West Coast Graffiti Gratitude

Charles Riggs caught up with a couple local graffiti artists with a base in northern Nevada to chat about graffiti culture, ground rules, the evolution of their work and how graffiti artists mature.

Graffiti artist Biserk painting at what he calls a “chill spot.” Photo with permission to use by Biserk.

More than a hobby

When Reno-based freight train graffiti artist Biserk gets bored, he flips open his smartphone and tracks trains, constantly on the lookout for railcars stationed in his favorite “chill” spots. For Biserk, tracking trains is a hobby to fuel his passion, his first love, his lifestyle.

A lifestyle that drives Biserk to park in faraway rest stops all over the west coast so he can hike into the wilderness to paint trains where they slumber for weeks at a time.

For graffiti artists dotting every corner of the globe, painting isn’t a hobby. It’s a lifestyle. A lifestyle that demands discipline and vigilance. Creativity and gutsiness. A deep understanding of risk versus reward and a little knowledge of modern graffiti history. Also, coming up with a nifty name.

A fresh nom de plume writers sprinkle on trash cans, bathroom stalls, rest stops, and abandoned industrial areas. A unique code name that essentially becomes a painter’s de facto first name among fellow graffiti artists. Biserk, a freight train artist who’s been painting graffiti nearly his entire life, has held the same name for as long as he can remember.

“Graffiti’s like a religion,” said Biserk. “It’s been around me since I was like six years old.”

Graffiti culture influences many facets of a painter’s life, impacting their friend group, musical selection, lingo, fashion, day-to-day activities, and career choice.

“I don’t know where I’d be without graffiti,” said Adam Kienas, a professional artist who at one point on his journey exchanged his paint can for a digital brush and tattoo gun. “I think about painting non-stop or creating art non-stop. Everything in my life revolves around it.”

Graffiti culture isn’t a monolith. Different artists have different opinions about what’s legal, what’s ethical, what’s political, and what’s downright vandalism. Some artists are hardliners who take getting written over extremely personally, while others don’t care.

“If I were to catch a spot on the street, in a primetime spot, and it gets gone over intentionally, I brush it off,” said Kienas. “It’s not worth your time.”

There is one thing graffiti artists can all agree on. Modern graffiti culture sprang to life out of the milieu of New York City in the 1970s, with subway cars a prime canvas.

Biserk’s final product. Graffiti artists spend hours at a time in train yards, working on their art while also constantly on the lookout for law enforcement. Photo with permission to use by Biserk.

Subculture soup

New York City in the 1970s was like a giant delicious bowl of tasty subculture soup. With each ingredient seamlessly playing off the other, creating an exciting, distinctive dish. Graffiti evolved with other burgeoning subcultures like hip-hop, breakdancing, DJing, and urban fashion to create something new and unique.

It didn’t take long for the Big Apple’s creation to reach the west coast. By the 1980s, Los Angeles’s sea of concrete and cavalcade of buses were splattered with art from legendary painters like Risk, Slick, Frame, and Chaka.

Nowadays, graffiti is everywhere, sprouting up in every corner of the globe. From middle America to the Middle East, graffiti writers utilize aerosol spray paint to create public art displays. Some spread their pseudonym far and wide, while others use graffiti to make a poignant political statement. No matter how you slice it, graffiti is global.

And like any other global subculture, members relish any opportunity to learn more about their cultures.

“You got to do some history homework,” said Biserk. “For freight trains especially, where it comes from, how it started, and who’s still a living legend.”

In many ways, graffiti artists use their history research as a guidebook to help them navigate the culture. For artists like Kienas, who didn’t grow up directly in the culture like Biserk, graffiti history was an invaluable source for him. Kienas recalls gobbling up any and all media he could consume about graffiti as a youngster, a veritable instruction manual.

“Some of the rules were always clear,” said Kienas. “I think a lot of them came from the more popular documentaries and interviews with notable graffiti artists and notable pioneers.”

And again, like any other subculture, graffiti has a bag of unwritten rules members follow.

Kienas painting a piece for a business. After years as a graffiti artist, Kienas now relies on the talent he cultivated as a teenager as his primary income source. Photo by Adam Kienas

Basic ground rules

There are obvious rules that every graffiti artist understands.

“If you cross somebody out in the street, you’re for sure going to get beef with that,” said Biserk. He also points out that writing over someone when there’s ample room is disrespectful. “You can’t move your shit over a little bit?”

There are subtle rules that come with age and experience.

“When you do a train, you typically want to tape off the numbers of the train,” said Kienas, the retired graffiti artist. “You mask them so when you peel them off when you’re done painting, if everything’s still legible with all the information they need, they don’t paint over the graffiti.”

Some rules act as advice.

“Don’t park somewhere that looks suspicious,” said Biserk, who leaned up from his relaxed pose to emphasize, “and don’t use a flashlight in the dark.”

And there are rules dedicated to history.

“Don’t go over legendary shit,” said Biserk, returning to his relaxed position while scribbling tags on a piece of paper. “Shit that’s been there for ten years.”

But the most crucial rule is apparent. Don’t be lame.

“Your tag, your signature shit has to be on point, nice, funky, it has to be on lock. Your throw up, your piece, your colors, or else people are going to go over your shit,” said Biserk. “If they see my stuff that is fresh and the next train has something with only two colors, weak shit, they’ll definitely go over that.”

Because, in the end, your style defines who you are as a graffiti artist.

“When people look at your stuff, the work you do expresses who you are,” said Biserk. “They say ‘oh Biserk knows how to do this and that, I like how he did the background, the fill.’”

