California Love Scared Straight

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
I love podcasts. I really do. Not just mine and the ones I’m associated with, but I listened to dozens of podcasts a week and I’m always looking for some spark that excites me, comforts me, challenges me, entertains me. I love seeing the proliferation of podcasts. It would never occur to me to mock. Like, I know the joke, “everyone has a podcast now.” But I always want more. Not all of them are for me, but when one hits, I just get excited about its existence. I get excited about existence, in general. And this happened to me when I was listening to a new show called “California Love.”

Roman Mars:
It’s a podcast about seeking to understand what it means to belong and not belong to the places that we are from. And the episode I thought would most resonate with you, my beautiful nerds, is about graffiti, which is a huge part of the visual expression of cities. There is a cultural war being played out before our eyes in the back and forth between taggers and anti-taggers. And this kind of humane story is about those sides and what it feels like to be in the middle of it, where the stakes to an outsider can seem so low but actually couldn’t be higher. This is “California Love.” Here’s Walter Thompson Hernández.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
It’s spring 2017, and I’m on the 733 bus line heading west on Venice Boulevard. I’m sitting in the back of the bus. It’s the early afternoon and there’s nobody else sitting next to me. I’m listening to music on my headphones when I noticed an old friend hop on. It’s Ivan. And we used to be in the same circles when we used to tag in the early 2000s. Ivan hasn’t changed one bit. He still wearing oversized t-shirts and still speaks from the side of his mouth like he used to when we were teenagers. His hair still cut really low, too. It’s been more fifteen years since we last saw one another.

Ivan:
“What’s up, man?”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
We dab each other up and hug. He sits next to me.

Ivan:
“Hey, you still write?”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
“Yeah. I do still write.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
This is “California Love.” And I’m Walter.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
I was twelve years old and I was wearing the gray crewneck sweater and matching sweatpants that the officers had issued to me. My last name was written on the back of my sweater to identify. In ’97, the Scared Straight program met at a downtown L.A. central police station. Three times a week, twice a week we had classes and on Saturdays, that’s when we had boot camp.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
They made us do push-ups, burpees, squats, sprints, and more burpees and all on the station’s hot roof. About two dozen of us, all under the age of 17 were in the program, usually because the judge had ordered us to attend for some crime we had committed. One of the guys with a graffiti legend named Sight, a south-central writer whose name can be seen throughout the city. He was what writers called an all-city bomber. His stuff was everywhere. I was like, “Damn, that’s Sight.”

Sight:
What I do remember is, um, all the cops, getting mad at me, screaming at me in my face. The saliva all on my face.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Some people were there for skipping school, fighting, or violating probation. But Sight and I, we were both there for graffiti vandalism.

Sight:
I had about ten or eleven warrants for graffiti, all kinds of stuff.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
I started tagging with a group of friends I met in middle school, and once I learned how to tag, I began to go out and paint the streets. Maybe it was all the things I was seeing and experiencing at home that drove me to be as far away from it as possible. My mom had a boyfriend at the time. This white dude who was unemployed and smoked weed and drank heavily every single day. He was abusive and controlling towards me and my mom. And he and I would often physically fight, which led to numerous visits from the police. Harlem was definitely somewhere I didn’t want to be. And Sight’s homelife? It was just as rocky as mine.

Sight:
Me and my mom were sleeping in parks in the car, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the night. We slept in a lot of backstreets in south-central L.A. and Western Imperial. And then the sheriffs will kick us out and we’ll move on one block over.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Graffiti was a lot of things for me. It was an outlet. A way for me to take out the rage, the pain, and the hurt I was experiencing at home. The street and the walls, they were basically my therapy.

Sight:
I existed when I did graffiti. I existed. That’s why I started doing it. That sense of awakening or rebirth.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
The first Saturday that Sight and I were there, the inmates and guards took turns yelling at us.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
And he and I smiled at each other the whole time. Ha! We thought they were suckers. Our moms were both with us that day. And we knew the guards couldn’t put their hands on us. So we felt safe and talked our (bleep).

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
But Scared Straight? It actually didn’t scare me straight. In fact, it got me deeper into graffiti. About two years after I finished the program, I started catching spots of a guy named Aloe. He was a pretty well-known writer in the Graff world. And the crazy part? He looked just like one of my favorite rappers.

