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Meet the Graffiti Legend Who’s Crossing Boundaries & Uniting the Art World

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Courtesy of Man One

As long as humans have been communicating, they’ve been drawing on walls. But what we think of as graffiti is probably marked by the invention of the aerosol paint can in 1949. Spray-painted graffiti became a common sight in Europe in the ’60s and is widely thought to have started in the US in Philadelphia in the ’70s, moving to New York City later that decade. The street art -- or as it was more often classified at the time -- vandalism, maneuvered in message from the personal to political to punk rock. By the ‘80s it started reflecting the emerging hip-hop culture. And that was where it found the artist who would one day be known as Man One.

Courtesy of Man One

Artist, curator, teacher, and mentor, Man One is one of the most successful muralist and graffiti artists working today. His stunning sprayed walls can be seen all over the world and his work is recognized for its vibrant colors and bold strokes. But in the early ‘80s, he was a kid who wanted to be a breakdancer. Enraptured by the beats of bands like Egyptian Lover, Jonzun Crew, and the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, which would one day represent itself as NWA, he set out to become a breakdancer.

He wasn’t that good. So he tried to become a DJ, but the equipment was expensive and his friend’s mom eventually told him to stop coming over to borrow the turntables. The one artistic expression that grew alongside his aspirations was his art.

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Man One, who calls himself a “first-generation American who happens to be Latino,” recalls sitting in elementary school with his head down, paying more attention to his drawing than the teacher. “I think animals was my favorite thing to draw. Tigers and parrots, you know? Then I transitioned into drawing cars; I was drawing hot rods and different types, stuff like that. As I got older in elementary school, kids would ask me to do drawings for their girlfriends, you know? Like I would do a Valentines’ Day card for a friend to give to his girlfriend. It would be like little landscapes or something cute.”

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In exchange for this work, his friends would give him the better parts of their lunch, which was a pretty fair exchange by 3rd grade standards, but it wasn’t too long until Man started seeing an even greater benefit to his work.

“Because of this talent I had, I would get some special treatment sometimes,” he says. “They’d let me go into a room all by myself and give me an art project for the class so I wouldn’t have to do the last hour of class.”

All of those elementary school efforts are gone now. He asked his mom if she kept any, but she told him the teachers always asked if they could keep it. “My mom always says, ‘If I would have known you were going to be an artist I would have kept some!’

“I don’t know where I got it from because my parents weren’t particularly artistic people or anything like that. But once I picked up a pencil and crayons and markers, I was just always drawing.”

Man One grew up in Alhambra, a residential district northeast of downtown LA. In an area known for enclaves like Malibu and Compton and Hollywood, for being distinctly unnotable, full of houses and condos and apartments meant for families. The air’s a little bit hotter that far inland from the ocean, but palm trees still line the mostly quiet streets where waves of immigrants from different regions have chosen to settle and raise kids.

“Even though graffiti has always been around and I’d seen it, I didn’t know anyone who did graffiti,” Man says. But everything changed on a dime in 1987. A classmate was tagging the inside of a school bus when he handed the marker to Man One and said, “Go for it, tag up your name, just don’t put your real name.”

Here’s how he recalls the moment that altered his life forever: “I had my Sony Walkman headphones on and I was listening to this group Mantronix from New York and I wrote ‘Mantronix’ on the window, just being stupid, but I got hooked. And so every day on the bus I was, like, telling my friend, ‘Let me borrow your marker again’ and I would write ‘Mantronix’ everywhere.” Hooked on the thrill, he found himself tagging the streets a couple weeks later.  

Courtesy of Man One

The young artist and his friend started hitting Hollywood by night, and the huge concrete canvass of the lawless conduit known as The LA River. Soon, a group of kids from school were out every night tagging. He quickly decided that the name “Mantronix” was too long, telling people he’d be arrested by the time he got to the “x.” So he cut it down and worked on developing his style using the first three letters. The “One” came next, he explains, as “an unspoken trademark or register mark. It means you’re the originator of the name in that city.”

Most graffiti artists go through several versions of their names, as they come up with something they like better or hear about someone else using that name, but Man One’s never changed. “I got lucky,” he says, “my name is a common word but it’s so common, no one uses it.”

After developing a style and avoiding arrest, the most difficult part of graffiti for a bunch of high schoolers was getting enough spray paint. ”Back then we didn’t have any money so we used to rack to paint. Racking is a nice term for stealing paint, you know?” The kids would hit the usual targets, taking cans from hardware stores and wheeling carts of paint out through the garden center at K-Mart where there were no metal detectors to catch them. “When we would go into a shop,” Man recalls, “Me, a couple of black kids… the security guard would follow us around. So we would always go with a white kid and the white kid would hang out behind, and so while we’re walking around the store being followed, the white kid would be in the paint area stealing all the paint.” Eventually, he laughs, “They’d escort us out and not realize the white kid had already stolen all the paint we were going to use. We had to be clever.”