Graffiti artists are nomadic urban art critics, honing their craft so their peers can appreciate their skill.

“It’s mainly for other graffiti artists to see it and recognize who you are. It doesn’t even matter about my face,” said Biserk. “It’s mainly for the graff writers.”

A quick Biserk tag. Graffiti artists throw tags on popular spots so other artists can appreciate their style. Photo by Biserk

Artists, not vandals

Graffiti culture is often misunderstood and maligned. Mistaken as a sanctuary for teenage vandals, and while youthful rebellion is a significant facet of graffiti culture, it’s not the core tenet.

“There are inevitably always going to be kids who start graffiti crews,” said Kienas. “That’s never going to stop.”

Many graffiti artists begin their careers as kids, progressively learning the culture as their network expands and their catalog grows. It was in this learning period that both Kieanas and Biserk hit spots that they wouldn’t touch today.

“When you’re young, you don’t know that, you’re seeing pictures of graffiti in other places of the world, and I think you’re getting the wrong idea about a lot of it,” said Kienas, who blames youthful ignorance for his missteps. “It was a matter of not knowing.”

As graffiti artists mature, they ply their craft less invasively. Electing to hike into the mountains to tag concrete tunnels, abandoned warehouses, or trains. Writing quick tags on city trash cans, club bathrooms, or rest stops already caked with tags, essentially leaving an “I was here” mark. Painting on things that want to be painted on, open invitations for unofficial public art displays.

“If there’s five or six tags on a trash can, I’m definitely hitting up on it,” said Biserk. “But if there’s nothing on there and it’s clean like it’s getting taken care of, then I won’t bother touching it.”

Kienas points out that society has a certain tolerance for graffiti.

“In a lot of the bars and restaurants and more trendy places in Reno, you’ll see the stickers and tags collecting on the mirror or garbage can,” said Kienas. “They’re not cleaning that intentionally because it’s a part of that downtown culture.”

And like many other subcultures, graffiti has seeped into the mainstream.

“People don’t think about the fact that the Louis Vuitton bag they’re wearing is a collaboration with a graffiti artist,” said Kienas. “Shepard Fairey did the Hope poster for [former President Barack] Obama.”

He continues.

“Graffiti is so immensely popular. It’s on all your favorite brands. All your favorite clothing brands use it,” said Kienas. “Any successful artist in Reno that’s under 35 has dabbled in graffiti in some way, or people are asking them to do it because it’s in demand.”

Still, some artists will never ditch writing graffiti illegally, no matter how robust the market is for their talents.

“There’s real graffiti artists out there, people that are going to be doing this and be a part of this, or at least say they’re a part of this until the day they die,” said Kienas. “And when you come across them, you know it.”

Biserk agrees.

“When I started doing freight trains, I would go out to yards and run into people,” said Biserk. “I would run into older cats where I’m like ‘damn bro, how old are you?’ And they’d be like forty and have two kids,” said Biserk. “One of them had a daughter my age, and he still writes.”

Biserk just might be one of those lifers who will never abandon his first true love and passion, no matter the risk. Biserk is addicted to the way painting graffiti makes him feel.

“Stress-free, you’re just in your own world, man I love it,” said Biserk. “I’m going to do it until the wheels fall off.”

Biserk in his happy place hard at work painting a concrete tunnel in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Photo by Biserk

This is a lifestyle

For Adam Kienas, you don’t have to be an active participant in the illegal aspect of graffiti to remain firmly entrenched in the culture. As a professional artist who began in graffiti, he owes everything to his youthful obsession.

“Graffiti has all the art fundamentals in it. It reinforces perspective, composition, line weights, and color theory,” said Kienas. “It’s all there.”

Kienas is acutely aware that his life would be completely different if he never picked up an aerosol spray paint can.

“It’s such an apparent and strong part of my life,” said Kienas. “It was such a building block for me, for everything I’m doing now and the trajectory of where my life’s going.”

Graffiti leapfrogs from hobby to lifestyle for many artists because they can’t imagine an existence without it. Graffiti is their addiction, a lifelong quest for reputation that entices artists to keep returning for more and more like spoiled rich kids.

“I sometimes fiend that shit when I don’t paint,” said Biserk while slyly adding, “I’m always going to have a streaker on me wherever I go.”

When regular folks leave their house, they run through a 21st-century checklist in their head reciting “phone, wallet, keys,” essential items for any modern human. When graffiti artists like Biserk leave the house, their checklist is slightly different: “phone, wallet, keys, streaker.”

So, when does a hobby transition into a lifestyle? Does it occur when participants edit their fashion choices, musical selection, and lingo to fit the culture? Or does it occur when nearly everyone you choose to interact with is just as graffiti-obsessed as you? Does it occur when your hobby becomes your career choice? Or does it occur when you’re willing to risk your freedom for it?

“Having that culture there to back graffiti, as much as I’m trying to remove myself from the illegal part of it, I have to be really grateful for what the culture has given me,” said Kienas. “Because it has given me a community in many ways. The relationships and bonds that I’ve made are everything. They’re everything to me.”

Graffiti is a lifestyle, a never-ending pursuit of reputation that takes a different form when an artist ages. Still, the clunky missteps graffiti artists commit as teenagers inform them what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s downright assholery. As Kienas and Biserk look back on the relationships they made as teens that blossomed into lifelong friendships, they both feel one overwhelming emotion: graffiti gratitude.

Reporting for Reynolds Sandbox by Charles Riggs

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