Golden age remix: Bay graff gets its props

Today's generation takes in Nate1's painted rendition of 1980s SF's famous graff wall "Psycho City"
All photos by Caitlin Donohue

Nate1's business card is totally dope. It's front depicts a Kry-lon paint can, the brand most used  for graffiti in the days he was coming up as a street writer in 1980s San Francisco. “Back then we used to have to make art with automotive paint,” he tells me at 1AM gallery, where his new show on the golden age of Bay tagging, “The Classics” opens today (Fri/10). “We're talking about paint to paint red wagons and doors,” he remembers, smiling like a man that didn't mind too much.

The card is striking because it evokes the sentiment behind this artist and the show he's thrown up. “The Classics” is about those icons of SF's early days on the graffiti scene, back before anyone with a few bucks could buy specialized Mammoth paint from 1AM's retail section, cans specially designed for low pressure artistic liberty – but it's also about where that art form stands today. 

1AM owner Anna says that before he came up with the inkling for this particular showing, Nate1 would bring around scrapbooks to street art openings, forcing heads to remember the days when. Finally, they hit upon the idea to base a show on these old masterpieces. On the gallery's walls are seldom-seen photographs of the “Psycho City” wall in SoMa, the only place where young taggers could work on their art in public, in peace from police presence and neighborhood complaint. UB40's ubiquitous-at-the-time scrawl is present, as is shots of trains painted by King 157, and Rigel's game-changing robot piece. 

But the show's no time capsule. What Nate1 wanted to do was pull these works into the present, juxtapose San Francisco relatively (to New York's) unsung heroes with the realities of today. The artists are adults now, grown community members – Nate1, an original member of the graf crew Masterpiece Creators, has two kids, teaches graffiti art history at 1AM, and owns a clothing company – but they've still got skills. Most of the pieces at his show are not classics at all, but mature artists' reimaginings of the culturally mega works they sprayed onto the sides of buildings and MUNI buses when they were in their teens. The show's a celebration of where the art form's been, but also how far it's come.

“This show was put together by a writer, for a writer.” Nate1 is now addressing a crowd who has assembled the night for a sneak peek tour through the artwork that through months of searching and finding, he has deemed “The Classics.” In the audience are no small amount of writers from the '80s scene: Rise is here, and Mike Bam. They're among the artists Nate1 called on to create new pieces for the show. Throughout his tour, they pick up on Nate1's more obscure points and chime in with clarifications, added bits of information.

"So dope!" Nate1 gets stoked on an original piece at his show "The Classics"

Some of the artists on display, like Rigel with his robot, re-imagined classic works from days of old and put them on canvass to grand affect. Others expanded on long dormant skills with new technology. Nate1 stops in front of a piece by Vogue entitled “Teenage Love.” It's a painted closeup of Kry-lon cans, the glint of the metal popping in the bright, happy colors of everybody's youth. “He did that with spray paint,” Nate1 announces to the assembled crowd, staggering backwards as if blown away by the technical mastery involved in this act. “Jesus!”

Still others made pieces of art that reflect the change in their lives, in everybody's lives since those days of fat laces and “bus hopping” (which Nate1, in his best art history professor's voice helpfully defines as when a graf artist boards a bus solo or en masse and “you take a tool of your choice to mark the surface”). Rise is called to the front when the corner that houses his work is introduced. A father himself, he has struggled with the “spiritual blackout” of alcoholism, only to finally see the light in a world with strange issues that dwarf running from the cops and fingers covered in aerosol paint. His intricate painting “Heaven Only Knows” shows a rising figure in Masonic imagery, surrounded by social ills, the seven deadly sins inscribed on paint cans, labyrinthine, interlocking words describing the scene, all of it framed by his son's small hands on a video game controller. He talks about seeing names of military consultants in the credits of his offspring's game manuals, explaining to his sons that though the games are fun to play, they're still a tool of social conditioning. “Something that frustrates me is the condition of how things are going,” says Rise, a self-identified conspiracy theory enthusiast.

What may draw street art aficionados to “The Classics” is the promise of a look at the old school “OGs,” as Nate1 puts it. And that's here: James Prigoff's vast compendium of snapshots from 1980s taggers and their art has been selectively drawn from by Nate1. There's a classic framed photo that shows a group of kids falling out the windows of a bus, adrenaline pumping in the aftermath of a writer's party at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in honor of the first San Francisco book of street art. The shots serve as a tangible reminder of a time that wasn't captured in graff mags, not endlessly cataloged on the Internet.

But what one walks away from “The Classics” with is the postmodern riffing images created for the show. It's the fact that our local street art scene has become a school worthy of imitation, analysis, and homage that impresses. '80s street artists – those night-crawling, fence-jumping, anti-social social crusaders, have finally and fully been embraced into the world of “art.” And they've got the business cards to prove it.


“The Classics”

Through Oct. 16

1AM gallery

1000 Howard, SF

(415) 861-5089

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