Walking down the concrete hallway on the fourth floor of a repurposed door warehouse in the L.A. Arts District is Saber. He has recognizable movement—arms sway in a particular pendulum fashion and his feet turn out ever so slightly. His pants are spackled in paint. Periwinkle, purple, white and red smudges, splatters of his last few pieces of work, linger on his Carhartts. Once-pristine white tennis shoes are battle scarred with thick spray paint. If those shoes could talk…
Saber, known to his family and friends as simply Ryan, comes from a family of artists—both in the literal and figurative sense. Amid the graffiti world he is known as The Artists’ Artist. When asked if the nickname is flattering, Saber states seriously
Compliments are great. They keep you going. But I think I’ve always liked the idea of craft, and painting is a wonderful craft. My parents and grandparents were artists, so I have this lineage of painting. Add the graffiti to that and it becomes more motion-based . . . it’s a whole different tool—it’s most of your body being used.
Saber is part of a collective family called The Seventh Letter (TSL). You may know him as the graffiti artist who, in 1997, rolled his name, “SABER,” on the banks of the L.A. river. It’s the largest piece of graffiti that has ever existed—it was buffed in 2009, and all that’s left is its legacy. But that’s the point. There is something special about a painter who knows that their work will inevitably be destroyed—whether it’s by another hand, the weather or time—the work in its original form will vanish. Saber, his blue eyes lighting up, explains: “We’ll [graffiti artists] throw wildstyles off the top of our heads that are complete utter beautiful fucking pieces of work done on the spot, and we can turn our backs and it’s destroyed the second we leave. That’s the essence of it. It’s there now, and beautiful, like a beautiful plant that grew where it wasn’t supposed to.” Like a weed growing through a crack in the pavement.
DOPE Magazine flies down to L.A. to visit Saber in his natural habitat—the streets of L.A., as well as his home in Pasadena where he lives with his wife and two kids. Acting as our tour guide for a full 48 hours, Saber takes us on an eye-opening journey through the L.A. Arts District, Skid Row, Highland Park and the Fairfax District. Saber sits shotgun for the tour and talks about the city from his perspective—pointing left and right, spouting off bits of useful information in rapid-fire sentences. We cruise past a staircase in our silver minivan that leads to the Fourth Street Bridge, which has been recently painted with colorful ascending serpents. “That’s Pepper’s staircase. He’s been minding those steps for years. He’d be fucking pissed about this mural,” Saber notes, referring to the staircase recently painted by John Cuevas, commissioned by community stakeholders to ‘beautify’ the steps. Pepper lives on the streets and has a majority of his life. Ryan has been friends with Pepper for years. Ryan then wonders aloud whether Pepper is still alive. Living on the streets of L.A .is no easy feat, and with it comes a diminished life expectancy.
Our tour continues. We stop by a small workplace studio, meeting up with other members of TSL. Garments of all colors and materials hang on rolling racks in an otherwise empty space. Saber pulls a chartreuse puffy coat from the rack painted with black letters that read: “Artwork Rebels SABER.” It’s part of a collection Saber is completing for a line called “The Drug Against Wars,” and will be available for sale in high-end department stores like Barneys this fall. We continue on, arriving at Downtown Patient Group (D.T.P.G.) where 2Shae, another TSL veteran, has painted his “WEEDHEAD” character on the wall—a larger-than-life mural with Mickey Mouse-esque gloves and a huge nug in place of its head. 2Shae hands out stickers and pins to the D.T.P.G. staff while discussing the next mural he has in store for the dispensary’s walls.
As the sun sets on the streets of a precariously cool L.A. day in late July, we head to the corner of Santa Fe and Violet Street on the border of the L.A. Arts District and pull into a parking lot. Peering down from us is a massive graffiti piece titled Perseverare. Disappointed by the cars in the lot disrupting our view of the piece in its entirety, Ryan hops out of the car to get a closer look at his and Zes’ collaborative work for MSK/AWR. The piece pays homage to the legacy of graffiti in L.A. A van pulls up alongside the mural and a man steps out wearing graffiti-laden clothes. He’s a fan of Saber and has been driving past the mural since its inception, hoping to get a glimpse of Saber and Zes. It’s his lucky day. Saber reaches out to shake his hand and thanks him for his support. I begin to understand the role that Saber and artists like him play in this city—they’re luminaries.
Back in the van, we settle in for the drive to Pasadena to drop Saber off at home. Since being diagnosed with epilepsy, Saber no longer drives. It isn’t safe. Saber discusses the debilitating seizures that have landed him in the hospital on too many occasions to count over the last 15 years:
I am facing much bigger challenges with my seizures. Terrible, life-threatening seizures. Bad ‘grandma’ seizures. Every time I have one, I wake up hours later and have a bigger frontier in front of me. The healing aspect of cannabis and CBD on epilepsy is fascinating. We’re going to find out what’s really happening. To have the option of treating myself with cannabis is amazing. I constantly live in fear, and it sucks. If cannabis is going to allow me to flourish and make more art, then hopefully everyone wins, in that sense. Life is fabulous. I have two beautiful children and I’m making art, but there are challenges and these seizures are fucked up. It’s taught me a lot about life with empathy, and seeing other people in emergency rooms. I have been in a lot of emergency rooms.
