Modern graffiti as we know it first appeared in New York and Philadelphia in the late 1960s.
Fueled by movies like Wild Style and books like Subway Art, kids across the rest of the country eventually started what is termed in the graffiti world as “getting up” — or getting your name tag up. Graffiti made its way west, and while Los Angeles had territorial markings dating back to the 1940s, it wasn’t until the early 1980s when the City of Angels started showing off its own style. Even without a subway system, the expansive city still offered plenty of walls, buses, drainage ditches, tunnels, bridges, trains, billboards, and freeway overpasses as canvasses. Graffiti writers are masters of adaptation, and LA’s early stars learned to use the unique aspects of their environment to shine. From the blend of surf, punk, skate, and Hip-Hop culture, a new breed was born. A handful of early West Coast writers declared the best way to go was up, popularizing the painting of high or hard-to-reach targets like the backs of freeway signs. They crowned the spots “heavens,” their gift to the canon of graffiti for generations to come.
But how did the quest for painting heavens come about? Hip-Hop was popping in the early ’80s, especially in the scene swirling around a certain MacArthur Park nightclub turned community center known as Radiotron. It’s where DJ Chris “The Glove” Taylor, dancers like Boogaloo Shrimp and Lil’ Coco, and a young MC named Ice-T got their start. Kids took dance classes, breaking crews battled, budding artists painted its walls, and the movie Breakin’ was filmed there in 1983, repping all the elements of Hip-Hop under the watch of the space’s founder, Carmelo Alvarez.
In that early mix of creativity, RISK, a 15-year-old kid new in town from New Orleans, found like-minded souls. “Graffiti kind of exploded there, inside the club, and out into the parking lot,” he says. “There was a one-story piece by CRIME that just looked so crazy, because we were used to seeing pictures of New York pieces that were window-downs [on subways].” Like many others at the time, he was a breaker for a minute, wearing baggy sweats with his name painted down the side, but he found his strength in graffiti. Meeting New Yorker SOON at a bus stop later on changed everything for him. “He had a leg up on everybody. I’d seen his stuff in Dead Man’s Alley, throw ups on Redondo and Venice, and then I ran into him on a bus bench. He was with LEGIT and J-COOL, they were wearing Kangols and Cazals, and I had a car so they’re like ‘You got a car? Let’s go to Radiotron.’ ” Rolling with them gained him access to the backrooms of the place and stepped up his own graffiti game.
In 1985 RISK and his friend RIVAL started the West Coast Artists crew. “We were so infatuated with New York, and we wanted to paint subway trains. That’s all we ever thought and dreamed about, and we didn’t have them,” says RISK. He painted some freight trains, then after thinking about how everyone gets to work in LA versus New York, struck on the idea of rush hour traffic. “People are just sitting on the freeways,” he says. “I kept studying and thinking ‘How can I be as famous as SEEN, LEE, DONDI, and BLADE without the subways?” Finally, he reverse-engineered it and realized he had to hit the freeways. “It was a need to go bigger and better and bolder and higher.” After analyzing the geography, he picked his first sign. “I think the first one I did was at Mulholland and the 405. It was the only spot I could think of that I could walk up a hill and get to. It’s far enough up that I’m not on the freeway and busy enough so that during the day, people would see it.” With stolen paint and a lookout, he left his name there, then got the bug to do more. With a dozen major freeways spanning hundreds of miles and endless interchanges, LA seemed primed for paint. “We called it the heavens, because we would go up there and get high and drink, sit on the freeway signs like, ‘Hey man, we’re in heaven,’ ” says RISK. Like a kid plotting a fantasy baseball strategy, he used a map in choosing his next moves. “I remember thinking I need the 10, I need the 110, I need the 90,” he says. And after a few chases and learning the ins and out of the structures, he had it on lock.
By the late ’80s, freeways were key to getting all-city status, and several pioneers led the way. Dozens of names covered the city’s walls and road signs, with WISK’s crew IFK (Interstate Freeway Killers, which included RISK, SER, MINER, OILER, ASH, DOOM, SLEZ, CHAKA, and GIN) competing with FB (Freeway Bombers, with KEY, TEMPT, ANGST, STAMS, and CAB). WISK and SER took to signage as much as RISK, all setting an LA precedent.
