An ominous rattling filled the streets of downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011, and it was no earthquake. Rather, it was the noise made by 12 artists vigorously shaking their spray cans as they revved up for the L.A. edition of the fifth annual Estria Invitational Graffiti Battle, the second of three nationwide throwdowns that culminate at the finals in Oakland on Oct. 8, 2011.
Conceived by Hawaii-born graffiti artist Estria Miyashiro (popularizer of the "stencil tip,” aka "skinny cap," which facilitates thin, airbrush-like lines), the event was hosted by famed West Coast street art gallery Crewest, which is located in the heart of L.A.'s garment district. Kicking off at high noon with the announcement of the battle’s much-anticipated “word” -- the basis for every artist’s composition -- the contest features 12 artists, each with an 8 x 10 ft. canvas and a cardboard box filled with a palette of low-pressure Montana 94 paint cans.
“That's as good as it gets,” declared East Bay-Hawaii transplant Krush TWS, a writer who made his mark in early-‘90s San Francisco, now lives in L.A., and, full disclosure, happens to be my brother.
Sweat beaded on foreheads as the sun found its apex; the DJ spun beats; the competitors stood in their places, cans arranged at their sneakered feet, caps atop heads, silver-draped fingers and well-muscled arms ready for action. The clock struck 12 and the word was announced: RISE.
The race was on. As the hours ticked by, the artists worked tirelessly, layering color and texture, weaving letters in and out of forms like overgrown ivy. Level wrote in crisp, clear text that swelled beneath a sea of pink clouds. Woier’s letters churned and roiled in a complex and finely articulated composition, which included a white dove surging forth from an open palm. Krush sketched out a more literal interpretation of the designated word: a tight, blue body emerging from water with arms outstretched and chin tilted upwards, as if lifted from the depths by an unseen force.
Of the 12 competing writers, only two were women -- Sand and Bunie -- and they seemed outclassed. While she cradled a squirming puppy in one arm and sipped something from a straw, Sand traced generic urban tropes like a pouty-lipped chica with bedazzled nails, mile-long lashes and ample cleavage; Bunie’s text floated against a saccharine background of bloated hearts and arrows.
Meanwhile, passersby came and went, sought something to eat or drink and, finding nothing, left again. Comfortable it was not -- downtown L.A. smells of ammonia whichever way you turn -- but the energy mounted as the 5 o’clock finale approached.
Slam-poet and arts-educator Jason Mateo, who helped found the contest in 2007 and was serving as MC, took the mic to announce the judging criteria. “Fresh” text with “solid lettering structure” was number one. Then came concept, “characters, backgrounds and messaging,” and color, used to make each composition “burn.” Last were composition, originality and technique. The judges included Estria and several other veteran writers, otherwise known as “graffiti royalty.”
After what seemed an interminably long huddle -- the audience was feeling a bit drugged by the heat, if not by other substances -- the winner was announced. Woier, of the soaring dove, took first place, and Level’s roaring heavens came in second. Amid a sea of applause, the sweating victors stood proud. Off to Oakland they go for the finals. As for the rest, it’s cans to the wall till next year.