I looked at a lot of people I really admire and realized, ‘Oh, they only have 30,000 followers, but that’s 30,000 hardcore followers.’ Now, that’s what I’m doing. I don’t post a lot anymore. I’m losing followers as much as I gain followers, but I’m gaining the ones that care about what I’m doing.”
At Risk’s art compound, you’ll also see evidence of other artists’ work. Remember the upside-down church hanging from the ceiling of D*Face’s “Happy Never Ending” show at Corey Helford Gallery last September? It found a permanent home on Risk’s property, where it’s right-side up and functions as a playhouse for Risk’s kids.
As an artist, Risk says he finds inspiration everywhere. “I get excited by so many things. My daughters inspire me tremendously because they’re all artists. They’ll come and say, ‘Look what I did,’ and the part that they love I don’t even see, and the part they don’t even see, I’m blown away by. The ocean and surfing inspires me. My whole career was based on surfing when I was younger—I used to write SURF—and as I started staying up all night painting, I couldn’t wake up to go surfing anymore, and things changed. I just put all my daughters in surf camp. They’re in Malibu right now for the whole summer and I’m living through them. My nine year old just took first place in all three competitions. It’s her first summer, and I’m just so fucking stoked for her. It’s so cool.”
Stay tuned for news about the opening of Risk’s gallery at the Mayfair Hotel. In the meantime, here are a few more pics from our visit: