March 16, 2007

Writerz Block, Embracing One Element of Hip Hop

By Raymond R. Beltran

There are four elements to the hip hop culture: rapping, dj-ing, break dancing and graffiti, according to Marcus Tufono. He’s the program director at Writerz Block, a graffiti arts studio in South East San Diego.

Their mission is to educate the community about the art of graffiti, and at the same time, provide an open air studio for local youth to hone their skills of the culture.

Writerz Block staffer, Sergio Gonzalez, inside an office soon to be a classroom for graphic arts students in South East San Diego. Photo by RRB.

“We’re trying to destroy the perception of graffiti as vandalism,” Tufono says. “Graffiti is an art form, and here, we show the best of what it has to offer.”

He and Executive Director Brian Lagemann lecture without end about technique and tools for artists. “Softballs” are fat caps, or spray can tips that spray paint the size of soft balls, usually used to fill in a wide area. “Skinnies” are tips that have a thin spray, usually for outlining.

Techniques of lettering vary as well. There’s “bubble lettering” that portray letters of names or words as liquefied and exaggerated, “regular lettering” which are easier to read but usually accompanied by cartoons or characters, and then there’s the all out abstract “wildstyle,” where one strand of a letter will continue on throughout an artist’s name like cursive.

All-City is the ultimate trophy though, has been since graffiti’s introduction three decades ago. That means your work is seen throughout the community (hence the title “All City”) and gives urban youth, as artists, a recognition they hardly experience otherwise.

Although, All-City recognition usually means your work is viewed either on bridges or public places where there’s heavy traffic, more eyes. In 1970s New York, it meant subways or other places where it’s considered vandalism and illegal. That’s where Writerz Block came in for South East youngsters.

“This is all about a new art renaissance going on right now and that’s what we respect,” says Tufono, a South East native who is also a longtime international disc jockey known as DJ Kut Father.

Lagemann, the executive director, has been with Writerz Block for eight years, since it was an after school arts program without a home, originally called Graff Creek.

In 1999, while Diamond District Management and the Jacob’s Center for Neighborhood Innovation (JCNI) were constructing places like Market Creek Plaza in South East, youth were busy decorating construction sites with the urban décor that Lagemann nurtures today.

He was an apprentice to Chicano Park muralist Victor Ochoa, who introduced the program. Every Wednesday, they would spend up to $100 on paint and some wooden A-frames and go to various parts of the community so that approximately 300 youngsters could, legally, express themselves with a blank canvas and some spray cans.

Today, the project has been turned over to Lagemann and it has a home. Legally owned and mostly funded by JCNI, Writerz Block employs four staff members and up to forty volunteers and is visited by 1,200 artists a month.

The property is large with a several yards of available wall for graffiti artists to do “pieces,” or full scale renditions of their chosen graffiti names.

At times, thousands of dollars, per week, are spent on spent on paint alone. Provided are all kinds of props for artists to convert into canvases. There’s a gutted Volkswagen Bug, a skateboard ramp, tables, shirts are provided and everything is game.

A part of the renaissance, Tufono says, is that graffiti creates a canvas out any urban fixture handy. Electrical boxes up Euclid Ave have been used as a canvas for artists raising awareness about HIV and AIDS in the community. African tribal designs have been painted on them as well. In Logan Heights, some fences, street lights and bridge columns have been painted vibrant colors to represent community culture.

Tufono calls it a ‘beautifying’ for artists who need to express themselves immediately, somewhat the same way New York and Philadelphia artists introduced the hip hop culture in the early seventies.

But today, hip hop connoisseurs like Lagemann point to the culture’s highly sought after graffiti artists like Dyze, who are getting designing deals by corporations like T-Mobile to create designs for the new Sidekick cellular phone.

Tribal, Top 2 Bottom and Armory Survival Gear have become standard clothing brands to urban youth, and now graffiti oriented companies like Montana, Belton and Sabotage make their own spray can tips geared toward the needs of their peers.

Students from King Chavez Academy of Excellence visited Writerz Block last week as a field trip for their new Hip Hop Class. Ronnel Green, 16, took advantage of the Volkswagon canvas.

The market is becoming so self sufficient, Writerz Block has started its own graphic design company to create logos for several customers, the Navy and the San Diego Museum of Art are two.

“We do it to try and generate money to create marketable opportunities for [artists] and put money back in to our place so we don’t have to rely on grants,” Lagemann says. “Our goal is to be self sustainable.”

Currently, the studio depends on funding from JCNI, which matches dollar-for-dollar money donated by outside groups, says Tufono.

Their also trying to offer classes on dj-ing, graphic design and graffiti art history.

This Wednesday, they were visited by students from King Chavez Academy of Excellence in Barrio Logan, an elementary school that’s starting their own hip hop classes.

“There are a lot of positive elements of hip hop and a lot of MTV portrays sex, alcohol and violence,” says Vice Principal Luis Gomez. “Hip hop doesn’t always represent that. There’s graffiti, dancing, rapping … It was poor people trying to have fun, which is what it really should be.”

Recently, students were given an assignment to write a report on one aspect of hip hop, then, write about one pioneer of the culture. As students spray painted their names on the walls of Writerz Block, they shouted out names like Afrika Bambada, MC Hammer, Run DMC, Kool Hert, Ice-T and the late Tupac Shakur.

“We need to embrace what (the youth) like,” Gomez says. “We need to support them because we keep trying to stop them and that’s where this whole generation gap starts.”

Writerz Block is located at 5010 Market Street in South East San Diego, across from the Euclid Avenue Trolley Station.

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