Smear- Citizen LA (August 2009)
There is no shortage of graffiti in LA. Though many of us cannot decode the unfamiliar sequence of letters and symbols crawling along the sides of buses, obscuring billboards, and defacing public property, we remain mesmerized by the taggers’ act of vandalism and the fact that they got away with it. LA tagging crew MTA also known as Melting Toys Away, Must Take All and the Metro Assassins Crew, share the same acronym as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. MTA was responsible for thousands of tags throughout the city, appropriately enough targeting metro transit buses and trains. Their most recent tag covers a three story high wall along the LA River and runs the distance between the 4th and 1st Street bridges near downtown. The awesome “MTA” block lettering glares at commuters and passers-by from the overpass. The Los Angeles Times reported that the letters required 400 gallons of paint - 300 gallons of white and 100 gallons of black paint. Unlike most graffiti that can be easily camouflaged with c with a few coats of paint, the Army Corps of Engineers estimate it will cost $3.7 million to remove the entire tag, which will require the use of hazardous materials to prevent the paint from polluting the LA River. This is unlike any tag the city has ever seen.
On January 29, 2009 a headline in the California section of the Los Angeles Times reported “7 alleged members of LA tagging crew arrested.” Among the crewmembers is Los Angeles based graffiti writer turned artist Cristian Gheorghiu, more commonly known to taggers and galleries as Smear. I met up with Smear at his home studio in East LA- a single story house ideal for a young family and the most unlikely place to be inhabited by a member of MTA. He meets me at the opposite side of a chain -linked fence at the end of the driveway. He opens the gate and then locks it again behind me and we make our way to his make shift studio space which was formerly the back porch. The space is barebones- surrounded by overgrown grass and garden weeds. A modest block of cement is just big enough to accommodate several of Smear’s 36’’ x 48’’ canvases, an easel, second hand books, brushes, enamel and spray paint cans. “Pollock used a lot of fucking house paint,” Smear explains as he hangs on the drag of a slim cigarette left behind by a girl who had visited the night before. He insists that the materials he uses don’t have to be the finest; they just have to be “solid” enough to “outlive” him.
Used to working on any kind of surface as a graffiti artist Smear turns one man’s trash into his own treasure. “I paint on everything,” he explains as he picks up a tired wood palette that has splintered at the edges. He turns it over and reveals a recently completed work reminiscent of the crude primitive lines of Basquiat and the experimental sensibility of Picasso’s Cubist period. “ I paint on everything I can get my hands on,” he adds modestly surveying the piece. Working on second hand scraps of wood, old cabinetry, and abandoned canvases the subject of his works are just as much about the stories behind the found objects collaged together as it is about the work as a whole. Smear’s process for finding random objects is simple- “I walk down the street and pick shit up like old lunch tickets and things from toys in the garage and newspaper articles and comic strips. And I found this old key and it said Zody's (a department store once located on Sunset and Western) on and it and I said ‘oh shit! I used to steal hot wheels from there!’’ The Zody’s key reflects Smear’s roots to his native city of LA, while other elements of his collage combine personal notes saved over the years, pages torn from Charles Manson’s “Helter Skelter,” and the image that has come to personify the artist, a wide-eyed voodoo zombie.
Smear began on the streets as a tagger but after being arrested for his involvement with the massive MTA tag, he was given a three year suspended sentence- simply put if he gets caught doing anything illegal especially with graffiti he will be sent to jail. He even keeps a clip of the Los Angeles Times paper from January 29, 2009 buried beneath potential collage materials as a reminder that he has to find a way to appropriate his street tagging into art without losing his street sensibility. Confronted with the threat that he cannot tag on the streets he must reconcile between painting and graffiti. “I love fucking painting but I also love doing graffiti,” he describes but “there is a difference. I mean this is cool but it’s tame. When I do what other graffiti artists do when they paint on canvas or wood, I don’t like what they do because most of them do graffiti on canvas and I don’t do graffiti on canvas. I do fucking collage, I do fucking art on canvas. Graffiti belongs on the street. The only thing of graffiti that I use on canvas is my graffiti name.” Smear began has only been painting since 2005 but his spontaneous art practice and tremendous sphere of influence makes him anything but a novice. He received no formal training and learned everything from “museums, and books, and stuff I see and life. De Kooning, Pollock, Basquiat, Picasso. Guys that I admire and look to and I incorporate their shit with my own twist on it.” Paintings adorn the walls and hundred of books line the perimeter of his room. Although he draws inspiration from artists Smear considers himself a bibliophile. “I have so many books and shit so I read a lot. I also write. That’s a big influence on me- literature and all its forms. A lot of influences on me are writers- Fante, Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson. I sometimes think even more so than painters or artists.”
In the Los Angeles Times Smear was cited as a well known “graffiti artist,” an artist described in a parenthetical sense as if his work is only meaningful on the fringes of culture and whose message only communicates to other taggers. Smear’s amateur style is inspired by his work on the streets and is now a part of the LA gallery scene. His upcoming show “I’m Tired of Being Sexy” opens on August 15 at Lawrence Asher Gallery. Herein lies the debacle with Smear and his body of work- is the work only getting recognition because a graffiti artist created it? Or can a graffiti writer involved with one of the largest tags LA has ever seen successfully cross over into the world of mainstream art? Graffiti belongs on the streets and Smear has no intention of bringing it into the gallery- instead he is introducing LA to a raw urban spectacle.