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Dope Life | Chaz Bojórquez: The Godfather of Graffiti

Chaz BojórquezChaz is a global traveler. A bit of a nomad. He’s been working diligently as a graffiti artist since he penned his first piece in the ‘60s. His wisdom is palpable and his appreciation and love for the craft is evident in the works of art that hang from the walls in his home that he shares with his wife Christina. He continues to be a voice of reason in the graffiti community and after many discussions with other graffiti artists it’s clear that he is one of the most respected and valued artists in the graffiti arena.

Q | DOPE Magazine: You studied calligraphy under Master Yun Chung Chiang, and there aren’t necessarily many people in the graffiti world that have gone to art school. How did that influence and shape you?

Chaz Bojórquez: When I went to art school, I was a Ceramics major. This was the time with the hippies, around ’67. The Vietnam war was going on. J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the FBI; there was the civil rights movement. Going to art school, as the only Latino person in ceramics I felt very isolated, but it taught me to study the fundamentals of art. Number one, drawing—you need to learn drawing, ‘cause if you can draw, you can build it. It’s a foundation of structuring ideas in your mind. Also, I met a lot of friends there . . . during lunch we would all [have a] break, the whole school—it was a small institution—Chouinard Art Institute, in downtown L.A. We would go on the roof and light up, and I would end up supplying [weed for] some of my teachers, and they would give me some extra canvases for painting! It was a really friendly, hippy-ville time. It opened up my mind about what kind of artist I wanted to be.

Q: You’ve been credited with playing a large role in the Chicano Urban Arts Movement, but it seems like you had resistance from some groups.

A: It was around when I did my first tag, around 1969. The Chicano movement was happening. They were muralists. They were putting out imagery, and I was trying to find myself with my work. I had never shown in a gallery and I was beginning to do graffiti and graffiti art—actually put it on canvas. That concept was really new at that time, and it wasn’t well accepted. I took my first painting to East L.A., to a Chicano gallery—I thought I would be accepted. These Chicanos were painting low riders and the community, and I wanted to be those guys. But when I took my paintings in there, they said, “Chaz, this is not art, this is gutter art. This is anti-Chicano. Chicano art is about family, religion, farm workers, border issues, suppression…that is what Chicano art imagery is.” What I was doing was against that, and they wouldn’t show my work.  A few years later I ended up in Hollywood, and the 01 Gallery. Robert Williams, the godfather of Whack Cartoon and CA Zap comics and Big Daddy Roth—he did Ratfink. Those guys embraced my work. Americana underground.

Q |  Turbulence continues to drive people to create graffiti: “As soon as society’s ails disappear, then graffiti will go along with it.”

A: You will never get rid of the ails of society. Graffiti comes along with that. They found graffiti in the pyramids, in Pompeii—graffiti is a way that we leave our mark. I found graffiti when I was in Istanbul. I went to the Hagia Sophia church, it was a mosque, the first church from the Byzantine era. When the first Crusades happened around 10,000 AD, they went to that church to pray. I knew that these were probably 14, 15, 18-year-old kids, and I knew that they would leave graffiti—even 1,000 years ago. I looked for it and I didn’t see it, so I went upstairs and looked over the balcony, to look down into the foyer of the big church. I said, “If I were to do graffiti, I would do it underneath this bannister.” It was a foot wide. As I looked under the bannister, I found scratchings, dates, names—Arabic names, too, because the Persian empire finally came and destroyed Istanbul. There’s graffiti everywhere.

Q |  You’re considered one of the oldest living, continually working graffiti artists. What are some of the positives and negatives that have come with age?

A: I am considered the longest, continually working graffiti writer in the history of graffiti because I started in 1969. A lot of people started in ’67 or ’69, and I give them a lot of credit, but they stopped doing art. I continued. In my work, I always progressed. I found that what I could bring to my graffiti now is a long history, a sense of the civil rights which gave me self-reliance and identity. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do. Graffiti is an art form that you don’t need permission [to do]. I can be who I am and in your face—I was not making art, I went for 20-25 years without crews, magazines, videos, no support system, no galleries. No one believed in graffiti when I was doing it, but it made me feel that what I can do comes with a sense of freedom.

Q |  What is your relationship with cannabis?

A: Let’s talk about weed. Weed was a big taboo in Latino families in the ‘50s. I always knew it. My father and his brothers were all from Tijuana. They were all born on both sides [of the border], so we had dual citizenship. They thought they were Frank Sinatra. Dressed up all of the time, and constantly bringing liquor across the border. When we’d visit my Grandparents, they would be loading the door panels and taillights [of the car], filling them with gin and vodka . . . It was this lax morality about ‘legal’ and ‘illegal.’ Except when it came to marijuana . . .

