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Being in the Shadow of Hollywood

Celebrity, Banality, and the Infamous Chaka

1Landing in the Midwest after a lifetime in Los Angeles, I was shocked to learn how “famous” that great city really is. It used to seem perfectly reasonable that the freeways on CHiPs looked just like the ones I rode to school. When I was five, I remember being secretly bummed that my mom never took us to the disco-classical mural from Xanadu, which I was convinced had to be hidden somewhere in Venice Beach. In high school, it never seemed strange that the Peach Pit on Beverly Hills 90210 was the same as the Rose City Diner. From the L.A. River to the Griffith Park Observatory, from the Hollywood Sign to Venice Beach, the places I had been in, through, and around were inscribed with meanings in ways that I could never fully grasp. Even marginalized localities like Inglewood, Compton, and East L.A., which especially during the 1980s and early 1990s were being ravaged by urban warfare, got to be the stars of movies, songs, and many music videos. And on April 29, 1992, the corner of Florence and Normandie “blew up” into a full blown riot, sparked by the acquittal of the four white officers who beat black motorist, Rodney King. I could watch the city burn on T.V. or from the hill behind my house. All my life, I lived with a foot in each L.A., the one that’s outside my living room and the one that’s inside my living room, oblivious to the fact that I lived in a famous city.

2It was only after I moved away from L.A. that I realized my homesickness could often be softened by a click of the remote. I could look for a familiar stretch of road, a bit of the skyline, or a clean but otherwise familiar segment of sidewalk, and it didn’t even matter who, what, where, or why was taking place in the story on screen. It was as though fragments of my life had been archived for me in media space. Some memories were real and some just recollections of other representations – like seeing the observatory in Bowfinger and wondering if I was remembering Rebel Without a Cause or a second grade field trip.

3But when I arrived here, the question that greeted me most often at parties was, “Why are you in Bowling Green!?!” And the second was, “Did you meet any famous people?” And so I tell them about how I went to driver’s education class with Mayim Byalik, the star of Blossom. Or that I met Annette Funicello one New Year’s Eve at my Uncle Phil’s house. Aside from the occasional queer chuckle about my brush with Blossom, this record is unimpressive. People are hoping for something a little bit more like, “I spent the night in jail with Poison,” “I was an extra on Baywatch,” or “I was at the Viper Room the night River Phoenix passed away.” In spite of my lackluster record of interactions with the rich and the famous, I would still get introduced as being “from California.” I had become the recipient of a second-rate, secondhand fame, noted for being from a place where, if I were more ambitious, I could have really rubbed shoulders with famous people. To young people, many of whom were itching to travel to a place like LA or New York, I was a special kind of failure.

4But if you aren’t famous, if you are a loser like me, life in L.A. isn’t about the a-list at all. It is about living in a city that captures the imagination, even as you walk down the street. So earning notoriety in a city that speaks in spectacle is an exercise in creativity. It seems like everybody, even the most down-to-earth people, are invested in developing a character, an image, a persona that can bubble up and be noticed in spite of the overwhelming glow of Hollywood. Even at my suburban high school, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I knew upper-middleclass boys who got nose jobs and manicures. I knew girls who would go trolling for rich men to buy them pretty things that their parents couldn’t afford. There were kids whose parents helped them cheat their way into college. There were wannabe junkies who drove their moms’ minivans into the ghetto to score. I saw people panic, pout, and scream over cars and allowances and shoes. I know that consumer culture is growing stronger just about everywhere, but back home it happened a lot sooner and a lot stronger. Because of our proximity to Hollywood, the crest of the cultural tidal wave looks much higher and its force is much stronger. And I guess I was just too fat to be in California, so I left.

5However, every once in a while, somebody does manage to make a scene in L.A. A little loser, or whatever you want to call one of the peasants who tend to the vast fiefdoms of L.A.’s elites, rises from banality to achieve celebrity, even if it is a minor celebrity, in the City of Angels. One such figure is the notorious Daniel Ramos, who in 1991 became a central figure in the city’s struggle over its own image. Daniel Ramos was not a star, a politician, or a leader of industry – but before he even appeared in the news, he had trafficked illegally in making a name for himself. A teenager from the projects, Ramos was more widely known as “Chaka,” a graffiti writer credited with over 10,000 tags from San Diego to San Francisco.