Man recalls his friends laughing at his dream of graffiti as a career; they couldn’t imagine anyone paying for graffiti art. He couldn’t either, which temporarily dissuaded him from pursuing it further. And then one day, while still in high school, a neighbor saw him practicing on a panel outside and offered him $50 to come paint his garage door… the inside. The outside would have been painted over by someone else’s tag. It was the first time Man had ever been offered money for his work and he was over the moon.

Fate drew him on further; one day a man pulled up in a car while he was painting, and asked him what he’d charge to paint a canvas in the same style. “I said ‘I don’t know, like $100,’ and he’s like, ‘Done.’ He gave me $100 and a canvas and I painted this abstract painting for him and that was the first canvas I ever sold. I have no idea who that was, just some random guy.” Despite what the galleries thought, there was a growing interest in street art and it was building towards something, especially in Los Angeles.

By 1990, Man One was off to college for an art major. Happy to finally find a place he could be accepted, he showed his first professors the photo albums of his work and was rebuffed. They told him it was nice, but not art.

So it was that he began to live a double artistic life, studying classical drawing during the day and heading out to tag at night. That lasted until his junior year. His design professor saw him showing his work to another student and saw something the earlier professors hadn’t.

“He told me, ‘The whole point of art school is to find your voice and you’ve already found it, you’ve found your style, all you need to do is develop it.’” Man says. “And I was like ‘Really? My other professors didn’t tell me that,’ and he said, ‘Well I’m telling you that.’”

Reinvigorated, Man started integrating his graffiti into all of his classes, carrying his style into sculpture, graphic design -- every class he had to take. Once he did, the encouragement kept coming.

Courtesy of Man One

While he was still in school, all of Los Angeles changed overnight. On April 29th, 1992, a jury acquitted four LAPD officers of the use of excessive force in the videotaped arrest and beating of Rodney King. The tensions that had long been building between the police and so many of the city’s citizens finally bubbled over to the surface. The violence that erupted lasted nearly six days. Afterwards, Los Angeles was left reeling with its new understanding of itself.

Man recalls, “so many people... were blindsided by it, like, ‘Wow, we didn’t know there was so much pent-up frustration in the city.’ But there were all these other people who were like, ‘Yeah, there is and these kids have been painting and writing about it on the walls and the streets and no one’s been paying attention to them.’”  

Graffiti art suddenly started getting attention. Man and some fellow muralists were asked to show their work in exhibitions. They were brought on panels alongside community leaders and LAPD. When they were up there, they had to talk -- and it turned out, Man could talk. Where other visual artists tended to avoid the microphone, Man started to recognize that talking about his work, especially his political work, distinguished him from the thousands of other graffiti artists in the city. Graffiti was still seen as a scourge, an illegal expression, so many of the artists wanted to stay in the shadows for their own safety. If Man stayed in the spotlight, he knew it wouldn’t be long until he was arrested as well. So in 1993, he made the conscious choice to stop doing illegal work, so that he could continue to speak without hesitation.

After graduating he hustled for any work he could find. And when the work wasn’t there, he made his own opportunities. In advance of his first self-arranged show, he made posters showing some of his work and plastered them all over the city. He started to get work as a muralist.

Graffiti is about being seen. In NY, it was the art of the subways, rumbling trains hauling tags all over town. But Los Angeles is a car city: one of long commutes of grey urban sprawl, building after building out driver side windows. Sides of businesses blur one into another unless something differentiates them. Something like a mural.

When Man first started getting mural work, he wouldn't tell anyone he was a graffiti artist. “It was so taboo back then. They wouldn’t have hired me if they knew I was going to do it graffiti style,” he says. “So I’d do a sketch, they’d approve it, and then on day one I’d show with all these spray cans and they’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’d be like, ‘I’m here to paint a mural.’ Sure enough after I painted the murals they’d be so impressed that it was all done in spray cans.”

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To drum up work, Man started adding his phone number to his murals. No one else was doing it at the time, but to a hungry muralist, it just made sense. How else was he going to get work? People started calling first. Then the corporations started ringing. In 1995, he was contacted by Coca Cola to do a project and after that, the other companies wanted to get on board as well. He started getting corporate work all over the country and with the money he made from that, he could subsidize his own paintings and the walls he was doing on his own.

But with fame came critics; it was the ‘90s and in the ‘90s, selling out was the ultimate evil. “It was the opposite of what it is now,” Man said, “but to me it was like they’re just haters, they’re just upset that they didn’t get the call.” He never lost sight of his own work, and the messages he wanted to communicate to the world. When Coke hired him, they gave him 15 walls all over the city and commissioned him to do 10ft murals on 100ft walls. Once again, Man saw an opportunity.

“After I finished the project,” he says, “I’d tell the business owner, ‘Hey, how’d you like my mural? Well, what if I do the rest of the wall?’ Coke wanted their little thing. They didn’t care about anything else on the wall or the adjoining walls. So I’d negotiate that with the store owner and do my own murals, so all of a sudden I was doing these huge walls all over the city that no one else could get. If I went to that same store on my own, showed them my portfolio and said I want to do graffiti art on your wall, they’d say, ‘Kid, get out of here.’ But since Coke is walking me in the door it was okay. It was cool.”

