RETNA started doing graffiti at a young age of just eight-years-old when his mother intentionally put him in Saint Anne’s private school in Santa Monica to avoid the gang life -- which ended up backfiring. He learned about graffiti from seasoned gang members in his neighborhood and after-school programs and started developing his aesthetic while practicing penmanship in school. By his early teens, he was a full-fledged graffiti writer who dubbed himself A One -- yes, like the steak sauce -- which he was forced to change later to Zoom because an NY artist with the same name made it clear there was only room for one. “I got my first arrest in ‘93 on the corner of Veteran Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard,” he said. “I was about 13 years old. I was wearing my Catholic school uniform.”
“The thrill was having recognition from these people you looked up to. The thrill of it being illegal I guess was another part of it -- getting away [with it],” said RETNA. There is also an unspoken hierarchy in the world of graffiti and usually writers fall into one of three categories -- tagger, bomber, or the highest title you could earn, a piecer -- someone, like RETNA, who can put together a tag with multiple pieces or colors. “Normally the rules were, the bomb could go over the tag, the piece could go over the tag and the bomb, so to speak.” And the idea was “... to get up as much as you can on as much shit as possible... ” he explains.
Eventually, the name RETNA was born from a Wu-Tang song (referring to “Heaterz”) and he started drawing inspiration from ancient cultures and artists like Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, and Chaz Bojorquez, who’s been dubbed the “Godfather of Cholo Style Writing” and took his work from the streets to the Smithsonian. “[Chaz] gave me my first show in ‘97,” says RETNA whose own style has evolved over the years. It wasn’t until RETNA started using straighter lines that morphed into characters derived from the Latin alphabet that his career suddenly took off. All his artwork comes in pairs or sequences and there is an underlying message that only he can decipher -- whether they’re song lyrics, quotes, or drawn from his personal experiences. Perhaps it's the mysteriousness that has catapulted the 37-year-old’s career and attracts a large following amongst art enthusiasts, collectors, and celebrities (including Justin Bieber, who chose some of RETNA’s work for an album cover), which has led to collaborations with major fashion brands including Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Jimmy Choo, Helmut Lang, and VistaJet, a private jet company.