Aloe:
Yeah, everyone used to call me Tupac.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
In just a few months, we became like brothers and we join the same crew.

Aloe:
You were young and willing to do graffiti. So I was like, hey, we could be besties and let’s do this together.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Aloe’s talking like an ohead right now. He’s really only three years older than me. He and I spent every day together painting the city. This means going out and tagging.

Aloe:
I remember there were times I’m like, “Ugh… I don’t really feel like doing this.” You’re like, “Come on, let’s go!” And I’m like “All right, let’s go.” And we would go. And then it’s like once we’re there, it’s like, I’m so glad I did this. There’s a lot of people to like… I know a lot of people and not everyone… Like they’ll say, “Oh yeah, yeah, let’s go, let’s go.” But like, who really wants to go? I mean, like, who’s really going to go?

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Aloe and I spent a whole summer together and our bond was stronger than any relationship I’ve had as an adult because he was also unhappy and tormented by his homeland. We were just kids who understood each other’s pain and how ignored we both felt. Aloe taught me how to tag on the Venice Blvd bus lines. We caught spots in the panels and the overhead lights.

Aloe:
I taught him how to do everything that he knows.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
“Shut up!”

Aloe:
So you’re scribing into a transparent case so people wouldn’t be able to see it. There has to be some way for you to make what you just wrote pop out into the world. So usually what we would do is we would take like dirt from somewhere.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
So we lick our fingers and run the tops of the lights.

Aloe:
You would smudge that on the spot. The dirt would end up filling the spaces of the graffiti spot that you just caught.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Bam. Now your spots are going to be seen.

Aloe:
I used to show him like different slap tags and how you write on the slap tag. For those of you that don’t know, like, post office used to have like stickers that people use for mailing. And graffiti artists, just go and grab them. They’re free stickers. We could just write what we want on them.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
We’d sometimes go back to Aloe’s house after painting and lock ourselves in this room.

Aloe:
Just smoke and drink in there and play music. A lot of Wu-Tang, a lot of Tupac.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
“All eyes on me.” (sings)

Aloe:
A lot of Naz, a lot of Biggie. And just write, just write, just write.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
We wrote our names all over the city because we felt invisible. And it was fun.

Sight:
I existed when I did graffiti. I existed.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
We painted a few overpasses. National Boulevard, Robertson, Crenshaw. We painted billboards on Venice Boulevard. We painted at the Belmont Yards, the L.A. River, and the Mona yards. We were everywhere. But our names rarely stayed up for more than a few days. For four years, I tagged and for four years, a white dude named Joe Connolly painted over our spots. 98, 99, 2000, and 2001.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
This guy, Joe, made it his mission to buff our tags using paint and equipment he had purchased himself. Seeing him buff up my work wasn’t a good feeling because creating the art tool a lot out of me. Like this one time when I spent an entire night doing a piece with large bubble style letters on a rooftop near Pico and Robertson. And it was gone the very next morning. And I knew it was Joe. And it wasn’t just us. It was all of us. There was a whole city of kids putting up spots, trying to be seen. And then this white guy named Joe will come out of and erase us again. Joe was definitely a villain. It felt like he was our villain.

Joe Connolly:
“You’ve could write all day long, but you’re never gonna get up in the morning cause it’ll all be buffed. You couldn’t even read the sign earlier. You could not read the sign.”

Joe Connolly:
My name’s Joe Connelly. They call me the “graffiti gorilla,” among other things.
Joe Connolly: “Look at that. Isn’t that beautiful. I mean it’s not like the way it was the day I made it. But it’s nice. Isn’t that nice looking?”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Joe was a one-man anti-graffiti unit. You may have seen his infamous sign up at Pico and Fairfax. It says-.

Joe Connolly:
“Graffiti no longer accepted here. Please find a day job. Thank you. 1993. Joe Connolly, the Graffiti Gorilla.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Joe used to chase us out of the moldy yards and paint over our spots. We all thought he was a city employee, but really, Joe acted alone.

