Saturday, April 28, 2012 / 5:00 am
Street Artist Mear One on the Riots
After 25+ years in the graffiti and fine art scene, Mear One talks about politics, race, and discourse in L.A.
by Tony Chavira
It was raining the night Mear One met me at Hold Up Art to do some live painting and talk to me about the state of political discourse before, during and after the 1992 Riots. He warmed himself up, the music came on, a crowd surrounded us and I started writing while he tore into the canvas furious with an array of paint, razors and pencils.
He had been working in Los Angeles since the mid-80s and had probably been arrested for graffiti, alongside CBS (Can't Be Stopped - City Bomb Squad) and WCA (West Coast Artist) friends dozens of times over the years for refusing to fall within the narrow definitions of graffiti as solely vandalism. His work had always been political, but he (and I) wanted to talk about the particular effect that the 1992 riots had on him and the politicization of the street art community that led to the kind of work that's being done now.
Me: Mear, you’ve been working L.A. for something like 25 years now and your art has gone through waves and waves of political and social upheaval in Los Angeles. What were your impressions when you just started out painting and doing street art in South L.A in the mid-80s?
Mear One: Well, L.A. was traditionally one of the most segregated cities in the country and Burbank was the last city in the United States to end segregated schooling. So, you know, the riots weren’t really any surprise who any of us. Just look around, we still live in a really segregated town. So it was just a matter of time before that happened and it definitely made me and my friends out there more aware of where we stood. I mean, I grew up basically poor and on welfare so I kinda relate a lot of the feeling of anguish and struggle people are going through in this city. And being around, even just trying to do my stuff, I’ve witnessed such extreme racism all my life. A lot of my friends are not white like me, and I’ve been in more situations than I can remember where I’ve been told to just sit on the grass or something while my black friends are cuffed and put in the back of cop cars after we’ve done the exact same crime. So, you know, it’s real man. You don’t get more obvious than that and it keep happening the same way over and over again.
Me: When you first started doing graffiti pre-1990, how did the South L.A. community take your art? What were their first impressions?
Mear One: A lot of love man, I got a lot of love right away. I mean, I was a graffiti artist but I was also just an artist. So the community got me and I got a lot of love for just trying to do art instead of just, you know, fucking up the city or whatever. But, you know, that too. I knew I played both roles and we were doing it for a reason. A lot of people in L.A. have mixed emotions about me now because I play both sides of the game, but, you know, in my world the only rules that exist are the rules you make up for yourself.
Me: When you guys were working here and the riots broke out, how did you and the street art community take the news and respond to it? Do you think anything changed?
Mear One: Yeah, you know, the riots themselves really didn’t bring me into the political scene. I mean, everything during that time had some kind of politics related to it. I’m traditionally a political artist though. When I grew up, we used to sit around and talk shit about Ronald Reagan and the Iran Contra Scandal and the gas wars of the 70s. So I took part in a lot of protest and political stuff and I was familiar with it before I really started working.
But the riots really ingrained it into me on a human level, made it very serious and real and outlined an enemy. Other political problems aside, I was there and in it, and I saw the abuse and I could see the problems for myself. It was tragic.
Me: Who would you say is the enemy?
Mear One: Ourselves. We have no problem being cruel to ourselves because we can’t see beyond the social traps that’ve been set against us. Then instead of dealing with the traps, we turn into our greatest enemies because we don’t have the unity to deal with our problems, you know?
Me: How do you feel things have changed in Los Angeles since that time specifically?
Mear One: I think talking about race in general has allowed us to open up in a lot of ways, where before that it was like a superficial taboo. Now it is no longer, and I feel like we needed some outcry in order for race to become part of the discourse and those with power, who could brush it away before, have to address it now. But I could you be wrong, you know. This country feels like its kinda gone upside down lately.
Me: What do you mean?
Mear One: Just politically, the country seems very absurd. Infected with that Sarah Palin-type mentality, you know? But, you know, even since Barack Obama and the Occupy Movement and even the Tea Party, I finally feel like its popular to be a political artist again. Like it’s okay to be me again. For a while, it seemed to be really unpopular, especially since September 11th, to think and talk about certain things. It’s like a vicious cycle, kinda like we opened up dialog after the riots and then closed them again in a different way after September 11th, you know?
Me: What things in particular?
Mear One: Just general dissatisfaction of the system. I felt like September 11th was kind of like the fall of the veil of transparency, for a lot of things. And now there’s no more bullshit: we can see what’s happening and no one can hide from the facts anymore. Every issue needs to get talked about. The discourse is pretty much open now.
Me: Even if some people choose not to see it.
Mear One: Yeah. Exactly.
For more of his views and musings, Mear One keeps on blog on Tumblr.