An L.A. graffiti classic gets republished (2024)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Oct. 1. I’m Gustavo Arellano, reporting from Orange County.

The past couple of years have been fruitful for followers of a Southern California history subject that’s simultaneously niche and ubiquitous: graffiti.

The year 2019 saw the publication of two academic books on the subject, and an anthology of the work of Chaz Bojórquez, widely considered the godfather of L.A. graffiti in general and specifically the stark lines characteristic of Chicano-style wall art. Earlier this year, the Getty released “L.A. Graffiti Black Book,” a collection of 151 graffiti and tattoo artists who offered their personalized inscriptions to the august institution.

The latest offering in this genre is also, conversely enough, the oldest: a September reissue of the 1975 coffee-table book “Street Writers: A Guided Tour of Chicano Graffiti” by Arte Povera Foto Books.

It’s a gorgeous tome, with black-and-white shots by Italian photographer Gusmano Cesaretti interspersed with Bojórquez’s musings on graffiti and Chicano life at the time. “A Chicano kid grows up with walls of many kinds around him,” Cesaretti wrote in the book’s intro. “When somebody is born into that situation there are several things he can do … he can ignore the walls, and sink into apathy. Or he can become violent and try to blow up the walls.”

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Cesaretti felt a third option was far more liberating: tag them up.

The photos are slightly overexposed, the better to capture the rawness of its subjects and their lives. Walls, fences and garage doors are blanketed with placas (tags) to the point where they look like the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet. “Street Writers” features graffiti from bathroom stalls to high school gyms, small scribbles to intricate gang homages. Cesaretti captions each photo with prose as sparse as the placas he captures — a typical entry is “Frogtown, Riverside: Tim, 11 years old” with a long-haired, defiant youngster in front of a graffitied wall that’s ostensibly his creation.

Bojórquez, then in his 20s, serves as our Virgil through a topography of Chicano Eastside in the early 1970s — not just Whittier Boulevard, but Little Valley and City Terrace, Montecito Heights and Bojórquez’s native Highland Park, from the Arroyo Seco section of the L.A. River to the 110 Freeway. He mugs for Cesaretti’s camera — but Bojórquez also offers a rendition of his most iconic image: Señor Suerte (Mr. Luck), a fedora-wearing grinning skull with fingers crossed.

“That’s what I get a big kick out of,” Bojórquez writes, regarding graffiti. “It’s right out here. It’s not controlled. You don’t get a nice surface, like a fine artist. You just do it. It’s like being naked out there.”

You don’t have to like graffiti (I don’t particularly care for the form — I’m more of a Norman Rockwell stan) to enjoy this book. “Street Writers” works as a collection of art, local and ethnic history, but it’s also a time capsule of neighborhoods that are now either fighting gentrification or wholly subsumed by it. Bojórquez even complains about this phenomenon when he notes in his opening remarks from 47 years ago that he grew up on Avenue 66 “before it started to get real white.”

The more things change in Los Angeles … but I digress.

Cesaretti went on to a celebrated career as a chronicler of Angeleno Chicano life — a 1978 L.A. Times story said he “knows more about East Los Angeles culture than most natives.” Bojórquez, of course, is a legend. So it’s great to see how “Street Writers” documented the two right at their respective beginnings, unwitting pioneers of a subset of L.A. studies that gets more and more popular every year.

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An L.A. graffiti classic gets republished (1)

And now, here’s what’s happening across California.

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L.A. STORIES

A secret USC payout had a catch: Images of ex-dean using drugs had to be given up. My colleague Paul Pringle’s blockbusters on tawdriness in Trojanland just don’t stop! Los Angeles Times

Minority of sanitation workers report being vaccinated, worrying homeless advocates. Because garbage collectors and power washers don’t want law enforcement and firefighters to beat them in the public-employee pandejo sweepstakes. Los Angeles Time

Activists want to rename Pershing Square. Gen. John J. Pershing won World War I for the U.S. and commanded a troop of the famed Buffalo Soldiers — but he also pursued Pancho Villa, quashed Lakota uprisings and participated in the takeover of the Philippines. L.A. Taco

A concatenation of sprawls. How, in 21st-century Los Angeles, can we continue to nurture the hardy roots of rasquachismo to yield new and more inclusive Latinx-urbanist aesthetics? If none of this makes sense, then you definitely need to read this great personal essay. Places Journal

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

The state eviction moratorium ends soon, but rent relief will still be available. California slowly tries to get back to the Before Times — you know, when evictions were rampant because people can’t afford the rent. Los Angeles Times

A journey through China: memories, bones and a reinvented past. My colleague, Beijing bureau chief Alice Su, traveled more than 4,300 miles across the nation to visit cites crucial to its ruling Communist Party’s past and present. Los Angeles Times

Bruce’s Beach can return to descendants of Black family in landmark move signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The history-making move to give back Manhattan beach seaside property will be celebrated by reparations advocates and social justice leaders across the country for years to come. Los Angeles Times

Berkeley’s Marcia Freedman, first out lesbian in Knesset, dies at 83. After making history in Israel, she settled in the Bay Area and launched a legendary career as an advocate for women’s, senior and LGBTQ rights. The Forward

CRIME AND COURTS

Newsom approves sweeping reforms to law enforcement. The changes include raising the minimum age for officers to 21 and allowing badges to be taken away for excessive force, dishonesty and racial bias. Los Angeles Times

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After a pandemic-year surge in murders, Los Angeles sees even more bloodshed. In 2021 the city has already recorded 285 homicides. Young Black and Latino men are dying at disproportionate levels. Crosstown LA

“Why I am suing UCLA.” Anderson School of Management professor Gordon Klein writes his rationale for filing a lawsuit against my alma mater for defamation and loss of financial opportunities. Common Sense with Bari Weiss

Johnny Cash’s ‘At Folsom Prison’ at 50: An oral history. This album will never get old. Rolling Stone

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

California will consider mandatory water restrictions if dryness continues this winter. Oh, yeah — that drought. Los Angeles Times

At this one-stop shop in Santa Rosa, you can outfit your entire home sustainably. Advanced Energy Center sits in the downtown of California’s Cornucopia.” Next City

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CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Do more people need to know about “The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta?”: I’m quoted in this great essay about the novel about California’s original outlaw hero. Bay Nature

The United Farm Workers was more than Cesar Chavez. Speaking of California micro-histories, I’m perpetually fascinated by the historiography on the UFW. Jacobin

Shohei Ohtani makes it clear — improve Angels or he’s gone. The American League MVP shoo-in has implied to the English- and Japanese-language press he wants Halos owner Arte Moreno to stop with his weak-salsa approach to running a major league franchise. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

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An L.A. graffiti classic gets republished (2024)

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