"Because it's true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and in my eyes graffiti is beautiful. For the love it gives me has been forged my heart by the same destructive force that allows me to cope with the pressures created by a social conscience." -- Rafael Reyes, Living Dangerously
Ankore roams the streets at night, looking for a wall to paint. During the day, he's a soft spoken, earnest guy from Central America who works in a factory for minimum wage; when the sun sets, he finds a wall and begins to passionately paint. When he can't paint his intricate graffiti because of weather or finances (spray paint isn't cheap and he's not sponsored by an aerosol company), he works on canvas, painting out his visions of Los Angeles, his loneliness and his pain. His work is poignant, detailed, vibrant with color, throbbing with emotion. In an instant message he explained to me:
I paint life as I see it .. I try to catch n paint emotions ..my art evolves from what is like to deal with pain here in the city.. A city that's not mine .. But a home.. But then again it's my city.. I left my motherland since the age of 13 and ever since then I been struggling with life to the point I started painting all those emotions...the moments...the story...journey.
A friend of mine, himself a veteran of graffiti wars and gang life and now a successful artist, put me in touch with Ankore, they met via Instagram and Facebook. I visit the apartment Ankore shares with family members, just southeast of Koreatown. He's waiting outside the building to keep an eye out for me in a neighborhood that, despite its palm trees, isn't fancy, or even all that safe for strangers after dark. Inside the apartment crowded with his canvases, Ankore lays out his work on the kitchen table that doubles as his workspace. Many feature a small figure in a hoodie painting, overwhelmed by the city. In others the figure is triumphant, playful. At times the silhouetted figure resembles both Ankore and a boyish Basquiat, his spiky dreds electric with creativity -- this artist has dreams and aspirations. That Ankore has painted Basquiat as a dreamy, hopeful hero is telling.
Ankore explains that he's drawn and painted ever since he was little, and came to the U.S. when he was 13. Thanks to the passage of the Dream Act he was able to legally remain in the U.S., and while in high school he was mentored by his art teachers and attended art classes at a well-known nearby university as part of a special program.
But after graduating high school, continuing his education was not an option; he had to go to work, a job that doesn't give him a creative outlet, so he draws and sketches while taking the long bus ride to the factory. Occasionally he has been able to paint walls legally -- a local liquor store paid him to paint their sign and gave him permission to create a mural on their wall. He used the pay from the sign-painting gig to buy cans of paint for the wall; created before the mural ordinance was passed, his artwork was eventually buffed out by the city. Usually his friends will take him by car to a secluded area with a large open wall, helping out and keeping watch while he does a huge throw up. Or he'll do the work on his own, scoping out walls on his way to and from work. Solo, outdoor, unauthorized wallwork is often a risky proposition -- there are cops and rival crews to deal with. At home, he paints and draws continually.
Ankore's story mirrors that of many young urban artists. They paint and create, show their work to friends, maybe swap pieces with their fellow artists. Galleries are beyond their reach; selling their art seems impossible, though they'd like to cover the cost of their supplies. Becoming as well-known as Gajin Fujita, Defer or Cryptik is a dream. Transportation and their low paying jobs take up most of their waking hours, their pay barely covering their basic needs. In Los Angeles, in cities everywhere, these young artists pass us by on the streets. Faceless, unseen as they wait for their buses to work, while their artwork on walls screams out, "I was here, I am a person." Their work enhances the cityscape, giving it life and color and movement. These artists do matter, these artists should have opportunities, but they are often unable to access and navigate what we call The Art World, which let's face it, is a lot white people, and mainly white men.
Random encounters, social media, friendships outside society's perceived comfort zones led me to Ankore. There are more like him: Talented, expressive, passionate. And they should be seen; they should be hanging on walls in galleries, in people's homes and offices. Their names should be know because they are here, and they matter.
(Because of the illicit nature of graffiti, certain identifying details, such as country of origin, schools, and place of employment have been omitted, as well as Ankore's "government" name.)
Photos by the author. A version of the story appeared on CartwheelArt.com