6I had seen Chaka’s tags just about everywhere, and had determined that he might be superhuman. His name, taken after a hairy little missing link from the popular fantasy show, The Land of the Lost, made me smirk as it conjured up images of a sub-humanoid with broken dialect creeping out from the darkness with cans of paint, marking the walls with his sign, calling out to the rest of us half-humans stranded in the land of the lost. Meanwhile, L.A.’s rich and famous whizzed by, casting resentful glances at Chaka’s do-it-yourself media blitz. I knew that Chaka was “bad,” but my imagination loved him. And when he allegedly left his mark in the courthouse elevator on the day of his release from a five-month stretch in prison (Costello), I couldn’t help but feel glad to know that Chaka was still alive, that legends don’t die (his name even made it, through the hand of Dave Grohl, into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit Video” in 1991). For me, and I imagine for many others, it was the beginning of a political awakening. I wondered what was so bad about graffiti, even though I had been taught all my life that it was wrong.

7More than ten years later, as I sit by the railroad tracks in my small, Midwestern town, eagerly waiting for messages from California painted on the sides of boxcars, I find myself asking a related question – what is good about advertising? I’m not the first to make the welcomed association between graffiti and advertising. In an interview with the vastly capable scholar, Joe Austin, New York graffiti legend IZ THE WIZ explained it thusly:

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OK, now you’re on a poorer economic level and what do you have? Years ago, and even today, a boxer makes a name for himself in the boxing ring. So when this art form starts developing, why would it be any different? It’s all in the name. When you’re poor, that’s all you got. (40)

9Austin elaborates on this insight, explaining:

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The proliferation of posters, advertisements, and signs bearing the images and names of products and proprietors in twentieth-century cities is one obvious place to begin. These are the directly visible extensions of individual/corporate identities into the new shared urban public spaces of the streets, a quantitatively and qualitatively new site in human history where hundreds of thousands of often spectacularly displayed names abound, each catching the eyes of potential consumers and imprinting itself on their memories. (39)

11So, on one level, the story of Chaka is the story of a poor man who went toe to toe with big media, in a town run by big media, and held his own. It is the story of someone who has managed to say in no insignificant way, “I am here.” Or has Ramos himself yelled as he was being shackled by police, “I am the famous ‘Chaka’” (Walker A4). In spite of everything else, Ramos had a name that was widely recognized, respected by some, reviled by others.

12Nancy Macdonald, in her important study the culture of writing, shifts the focus away from the more solidly class-based argument employed by Austin in his study of the origins of New York graffiti art to one which lends itself more readily to understanding the culture of writing in the 1990s, after hip hop had become more accessible to middleclass enthusiasts. Macdonald explains, “Writers use the respect and recognition of their peers to validate their masculine identities” (124). While I am reluctant to downplay the class struggle that certainly seems to have implicitly informed Chaka’s quest for recognition, his outlaw appeal lends itself such an interpretation. In a city like Los Angeles, where middle class agency and upward mobility for the service class are not simply functions of wealth, but also of scrupulously maintained images, feelings of powerlessness associated with the lack of a compelling image are to be expected. It is the engine that drives the exuberant extravagance of consumer culture, lifestyle choices, and ultimately biopolitics. In a society where culture and capital are the dual poles which determine one’s social standing, the pursuit of notoriety is not simply a measure of masculinity – hijacking images is a way to assert one’s agency in spite of the diminished value of unskilled labor and the collective fear of underclass masculinities.