Joe Connolly:
After the King writes, I never organized out. The building was still burned out. Trees didn’t want to get planted. All these people want to fix the neighborhood. Helicopters were everywhere. So I went to this meeting and they had all these things that they wanted people to do. It was only like seven or eight of us there. So I’m sitting and I’m thinking, I’m not gonna say anything. I’m a volunteer. I mean, I’m working seven days a week. I got two little kids. I’m making money, I’m not… So they said graffiti was the last thing on the thing. So they said, you’re taking graffiti. I’m like, yeah, cool. That’ll be excellent cause there’s no graffiti around.

Joe Connolly:
I go out the next day and I start driving around. I’m like, “Oh, my God.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández: It was late summer 2000. Aloe and I spent a night catching spots all over the west side before going back to his house to chill. And then at 4:00 a.m., I got a weird craving for Hawaiian Punch. So we decided to walk to Ralphs.

Aloe:
And then you took a streak and then for some stupid reason, I was like, “Hey, let’s record this.” And I took this video camera that I had.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
We didn’t make it to the store.

Aloe:
We crossed the street. And you decide to start tagging on a trashcan. And my dumb ass, instead of looking out, looking back, I’m looking through the lens at you. And…

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Police pulled up on us. The cops handcuffed us, made us sit on the curb, and then separated us for questioning. I was already on probation for a previous graffiti offense. I thought for sure going to juvie. The cop says to me, “What’s your name?” Back then, I hadn’t started off using my mom’s last name, Hernandez. So I said, Walter Thompson and the cops were like, “That’s not your name.” They thought I was lying to them. They thought Walter Thompson sounded like an eight-year-old white dude’s name. And now that I’m thinking about it, they were kind of right.

Aloe:
I remember them asking me about that. “So what’s your friend’s name?” And I was like, Bezzo, because I’m not trying to give up your name. I didn’t know what she said. So I was like Bezzo.

Aloe:
And the cop was like I was like, “Stop (bleep)ing around.” I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know his name.” Cause I was like, maybe he’s not gonna give his name.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
So Aloe and I start laughing at the cops for not believing me. But the cops, they didn’t think it was funny. They got mad and they got frustrated and put us in separate cars and took us back to the station. I went home after three hours, but Aloe, he was there for almost three days.

Sight:
People know just me as Sight. S-I-G-H-T. My mom kicked me out when I graduate from high school. She kicked me out because she felt she couldn’t afford to take care of me anymore. So here I am thinking I’m about to get ready to go to committee college. Nope. I used to sleep in my homie’s garage. I used to sleep in the garage with the dog right here in Normandy in 76. Because he couldn’t let me stay in his house. But he’s like I got a garage. I mean sometimes me and the dog would fight over who would sleep on the couch. That’s where graffiti really kicked into high gear because I was out, depressed, lonely, hungry. And this is the only thing that kept my spirits up. Letting that trauma out doing graffiti. It’s a human need to express yourself. Unfortunately, the lower classes and the impoverished don’t have the spaces and the walls to just be creative. They don’t own nothing. They can’t write in their own apartment building or they’d get kicked out. They don’t have a house to do in the back yard. So where are they going to do that? The streets are their canvas.

Joe Connolly:
“They got stars and they got can control. It’s poppin’ at the top. This is somebody whose been in the game for a while. This is nice.”

Joe Connolly:
Once I started noticing it and all that, I got interested in it. And then I started studying it and going out mainly with taggers.

Joe Connolly:
“Isn’t that some (bleep).”

Joe Connolly:
I said, “Look, I just want to travel with you guys.” Are like, “Oh, (bleep). You stupid white boy”. I’m like, okay, so I gonna learn about this no matter what. I just want to learn.

Joe Connolly:
“See that? See where it’s super skinny and goes up and it pops. Like there with that little circle? That’s called can control. There’s nobody I don’t think there’s anybody in the world that gets graffitis like me. I don’t, I don’t… it would take a lot. Oh man, look at this. It’s stuff, it’s stuff on top of stuff on top.”.

Joe Connolly:
A lot of people get… they don’t get that graffiti has to start with all these tags and then it moves to a throw up and then it can be a mirror and it can be a burner. It can be a production. It can be, you know… And so only a small amount of people are gonna be able to get to the art side of it. The real outside of it, whatever that might be, and then make a living at. That’s cool. But if they don’t… if they aren’t allowed to tag, they won’t get there. And the world would really suck if we didn’t have graffiti.