RISK soon found other ways to get up, sneaking onto film sets in the entertainment capital of the world. He started offering to do more legit-looking graffiti than what the set designers were doing, in exchange for food. Eventually producers and directors got to know him, which led to paid gigs like Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” video. That’s RISK’s work in the background, an endeavor leading to one of the greatest paint boosts of all time. “I didn’t even really get it,” says RISK. “I was just like, ‘I’m going to get so much free paint.’ That’s all I cared about. I ordered a truckload of paint every day to paint their three streets. I think I got $30,000, which was like a million dollars at the time but spent their budget on $33,000 worth of paint.” A couple of years later he and his friend SLICK were called to work on Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” video. “SLICK did a guy in a zoot suit and an American Flag and then Ice Cube said, ‘I want all the homies up on the wall,’ so SLICK handed that off to me,” says RISK. “I did little pieces with everyone’s name and toward the end I did a RISK piece, totally LA style, dripped water and paint in, and Ice Cube came by and goes ‘Yo, why isn’t my name like that?’ And then we just laughed, and it was cool.”
By the early ’90s, RISK was part of the influential AWR crew, while writers like FATE, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, were just getting started and looking to the early bombers as predecessors. In ’92, FATE did his first heaven on U.S. Route 101 (known locally as the 101 freeway, near Interstate 405. “I had lookouts, but I went up there alone. My first three I did alone, then I took GKAE along to paint his first heaven. GKAE became the king, hitting over 50 of them,” he says. He knew of RISK’s work but saw it as a “whole different timeframe and type of graffiti,” calling it “a really beautiful sight.” FATE’S main influences for bombing heavens were other O.G.s like PANIC, SER, WISK, CHAKA, and OILER. He adds, “AYER (RIP) was really killing heavens at this time, too.”
Caltrans, the state’s transportation arm responsible for cleaning graffiti from freeway signs, installed razor wire around most of them in 1990, but that and the very real threat of falling to one’s death has not stopped vandals from continuing the practice. While RISK has been stabbed, shot, and cut from barbed wire in other graffiti-related incidents, he’s thankful never to have fallen while painting. He did have some close calls. “The first overpass I ever did was the 110,” says RISK. “I had to shimmy out on these old pieces of wood while holding the railing. Then the wood started breaking and I held myself OK, but the first thing I thought was that I would fall and go through somebody’s windshield and this is how I’m going to jail.”
FATE attests to the danger. “When you stand out on a highway sign it’s a small ledge and it doesn’t stop shaking from the traffic and the wind,” he says. “It feels like a 10.0 earthquake, really scary. You’re looking down below, and there’s nothing but these little crossbars.” FATE and friends learned how to turn floodlights off, even using ropes with grappling hooks to hoist themselves up. Then the illegal aspect of it all caught up with him in ’95 when the California Highway Patrol raided his home. He did a year in prison for his crimes.
FATE continues to paint more at ground level these days. “Honestly you’ve got to be built for that climbing. I’m too old to do that now,” he says. “These dudes now must be doing it with fold-up ladders to get past the barbed wire.” He still paints legally and illegally, producing gallery art, prints, and skateboards featuring his work, while maintaining a career as a tattoo artist. But when he sees names like ZESER, DROYCE, BLAH, CRASH, ADZE, and SAUT up around the city, he can’t help but get nostalgic. “Just going through Hollywood and seeing all these heavens hit, it makes my blood rise good, in a good way,” says FATE. “It makes me happy it’s still being done.”
RISK’s paintings and sculptures now hang in galleries and private collections all over the world. He’s still scaling heights in different ways, like painting an abandoned hospital in Sudbury, Ontario, in August of 2019. It is the largest mural ever done in Canada. At more than 80,000 square feet, it took over 900 gallons of paint, two boom lifts, three cranes, and 12 days to complete.
One enthusiast known as @rustyoleum on Instagram notes that newer crews have been activated since the COVID-19 pandemic: “COVID lockdown is opening up more space with less police presence, less arrest for nonviolent crimes, and it’s become easier to shoplift paint.” Even with fewer drivers on the road to see it, a new generation dares to ascend the ultimate urban peaks. Today’s heaven painters stand on the shoulders of giants who came before them, risking life and limb all to force our eyes skyward.