In 1997 the graffiti artist Saber wrote his name in 40-foot letters on the cement bank of the Los Angeles River.
“You have this inherent desire to be remembered as an individual,” he said. “Everybody does, and I decided to paint the world’s largest graffiti piece and maybe they’ll remember me.”
He explained, “I felt the need to get my voice out. I was young when I did it. Now for me, it’s about the artwork because the artwork has the potential to last longer than the graffiti.”
Saber, who recently painted a 30-foot mural for the “Art in the Streets” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, was in New York for his first (and long overdue) major solo exhibition, “Saber: The American Graffiti Artist,” at Opera Gallery in SoHo.
The show is made up of mostly works on wood panel, including several from his Tarnished series of American flag paintings. Before a signing session at the gallery for his limited edition prints, he sat down to talk about what it means to be a graffiti artist, his views on the First Amendment, and how to use Fox News to make money.
Is your thought process different when you’re working outside versus the gallery work?
Same process. It’s all freestyle. Everything in here is freestyle. I don’t really sketch or plan the pieces. I have a general idea in my mind, like a vision in my mind. And I follow the trail of that vision.
I talked to Lee Quinones recently, and he said that he sometimes carries a painting in his head for years, until it’s ready to come out. Is that the same for you?
To me, when I focus on abstract graffiti letters, there’s this continuous evolving pattern that’s in the back of my head. It’s kind of like visual kung-fu. It’s visual jazz. I have a very slick, aggressive, futuristic type of approach to graffiti letter structures. I [define] it as graffiti abstraction -- and that’s what my focus is.
I do oil paintings and photo-realistic paintings, but that’s from my personal point of view as my government name. I have two different styles that I play with: One is for my own need as a painter, to become a better painter, and that’s the photo-realistic landscapes and things like that.
The other is my passion, which is graffiti structures – kind of a free-flow pattern that is continuously evolving in the back of my head. In the back of my eyes, it’s always there. Once you dive into wildstyle, you get trapped in the puzzle. And I’ve been trapped in that puzzle for 21 years.
Is it a puzzle that’s frustrating?
Oh, absolutely. It drives me crazy. It’s like second nature for me to paint a picture -- a photo-realistic or even the fun loose ones, but the graffiti structure has to have a specific balance. And it has to be done first try. So if I don’t get it done first try, that means I have to go over it, scrub it off, sand it off, start all over and get frustrated. It’s about -- the composition itself takes a lot out of me, to really break down the structure.
I pretty much get defeated by every piece I paint in the beginning. It’s a very frustrating process that I go through. I break paintings, I smash them. I get pissed. They really take a lot of energy out of me. I guess that energy is also translated into the painting. Because to me, I’m representing the graffiti art culture, my friends, my crew, my friends in the past as a whole. So my name, my graffiti, to me, represents the culture as well. And just like everybody else in graffiti, who have made their mark, they represent me, I represent them.
Is that part of being a graffiti artist -- not just representing yourself, but also pushing graffiti culture as a whole?
I can’t separate myself from the movement because there’s too much love and passion for the people that I care about. That’s why I continue with graffiti abstraction because it still links the artwork to that movement. To me, it’s about the progression of the movement. I still appreciate everybody who bombs and who does their raw graffiti. I still want to do that.
I don’t do that in Los Angeles; I do that when I travel as much as I can. But as long as I live, as long as I’m Saber, I represent the culture, until I come out with my government name, which is a challenge in itself -- and that’s when I separate myself.
Why is that a challenge?
It’s like severing yourself from your schizophrenic identity, and every graffiti artist, at a certain point, comes to terms with their activities and says, “Look, I cannot continue these certain activities, number one because of health, number two because of family, number three because of the consequences.”
In LA, the consequences are dire. So honestly, I’m lucky to be alive at this point with the health issues I’ve had, with the injuries I’ve had, with avoiding jail and all this. I’m lucky to be alive at this point and I want to hold on to this.
Now if I wasn’t a fine artist -- if I didn’t make paintings before I did graffiti -- then whatever, it doesn’t matter. But the fact is I create fine art, I create paintings, I create sculptures, so it has a path, separate from graffiti art, but at the same time, it looks back to it, it reflects it. So it’s important to me to reflect the culture in a positive way.
There’s a lot of negative press about the MoCA show. And there are a lot of Conservatives who have come out really smashing the show. But as a matter of fact, that only helps our cause.
If nobody hates you then…
You’re not doing something right. But the fact is it’s not about the politics, it’s about the essence of the art itself. It’s about the freedom of expression. It’s about appropriating public space. It’s okay for advertisements to take over the entire world and ram that shit down our throats, but it’s not okay for a kid to put up a sticker, and he’s going to go to jail for a felony?
I’m not against advertisements. I’m against the concept of appropriating space and the idea that it’s okay for advertisements, but it’s not okay for average citizens to express themselves. I’m not the type of person who condones writing on small businesses and affecting small businesses, but overall, the city, its basic structure, [graffiti] is part of it. This is part of life.
Graffiti is inextricably linked to politics because graffiti is asking the average citizen to think beyond the law and to what’s naturally right and wrong.
Right. It is up to the individual citizen to make that decision. And like I said, I don’t condone affecting small businesses. I think it’s important that we bring respect to the table. One way we’re doing that is giving back to the community by donating free murals. Now in Los Angeles, there’s a moratorium on all murals, claiming that it’s illegal signage. So it’s our job to battle that.