Joe Connolly:
“I mean, okay yes, some of this stuff takes a while to get to, but if you get out every day, it takes no time.”

Joe Connolly:
I don’t get excited by graffiti. It doesn’t bother me that it keeps going up. It has to go up, otherwise, the artists can’t emerge and they should be entitled to emerge. I mean, a lot of them, their stories are interesting to hear.

Joe Connolly:
“Well, kinda can read it….”

Joe Connolly:
So why would I keep painting how graffiti if I enjoy it? Because A, they have to do it too. 2, they expected it to get painted out and 3, kind of gives them a fresh canvas to keep going.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
It all sounds like (beep) to me, too. How could somebody love graffiti so much and spend every single day destroying it? It doesn’t really add up, right? It sounds like something he says in front of taggers so that he won’t get beat up.

[HEY THOMPSON! YOUR MOM’S HERE. YOU’RE OUT.]

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
After getting arrested that night with Aloe, I changed my life. My mom was the reason. She picked me up from the station at 6 a.m. and it wasn’t the first time, but there was something about that night that was different. She looked worn out. She looked like a mom who had no more fight left in her. I was really tired of disappointing there. I was afraid of her being afraid for me. And I knew I had to change things up.

Aloe:
I remember trying to call you and like you were avoiding me, and then I finally got a hold of you, and then you said something like, “Oh, I’m just kind of busy right now.” I was like, you busy for me? What the (bleep)? What’s going on right now?

[PLEASE LEAVE A MESSAGE AFTER THE TONE. BEEP.]

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
I stopped answering his calls.

Aloe:
Yeah. Like, you just pretty much ghosted me from right there.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
I started going to class again.

Aloe:
It was just like, “Yeah, what the hell, dude? (Beep)”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
I start playing basketball again.

Aloe:
I’m getting teary as I’m seeing this right now.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
And I stopped smoking weed and drinking too.

Aloe:
After that, I just… I think I couldn’t find anyone else to really connect with. And then I actually started getting more into, like, fighting for some reason. I was never like a big fighter. But all of a sudden, I’m like Mr. Macho Man and I want to fight everybody.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
My best friend and I wouldn’t see or talk to each other for 17 years. It was one of the hardest choices I ever made because I left friends behind who I considered family. And it hit the hardest when I’d see their names on walls and not my own. It felt like they’re carried on with their lives and forgot about me. And it was harder because deep inside I knew that it was something I brought upon myself. I left the world where I was completely seen, only to re-enter a world where being seen wasn’t guaranteed. And for a 14-year-old, it was all really confusing. I wanted to change, and soon the entire L.A. graffiti world will also change.

Roman Mars:
We return with more “California Love,” after this.

[BREAK]

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
By 2006, Sight had briefly stepped back from graffiti. He was no longer homeless, but his mom was. He was working to save money to buy his mom a home because he wanted to rescue her from the park she was sleeping in. He was going to school at a community college and working two jobs.

Sight:
Yeah, my grandmother was like… I thought after she saw how productive I was and how serious I was, she was like, “Look, why don’t you just live here?”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
About the time I walked away from graffiti, what used to be a misdemeanor offense was now a felony. Graffiti artists started doing hard time for their art. Some people in LA refer to this time as a terror campaign. It’s when taggers’ homes were reportedly being raided like they were drug dealers or members of a violent gang.

Sight:
It was a perfect sunny day at south-central LA, as Ice Cube would say, and a couple of days before Thanksgiving, 2006. You hear loud bangs on the door. I’m in the bed naked, asleep. My auntie goes open the door. I told her, “don’t open the door, I don’t know who that is.” She opened the door anyway.

[POLICE: GO, GO, GO, GO!]

Sight:
The police come in looking like they’re in war gear. Just like seven, eight of them.

[POLICE: ON TOP OF YOUR HEAD. PUT YOUR HANDS ON TOP OF YOUR HEAD.]

Sight:
They got assault rifles with beams coming out of them. They pulled me out-

[POLICE: WE NEED ONE IN THE BACK.]

