Chaka, long-lost L.A. tagger-artist, to have first legit art show
Tag! After more than a decade out of the limelight he enjoyed as L.A.'s most prolific and most wanted (by the police) graffiti artist, Daniel Ramos, better known by his nom de can, Chaka, will have a chance to be "it" again.
Now in his mid-30s and living in Bakersfield, Ramos (left, in a 1994 photo) is scheduled to reemerge April 25 -- not to re-spray his block-lettered signature on such past targets as the Golden Gate Bridge, the walls of Disneyland and untold L.A. freeway signs and overpasses, but to mount his first solo art show. Dubbed "Resurrection," it will be on view at Mid-City Arts, a new gallery that's an adjunct to 33third, an art supplies shop catering to practitioners of graffiti and other forms of street art.
Ramos was 18 when police caught him pen-handed in November 1990, using a marker to scrawl "Chaka" on a traffic light pole in Lincoln Heights. The authorities alleged that the wispily built kid who grew up in the Aliso Village project had left his mark in more than 10,000 places, resulting in more than $500,000 in property damage.
Ramos, who took his spray name from a furry character on the mid-1970s fantasy television series, "Land of the Lost," had been pinched plenty of times before as a juvenile, but having reached the age of majority he was sentenced to three years' probation and 1,560 hours of graffiti-cleanup duty.
His MO, according to an account he gave police, was to work an 11 p.m.-to-5 a.m. shift, armed with black and silver spray paint -- seven cans hidden in a backpack. By the mid-1990s he claimed he'd found religion and tried to translate his creative drive to legit wall murals (right). But further run-ins with the law ensued, and Ramos/Chaka last appeared in the pages of the Los Angeles Times in October 1998, when he was sentenced to 15 months in jail for stealing three pairs of Nike shoes from a Mervyn's department store, violating his probation on previous offenses.
He owes his comeback attempt to Medvin Sobio, who runs Mid-City Arts, the gallery that opened in September. Sobio, 33, said he spent a year asking around in tagger-crew circles if anybody had a clue what had become of Ramos. He finally traced a trail to Bakersfield and found the erstwhile Chaka around New Year's, earning a living painting murals on the walls of small businesses.
"I just wanted to reintroduce him, bring him back out," says Sobio, who has fond memories of seeing "Chaka" festooning the cityscape while he was growing up in Los Angeles and Gardena. "We hope this can help him get reintroduced back into the scene where he belongs."
Sobio asked Ramos to revisit the style he used during his tagging days -- "I told him, 'Do what you did back then, taking it back to that time to give people a piece of history, a taste of what was.' "
Note to the constabulary: This time the plan is for Ramos to be spraying on canvas rather than on unauthorized private and public property. Sobio says the show will consist of 20 to 30 new, graffiti-like paintings, hung on walls that Ramos, now billing himself King Chaka on the exhibition's poster, will decorate in his back-in-the-day way.
One more thing: Sobio says he asked Ramos if it was true that he really spritzed his tag on more than 10,000 illicit surfaces. "I was going to call the show '10,000 Chakas.' He didn't want to call it that; he told me it had been more than 40,000."
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: Daniel "Chaka" Ramos poses in front of one of his murals in 1994. Credit: Brian Vander Brug / For The Times. A mural from Ramos' religious period in 1994, created for a Lancaster church. Credit: Bob Carey / Los Angeles Times