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Graffiti as Art

Cheryl Ursin
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Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau

Mural commissioned by the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, done by GONZO247 (at the corner of Travis and Preston in downtown Market Square).

Let’s make one thing clear up front: If someone marks your property without your permission, that’s illegal. To add insult to injury, as the property owner, you are responsible for removing that graffiti.

But haven’t you ever seen a whimsical cartoon on a lamp post or an elaborately spray-painted building and wondered who did it and why?Contrary to popular belief, not all, or even most, graffiti is gang-related, though there are such things as “gang signs.” According to stophoustongangs.org, a government website, gang signs are usually simple readable lettering meant to identify the gang.

The signatures done in an artistic style, in color, often using hard-to-read stylized lettering, are the work of graffiti writers, the street artists who work with spray paint and large markers known as “mops.”

And except when they put their work up without permission, street artists are not criminal. When Chus, a 24-year-old graffiti writer who, like many, prefers not to give his real name, is working on a piece, passers-by often remark that he must like sniffing the paint. “I do not sniff the paint,” he says, exasperated. “How stupid do they think I am?”

Kingspoint Mullet

A wall at Kingspoint Mullet (10902 Kingspoint).

Why can Chus work openly on his art like that?

Because some graffiti is sanctioned. “If you see a large, elaborate piece, it’s probably legal,” says GONZO247, a 40-year-old graffiti artist who runs the downtown art studio and gallery Aerosol Warfare. He started doing street art at age 13.

When they find a good wall, graffiti writers will often ask the owner for permission. Chus asked Lessie Alva, owner of Alva Graphics, in 2009. Ever since, Alva’s two buildings have been covered in graffiti art.

It’s not all Chus’s. Once a graffiti writer has secured a “legal wall,” it is his or hers to manage, deciding who will put up work and setting out ground rules, like no profanity.

Several graffiti writers will be painting at Alva Graphics the weekend of June 22-23, to celebrate the anniversary of those walls.

Graffiti, legal or not, doesn’t last. “On an open wall, you do your work, you love it, you take a picture of it and you kiss it goodbye,” says GONZO247.

Alva Graphics

A detail of a wall at Alva Graphics (1102 Shepherd).

Graffiti writing is all about the artist’s name. This emphasis on typography is why these artists refer to themselves as “writers.” Only police refer to these signatures as “tags,” Chus explains. The writers call them “handstyles” and further define them by degree of difficulty. A “throwie” is a quickly done signature. When done in bubble lettering, they are called “bombs.” The next step up, done with multiple colors and shading, are “pieces,” and large pieces that incorporate a background and characters are “productions.”

Graffiti is all about reputation. PILOT, a 31-year-old graffiti artist, explains, “When you cover over someone else’s work, the idea is you’re going to do something better.” Pieces other writers respect stay up longer.

A variety of businesses pay street artists for their work, a development the artists are happy to encourage. “As you get older, your priorities change,” observes Mike Bernal Jr. dryly. Bernal began doing graffiti (as “Frost”) as a teen. Chus’s company, Graffalot, formed with fellow graffiti artists CINE, Halo and Shizoq, has done work for Houston bars, restaurants and food trucks. David Flores, who started writing graffiti at the age of 12 (as Skeez181), has done work for Coca Cola and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. GONZO247 is one of the featured artists in “Houston Is,” an ad campaign from the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Two years ago, Johnathan Estes, the father of two autistic children, rented a broken-down warehouse in southeast Houston and turned to his artist friends to rebuild it into an event venue. The Kingspoint Mullet is covered, inside and out, with graffiti art. Estes is using the space to raise funds for his non-profit organization, Southern Artists Foundation, which benefits autism education.

When Lance Davis, a real-estate developer, saw what Estes was doing, he gave the Mullet artists permission to paint the back of his adjacent strip mall.

All the resulting wall space, almost 17,000 square feet, makes The Mullet the largest concentration of street art in Houston and perhaps the entire state, the two men say.

Already, graffiti artists come from all over the world to paint at The Mullet, which will be the site of an International Meeting of Styles, a global street-art event, Sept. 20-22.


SIGNED BY Here are two stacked pieces that showcase artists’ names, WAKE (top) and GONZO247 (bottom). Right photo: When the owners of a soon-to-open, spicy-food shop iBurn (4227 Bellaire Boulevard) commissioned GONZO247 to do a mural, they put up this sign.

Where to See The Writing on the Wall

The Kingspoint Mullet
10902 Kingspoint

Site of the International Meeting of Styles, Sept. 20-22, open to the public. Almost 17,000 square feet of wall space, inside and out. Outside always open, inside open Thursdays-Sundays, noon to 9 pm.

Alva Graphics
1102 Shepherd

Anniversary event June 22-23. All the artwork is on the outside of the buildings.

GONZO247’s My HOU Mural
Commissioned by The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
At the corner of Travis and Preston

Aerosol Warfare Studio & Gallery
2110 Jefferson, Suite 113
Open to visitors by appointment

UP Art Studio
6521 N. Main
[email protected]

Photographer Noah Quiles organizes monthly art shows at this space, which has been donated by an anonymous patron whose goal is to remove the negative connotation of graffiti and aerosol art as vandalism and to promote it as a true art form. UP Art’s next show will be held Saturday, June 15, from 7 to 11 p.m., and is the first solo exhibition by the Houston graffiti artist w3r3on3. While UP Art Studio is only open for its shows, two of its exterior walls and an additional 45-foot-long wall half a block south at Stop At Joe’s, 6400 N. Main, always feature graffiti murals.

The Lawndale Art Center
4912 Main Street

The art center hosts rotating murals on its north exterior wall. The newest, called Skywriting, was done by Daniel Anguilu, a Houston native who started painting graffiti at an early age, and Aaron Parazette, a professor at the School of Art at the University of Houston.

The Station Museum of Contemporary Art
1502 Alabama

An exhibition of several street artists, including Daniel Anguilu and David Flores, will open here May 25.

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