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WOME: The New Writing on the Walls

September 29, 2007

The New Writing on the Walls
Kwan Booth (March 14,

The bay’s graffiti scene has long been one of the hottest in the country with artists like CUBA and TDK Crew laying paint in San Francisco and Oakland for well over a decade. And thanks to heavyweight transplants like Vulcan and ORKO, the area’s alleyways and train yards became major stopping points for traveling “writers” over the years. The scene has changed a little with the times. Some call it art; some call it vandalism, but it’s still hard to go far without seeing someone’s spray paint masterpiece.

Desi, who doesn’t like to use his given name, caught the itch at a young age, and it followed him from Chicago around the country, and finally into Oakland seven years ago. He’s a longtime graffiti artist and one of the better-known members of Weapons of Mass Expression (WOME), an “arts movement” dedicated to maintaining graffiti culture and hipping youth to the finer points of the aerosol arts.

For the last two years, the collective has sponsored the Weekend Wakeup, a monthly event featuring large-scale canvasses, music, and performances showcasing youth culture through hip hop and graffiti. Students from Oakland high schools participate in a three- month long program that uses graffiti to teach language skills, community awareness, and cultural responsibility.

Ever since the 1982 film Wild Style brought graffiti out of the subways and into public light, kids and critics have been doing the legitimacy dance with parents and officials: Is it art or a crime? Youth expression or moral decay? But in the 26 years since the movie, the debate has gotten more complex. Aerosol artists face steady criticism on one side, but a few have managed to win steady art world and commercial love. Case in point: last year Gavin Newsom issued San Francisco’s first official graffiti writer bounty ($2500 for information leading to his arrest), while down the road in LA, famed street artist Banksy was raking in nearly $3 million during a three day, celebrity-filled “secret” gallery show.

But while WOME embraces the rebellious nature of the art, Desi and his crew haven’t made getting dough a priority, explaining, “We’re not opposed to getting it, but we’re opposed to making it our central focus.” All of the Weekend Wakeup events are free, use donated materials, and are staffed by volunteers. Grants from Oakland’s Cultural Funding Program soak up some of the cost, and what’s not covered is earned by good, old-fashioned grassroots fund-raising. “Since I was a kid I was brought up to make cold calls,” says the longtime community organizer.

With titles like “Reflecting our Identity,” “Genetic Memories of Graffiti,” and “Passes and Packages: Reflections of Our Mothers,” each showcase combines the four elements of hip hop-Djing, graffiti, rapping, and break dancing, with more ceremonial aspects of Native American and African cultures.

The collective maintains that as much as graffiti is a new art form, the inspiration dates back to ancient cave paintings and hieroglyphics. The “rituals”, as they’re sometimes called, are used to connect young people to these traditions.

“The root of art is getting up on the walls,” explains WOME’s Ras K’Dee, a writer, musician, and member of Northern California’s indigenous Pomo Nation.

Graffiti is also a political act for the artists: the voice of the unrepresented, and each show attempts to address the current political climate. “We’re constantly being poisoned,” Desi fumes. “Our media, our food…through materialism and our selfish attitudes towards women. The system really has a big grip.”

To come up with ideas for the shows, the artists discuss current events and world affairs and look for ways to address them in their work. Sometimes, political outrage overshadows spiritual undertones, like in last November’s “Terrorists, Aliens and Criminals,” created in response to the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

These days, Desi says he’s focusing on creating a sustainable vehicle for youth culture. The graffiti muse still hits, but he’s more selective, acknowledging both the rebellious and revolutionary sides of his art. Before going back to the wall he clarifies, “There are some people you go out and paint a freight train with, and there are some people that you go build a movement with.”

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