To Bomb and Beautify: How RISK Got Up
By Natalie Hegert
Beautifully Destroyed, the name given by Kelly “RISK” Graval to his color field painting series, is an apt way to describe the paradoxical relationship between graffiti and walls. The element of destruction is embedded in the vocabulary—to hit, to bomb—as well as the ethos of graffiti, which stands in contrast to the undeniable beauty of the results—brilliant, saturated colors adorning previously blank walls with the soft diffusion and sharp lines of spray paint.
RISK’s beautifully destroyed series, in which the artist creates a curtain of color across an entire wall or canvas, is an attempt to distill the experience of writing graffiti into a static form—a mission that has vexed graffiti artists since they stepped into the studio. For RISK, the moment came while driving past a freshly painted piece on a wall above a freeway, the colors whooshing past in a blur.
As a rule, the most successful pieces of illegal graffiti are those that are seen by the maximum number of people. In New York, that meant pieces that traveled on the outsides of subway trains, seen by thousands of commuters as they flashed by on subway platforms and snaked by on elevated train tracks. In Los Angeles, that meant pieces painted on the sides and signs of the freeways, visible to the masses of people driving by at 70 miles an hour or crawling along in traffic.
The element of movement—so integral to the experience of appreciating graffiti as it was meant to be viewed on subway cars or the street—has largely proven elusive to artists who have gone from graffiti writing to painting canvases in the studio. In RISK’s graffiti work, movement is written right into the letterforms, which appear to be bouncing, or dancing, or running away in interlocking, bending, slanting calligraphy. But when RISK drove by his piece on the freeway, he realized that he didn’t need to read the letters—R-I-S-K. The joy, the thrill, the electricity was in the color. This feeling left an indelible impression—something he tries to recreate in the Beautifully Destroyed series.
RISK achieves the effect by rolling a base layer of paint over the wall, then pouring paint directly on it, letting the colors drip and run down the surface of the wall. In a way, it’s an aggrandizement of the drip—a feature of spray paint that indicates a sloppy style or a novice hand, a technical mistake to be avoided, but when wielded by an expert becomes a knowing stylistic effect that revels in its “wrongness”. It also hearkens back to the pouring technique of post-painterly abstractionist Morris Louis. Likewise, the wide swaths of bright color recall the paintings of Barnett Newman who sought to envelop the viewer in color, on an epic, building-sized scale. Closer to home, RISK’s Beautifully Destroyed series also brings to mind the abstractions of New York graffiti pioneer Futura 2000, whose soft, diffuse clouds of aerosol paint on the first entirely abstract wholecar subway masterpiece, Break (1980), broke the mold of graffiti with abstract experimentation.
RISK certainly would have seen a photograph of Futura’s abstract wholecar in the “Bible” of graffiti: Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s Subway Art, which, along with the documentary Style Wars, brought New York style graffiti to the rest of the world, both released in 1984. But RISK first learned about the New York graffiti subculture through word of mouth. In high school, RISK was prompted by an encounter with an East-Coast kid who saw him doodling and asked him, “What do you write?” The question surprised and confused him at first, but it was an initiation. Essentially, New York graffiti (which originated synchronously in Philadelphia in the late 1960s) was about getting fame: it prized individual style in letterforms and an ever-proliferating coverage of tags (in contrast to the native Los Angeles, cholo style of graffiti that was neighborhood focused and territory based). He began writing with his first moniker, SURF, starting in 1983, covering his high school with tags, piecing at night. It had become an obsession for him and the small cadre of LA-based writers who started around the same time. He was a long way from abstraction at that point. He had letterforms to write first. And he had to get up.
RISK is such a legend in the history of graffiti because of how far “up” he got. All the way up to the “heavens”, RISK was a pioneer of the Los Angeles-specific practice of scaling up and writing on freeway signs and overpasses. He also pioneered the practice of writing on freight trains, sending his name traveling on trains cross-country. And he was the first (and likely the last) LA artist to see one of his pieces run on the New York subway system, before the subway was declared “graffiti free” in 1989—a particularly significant honor and formative experience, the “holy grail” of graffiti. The following year, he went international, when he and fellow LA-writer SLICK got sent to the UK for the Bridlington International Street Art Competition in Yorkshire. They came home with the top prize. For RISK, one elusive goal remains: to paint the Hollywood sign, something he’s dreamed about since the beginning.
These days RISK spends his time in his spacious Thousand Oaks studio rather than out on the streets. After going to art school at USC, traveling the world writing graffiti, and founding and operating a successful clothing and lifestyle company, Third Rail, RISK has returned to making art full time with renewed vigor and a penchant for mixed media experimentation. Crushed and flattened spray cans, license plates, and other metals form his canvases, painted with Kandy car paint and crushed abalone, and illuminated with highlights of neon—making reference to graffiti, Los Angeles car culture, and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
RISK has recently entered a new phase in his three-dimensional works, producing gargantuan sculptures with political overtones. An imposing ten-foot-long shark built of car parts and found metal, an entire police cruiser sawn in half and set in a vitrine—these sculptures identify the police state as the World’s Biggest Predator. Besides the clear references to Damien Hirst’s work, RISK has a strong affinity to the mixed media works of Los Angeles assemblage artist Ed Kienholz, as well as other Ferus Gallery regulars Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, and Dennis Hopper—in his mind, sidelined out of the New York-centric art world, much the same way the LA graffiti scene received less love than their New York peers.
From his illustrious career as a graffiti pioneer, to the foundation of his successful clothing and lifestyle brand, to his return to the studio and the evolution of his art into abstraction and sculpture, RISK’s development as a graffiti writer and an artist has not followed a circumscribed path. Yet from his very first markings, RISK has always perceived what he does as art. There was never any question, in his view, that his work would one day be in museums. But this kind of success only reflects part of the impact that his work has had on the world. The influence he has borne on successive generations of graffiti practitioners, particularly on the West Coast, through his prolific output, vibrant use of color, and his participation in legendary graffiti crews WCA and MSK, among others, cannot be understated. He truly made his mark on Los Angeles, and around the world, “beautifully destroying” walls, trains, planes, and freeways, and contributing to a vibrant culture and creating a more colorful city.
About Natalie Hegert
Natalie Hegert is a freelance art writer and editor, currently based in Lubbock, Texas. Her writing appears on Glasstire, Elephant Magazine, Artsy, ArtSlant, THE SEEN, Huffington Post, and ArtCritical, and she has written essays, reviews and op-eds for Papersafe Magazine, Dazed, Brooklyn Rail, Rhizomes, Photography and Culture, various exhibition catalogues, artist books, and other publications. She holds an MA in Art History and Theory from Hunter College, New York.