Sake, though, resents any suggestion that graffiti art is just for kids. "Aerosol art is like a disease," he says. "Once you start, you can't stop. I'll be doing this art form probably till the day I die." Expecting him to quit at the threshold of adulthood is "like telling Gauguin to stop [painting] when he's 40. That's bull."
Last summer, shortly after Buster started painting the wall behind Cousins, store manager Ken Bond was approached by police who asked if the store wished to press charges against the spray-paint vandal or vandals at work there. "We gave the authorization to a Mister Ortiz to do nice murals," Bond told police. But he was alarmed at the growing number of youths who had joined Buster since last summer. "I don't like the direction it's going," said Bond ominously. "At this point, I'm not seeing what I would consider art or something that would enhance a wall."
And a few days after Bond made those comments, and as Sake and Quasar and about a half-dozen other guys stood around, casually surveying the Southwest Safety and Supply wall, a well-dressed man emerged from Cousins. The man called across the railroad tracks to the artists, asking if Jesse Ortiz was present. No, he was told; he asked them to have Ortiz contact him and left. "Well, there goes the wall," said one of the youths. "Doesn't look good," warned Sake. They worried out loud whether the manager meant to take the Cousins wall away from them. After all, police had visited the site the previous weekend, after one kid threw a cap from a spray can at a passing train. "I don't think he'll take it away," said one bear of a kid, "'cause he knows what the consequences will be." The artists and their entourage of taggers and assorted other followers knew they had a good deal going here, and they did not wish to lose these two walls they'd taken by storm.
Graffiti art has long been associated with trains; in New York, early writers filled subway trains and tunnels with their art. Buster talks fondly of the time several years ago when Crayone, a well-known L.A. graffiti artist, came to San Diego. Together they painted the boxcars of freight trains that passed through town, hiding under the stopped trains when watchmen emerged, swinging lamps. The California Street walls held romance, at least for these youths, a romance enhanced by the Amtraks and freights that regularly pass between the two walls.
Buster, a loner who eschews membership in a graffiti crew, would have been content to keep the Cousins wall to himself, though that proved impossible. Buster says he tries to not even let other artists' styles influence his work, though some of the other young artists talk behind his back and claim that he bites (steals) some of his ideas for murals and lettering styles from others.
Fred Brousse, owner of Southwest Safety and Supply, was also alarmed by the graffiti art that appeared about three months ago on the back of his building— without his permission. When he confronted the youths at the time, he warned them he'd call police and hire a security guard if he discovered tagging anywhere on his building but the back wall.
So Buster stenciled "No Tagging Please" onto the sides of Brousse's building. He didn't have enough paint to cover over the tags that already blemished the sides of the building, so in some cases, he sprayed the warning right over the tags. Brousse was impressed by Buster's efforts and by some of the art work. "For the time being, I'm turning the other cheek," he said at the time. "They're not into destroying property. They're looking for a place to express themselves, really. They're out there with respirators [protective masks] on and the whole business," Brousse said, affably. "It's very interesting to me; they'll come in and paint something, and you'll figure it's gonna stay there. Strangely enough, someone comes in and paints right over it."
But the graffiti artists understand that transience is the flip side of the spontaneity inherent in much of their art. Buster explains: "It's part of the wall life. When I paint on that wall, I know I'm gonna be gone over sometime. If they can do better than me, if they can do a better piece, then go ahead and go over me. As long as it's good."
In late February, one of the murals on Cousins' wall depicted the span of a freeway bridge; its pillars were 3-D letters spelling out "Buster," painted with grays and blues to look like cracking cement. Street lamps painted into the piece shed a plum glow, and a full moon completed the scene. Buster has a photo of the piece, but the bridge mural itself was history less than two weeks later.
Members of Wall Power Crew painted over it with a large "WPC"— a throw-up— a simple one-color design inside a dark outline. WPC didn't even bother to finish the throw-up. The destruction of his elaborate work stung Buster. "When I'm gone over the way they did it, that hurts me. They just did a little one-color piece. I thought they were going to do a top-to-bottom, side-to-side piece. They up. It makes them look bad."
Why'd they do it? Them guys, they heard you were coming, so they went over me," Buster said. "They did it out of jealousy because I had some stuff up."
"It's not fair for that guy Buster's stuff to stay here forever," retorted 15-year-old Dyze of WPC. "He ain't great. He bites most of his stuff."
But even Sake was critical of WPC's deed. "That's just a throw-up," he sniffed. "It looks trashy."
All that remained of the bridge mural was the dedication Buster had included: "To Julia, my aerosol heart, from your father, 1990."
Julia, Buster's two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, figures prominently in other wall art. Late one afternoon, Buster climbed into his primer-gray '66 VW bug to take a look at an illegal wall he's painted, illegal since he never gained permission to paint on it. Julia's photo, enclosed in a red plastic heart, is attached to the dash. The VW rides low to the ground, and Buster drove very slowly over the railroad tracks, car metal scraping track metal every inch of the way. Heading toward Old Town, following the line of the railroad tracks, Buster says he knows of two San Diego girls who are writers, as graffiti artists call themselves. One goes by the name of Pastel, he says, adding, "She's pretty good. She could take out some of the toys. L.A.'s got some good girls [graffiti artists]. I want to see some good girls getting up."