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Maliwop steadies himself with one finger as he fills in his outline.

Graffiti artist paints history and his perspective on Oakland walls

on December 5, 2019

Maliwop, a longtime Oakland graffiti-writer, didn’t listen when his grandmother told him not to make graffiti. They were outside of the Oakland Public Library watching a high school kid tag the liquor store across the street. What she declared as foolishness the middle-school-aged boy secretly liked—a lot. Later that night he’d watch Bart Simpson on TV use his tag El Barto and his mind was set.

Now he is almost a decade into his illegal art career. Maliwop is one of his street aliases. At 27, he animates his work in sketchbooks. Between a full-time job as a box-truck driver and shared custody of his child, he has no interest in being busted by the police. He’s had a fair share of close calls. His escape tactic is simple: run. Fast and far. Drop your cans, it’s not worth it. His crew, formerly five strong in its heyday, has since dissolved, and his days of “bombing the streets” ended six years ago when his daughter was born.

“I’m young and I’m black,” Maliwop said. “Being stopped by the police can be fatal for me. Even running from them could be fatal for me.”

Contemporary graffiti started as a form of expression for Black youth in inner-city settings, but it’s also considered a crime: specifically, a vandalism misdemeanor charge. According to the Oakland Police Department’s crime data set, their offices have made about 1,700 vandalism arrests since January. A vandalism charge in California carries a sentence of up to a year in county jail and anywhere from a $1,000 to $10,000 fine. 

Still, on some weekends when he is inspired, Maliwop might visit a yard, or secluded spot, to get in some painting. It is on such a Saturday morning in the Oakland hills that he, in the company of 18 cans of spray paint, hops a concrete divider and enters one of the graffiti community’s galleries. 

Like many boys in the 1990s, he loved comic books, video games and cartoons. As a boy, Maliwop drew his favorite characters from the early 90s anime Dragon Ball Z. Today, he’s wearing a white Dragon Ball Z long-sleeve and black and gold glasses with thick rims. His Dragon Ball Z shirt is above gray sweatpants and black New Balance running shoes. He has come to the yard after his Saturday morning workout. 

On his left runs a huge support wall for the four-lane East Oakland street above. On his right is a steep decline, cramping the thin dirt path he walks on. Every few meters of the wall is a unique work of art. Far below is a sister trail, where bikers, joggers and hikers are likely oblivious to the world above them.

Dozens of artists use this spot. Maliwop likes it here because it is low-stakes enough to tap into his creativity. He is planning to practice painting a tag he’s perfected in his sketchbook. He ambles along the trail, inspecting the pieces as he goes. He passes trashcans overflowing with empty spray cans. The surrounding brush holds the excess litter.

As he walks, he’s looking for a piece he can cover. There are no vacancies in this yard. In times like this, he falls back on a code of conduct: Do not cover the work of elders or of a crew you know, and definitely don’t go over a piece if you can’t make something better. Beyond the yard, he wouldn’t deface a church, someone’s private property or any monument or symbol of cultural significance. In a lawless art, he disciplines himself on the basis of respect, as do many others. Every community has it’s outliers. “You get the good with the bad,” he said.

Along the way, he runs into a white man with tattoos recording a time-lapse of a piece he’s finishing. They make small talk and Maliwop moves on. 

After years of tagging on the street with his crew, Maliwop turned to graffiti writer Refa One for mentorship. Refa One has been doing lettering since the 1980s and his Black-positive murals decorate historic pieces of Oakland like Fruitvale BART station where Oscar Grant was killed and on 14th and Peralta Street in Oakland where the Black Panther Party got its footing. Maliwop joined Refa One’s AeroSoul art collective and took his artwork to the next level. 

Refa One has been operating in Oakland long enough to see a shift in the demographics of graffiti writers. What used to be a cultural practice for working-class Black and brown youth has been replaced by white middle-class older youth, he said. 