The first drug I took was peyote with the shamans, the Indians from Nayarit. I finally relaxed into a bed/hammock late that night, and I [saw] a dot of red roses [start to fall] all over me that night. The next two days, because it takes some time to recover, they gave me some weed and it was not only soothing and relaxing, it opened up my mind—it brought on the same feelings as the peyote. So in some ways it was magical. Weed was always magical. But coming back to the U.S., it was extremely taboo . . . I use weed for creativity. It doesn’t bring creativity, but it makes me detached from all the other issues that I have, or deadlines . . . Painting is a job. But I cannot be open and detached without the weed. Most of my major work that I’ve done in-studio has been with marijuana. Also coffee.

Q |  What’s next for Chaz?

A: In September I am curating a show called SoCal Masters of Style, [which] comes under the banner of California Locos, a small group of five of us elder artists from Chouinard [Art Institute]—from surf, skate, hot rod, jazz, performance art and graffiti. We represent the West Coast lifestyle. Out of that we’ve expanded to bring in the other Locos, which includes Mr. Cartoon (head of the Chicano black and grey tattoo style), Estevan Oriol (photographer of the gangsters), and Shepard Fairey, the most recognized [graffiti] artist in the world. Robert Williams, the godfather of California ZAP Cartoons and Wack and the publisher of Juxtapoz Magazine. Slick, a graff writer who is internationally opening up doors in China. And we have several others, including myself . . . it’s going to be a lovefest of who we are. Sep 16th in Chinatown. Everyone is invited!

Q |  Cheech Marin did a big gallery with a lot of Chicano art work recently, and the curator was still telling you that your art didn’t belong.

A: I still encounter a lot of resistance, especially if my painting is already hanging in the Cheech collection or in a museum. Even the curator at that museum is still questioning whether I belong in that exhibit, because it doesn’t fit the parameters of what Chicano imagery “should” be, and they question that graffiti. The problem is, they don’t know anything about the world of graffiti. With the “calli-graffiti” and street art movement, I very much do belong there. Graffiti like Chicano art talks about the social condition—it describes who we are, [what] our names are, what streets we control, where we live. Graffiti has grammar and language and history, [back to] the Zoot Suiters in the ‘40s. Those curators don’t know what they’re talking about.

Q |  It’s important for you to keep your work positive. It would be easy to focus on the negative—what keeps you staying in a positive space/state of mind?

A: Graffiti is a dialogue—a language. If graffiti could talk, what would it talk about? That’s what I want to paint. What I don’t want to be is negative, because in some ways that’s too easy. There are plenty of people talking about the negative. The gangs, the violence, the drugs. That’s not what I wanna do. There is something innate in graffiti that unifies us, that gives us a sense of spirit to be creative—it’s what’s moved the art graffiti movement into the street art world. It’s worldwide now, because of the positive part of it; it unites us as the graffiti family. I find that graffiti, for me, to really talk about graffiti, is about the second level—this third space between the audience and myself, that art work is somewhere in between. I want my work to describe that. It’s a sense of enlightenment—a sense of place. It’s a positive place.

Q |  You met Marcel Duchamp when you were young. You had mentioned that you were trying to be an artist and he told you, “You don’t try. You are. You just make art.” Has this resonated with you throughout the years?

A: When I met Marcel Duchamp, I was probably 14 or 15 years old. Very confused, extremely shy, not sure of myself—that’s all young men. All young men need a green light—somebody, a mentor, to see them as a young person and say that you’re good enough to be an artist. Duchamp speaking to me that afternoon—he happened to be at the museum where I was having sculpture classes that my mother took me to. I was very privileged to have these classes. I was leaving, and in the main gallery was Duchamp—I didn’t know who he was, except [that] he was the guy who did the urinal (“Fountain, 1917”) and the painting “Nude Descending the Staircase, No. 2.” I thought it was so magical and intriguing, ‘cause I always wanted to be a painter. I knew, conceptually, the urinal was important, but I didn’t understand it. I said, though, if he can do a urinal then I can do anything I want, as long as I believe in the work that I am creating, and believe art is true. A few years later I took that concept when I started with my graffiti—I didn’t need anybody’s permission. I knew graffiti was important, and I wanted to paint it. That was the lesson from Marcel Duchamp.

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