Graffiti Artists Flourish in Richmond Underground

May. 13, 2012 / By

News Feature, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

The spray-painted names of local artists unravel wildly on a wall in Richmond. Names such as APACHE, THOR, KRASE, BLAH and MAYOR slither across in bright hues. Graffiti and these wild-style tags are common, and normally looked down upon in Richmond and San Pablo.

But the collage of artist names here on 23rd and Cutting across from Crystal Yarn Palace suggest a larger presence of street art in Richmond, beyond even what most native residents might be aware of.

David Castañeda, 19, a native of Richmond, is one of the artists whose name is on the wall. He explains that it began as a practice wall where artists could refine their technique, but quickly exploded as words spread and artists as far from San Francisco began coming over to paint in Richmond. Blank walls are a rarity, says Castañeda, and once a throw-up is painted, others will follow. And if the wall suggests a mosaic of styles, some more complex and outdoing others in skill and aesthetic, that’s because that was the intent.

“Graffiti is definitely a challenge,” says Castañeda. “Everybody wants to be a winner.”

These days, Castañeda says, the graffiti artists have turned their artistic attention to “3 Creeks” – a three-barrier aqueduct from the nearby water treatment facility on the border of Rumrill Boulevard and North Richmond. It is partly hidden by an overpass for trains. On the north end of the aqueduct is a small pond, surreal in its serenity. The walkways leading to the pond act like a gallery walk. On every wall of the concrete aqueduct there is color. The art pieces flow seamlessly, each feeding into the next like the water streaming to its end.

Castañeda is currently studying business administration at Berkeley City College. But in this world of art, his tag name is MAYOR, the Spanish word for greater, and most importantly, he is a young working artist – he paints, raps, produces music and designs clothing. He accomplishes most of his work in the collective he co-founded, LA TRIBE.

Wearing dark shades and a maroon sweater with LA TRIBE spelled out in sticks, Castañeda walks and recounts how his mother disapproved of his graffiti until she saw one of his works on the street. “Not many people appreciate graffiti artwork,” he says. “You have to explain it to them.”

Part of this misunderstanding and bias against graffiti means that walls and spaces that have high visibility are hard to come by. The right to paint, and have the artwork remain on the walls, ultimately depends on the mercy of landlords.

It’s not uncommon for landlords who see value in street art to contract graffiti writers to create a mural on their storefront. A couple of years ago, David was contracted to paint the D.F Boxing Club on 13th and Lincoln. He spray-painted an indigenous mask similar to an Aztec emblem. Other projects don’t go so well. The mosaic mural of name-tags across Crystal Yarn Palace is in dispute, and according to Castañeda it will be another wall that will have to be buffed down in order to avoid further problems.

What most graffiti writers do is seek out walls that are in remote places, the least likely to be an issue. Yet, even then, discovering a blank wall before other graffiti writers have gotten a hold of it is a challenge. Graffiti’s tough reputation is not for nothing. There have been fights over walls, says Castañeda. “One has to organize for their spots. If we had a wall, we wouldn’t have so many problems,” he says.

At 3 Creeks, it seems that the spaces are already divided and reserved for certain artists. Castañeda explains that the established artists usually will redo and create new artwork on their space during long holiday weekends, the atmosphere similar to a family reunion but with artists totally immersed in their art well into the night when portable work lights are necessary. Since the wall spaces are taken, it’s hard to imagine how a young starting artist can break in the order. “Sometimes you have to make your own spots, unless you have someone really friendly who is willing to show you. But that doesn’t always happen,” says Castañeda.

The competitive nature of graffiti has long been noted; and to a point it is embraced in the culture. To come up and achieve on one’s own accord and talent justifies the permanency of an artist. “A lot of people don’t like you when you are first starting off… They just don’t care. If you are new or old, it’s just every man for himself sometimes,” says Castañeda.

Lined neatly in place on the center table are the heavy markers. Castañeda blots the tips, tapping them on the paper to release the paint that has dried. The family’s living room, adorned with brass table statues of deer, is his makeshift studio. The large stuffed deer head his father hunted down in Mexico and mounted high on a wall oversees his creations. “Its funny how the mind works. When I started doing graffiti, I started noticing shapes. A lot more shapes, lines, design…,” he trails off.

Castañeda’s introduction to graffiti began early through his older brother, who was also a graffiti writer. At age 6, he remembers the canvasses, spray paint cans and black books in his brother’s bedroom. Castañeda admired his older brother, and as he got older he began to tag first in sketch books and then onto the streets. His parent’s didn’t approve.

“They definitely hated the fact that I started doing graffiti because when I started I would vandalize a lot of stuff because that’s what I saw everyone else do,” he recalls. After a while, Castañeda says he was bored of simply tagging, and wanted to produce bigger and bolder pieces. He stopped vandalizing and chose to surround himself with professional graffiti artists, and newcomers wanting to create better work.

At 15, Castañeda formed with his close friends, Michael Morales, Eddy Chacon and Anthony Martinez, the THOSE RICHMONDKIDS collective to produce clothing designs, music and artwork. The collective was then renamed, LA TRIBE. In 2011, LA TRIBE had a major business success when they designed and sold senior year t-shirts at Richmond High. Now, the collective has expanded their market and grown to a loose social network of 60 members. “ I really see it as a tribe because everybody is helping each other and nobody is leaving anyone behind,” says Castañeda. “All that hard work as a team will definitely win the game. That’s why I see it as LA TRIBE. It’s a family.”

The designs for LA TRIBE products are culled from a blend of contemporary and indigenous symbols; illustrations that depict urban figures within a wild, brutal setting. Castañeda says at the time of the designing, he and his friends were just having fun.

Yet through their symbols they began to develop a theme; one of friendship — traveling as a tribe, to survive the harsh conditions of their environment.

Walking back from 3 Creeks, Castañeda says the graffiti and art scene in Richmond has largely occurred underground. He says the costs of being an artist can take its toll and that it’s not as simple or easy as one might assume or romanticize. He says that graffiti writers have to recognize that’s it not enough to just be a graffiti writer. One has to have a “Plan B”, something to fall back on.

“I do a lot, because I want the money to bust the right moves,” he says. Of his efforts, David hopes to become a professional artist, and open a business. The money, he says, would allow him to fund his own work and open a gallery to showcase local talent. “It (the gallery) will help out these local artists. And once it happens, there’s going to be a big bang.”




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