Sight:
… into the main den and they’re like, “Where are the drugs and where are the guns?” I’m like, “There’s no drugs and guns here. You got the wrong person, raided the wrong house. There is no drugs or guns.” They’re like “Where is the guns? And the drugs?”

[POLICE: YOU WANT TO CHECK THESE? I THINK IT’S WORTH IT.]

Sight:
They’re tearing up the whole house. They put some shoes on me, no socks. Pants, no belt. Shirt. Handcuff me. They walked me outside. I got a whole neighborhood outside watching, you know how most people be. They took me down to the sheriff’s station on Watts, and they were high-fiving, man. They were high-fiving. And they were like, “Yeah, we got this dude. We’ve been looking for this dude forever.” I’m like, “Wow.” And I’m all, through my head, I’m like, “I didn’t know graffiti was this serious.” If I knew graffiti was this serious, then I would have not been messing with it. They gave me an interrogation room. I don’t know no law. Sit me down. They sit down a folder of paperwork about six inches tall, all photos of stuff I did in LA. And they open the folder, they show me pictures. I’m like, “Dude, this stuff is all old, dude.” They were like, “If you date these to a more recent date, we’ll let you out today.” I’m like, “For real?”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
But it wasn’t for real. Sight was charged with multiple accounts of nonviolent felony vandalism. He says the evidence he signed ended up being used against him in court. According to him, they had him date pictures of his tags to a more recent time to land within the statute of limitations. Sight was facing around 30 years in prison, so he did what you had to do, and he took a deal for eight years and eight months. His sentencing was just part of the city’s draconian, anti-graffiti movement, and multiple hometown heroes like him were arrested.

[CITY ATTORNEYS SAY IT’S ABOUT TIME TAGGERS ARE TREATED LIKE CRIMINAL GANG MEMBERS.]

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
In ’09 then LA city attorney, Carmen Trutanich, had a mission to go after writers. He and his staff began to gather street level intelligence and prepared injunctions targeting graffiti crews. Whilst Sight was in prison, a lot of taggers reached out to him to provide support, including one he didn’t know that well, but who I used to be really tight with.

Sight:
Aloe wrote me while I was in prison. I met him only once in person on the Venice bus. I never hung out with him like that.

Aloe:
He went to prison for something that we were all doing. That could have been any one of us is what I’m saying. So it’s like, you got to pay respect to him.

Sight:
For him to only meet me that once or twice, I didn’t want to be like, “Hey, I’m going to reach out to this dude.” All I can say is graffiti did that.

Aloe:
We wrote together like every three weeks or so.

Sight:
What am I doing? How’s everything going?

Aloe:
Just trying to see where his mind was at.

Sight:
It felt good, man. I felt like I wasn’t alone. And I felt like graffiti is bigger than what… is more than what people think it is. I was in there for about five years because I was like good behavior, fire camp, all that stuff. And then he was like, I think a year or two, if I got out, he was like, “I’ll pick you up from prison.” And he did that. He picked me up. Then my first meal, suddenly on a Venice beach, breathing the salty air, hear the crashing ocean, put my feet in the water. Was a good man, but I felt broken. I felt vulnerable.

Joe Connolly:
“This is just all of our stuff to get rid of that, the graffiti. We think this is all we need. Not 100% sure.”

Joe Connolly:
Well, the city, they… I hate to say they killed my kid. To this day, they never apologized about that. He went on a school field trip and died in a drowning incident. They had told none of us there was never going to be any swimming out there. The way it happened and all the things that happened in the city, the city could have helped me. And they never chose to help me. They chose to desert me. They’ve never said, “We’re sorry about your son.” That’s, I think, one reason why I stay in graffiti at Bateman is because I’m not able to fix my life because you can never control… it’s like trying to herd cats. You can’t control (beep). So I can control graffiti which makes people’s lives better. So for me, I spend probably a small fortune on it, but it really saves me mentally.

