The year is 1983 and Robert “Nexus” Ortiz and his friend David “Demo” Woodham Jr. have walked to an underpass on West San Carlos at 2am. They are 13 years old. It is November. They have two big bags of spray paint.
“We don’t have a ladder. We don’t even think to bring milk crates with us. So, I’m on Dave’s shoulders and we’re painting. The wind is howling. It is just blowing. I’m trying to paint this red backdrop for Santa Claus’ outfit or for some sparks—these graphics that I designed—and the wind is just blasting and the front parts of my arms are turning pink from the overspray. After a while, maybe two hours into it, we were like, this is just a mess. Let’s come back tomorrow.”
Ortiz recounts this with much laughter, his attempt to be the first to paint a fully realized graffiti mural on the underpass walls now known as the Walls of the Fame. Now based in New Jersey, Ortiz returns to San Jose this weekend for 1Culture’s Bay Area Legends show, where his work will hang alongside 19 other Bay Area graffiti street artists.
San José resident Carlos Rodriguez is among the artists featured. Speaking with both Rodriguez and Ortiz, it becomes clear that, though the works of graffiti artists often appear overnight, their legends do not.
While Ortiz grew up in San Jose, Rodriguez came to the city from Guadalajara in 1988.
“For me, it was an immigration story more than anything. Muralism was something I picked up as a kid in Mexico. When I moved to San Jose, graffiti re-sparked that for me.”
Rodriguez was amazed by the murals on the Instituto Cultural Cabanas, the orphanage-turned-cultural-center in Guadalajara which houses the work of José Clemente Orozco. In San José, he found inspiration—and solace—in the work of Ortiz and his contemporaries.
“Moving made for a lot of adjustment and art played a huge part in me finding my identity and morphing into a new world. Art did it for me.”
Ortiz has a similar story. Upon starting high school, he found himself without a strong sense of community. Facing this, he reoriented himself, thinking: “Maybe I just need to focus on [making graffiti art], so I feel like I belong somewhere.”
While Rodriguez had the murals of Guadalajara, Ortiz found inspiration in the work of abstract sculptor Aristides Demetrios, who had a sculpture outside of Santa Clara’s Triton Museum of Art in the early ’80s.
“I liked how it was just a cube and sphere, or just a bent rectangle,” Ortiz says. “I said, I think I’ll do a graffiti style based on this. That’s where the 3D Wildstyle, for me, came into play.”
Ortiz is known for being the originator of 3D Wildstyle, a kind of interlocking lettering, made to appear 3D. Yet, when asked what makes someone a legend, Ortiz is humble: “Honestly, a legend, just like any other story, is based on someone else’s perception.”
For Rodriguez, legend is about sacrifice.
“I think it barrels down to the sacrifices that a person decides to make in the name of that which brings goodness to their soul. For us, that is aerosol. With aerosol, the soul comes out directly. When you create this [spray] can control, it is like you are able to see with your eyes closed. You lose your fear of that which is keeping you down.”
While, on that windy night at the Walls of Fame, Ortiz and his friend got away with a slap on the wrist, graffiti remains criminalized. For Rodriguez, graffiti still invokes sacrifice, because “people die over it or get thrown in jail.”
Both artists are involved in community programs which seek to use graffiti art as a vehicle of expression and positivity. Rodriguez currently consults with nonprofits and organizations and works with them to create murals. Ortiz works in New Jersey to paint murals which acknowledge the positive work of those within his community.
“All of my art is about love,” Rodriguez says, “or culture. For a time, it helps people create an identity about who they are and where they live.”
Opens Sat, 5pm, Free
1Culture, San Jose