For 12 years, LA-based artist, SABER, held the distinction of having completed the largest, illegal graffiti piece in the world. Taking 97 gallons of paint and over a year to complete, our latest #HSTBT explores the blood, sweat and tears that went into “going big.”
If Banksy’s “Better Out Than In” residency in New York City taught us anything, it’s that street art is temporary. While his notoriety and style of installations created new challenges in the form of urban opportunists looking to cash in on the skyrocketing prices for an original piece of art from the Bristol artist, the HBO documentary chronicling the month, Banksy Does New York, also shined a light on traditional law enforcement’s role in whitewashing the streets. While many like to clump street artists, wheatpasters, stencilers and graffiti writers into a single cluster of expressionism, the latter undoubtedly spend the most time applying their mark if longevity and acclaim are to be achieved. Simply put, bigger may not always be better, but when you create something that can be seen from Google Earth, even the clouds can’t deny your achievement.
In 1997, Los Angeles-based artist, SABER, had already solidified himself as one of the American masters when it came to graffiti – notable for his work alongside MSK juggernauts like REVOK, GKAE and more – but it was the completion of an ambitious, year-long project that really put his hustle on a mainstream stage. Taking 97 gallons of paint – applied over 35 non-consecutive days of painting – the end result was a football-field-on-steroids-sized piece done with rollers, that held the distinction of being the largest, illegal graffiti piece ever completed.
“Every single graffiti writer is a manic-depressive, insecure person, because that’s the only thing that makes you want to go out and write on somebody’s shit,” SABER explained in the 2005 film, Infamy. “Life is a dark fuckin’ place,” he continued. “But it’s beautiful in the same token. A lot does grow in the dark.”
Due in large part to a seemingly perfect climate where rain is sporadic if ever present in Los Angeles, the “LA River” is more like a long, concrete swimming pool that hasn’t been properly filled to the brim in decades. Framed by steep embankments, bridges, train tracks, and the ever-present LAPD, the terrain itself proved challenging. “The LA River is a last resort for homeless people,” SABER explained to Art Now SF. “So there are some strange lurkers down there. Every now and again I would notice a frequent transient and say ‘hello.’ Sometimes I would notice some guys getting hungry and they would cook up a dog. Dog smells like the worst cooked, rotten bacon ever. I would find leftovers every now and again, just a pair of dog legs. The LA River is about the survival of the fittest. I was always glad to be able to go home and shower and sleep comfortably.”
Forgoing traditional aerosol methods of application in favor of broad, paint roller strokes, when it was finally completed – colorful and bold – it was “roughly about 55 feet tall, by almost 250 feet across,” Saber explained. For context, the average train car is about 50 feet long. In terms of height, SABER had painted a five-story house. The physical toll of painting on the slopes of the LA River were also apparent once he was finished. “I actually blew my knee out [because] of all the time on the slant, it created a groove in the cartilage, so I had to get surgery on my knee.”
The other contender for largest roller piece was done by Brendt Berger and Tia Ballantine on the West Side Highway in New York City that measured 850 feet long by 85 feet wide. As Ballantine recalled, “When I think of the World Trade Center, I remember working beneath its ghostly lights, late at night in the summer of 1978, dancing a very large painting onto the surface of the then closed West Side Highway and I think of people, those whom I loved and the strangers for whom I painted. The painting Brendt Berger and I danced onto the highway was abstract but it was designed for people to enjoy, to serve both as a lively garden of shade and shadow for walkers and bikers below and to catch the eye of all who worked in the towers. It was our gift to them, a reminder of human possibility – paint transforming an abandoned and barren landscape into a space of beauty and memory available to all, free and clear. No purchase required. Like a garden, it sprouted overnight and took its sweet time to mature.” Roderick Mason Faber, drama critic of the Village Voice, reviewed the finished work, writing, “Ever since the two of them went up, I’ve been wishing there were three towers to the World Trade Center. Now I needn’t harbor such perverse trinitarian longings. The twin towers have acquired a suitably overscale sibling in what may be the world’s largest painting.” While decidedly bigger in scale, Ballantine and Berger’s work at the time was viewed as fine art, while SABER’s was viewed as vandalism.
Before the proverbial “buff” would threaten the monumental piece, a New York City graffiti artist, JA – real name Jonathan Avildsen – set out for retribution. The widely-believed rumor indicates that JA felt protective of fellow New York City artist SANE’s art, and that SABER had either intentionally or mistakenly gone over his work while out on an excursion in the Big Apple. The result was what could only be described as a “deadening” of the vibrant colors of SABER’s wildstyle piece. Whereas the Los Angeles sun was baking away the piece minute-by-minute, and day-by-day, JA’s assault simply sped up that process with a whitewashing aerosol effect. “Originally when I finished, it was 97 gallons, but some asshole came from New York to diss it, so I came back and did the outline,” SABER said. “In the long run, I’m actually glad that he did that because it humbled me.”
In September 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used nearly a million dollars of an economic stimulus fund to erase what had taken SABER a year to create. According to ANIMAL, “Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, BJD Resourcing was awarded an $837,000 contract to clean up graffiti along Los Angeles drains and ditches. While touting the creation of eight new jobs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports that contract is intended to make the largely unseen water channels ‘look presentable.'”
Armed with two generator-powered sprayers and 135 gallons of paint, the eight-person crew commented “with the graffiti and so forth – urban blight, basically – what we were trying to do is clean up our assets and make them look presentable.”
When SABER spoke to Arrested Motion almost eight months after the piece had been painted over, he clearly saw greater issues at play than what is and what isn’t art. “What a way to go out,” he said. “The Army uses millions of federal funds to help fuel the LA war on graffiti, painting out layers of raw history in the armpit of the city while schools have no books and hospitals are closing.”
Around that same time, California budget cuts had been so severe in the educational realm that The Los Angeles Times reported that most history textbooks (in 2009) wouldn’t reflect the election of President Barack Obama or that science textbooks wouldn’t include stem cell research and climate change in its pages until 2016.
“If I knew they were going to use stimulus money to buff my piece, I would have painted out my own piece on principle,” SABER said to Arrested Motion. “The new city attorney and the sheriff’s department used this as a media stunt to kick off their new war on graffiti. The city attorney actually calls it ‘the end of days scenario.’ This is a massive campaign and my piece was the first to go. When I heard they were buffing it, I raced down there to capture the moment and even offered to take over for the fat ass on his cellphone. They called the police on me instead. It seems to have affected others more than myself. I have had some pretty emotional emails from far away places. One kid told me he was ‘going to kill himself’ over this. I told him that ‘everything will be OK.’ This piece lasted 12 long years and as far as I am concerned, if you paint it outdoors, it will be gone.”