At the close of the 90’s I was stumbling into adolescence and desperately seeking a sense of identity. I wanted to cultivate interests that would separate me from my pre-pubescence and give me some nebulous concept of personhood. It was around this time when I developed an affinity for rap music and despite just about every adult in my life telling me it was a phase, it’s something that has remained a relative constant. It was a clumsy time with inauspicious beginnings (Eminem haircuts, FUBU), but I completely immersed myself in it and began shaping my own tastes.
The hip-hop umbrella was a popular one and a lot of kids crowded beneath it. My affections were never unique but after a while they began to feel terrifyingly generic. Things had evolved to a point where just appreciating the culture was no longer sating me and I needed to separate myself–I needed to participate. Predictably, this had disastrous results. I learned after way too much trial and error and that I was never going to be a rapper or a DJ, and being that I was a shapeless blob of arrhythmic whiteboy, the b-boy route was physically out of the question. If you subscribe to the belief that there are four elements of hip-hop (don’t worry: typing that literally made me cringe), there was only one box left to check.
Graffiti was perfect. It had the specific quality of being both expressive and dangerous; you could create, but there was the inherent risk of getting caught and being held accountable for doing so. That made it rebellious. Being 14 and ambiguously angry at the world, the appeal was overwhelming. I had found my niche and there was a great relief that came along with that.
I’ll spare you the specifics of my graffiti career because frankly they’re unaccomplished and of little consequence. The pangs of nostalgia I feel for those days have more to do with what others were doing within the scene, which is maybe an uncool reality, but I’m O.K. with that. What graffiti did for me, ultimately, was foster an ability to appreciate art and sculpted my discernment and taste. There was an inevitability to this because such a large part of graffiti is seeking it out, collecting it, absorbing it.
Consuming graffiti in the early-2000’s was a much more primitive enterprise than it is now. The Internet has gone a long way to give the art itself a streamlined, infinite gallery space, but when I was first exploring my scene in Minneapolis, it was pretty limited. There was a small section on Art Crimes (which, holy shit, is still around), Firestorm (also still around!), and a site that was actually ahead of its time in TC Graff, which was very thoroughly curated and user friendly. Aside from that, there wasn’t a ton else and the optimal method for consumption was the world of zines. Zines not only kept you abreast of things you may have missed locally, but they also gave you a glimpse of the graffiti world beyond your city. There were some great little publications floating around in Minneapolis at the time (some of which I’m lucky enough to still own), but none could compare to what is inarguably the best graffiti magazine of all time: Life Sucks Die.
Life Sucks Die was everything a graffiti magazine should be: it was erudite, subversive, and brilliantly curated. It was also professional, glossy, and alien in that there was absolutely nothing like it. It was not unusual to see something deeply pornographic juxtaposed with the graffiti within its pages and you didn’t want your mom finding it. The artists featured were often ones that are now almost mythical in a culture that deals in fame as currency. My sense of graffiti became more fully realized and worldly as a result of leafing through it.
The lasting impression for me, though, was the writing in Life Sucks Die. It was some of the first that made me want to write and I truly believe it played a role in shaping my early voice. Their series of reviews, “Things You May Have Slept On,” had such a spot-on, masterful tone of irony that I still go back to it frequently with amazement. In landscape full of tough-guy posturing, it was funny, self-aware, and didn’t take itself too seriously.
I’m considerably older now and graffiti is at a sizeable distance from my life. It’s something I’ll probably always be cognizant of, but the need to participate dissipated long ago. I owe a debt to graffiti in that it was my gateway into anything creative and I’m the person I am because of it. For an art form that is fatally temporary, there is something indelible to it that once you absorb it, it never really exits.
(I should point out that you can still buy Life Sucks Die here and I encourage you to do so.)