“Much of the current movement in Oakland is unassociated with the primary writing culture. Although the form remains, the cultural essence is lost,” he said. “The quality of work lacks the authenticity of style and creativity held essential by the culture.” 

About a quarter-mile in, Maliwop finds a piece flawed enough to paint over. It’s a huge tag done up in near-illegible lettering. He pulls a rolling brush and tray out of an old Whole Food’s bag, pours a conservative amount of baby-girl-pink house paint from a can and begins to blank his canvas.

“No hard feelings,” he mutters to the wall’s previous artist.

Once the wall is erased, he unloads the rest of his workstation from a Spiderman backpack: his cans of spray paint and a Bluetooth speaker. He crouches to sift through dozens of spray can caps he keeps in a velvet Crown Royal whiskey bag. Graffiti artists collect can caps, he said. They come in different sizes and have different paint strokes, like paintbrushes. Spray painting is a game of economics; you never want to waste more paint than you have to.

He shakes a can of cheap yellow paint with his left hand while he scrolls through the music library on his phone with his right. He settles on 80s classic funk and gets to work. In block letters he sketches his tag M-O-O-K onto the wall, making several ghost passes before his index finger commits to the can’s cap. This is one of the other aliases he uses. 

For a while, the only sounds are the music and the shhh of his paint cans.  He crouches, stands, then crouches again as he fills in the large letters. His right-hand moves with the precision of a pendulum. As he is filling in the letters, his fat-cap— so named for its wide spray — clogs. He snaps it off, inspects it and tosses it over his shoulder into the brush.

He suspects that the city knows about the yard. The trashcans dotting the trail weren’t always there; one day they just appeared. Despite their current overflowing state, Maliwop said there is a program in place where volunteers come to empty them yearly. 

A pile of spent spray cans and paint cans overflows from one of the few trashcans in the yard.

A bit after noon, he takes a break and goes to look at some pieces down the line. He points out a paint drip here, or an over-sprayed line there and assesses someone’s talent or lack thereof. He dislikes complicated, avant-garde design and its lack of symmetry. His design is balanced. 

“Letters are supposed to make sense, be in harmony,” he said. “It’s like dancing. Your partner shouldn’t be doing the moonwalk while you’re doing [the shoot].”

As he works, Maliwop comments on the way social media has changed the demographics of graffiti artists. Now anyone with an Instagram following can call themselves a graffiti-artist.

“Black people, we tend to start something, and we either get written out of history, or we let it go and someone else picks it up,” he said. “[…] You got to remember these were kids who had nothing, were told they were going to be nothing and they started this relay of message. Like, ‘Hey, I have a voice as well.”

The tattooed graffiti artist comes to make another forced attempt at smalltalk, asking if Maliwop is on Instagram. Maliwop says yes and mumbles his Instagram handle. The man compliments his lettering, says where he can be found on Instagram and takes his leave. 

Even after all these years, Maliwop considers himself a student. He is here for practice. By noon he has begun the “pretty part” of his design. He is singing along to his 80s funk now. With his foundation down, he adds chips, bubbles, two outlines and a pink forcefield to his block letters.

Maliwop works on the “pretty part” of his art piece.

When he adds something he takes a step back from his work. This process of adding and fixing takes over an hour. The Os of the piece become eyes with yellow eyelids, like Jim Davis’s famous Garfield’s. Maliwop said the similarity is accidental, but Garfield was one of his favorite comics growing up.

“Hi!” rings a woman’s voice from the trail below.

“Hi!” Maliwop mumbles to himself in mock response. He suspects that these people don’t know what goes on up here, that the artists can hear them. They’d be embarrassed if they did know people heard some of the stuff they do, he said with a laugh.  

The whole process is over in three hours. Maliwop signs his piece with his alias and his daughter’s name. There is no rush to get away from the scene of the crime. He deadens his speaker and repacks his tools.  He’s sure his piece won’t stay up on the wall long. That’s just how things go in the yard. 

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