13In her book Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A., Susan A. Philips provides discussion of Chaka’s contribution to L.A. graffiti. Notably, Chaka was seen by those in the graffiti community as an everyman, who was responsible for two significant cultural achievements: he “open[ed] up the style of the New York-based tags and creat[ed] the phenomenon of the individual tagger” (Phillips 320). He also, as Phillips notes, “wrote tags that you could read…in blockish gang-type lettering” (320). Unlike his New York graffiti-writing peers, which are best known for their beautiful “wildstyle,” Chaka did not typically traffic in multicolor murals and displays of painterly virtuosity. His chief accomplishment was his cunning pervasiveness and daring criminality. As such, his body of work should be seen as incompatible with High Art attempts to bring collectible graffiti into gallery spaces through the 1980s and ‘90s. Chaka’s medium, in a sense, has less to do with paint, than it has to do with the city and its rules. For the majority of the public, Chaka was seen as an individual face for the graffiti pandemic that was strategically linked in the public mind with specter of gang violence.

14However, to those familiar with the writing scene in L.A., Chaka is more than a lone individual:

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THE OG’Z OF THE LEGION OF DOOM WERE THE ONE RESPONSIBLE FOR BRINGING THE EARLY LOS ANGELES GRAFFITI SCENE TO IT’S KNEES! AND GAVE US MOST OF THE LEGENDS WE KNOW TODAY! I REMEMBER I TIME WHEN EVERY LOS ANGELES INTERSTATE HEAVEN ROCKED BY EITHER LEST-CAB-STANS-SUB OR THE CHAKA!!! (god i miss those days!) remember the CAB undercover story on the news where he did those loks on dope throwies on the 110 pasadena? I think it was chuck henry channel 7 ??? does anyone still have that on vhs? i had it on vhs along with the CHAKA PUBLIC SERVICE ANOUNCEMENT (that was great!). (Poncho1DEcrew)

16Instead of being an individual tagger, Chaka is recognized as a member of a crew (LOD), who managed to get up in legendary ways. In reclaiming freeway overpasses (the “Heavens”), walls, trains, road signs, and just about everything else for his crew, vicariously for the many other people who respect his name, and also for himself, Chaka is more than simply selfish, as is often suggested by his detractors.

17In the heavens is the right place to begin. High up in the sky, over the freeways, for all to see, the writing in the heavens is visible, mysterious, and ultimately risky. The problem of climbing along the girders underneath the bridges, escaping detection, but leaving something bold points to what distinguishes writing from an ad-campaign. Sure, some of what the tagger does is about simply being a recognized image all over the place. But the other part is about finding the place, working within environmental constraints, battling against time, stretching one’s limits, and doing it with style. While the image may be everywhere, the act of writing itself is a singularity, shrouded by secrecy, and defined by the moment of its doing. The aftereffect is a puzzle. And in the case of Chaka, the question is, “How the hell did this guy get up over 10,000 times?” While I can’t see how he did it and I don’t know where, exactly, he got all that paint, I do know one thing: Chaka went everywhere. He mapped the city out as a series of landmarks, he put his name to the space, and he claimed Los Angeles for people other than the ones who claim to own the rights to beam their generalized and monolithic messages into our living rooms. Instead of archiving the city in the banalities of mass media, he has created an archive of an alternative L.A., filled with singularities, and famous in the way that only one’s hometown can be.

18Instead of being a celebrity, renowned by virtue of a moderately unique character, his ability to generate money, and an elite image, Chaka represents an alternative fame. As a modern day “everyman” and folk hero, he brings a message that the city belongs to all people. Far from the naïve and mean-spirited equations between graffiti writing and canine scent-marking as a primitive drive to mark territorial boundaries with undesirable substances (writers:paint::dogs:piss), Chaka’s all-city message is not so much a practice of creating exclusionary spaces as it is an assertion of one’s identity in a particular space. A postmodern pilgrim, Chaka has marked his progress through the city leaving a perceptible record of his everyday experience, and opening up that possibility for others. This is not to say that it is necessary for all people to paint in order to break loose from the semiotic order of the city, it is only to say that is hopeful to realize that this order is not fixed and that is not even necessarily our own.

19Reflecting back on my own experience as one who has grown up very much in love in the produced spaces of the scripted and archived fame of Los Angeles, the realization that such an overwhelming place is open even to my own inscriptions is an important one. This realization, which has been many years in the making, was set into place by the curious fame of Chaka. For a writer and scholar disturbed by the “death of the author,” it comes as a relief to see writing resurrected in the anti-authoritarian practice of a teenage boy from the projects.