Joe Connolly:
“I’m so looking forward to that orange piece. That thing just melts right off.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
By 2015, I was working as a journalist and writing about race and identity. One day I received a call from a childhood friend, Nikki, telling me about the company she had just started in Compton. Nikki’s company was primarily hiring undocumented workers and formerly incarcerated people to groups of people who live with the most stigma. I walked inside of the lobby and saw a framed newspaper article featuring a black man standing in front of a graffiti wall. I took a step closer, and he looked really familiar. I took another step forward and noticed that the wall read S-I-G-H-T in big and bold letters. It was Sight. Oh, damn. That’s Sight from Scared Straight. “Do you know Sight?” I asked Nikki. “Sight?” she replied. “Yeah, he works here. He’s actually in the back driving the forklift. Let’s go see if he’s back there.” What are the odds?

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
The three of us went out to lunch that day and began reminiscing about Scared Straight and graffiti. Something tells me to ask Sight about Aloe because there weren’t a lot of other black graffiti artists. So what’d I have to lose? “Aloe?” Sight replied. “Yeah, that’s my boy.” And my jaw dropped all the way to the floor. “Give me his number,” I said. I called him and nobody answered. I went home after lunch, and later that day received a phone call from an unknown number. I answered, and this mysterious voice asked, “Hey, is this Bezzo?” Aloe and I met up a week later at Earth Cafe in downtown LA. I was nervous, and I was scared because even though a lot of time had passed, I didn’t know how he felt. Maybe he felt abandoned by me. When I saw him, he didn’t really look like Tupac anymore.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
He now had a ‘fro and tattoos sleeves halfway down his arms. Honestly, he looked like he had been through a lot, but he still had that same charming smile and that same laugh. So much had happened since we last saw one another. He had gotten married, he had survived two drug overdoses, he’s vegetarian. And of all things, of all the things in the world, he was studying to become a lawyer. A lawyer. We talked about our families, about food, and our friends. And towards the end of the night, he looked at me and said he had something to give me.

Aloe:
I was just like, “Hey, do you remember this?” And I remember your face was just like, “Wow.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
He handed me a slap tag. Remember those post office stickers he talked about earlier. Well I had filled this one out the same night we got arrested. Before that weird Hawaiian punch craving. This slap tag had our names on it. It said Bezzo, it said Aloe, and it said our crews. And he had kept this one slap tag through the years, through everything. And now I have that slap tag, and it’s one of the most important things in my life

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Meeting up with Sight and Aloe prompted me to see what our own nemesis Joe was up to. Maybe it was closure I was seeking, I don’t know. So I found Joe on the internet. I contacted him, and I spent a few days with him.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
“How you doing, Joe?”

Joe Connolly:
“I’m good, man.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
It turns out Joe hasn’t changed. He’s still covering up graffiti, and he’s still doing it for free. I was wrong about Joe. This dude really surprised me. He lives in south-central with his wife and cares for an abused pit bull.

Joe Connolly:
“Yeah so, I think she probably was in a yard where she was a dog where there’s mail slot. Come on, come on.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
I really expected Joe to greet me at the door with a red MAGA hat on, but he didn’t. He does have an award from Trump though for graffiti abatement of all things.

Joe Connolly:
“President Trump, best guy in the planet for community in the state of California. 40 million people, and I’m the only one who’s got one of those in the state of California.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Anyways, Joe actually hates the government.

Joe Connolly:
“These people don’t give a (beep) about our people.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
What he means are everyday people, working-class folks, and especially people of color. And Joe’s also really into fitness. He’s an avid bike rider and a former football player from the south side of Chicago.

Joe Connolly:
“Rudy, that (beep) guy stole my story.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Remember the film, Rudy, the classic?

Joe Connolly:
“That (beep) guy stole my story.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
“How?”

Joe Connolly:
“That was my thing, man. I wanted to be a walkout football player.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
“Where?”

Joe Connolly:
“At ND. And then that (beep), he got there three years ahead of me and took my (beep). Crazies.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
“Oh well, here we are.”

Joe Connolly:
“Yeah, here we are.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
I decided to bring Joe and Sight together because I wanted them to talk about how they perceive one another. Sight thinks Joe was a part of the problem. Just another white dude who was part of the system to lock the black and brown people. Joe, on the other hand, had never met Sight, the human. He buffed out a lot of his pieces, but he didn’t know the man. He thought Sight was just another dude from the hood who got caught up in the system. So I invited both of them to my aunt’s house to talk because it was a neutral space. I wanted both of them to feel as comfortable as possible. I really didn’t know what was going to happen. Sight’s somebody who is really chill and really mellow, but-

Joe Connolly:
“Sight, get your ass in here.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Joe’s kind of out there.