He asks if we want to drive through Skid Row. I peer into the backseat to see if the crew want to take the journey, and they respond that it’s up to me. I’m in, despite some hesitation for feeling like a bit of an asshole who wants to see the realities of Skid Row. I put my foot on the gas and ask, “Left or right at the next light?” Looking out the passenger side window, Saber suddenly shouts, “There’s motherfuckin’ Pepper, man! Pull over!”
We pull off to the right and Saber hops out, quickly walking down the street. I keep looking for him in the rearview mirror and finally catch sight of Saber’s recognizable gait. Pepper approaches the van and shakes our hands. When Saber introduces us as DOPE Magazine, Pepper immediately wants to talk about weed. His raspy voice, paired with the deep lines on his face, light up with excitement. Pepper is alive and well, still tending to his block of the Arts District. Saber gives him all the money he has on him, a couple of water bottles, a few t-shirts and a ball cap that we have with us in the car. We say our goodbyes to Pepper and head out into the sunset to cruise through Skid Row.
We approach the edge of Skid Row, and Saber points at a few tourists entering the west side of Skid Row via Alameda Street. “These people have no fucking idea what they’re about to walk into,” Saber says with wavering concern. We push along, Saber looking left and right, making note that the area must’ve had a recent “clean-up.” Sweeps, as they’ve come to be called, are the city’s attempts at cracking down on the homeless population—removing “abandoned” makeshift shelters, blankets, cooking utensils and anything else they can get their hands on. As we roll through the area that’s little more than four square miles, Saber points out men and women sweeping the sidewalks and tells me to keep going, making ‘California stops’ (barely tapping the breaks) at lights and stop signs. When we leave the area I am taken aback by the proximity between the rich and poor. We take a right turn, and within a block or two I see a woman walking her Chihuahua—the pup is wearing four sparkly blue shoes. Within another half a block there are designer-clad twenty-somethings waiting in line for iced coffee and trendy restaurant appetizers. It’s a real mind fuck. Saber says, “In LA we have a humanitarian crises happening right now. The homeless situation is unprecedented.”
We get to Saber’s around 11am and he’s ready to be caffeinated; his kids are full of energy and often keep him up until the wee hours of the morning. I’m curious how his life and mission as an artist has changed since embarking into fatherhood.
I know what real life is about. I am less selfish and self-centered. I used to thrive on self-destructive behavior. “Me first” down a dark hole with two kids doesn’t work. Now it’s not about me. Now it’s coming down to creating a life for myself. The art world is a tricky fucking place. A strange enigma. A multi-billion-dollar industry with its own laws, regulations and influences. It’s almost impenetrable. Its strategic. I walk into places looking like this and I don’t give a fuck. Cause I am just who I am. But it’s about securing a future now. I didn’t give a fuck before. But this is my job, what I do for a living and this is my practice—it’s everything. My family revolves around it now. This is my boy’s painting (Saber picks up a painted canvas). He was busting out, only three years old. My daughter is a beast, too. My daughter is six, my boy is three, and I am learning all about them. It’s a whole new world. The challenges are to beat this epilepsy and beat the art game, and I am going to do it for them. I want to secure my legacy as an artist.
We roll over to his favorite Pasadena café, and while standing in line Saber runs his hands through the display coffee beans, chomping a few down for good measure. “This is how you get caffeinated,” he laughs. We’re headed to Chaz Bojórquez’s house. He lives in Highland Park, and the beauty of the San Rafael Hills blows me away. Chaz’s home is beautiful, and we’re lucky enough to catch his wife before she runs out for errands. In his garage studio, Chaz pens a piece for us right before our eyes. Known as the Father of Graffiti, Chaz is humble, kind. He spent a lot of his youth creating art during the civil rights and early feminist movements. He pulls out a plastic-wrapped book and gently slips an X-Acto knife between the case and its pages to open it up. He makes a small note, signs the endpaper and hands it to Saber—a gift.
In his room, Chaz points to a colossal canvas painted with wispy clouds. “I did that when I was very young,” he says, nodding his head. Saber and Chaz share a joint, chat about the friends they share, their current and upcoming projects. Saber pulls his phone from his pocket and shows Chaz pictures of his kids. “I can’t believe how old they are now,” Chaz smiles in disbelief. Two legends in the graffiti community, Chaz and Saber are old friends. Chaz reflects upon his relationship with younger artists in the graffiti community, including Saber, and says, “I needed roots. I was on my own in the graffiti community for twenty years. They became my children.”
As we drive out of Highland Park for our cover shoot with Saber, the realization that The Seventh Letter is more than just a collective of graffiti artists sits heavily in my thoughts. It’s a subculture that an outsider simply can’t quite grasp. That evening, I ask Saber about graffiti as a catalyst for political and social issues. He says:
The act of graffiti is already activism and an effort for social consciousness. Some people don’t realize that. It’s engrained in graffiti. The beauty of graffiti is that the elitism comes with hard-earned work. We’re all brothers. Any race, creed or place in society can partake in this. If they fight hard, they are accepted. There is a bigger idea of proving what you’re worth, not what you’re perceived as. Do the work, show your goods, create positivity around your work and it doesn’t matter who you are. That’s the beauty of it.