Interview: Graffiti Artist RISK Talks About the L.A. Street Art Scene and His New Autobiography "Old Habits Die Hard"

Graffiti artist RISK talks about the L.A. graff scene and his new autobiography "Old Habits Die Hard."

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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RISK began his career on the streets of Los Angeles with his crew West Coast Artists (WCA), a group that eventually evolved into AWR and MSK. The graffiti writer’s legacy spans three decades, making the title of his autobiography, Old Habits Die Hard, all too fitting. Chronicling a career that straddles not only decades, but media, Old Habits Die Hard traces both RISK's perils while braving the streets and his commercial success with the clothing company Third Rail. Old Habits Die Hard will be released this holiday season by 1xRun, making it the company's first publication. We spoke to RISK about his new book and his multifaceted career.


As a graffiti writer for over 30 years, your work predates the Internet era. When you started out as an artist, stories were passed through word of mouth instead of documented online. How will your biography shed light on this early history?

Roger Gastman is the editor. He did a great job documenting everything, and I still don't know how he tracked down some of that stuff. He took the last five or six years to collect everything from my parents’ divorce filings to the 2011 "Arts in the Streets" show at MoCA.

Roger is a graffiti historian. Prior to even talking about the book, he had been compiling my stuff for years. He did [the magazine] While You Were Sleeping. I used to advertise and/or have work in his magazine before we even knew each other. I couldn't think of anyone else who could have tackled that. He did a great job laying out the story, and he focused on text. He told the stories and then found the photos that documented them.

I wanted to document my career because, as my art progresses, my work as I know it will never be the same.

Can readers expect the kind of risky (pun not intended) stories that come from your early years of illegal work with your crew?

Yes, I told a few stories about the good old days, being shot, almost getting killed, etc. We even have a few good racking stories.

Was part of the impetus for the autobiography to record and share this history? Where else did you find motivation for this project?

I've been writing 32 years, and it’s getting harder to remember these things, not because I'm getting old but because things are changing quicker in this day and age. There are way more things going on, and a lot of old stuff gets swept under the rug. I wanted to document my career because, as my art progresses, my work as I know it will never be the same.  I wanted to make sure I can document it and be forward-focused. I loved the past, but I can't wait to get lost in the future.


 A splash of color can speak a thousand words on some mundane, dilapidated building or surface.

When you write your name, you always use saturated colors. Recently you have dropped the letterforms and focused only on abstract color experimentation, like in your "Beautifully Destroyed" series. When did this shift begin?

Freeways were our answer to subway trains in New York. In New York, all the commuters rode subways. The writers were making social commentaries to the public on big steel canvases. We were the same youth striving to be heard. In Los Angeles, all the commuters drive on the freeways. We were making our mark via urban expressionism on these big cement canvases along the sides of the freeway. The thing we had in common was the need to get up, to be heard and/or seen, to force society to recognize us and what we had to say or contribute. Now keep in mind to be heard you don't have to write political messages. A splash of color can speak a thousand words on some mundane, dilapidated building or surface. 

It's kind of funny when I think about years of painting these elaborate pieces with all these interlocking letters. I was always entranced with the final picture as a whole: the color on the surface, the total coverage, or the piece placed strategically on the sprawling urban jungle. 

The "Beautifully Destroyed" series is a wash of color on these specific, totally mundane items as well as walls, even transforming traditional paint jobs (i.e. a house or a car) to a wash of color. Unlike my early graffiti, these murals have no letters or images. They are color-filled murals meant to evoke emotion through color. I have traveled thousands of miles on these intertwined freeways and streets, painting these interlocking pieces. It's like I've traveled artistically thousands of miles to get to my destination of figuring out what I want to express. I've finally figured out the deconstruction process that leads me to a refined final project.

How does the timeline of your autobiography bridge this aesthetic transformation?

A while ago Ron English asked me what made me tick. I thought about that for a long time. I thought about what made me happiest during my graffiti days. I loved the feeling of driving down the freeway and seeing my pieces zip by as I sped down the freeway. I then realized I didn't even have to read the piece. I used to be so pumped up when I saw the colors. As I mentioned, I set out to try and evoke the same emotion without the letters or images.

Everything started with me writing "RISK" over and over, and now I deconstruct it and try to grow. I travel through all the different veins that make me whole and venture off into all of them with a depth I never imagined before. It’s like each vein is attached to a different organ, which is like different genres of work. So I guess what I'm saying is you can see from my early stages how the extremely crude paper sketches transformed to pieces and towards the end, the pieces transformed to color field murals or gallery work, but what is evident is a growth pattern that will never know completion.


Throughout your career you have also been a collaborator, working with writers like RETNA and REVOK. What role will your colleagues play in your narrative?

We're all in the same crew. I feel very fortunate to have friends that I have inspired as younger guys turn into peers that inspire me now, but beyond that collaborating is more of a social thing because that's how we communicate. We may have not all come from the same era, but we are all building the "new" contemporary art scene. It is important to see what makes our movement click and how we interact. Collaborating makes movements.

It’s pretty funny when you mention Mad Society Kings. I see it very similar to the Ferris Gallery movement in the early '60s. They were building their own art scene/dynasty. It became the contemporary art scene. There were a loose band of idealistic beatniks of competitive, brilliant artists—Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Craig Kauffman, Wallace Berman, Ed Moses, Billy Bengston, and Robert Irwin—whom were all tied up in a complex web of egos, passions, money, and art. If you study them as a whole, it mimics what we have going on here 40 to 50 years later. What goes around comes around.

Alongside your illegal history, you have also maintained a steady career as a commercial artist through work on movies, music videos, and your own streetwear company, Third Rail. How do you chronicle this success while balancing it with the other facets of your life? 

I landed many high-visibility, high-profile, commercial gigs; however, I maintained my integrity by only doing RISK pieces. When I was hired to do these jobs, I did pieces as I would anywhere else. When Playboy, Coke, or, Michael Jackson asked me to write their names, I declined and convinced them that it was way cooler and more authentic to do RISK pieces. They agreed, and I got worldwide recognition among my graffiti peers.

With Third Rail, being one of the pioneering streetwear brands, we kept it simple. We made clothes that real people would want to wear. It was not for the followers. We didn't believe in putting markers and or spray cans on shirts. Real graffiti artists wouldn't wear that stuff back then. We felt only a poser wanted to draw unwanted attention like that. That's pretty much my same philosophy these days. As long as you stay true to yourself, everything is okay. Times and fashion change, but people don't. You either have integrity or you don't.

Where do you hope to leave readers at the conclusion of your autobiography?

I hope people connect with my philosophy of life being a great ride, and hope they embrace not knowing the end game. If you know the end, then the ride's over. I love art. I love not knowing where art will take me next. I hope people are as excited to see my future work as I am to travel the artistic journey.


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