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Three major learning lessons from my 20 years painting graffiti.

Reflecting on the last two decades of my graffiti experience, I’ve discovered 3 key areas that caused me much distress in my early years. These 3 would be the major areas of focus for my learning experience in the game. As well, I’ve also found that they can be applied to many different areas of life. I’m sure if I really invested a lot of thought into it, I could place these things in an order of importance but for me and with my experience, each one of those concepts came with their own revelations and at their own perfect timing. I will also say, despite what I perceive to be much discouragement and distress regarding my learning experience, if it weren’t for the struggles those revelations would not have been so profound. Without further delay, let’s dive in.

Numero uno, Perfectionism.

I can see now that this had to do with me as a person more than anything. Surely, over time one can practice and enhance their skillset to a point where they can mitigate many so called “imperfections” or “blemishes”. But even that will only take you so far. My father had a small piece of paper he used as a bookmark that had a quote on it. I’ve kept it all these years as I find it grows richer with time. “If you know what is enough, you will always have enough. If you do not know what is enough, you will never have enough.”

The most effective remedy to perfectionism is acceptance. There have been numerous times where I stood in front of a piece and told myself to stop painting. I knew it wasn’t going to get any better if I just continued adding things to it. As well, I knew it wasn’t my best work and it never would be. When you realize your best work will always be in front of you it changes your approach dramatically. We execute to the best of our ability in that moment. We learn the lessons from that experience. We endeavor to apply those lessons learned our next time around. You are only as good as your next piece.

Nummer zwei, The Fundamentals.

In the graffiti sphere, one of the most important aspects of the fundamentals (at least to me) would be letter form and structure. I spent the first decade of my graffiti experience in a state of near despair in this area. It was never a problem with vision, it was always a problem with execution. Somehow, I did not understand how to make my hands do what my mind wanted. I experimented with such veracity that I’m sure I skipped right over the answer hundreds of times. There was a blind spot that seemed to be always just beyond my reach.

There came a day when I was connected with a guy who I’ll loosely call one of my mentors. He was a very well-known writer in our community, and he exclusively painted “straight letter” style fonts on railcars. In fact, if it wasn’t for him using spray paint, I doubt anyone would have called him a graffiti writer. He never painted “graffiti styled” lettering (I call them manipulated letter forms) and when people painted with him it was an inevitability that they would match the fonts to make the whole car look legit. This was also the case for me as well. After a few sketching attempts and one real botched painting job on a boxcar, I remember the revelation hitting me like a ton of bricks in the face. I saw the whole last decade of my failed graffiti experiences in an entirely different light.

I realized that the reason I could not manipulate letters was due to my lack of understanding letter form and structure. I had never programmed my mind and body to execute the fundamentals on command, and furthermore I would never be able to until I did that. Right then I made the decision to spend the next few years sketching nothing but straight letter typeface fonts in my practice time. In just under two years, I experienced a massive acceleration in the quality of graffiti I could produce, and I directly attribute it to that one adjustment. The acceleration was so astonishing that it continues to impress me, and I still repeat that practice to this very day.

Number 3, Layout.

Graffiti career aside, for the last 16 years I’ve worked in the skilled trades field as a welder, millwright, designer, and project consultant. Around the same time, roughly, that I was learning my hard lessons in letter structure I happen to be getting into my building career. Again, it was though the stars were aligning and the dots were getting connected. I’ll never forget some of my first experiences as a very young teen trying to paint a piece of graffiti on the wall and leaving those experiences with a lot of confusion. I had spent countless hours, in classes I would eventually fail, sketching pieces with my friends. Many dreary winter evenings in my bedroom drawing “sick burners” on the blank pages of my sketchbooks. I felt prepared. Yet, there I stood looking at the wall, scratching my head.

Somehow, over time I’d managed to organically solve this problem and it never became a major sore spot. Yet, many times over those first few years and occasionally after that, there was always two or three attempts made to layout my letters on the wall in a way that felt right. It wasn’t until I began building that I was able to reflect on and fully understand those unfavorable experiences.

For example, let’s say we are going to build a large steel frame. I need to make a blueprint for that large steel frame, this way my builders know the sizing dimensions and have a visual example for laying it out in real life. So, I open my CAD program to make a drawing of said framework. I first must make a choice of which plane of the 3 dimensions I’d like to layout my constraint lines on. The X, Y or Z plane. Upon making my selection the plane rotates around inside the window of the program to that field of view and displays a large two-dimensional piece of graph paper. Like a timeless file cabinet, my mind would again open back up to those filed memories and replay the snap shots of tens of thousands of blank pages I had started out sketching on. Again, I’d never programmed my mind to see that matrix like omnipresent and invisible grid that exists throughout our three-dimensional world. As simple as the revelation was it made me feel stupid. It was such a “duh” kind of thing but in the end, it would pay major dividends over the next decade of my graffiti career.

As frustrating as all these experiences have been throughout my life the return on investment from applying those lessons learned will forever be incalculable. I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have lived all those experiences. In the end, we are all here learning. Learning itself is the procedure of growth. Growth in and of itself is the purpose of life. Life itself is priceless.

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