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Article: We Are Oaklandish: GATS

GATS Graffiti Face on an abandoned truck in a forest.

We Are Oaklandish: GATS

When and why did you become a graffiti artist, and how did you learn and master your craft?

In the mid 90’s I was bitten by a graffiti writer. Maybe the 1890’s? I can’t recall. I was very confused and disoriented at first, but I eventually learned how to control my insatiable urge to write poorly chosen nicknames on other people’s stuff. I’m just joking of course ... I still have no control.

I learned my craft by studying as diverse of topics as I could, mostly non-graffiti, and seeing how I could apply those lessons to graffiti. Then take the lessons I learned from graffiti and apply them to my non-graffiti life. Lots of conversations. A twenty minute conversation with another artist can change your life.

I don’t think there is any point when someone masters a craft. There is only a continued commitment to keep working.

Tell us about your iconic mask - the original inspiration and how it emerged as a global identity.  How does it capture people’s imaginations?

The mask began as a self portrait. I was so exhausted from painting every night. Friends would tell me I looked like shit. I felt like I had these giant bags under my eyes and a zoned out stare. I was a feral night person. 

Everyone went home from the bars then the world was mine. I was mainly painting letters and normal people hated it. This was pre Exit Through The Gift-shop so there was no one calling me an artist. 

I was going out to paint the Alameda Tunnel one dark and stormy night when my partner at the time blew up on me. They called me a monster, told me to stop ruining other peoples stuff and that what I do isn’t art. That night I painted myself as a monster.

I significantly abstracted the portrait thousands of times before it became what it is now. I didn’t really start painting it large publicly until I was in the Middle East. 

The language you choose to write in has automatic political implications. It’s an active decision to speak to one group of people vs another. That’s when I decided to switch to the mask because the human face is the most universally recognized image. To me it was like a petition for coexistence. 

That was the beginning of the mask traveling internationally. I think I did around eight countries over the following couple years. I hitched rides with bands, installed other people’s art shows, and did any random hustle I could think of to get around. I always try to connect with locals and respect the local customs around graffiti. Graffiti culture is a little different everywhere you go.

Imagination and mystery is what makes graffiti interesting. I strive for what I call the Santa Clause effect. Make it appear all the sudden in a seemingly impossible place. If someone goes, “WTF, that wasn’t there yesterday! How did they even do that?” Then I’ve succeeded. I even make it a point to wear bells on my shoes when walking across roofs. The perfect crime. 

What communities and power structures inspire or influence your art today?  What insights or messages are you expressing to them via your graffiti?

The community you build. I’m grateful for graffiti because it has connected me to so many types of people that wouldn’t normally overlap. I’ve painted with people whom I don't speak the same language with but share a comradeship around art. Graffiti is mostly running around in the dark, whistling, pointing and laughing at each other anyway.

Power structure isn’t a short conversation. How do I sum that up? There is a very large gap between the way I believe the world should be and the way it is. I lean toward being accountable for my own actions which seems to be the opposite of mainstream American individualist culture. 

I believe in compassion and mutual aid. There are many things that should be organized directly on local levels. Sometimes common sense can be impeded by well meaning bureaucracy. I suppose that’s where graffiti cuts through long grueling approval processes.  

There is no utopia or rules we can strictly enforce to perfect society. However, we should be constantly adjusting in the pursuit of balance.

I’m in the camp of giving people the tools to liberate themselves. I know this all sounds vague but I’ve come to the belief that if you can sum up your politics with one word then you are dangerously not thinking critically. 

In what types of places do you most like to share your art and why?

Lately I’ve been trying to make an adventure out of it to force people out of their routine. I’ll place a piece in an unspecified beautiful location so people have to go to every beautiful place they can find before finding the right one. Sometimes they don’t find it and then they are like, “Damn, GATS tricked me into having a really nice day.”

Other times I put it in a really high profile obvious spot to break the monotony of someone’s commute. People lose so much of their waking lives to Highway-Hypnosis. Changing the environment can snap them out of their sense of detachment from their surroundings … literally waking people up.

Then sometimes I hide stuff for specific people. I’ll put something where only a plumber will see it in fifteen years. Most stuff doesn’t get found but it’s really fun when someone sends you a photo ten years later from a random island or something.

I guess I’m really just trying to create the feelings of excitement that you experience as a child. Otherwise what’s the point.

You have described your public graffiti as akin to a book donated to a library.  How are concepts like ownership, freedom, conversation, and accessibility expressed in your work?

Collective ownership of many things just makes sense to me. Like why does every house on the block need to own a Circular Saw when it’s rarely used? If we all agreed to share the tool with respect then we would only need one. I’m not proposing we take away someone’s right to own one, but would that person buy one if they had access to one?

Art is like this. Why do we hide art in our homes that only we can look at? If it was on the outside of the house then everyone could access and enjoy it. It costs you nothing to share it and makes for a world of art as opposed to only getting to see one piece of art.

Humanity can only access its true wealth when we stop trying to own everything.

The idea that everyone has to like something cripples public art. If it has to be neutral to everyone then it is not loved by anyone.  

The notion of good vs bad art is also stifling. There is nothing more uniting and conversation driving than a giant piece of art you hate. It’s like the weather … suddenly you have a common experience to talk to your neighbor about. How else can you arrive at what you like if you’ve never seen what you don’t like?

You once said that graffiti is the life force of a city - how is this the case?

I believe that was actually something that professor Greg Niemeyer at UC Berkeley said in reference to my work. Graffiti isn’t the only life force of a city but it is definitely the visual evidence of a city being alive with people communicating to each other. 

Graffiti celebrates a place. It’s why people chiseled their names into the top of the leaning tower of Pisa hundreds of years ago. They were excited to be there and show other people that it was the place to be. 

When your bathroom gets crushed with tags it’s not because people hate you, it’s because you’re everyone’s favorite restaurant. Someone sees that and they are excited that they found the spot everyone hangs out at. The social reinforcement makes the restaurant better in their mind.

Alternatively, when I see a town that has no graffiti I feel unsafe. Like this is a town where a cop is going to run me out of town for being poor. It’s not a place for music, food, art or free thought. It’s a place that closes at 4 PM and is full of bigots complaining to their HOA and obsessed with controlling the way you live. Culture dies here.

In what ways has Oakland shaped your personal story and your art?

Even though I’ve been doing graffiti most of my life, I never considered myself an artist. The Oakland community was the first place to call me an artist and go out of its way to support me and convince me that I was. People in Oakland were just down to collaborate and do things for the sake of doing them.

Oakland has changed a lot but we used to crack open abandoned buildings and throw shows. There used to be entire abandoned military towns and multi story abandoned buildings. I’m so incredibly lucky to have come up in that time period where I could take my time, learn and really contemplate my art’s interactions with architecture.

Oakland gave me a chance.


Oakland is diverse, and Oakland is proud. 'We Are Oaklandish' is a storytelling project created to highlight just that.

These stories shed light on the different experiences, memories, and opinions of the people in the city we all love. They are people who give our city its oddball spirit, its passion for justice, and its creative vigor. They lift us up with laughter, peace, nourishment, and authentic hard work. 

They make us proud to call this town our home. They are Oaklandish.

Shop: GATS

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