From the start, Buster worked hard to prove that he's a graffiti artist, not some little hoodlum with a sneer on his face, paint stains on his fingers, and a can under his jean jacket. Buster is the nom de plume, or perhaps more correctly, the nom de guerre of Jesse Ortiz, 22; he carries a business card and an album full of photos of his art work, including the abstract mural he painted for the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park and the logos he completed for a local Top 40 radio station. Still, he gets little respect from cops and security guards. Truth is, Buster will always value the walls of a building more for their size and texture, their ability to serve as blank slates for his imagination, than for anything that could possibly be inside them. Last December, a security guard tried to chase him away from what he and other graffiti artists refer to as the California Street walls, near the Santa Fe railroad tracks, just north of downtown San Diego. "I go, 'What do you want?'" Buster says he asked the guard. "He goes, 'What are you, some kind of punk? You think you're a badass trying to mess with me?'"
Actually, Buster had permission to paint at the site. He'd met late last summer with the manager of Cousins Warehouse, just east of the railroad tracks, and showed him his portfolio and asked if he could practice his art on the massive retaining wall behind the store parking lot. The manager gave his approval warily— and only to Buster. But soon a whole flock of young graffiti artists and hangers-on were gathering at the site, turning the wall behind Cousins, as well as the back wall of Southwest Safety and Supply, on the west side of the tracks, facing Cousins, into a riot of color and design. Some called it art. Others just called it trouble, big-time.
Eventually, almost every square inch of the two walls was covered with spray paint— an imprecise medium, to be sure, but one whose practitioners take great pride in the precise drawings they are able to create. It's all a matter of can control, they say. The walls drew curious onlookers and photographers, who cautiously stepped out of their cars to see the urban art work: simple cartoon characters, outlined in bold, dark lines; black-and-white portraits of singer/dancer Paula Abdul and of a female bodybuilder; the torso of a robot; big block letters filled with colors that fade into each other; a sinister creature clutching the strings of a marionette; examples of the often-illegible interconnecting letters once known as wildstyle; and other samples of the New York graffiti style that West Coast kids have been imitating for more than a decade.
And the graffiti was not confined to the two walls, each of which measures more than 250 feet long. It was scrawled over dumpsters, over two long-forgotten refrigerators lying on the ground and filled with empty spray cans (their nozzles removed to keep younger kids from spraying the leftover paint on the walls). A silhouette of a human figure was painted on the cracked concrete lot, where more graffiti spread like a rash in every direction. Spaghetti noodles of color stretched across an abandoned Plymouth, covering even its broken windows, its four flat tires.
Buster was the pioneering artist at the California Street walls, but that doesn't mean he's ever been king of the walls. That distinction was earned a few months ago by Sake (pronounced like the Japanese beverage). Sake is the nickname used by the leader of a graffiti art crew named No Suckers Allowed. The crew has another name too: 594— the California Penal Code section dealing with vandalism. Sake says he was first caught in the act of vandalism five or six years ago when he and a couple of friends were chased out of a school yard as they were spray-painting the outline for their piece (as in "masterpiece") onto a wall. To this day, Sake believes the man who chased them must have been a ghost because of his great speed and because the man was listening to a transistor radio tuned to what seemed to be a Padre game— at midnight. "You could just see his silhouette," says Sake. "It was really weird."
Sake is now 20. He wears three gold hoops in one ear; his curly hair is cropped short, except for the braided tail that rests on the back of his gold turtleneck. As of last fall, Sake confined most of his wall art to the California Street walls, the place where he earned the title of king by battling the former king, Quasar. Insiders know that a battle is a contest to determine which spray-paint artist can create the best piece. And they know that a tagger is a young wannabe artist who scrawls his name everywhere (on buses, electrical boxes, fences, storefronts) to get up, be recognized. They know a toy is an unskilled amateur— not really an artist at all— and that a sucker, the lowest of all earth crawlers, destroys artists' pieces or fraudulently claims others' pieces as his own work by signing his name to them. They know "who can rock the walls," as one artist describes it, and what it takes to be king.
In his battle against Quasar, Sake painted a giant jack-in-the-box. The Q on the front of the box left no doubt that the toy was Quasar. In the background, Sake painted a gray castle and in the foreground a handful of bright red, blue, and yellow children's play blocks. Quasar painted "San Diego King" in highly stylized, interconnecting letters for his battle piece. But he quickly conceded that Sake had won with his impressive mural.
Quasar, who spends 40 hours a week cooking meals at Children's Hospital and most of his free time spray-painting walls, always figured he'd have to relinquish his title someday. Quasar is 23, the self-described old man of local graffiti artists, and he says it's only natural that the work of older artists will continue to be superseded by that of younger ones at the walls, "if society doesn't kick us out of here."