Chaka, from graffiti to gallery
Half his lifetime later, Daniel Ramos claims no aesthetic laurels for the teenage graffiti-writing rampage that made him famous as “Chaka,” the most prolific tagger L.A. authorities had ever seen or caught.
“I wasn’t doing anything artistic. It was just getting my name up there,” says the man police and prosecutors accused in 1990 of spraying more than 10,000 “Chakas” from San Diego to San Francisco.
He is going over his past in a soft voice, his small but solid frame seated on a plastic milk crate in the dusty back courtyard of Mid-City Arts, Los Angeles street-art supply shop and gallery that this weekend mounts “Resurrection,” the first art show of his life. But as he considers his two-year tagging spree more deeply, Ramos, 36, begins to talk about a motive beyond fame-seeking that led him to splash the cityscape with those five blatant, blocky, baldly legible letters. He says he was writing a mystery, an aerosol whodunit, and taking silent pride in keeping the public guessing who that omnipresence on walls, trains, signs, water towers and freeway overpasses could be.
“I wanted everybody on the edge of their seat, wondering, ‘Who is this guy?’ It leaves an anticipation in the air of what’s going to get hit next. I didn’t talk about it. Just me, a spray can and a wall on the streets of L.A. Just a feeling of being able to get the public looking, to leave them in wonderment.”
In her 1999 book, “Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A.,” anthropologist Susan A. Phillips admired Chaka’s nerve. But, she wrote, “for others, he represented the worst of our city, out-of-control youth with screwed up values.... Chaka, like the city, was anything you wanted to make him, Los Angeles at its best or its worst or at least its most quirky.”
Chaka became “the common reference point for all L.A. graffiti,” she wrote, and his key contribution was the simplicity and legibility of his writing at a time when taggers’ script was too tangled or ornate to be understood by the uninitiated.
Had Chaka played his cards differently, he could have built something from his notoriety. The sadder truth resides in numerous old news stories: After his initial 1991 sentencing to three years’ probation and 1,560 hours of graffiti cleanup duty, opportunities were dangled, including designing T-shirts, inclusion in a gallery exhibition of graffiti art, maybe even a feature film or television documentary about his life. Cal State Northridge was eager to have him enroll as an art major.
Instead, he returned to jail in 1992 on a marijuana possession charge. Other drug arrests followed. He also got a 14-year-old girlfriend pregnant and hasn’t seen his son since infancy. Ramos says that absence remains “an unhealed wound.”
Having graduated to harder drugs, including PCP, Ramos seemingly hit bottom in 1993. He reached out to street ministers for help and was steered to a religiously grounded residential treatment program in Lancaster. Soon, articles were being written about Chaka’s reformation, how he was using his talent to decorate church buses and create murals aimed at inspiring disadvantaged kids. But by the mid-1990s, he was back where he’d grown up, in the Aliso Village project in Boyle Heights, and partying hard.
At first, Ramos blames outside forces for his missed chances: “The law was on me real tough. Whatever little reason they could find, they would jail me.” But then he looks inward. “It was really me limiting myself. I still wanted to hang out in the projects, doing negative stuff. You try to do all these positive things, and then behind the curtains, do some dirt. It comes back to bite you, and steals away from doing anything positive.”
The ultimate bite — after he’d lost smaller chunks of his freedom for petty crimes such as swiping three pairs of Nikes from a Mervyn’s department store in 1998 — was the 20 months he served for robbing a convenience store, using a bottle to threaten the clerk.
Ramos lives in Bakersfield now, scraping out a living by painting advertising murals and signs for small businesses. Married six years but separated from his wife, he has an apartment behind a small grocery in a rough part of town.
The Rev. Manuel Carrizalez, founder of the Bakersfield-based Stay Focused Ministries, says he’s seen the rise and fall and rise again of Chaka. He befriended Ramos while taking his ministry to the streets of Boyle Heights in 1993. Now he tries to negotiate opportunities for Chaka to create murals at schools, or wherever property owners will allow it.
“He’s stayed productive, and he’s trying,” Carrizalez says. “He’s more humble now. Before, it was all about Chaka. Now he’s trying to get out the story that people can change.”
JoJo Sanchez, who ran the Christian rehab program Ramos entered in ’93, says that in recent years he has called on Chaka to tell his story and do spray-art demonstrations for kids in the L.A. County juvenile detention system.
“He communicates about the beauty of art, what is negative art and what is positive art,” says Sanchez, a probation commissioner for L.A. County.
Lt. Erik Ruble, who leads a 23-member Sheriff’s Department unit that defends Metropolitan Transportation Authority equipment from graffiti attacks, harbors no ill will about Chaka’s return as a gallery artist. “Good for him, and it’s good to see he’s applying his God-given talents to something positive.”
Deputies admire the creativity of some of the illegal handiwork they combat, Ruble says, but that doesn’t excuse or diminish the consequences of tagging, and more elaborate and pictorial forms of graffiti, which are known as “piecing.” “The true litmus test,” he concludes, “is: Would you want this on the walls of your neighborhood? Would you feel safe?” The cost to taxpayers for reported graffiti damage and removal came to $43 million in 2008 for L.A. County, he says.
Steve Grody, author of the book “Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art,” says the scene has gained in artistry and ambition since Chaka’s time. “Chaka’s kind of work was very humble compared to what’s being done now. Just to be ‘up,’ as Chaka was, is not considered so much of an achievement nowadays.” The emphasis is on “full-on pieces, very stylish, very technical and in very difficult-to-reach places.”
“I’m sure there are people who will go by [Chaka’s exhibition] and pay their respects, or are curious to see what he’s doing, but it’s more nostalgia than a contemporary buzz,” Grody adds.
Medvin “Med” Sobio, manager of Mid-City Arts, where Chaka’s work will be shown, spent a year trying to track him down. Sobio asked Chaka to create new works on canvas, but in his original, back-in-the-day spray style. “A lot of these younger guys look up to this dude, because he was one man, one guy doing a lot of damage,” Sobio says. “Tagging is something most people despise, but it all starts with tagging. Without it, [accomplished graffiti artists] would never have gotten to the level they did.”
For Chaka, it’s still about painting a mystery. He wouldn’t allow himself to be photographed without first donning a spray-painter’s mask. And while he enthusiastically showed a pencil sketch of the urban backdrops he plans to spray on the walls where his new art will hang, he urged secrecy about the concept. Let people wonder, he says, until the show opens and it’s all revealed.
Chaka hopes he can reestablish his profile and use his gallery portfolio as a steppingstone to more work. He says his biggest challenge is to “just keep doing what I’m doing now. Just don’t [mess] up.”
After his first rush of fame and his mid-’90s return as a spiritually attuned muralist, the exhibition could be the start of opportunity knocking for a third time. Is he nervous he’ll again fail to greet it?
“Only that day will tell,” Chaka says. “I just do what I got to do, and the day will come.”
-- Mike Boehm
Chaka’s "Resurrection," Mid-City Arts, 5113 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. daily through May 24; free; (310) 694-3460.
Photo of Daniel Ramos, a.k.a. Chaka. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times. Inset photo: 1990 Los Angeles Times file photo of Chaka's graffiti in downtown L.A.