When the internet began to congeal, he purchased his own domain name and started adding his website to his murals. Other artists thought he was crazy -- or worse, tacky -- but those artists struggled to find clients while clients kept finding Man.

Because he made himself so accessible, he started getting calls for art he didn’t do: airbrushing, graphic design. Rather than keep saying no when he knew some great artists and designers, he figured why not open a little agency and get those guys work? He began arranging the deals and sending his friends out on the jobs. In 2000 he started Crewest.com and put his friends’ art on the site; suddenly Man was an agent as well. This led to 2002’s Crewest Gallery in Los Angeles, which worked to showcase and uplift graffiti as an art and give graffiti artists the gallery Man One hadn’t had.

Crewest Gallery is very much an expression of Man’s many thoughts on graffiti, art, the need for both, and the way kids engage in their world, especially kids in Los Angeles. As he became a more prominent advocate of graffiti artists, he was often asked by media what he thought of kids out tagging busses and buildings.

“They’d want me to send a message to kids to stop tagging,” he says. “I grew up doing it, how could I say that’s bad? So I’d turn it around and say, ‘What are you doing so that these kids have to tag on busses? Where are the art programs for these kids? Why aren’t you providing an outlet for these kids? Why aren’t you providing free walls so these kids can paint and not have to worry about getting shot by gangs?’ So when I turned the tables on them it would turn into a different conversation.”

Courtesy of Man One

People were listening. The German government twice flew him in to teach workshops with German youth.

“It was exciting and also disappointing,” he says. “Because you’d go to these countries where they loved graffiti, where you were like a rock star, and then you’d be looking back home and be like, ‘They want to arrest me in LA. They would love to put me in jail.’ It was such a weird thing because it was not accepted here in LA or in this country. People here thought it had to do with violence or gangs and in Europe you don’t have that connotation. They were like, ‘Oh, you’re a graffiti artist…’ artist being the key word.”

Surprisingly, Man recalls, the link between graffiti and gangs was not implicit in its beginnings. When he was still in high school he’d encounter gang members on the streets. They’d ask him which gang he was a part of he’d respond, “I don’t bang, I write.” They’d shake his hand and move on.

“Back then,” he says, “It was like, ‘You’re out here on the street doing your own dirt so we’ll leave you alone.’ It was two different paths.” In the ‘90s all that changed. Law enforcement started treating tagging as an inherently gang-related activity, targeting the artists and locking them up.

“Eventually,” Man says, “a lot of the kids said, ‘Screw it, you’re going to treat me like a gang member, I’m going to to act like it.’ That was unfortunate. We’re still trying to recover.” For him, graffiti was a culture that was passed down from generation to generation of taggers, but in the ‘90s, that chain was broken. “We used to have rules growing up, like, you didn’t tag on churches, you didn’t tag on cars or personal property, all these codes of ethics and that’s out the window now because the whole culture wasn’t passed down to them so now kids don’t know there are rules. They don’t know what’s right or wrong in terms of our graffiti culture.”

Venice Beach has always been a hotbed of counterculture from surfing to skateboarding, so it’s no surprise that graffiti artists would be drawn to its shores and hills. In the ‘60s there was a pavilion on the beach but by the ‘80s, only the walls stood. Taggers called it The Pit. Police regulated it unevenly, letting painters be one day yet throwing everyone in jail the next. In 2000, Venice intended to tear down the walls. The community blocked it. Graffiti art was by then part of Venice Beach’s culture and identity. The walls still stand and are now run by a community art organization. There’s a simple permit process and artists can paint legally there. For Man One, it’s a start, but not enough.

“There are thousands of artists in the city and we’re only allowed to paint in this one tiny area,” he says. “They should be all over the city! In Europe there are free walls everywhere for kids to paint and what they found was when kids could go paint a wall legally, the illegal graffiti dropped drastically. To paint legally in broad daylight with no harassment eliminated the need for them to run around at night tagging buildings.”

He shakes his head. “When you bring it back to the US they laugh at you.”

There’s still much work to be done in the graffiti community, in the relationship between young artists and the way they’re treated and policed, and in rebuilding the culture itself. Man One is still fighting, still talking, still teaching, still painting, and has no plans of slowing down. But some things have changed and continue to change for the better.

“I was at Venice last week doing a workshop with the people from Google Cloud,” he says. “Thirty years ago I was painting those walls trying not to get arrested and now a company like Google is hiring me to teach them to paint on the same walls. It’s surreal.”

It’s a validation long overdue for an artist that grew up hearing from galleries that his art wasn’t viable, that it belonged on the street and not for sale on their immaculately white walls. Fresh out of college in 1994, he created his own show in a vacant Melrose Avenue storefront attached to a head shop called 2000 BC. It was an act of defiance that yet again paid off for the artist who rebelled against both the mainstream and his own art culture’s self-imposed police.

“I had like 27 pieces in the show and I sold like 17,” he recalls, “and I was like, ‘Wow this is so easy.’ I’ve never sold 17 pieces at a show ever again so there goes that.”

Laughing, he adds, “But what it showed me was, I was right.”