Joe Connolly:
“Let’s talk. Come on. How are you, man?”

Sight:
“All right.”

Joe Connolly:
“So you still putting (beep) on the walls?”

Sight:
“Yeah. Yeah.”

Joe Connolly:
“Are you really? That’s good, I like that.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
They sat at my aunt’s dining table and talked about what they agreed on.

Sight:
“Graffiti, when you’re looking on the outside of it, it’s ugly. It’s horrible. It’s this and that. But once you-”

Joe Connolly:
“Get in.”

Sight:
“… step foot into that world, it’s a whole ‘nother perspective-”

Joe Connolly:
“Yeah.”

Sight:
“… on the matter. You will never be able to relate unless you hang out with graffiti artists or are a graffiti artist. You’ll never be able to relate. It’ll just be judging from the outside in.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
And Sight wasn’t messing around. He came ready. He even reached out to the graffiti community on Facebook to see if that had any questions for Joe.

Aloe:
“Do you want to hear those questions?”

Joe Connolly:
“Yeah, let’s go.”

Sight:
“‘Shy and Blanks’ want to know why you buffed out the rooftop in ’92 and told them to get day jobs.”

Joe Connolly:
“I thought it was just funny. It was just funny. It came from an American Express commercial.”

Sight:
“Another person asks, why did you….”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Some of the questions were really angry.

Joe Connolly:
“That’s Caltrans. Caltrans is so insane about how they buff…”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Sight told Joe, he was really hated.

Sight:
“A lot of people plotted on you. They plotted on your family.”

Joe Connolly:
“Wow.”

Sight:
“A lot of people went after your kids secretly. I can’t say who.”

Joe Connolly:
“Okay.”

Sight:
“And it’s almost similar to like, I don’t want to say it.”

Joe Connolly:
“Say it.”

Sight:
“I don’t want to be disrespectful, but you know how a cop goes out and shoots a kid or arrests kids and people feel that pain forever?”

Joe Connolly:
“Yeah.”

Sight:
“It’s kind of like the same.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
It seemed like the news that people went after Joe’s kids really affected him, especially since Joe had lost his son. He was physically shaken, and he really let down his guard. Joe revealed a different side to him that people weren’t used to seeing. It didn’t feel like a performance anymore. It felt like we were finally getting the real Joe.

Joe Connolly:
“After I lost my son, I lost my grandmother, my parents, my brothers, my inlaws, my sister-in-laws, a lot of artists, a lot of people I knew, a lot of people in my community. There was a time in ’99 through ’07, ’08 where there’s a lot of funerals. There were just so many funerals, and it’s a lot. And so I just… and then with the last things that mainly with my son and there’s still fall off from that, which is now almost 21 years. And so I just kind of then just really became a loner.”

Sight:
“I don’t mean to cut you off, but-”

Joe Connolly:
“No, no, no, no, no, no.”

Sight:
“I’ve met a lot of different graffiti artists, at least about a thousand of them that I know or more, have the same story as you or similar.”

Joe Connolly:
“Yeah.”

Sight:
“And I’m listening to you and what people don’t know and people forget is any kind of painting is therapeutic.”

Joe Connolly:
“Yeah.”

Sight:
“Painting, doing art activates one side of the brain that helps heal trauma.”

Joe Connolly:
“Yeah.”

Sight:
“You’ve been through some trauma. I feel that the more, the longer that person paints, reflects how much healing they need and how much therapy that painting provides. I still do it because I still suffer the trauma that has not been rooted yet, uprooted. So, and I see it in you. You might not be doing graffiti, but you are painting over it yet.”

Joe Connolly:
“Oh yeah.”

Sight:
“Yeah, it is still, in a way, therapeutic and provides a sense of relief. And the other side of that is that it’s fun. It’s competitive.”

Joe Connolly:
“It is fun. It is fun.”

Sight:
“And there’s some people that are game and some people are not.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
In that moment, I think Joe finally felt seen and heard too. He wasn’t the in your face Joe, the wild Joe, the “rah-rah-rah” Joe. He was soft, and he with gentle. And Sight, I’m pretty sure he felt the same way too. People see walls with graffiti on them and I think that the people responsible for the tags are criminal, but it’s hard to know that there’s a whole life behind the spray paint that emerges on the wall. And to be real, it’s impossible to see the things that people are dealing with at home. It’s already hard, enough being a teenager, but imagine not having a way to express yourself. That’s really hard. Some see it as property damage, but what about the damage people are experiencing in their own lives? Each piece of graffiti is a window into someone’s life. Sometimes though, the window is hard to see through because there’s writing on it. But each window and each wall tells a different story. The walls are the first thing I see when I travel to a new place. They tell me everything I need to know about where I’m at. They alert me of danger, tell me who lives in that community, and who I need to be aware of.

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
Let’s go back to that bus, spring 2017. I’m on the 733 bus line, and we’re heading west on Venice Boulevard. I’m sitting in the back of the bus. It’s the early afternoon, and there’s nobody else sitting next to me. I’m listening to music on my headphones when I noticed an old friend hop on. It’s Ivan, and we used to be in the same circles when I used to tag. Ivan hasn’t changed one bit. He’s still wearing oversized t-shirts and still speaks from the side of his mouth like he used to, and his hair is still cut really low. It’s been more than 15 years since we last saw one another.

Ivan:
“Oh (beep). What’s up, man?”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
We dab each other up and hug, and he sits right next to me.

Ivan:
“Hey, you still write?”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
When Ivan asked me if I still wrote, I paused because the truth is nothing’s really changed. I am still writing. I’m just not writing on walls or buses or freeways anymore, but I’m still writing to be seen. “Yeah,” I told Ivan. “I do still write.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández:
The lead producer for this episode is Elizabeth Nakano, supporting producer Tamika Adams, our editor is Arwen Nicks, our senior producers, Megan Tan, our sound engineer is Valentino Rivera, original music by Andrew Eapen. This episode was written by me, Walter Thompson-Hernandez, with help from Elizabeth Nakano. Angela Bromstad is our executive producer. For more information on this episode of “Scared Straight,” go to LAist.com /CaliforniaLove. California Love is a production of LAist Studios. I’m the host, Walter Thompson-Hernandez. Thanks for listening. I really appreciate you.

Roman Mars:
This was just one of an eight-part series. I encourage you to subscribe to California Loves so you can hear more. We’ll have a link in the show notes.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible is Delaney Hall, Kurt Kohlstedt, Sofia Klaztker, Katie Mingle, Emmett FitzGerald, Sean Real, Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Abby Madan, and me, Roman Mars.

We are founding members of radiotopia from PRX, still based in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. Do not fret, we’ll have a new episode from us next week. In the meantime, check out and pre-order our new book – it’s called “The 99% Invisible City” – at 99pi.org/book or pick out, discover, and share a cool story about design in cities in the built world and share it with your friends, at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

California Love is hosted and written by Walter Thompson-Hernández; Produced by Megan Tan, Elizabeth Nakano, Tamika Adams; Edited by Arwen Nicks; Mixing and engineering by Valentino Rivera; Music by Andrew Eapen. Angela Bromstad is the Executive Producer

  1. Anita

    I love 99PI- highlight of my week.

    Thanks for sending us California Love. Fascinating insight into street art and a real talent. Love love love the journalist. Well done.

  2. Frank Irek

    Public Art such as murals can enrich the artist and the community. Artists need to practice safely on scrap materials to get good enough to do a mural on a building with the owner’s permission. This is not as difficult as you might think. Tagging, however is a property crime and is not worth the risk to your freedom and your record. It also wastes resources of organizations and businesses and workers have to spend time documenting it and cleaning it up. Use the internet for your “voice” while you are practicing and getting good at your art. Be part of the solution rather than becoming a problem. Consider being like Joe and buff out tagging as soon as you see it. Support and raise up talented artists that do murals and earn money from their art.

  3. Katherine

    Thank you for sharing the California Love podcast! The episode so well produced and I found myself very moved at the conclusion. Kudos Walter! Please keep “writing” and sharing your voice with the world.

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