In every city there are writers that affect the world they paint. Some perfect their pieces, others obsess over destroying property and there's a million in between. Not all of them gain world wide success but the savages always have an affect. Kill Pretty loves learning about the over looked writers of different generations. The ones that put in the work, and it that town they are a household name.
MARVL US was a household name in the Bay Area. More like a legend. 10 years after he stopped writing we would still catch his tags hidden around skate spots and rusty old poles. US had it's own coveted place in the graffiti history of the bay (and still does) and MARVL seemed to be one of the most prolific and mysterious names in the crew.
Sitting down to talk to MARVL was like stepping back into the early 90's. Everyone skated and everyone tagged. San Francisco was in the middle of a Renaissance that would last through the decade.
Recently I heard news that MARVL had passed. Although I never met him in person he was extremely cool to me over the phone. Sent me a million stickers and hand written letters. I could tell the guy had a great heart. I didn't want to immediately post this interview after his death some how capitalizing on the drama but enough people messaged me wanting to hear part two of the interview I figured I owed it to his friends to put this up.
So here's the full interview with a bay area legend. I'm so thankful I was able to get this before his passing. A lot of really cool information in here as well as a glimpse into a very cool guys mind. RIP.
Tell me about writing in the early 90’s. What do you remember?
At the core of it, this is skateboard culture. We were all serious skaters. It’s this culture where you skate and you travel to all these different spots. As you travel to these different spots you hit up a tag. I saw other people doing that in ‘89 and I thought they were total degenerates. I was like, “Oh my god you did that right on that wall, you’re gonna fuck up this whole place for us.” Then later on I saw some more sophisticated graffiti and it was just one of those things. It was a whole new language.
You had these poor kids in the ghetto. The inter-city graffiti writers and you also had your white suburban kids that got into graffiti to be rebellious or whatever, I kind of fall into that category.
I was really proud of having an eye for those cutty spots. I wanna say ORFN and I, I kind of went off on our own. We started out with another friend that started in Redwood City that was down with DANK DADDY’S and this crew BFR, BACK FOR REVENGE, which were big in ’89. My friend MERG gave me a graffiti alphabet. I don’t want to hate on graffiti writers and I don’t mean to sound like a jerk but most graffiti writers, they’re kinda dumb you know? They think they’re gonna do graffiti for 100 years. No you’re not. They hit a big wall, they get a little fame and it gets buffed and the story’s over. I wanted to do stuff that made my word live forever, you know?
This is all 1990, ’91, ‘92. This guy TERM started US with this guy BISIE. TERM was a skate kid like me in 1989. He was the first person to take me up to San Francisco to Embarcadero and that whole skate scene. Embarcadero has all the pro skaters like Mike Carroll, Henry Sanchez and Karl Watson and these guys. He took me up there and we’d go skate. Every time we went to skate he’d have a fanny pack and he’d pull out a streaker and write on the spot. Basically I saw him do it and thought, “Well I could probably do this better,” you know? And he would do these spots that would get us kicked out. You want to get up but don’t get up, you know? Pick a spot that all the other graffiti writers are going to notice and it’s not going to ruin the spot. That was my heyday, ‘90-‘94, pretty much when I was in high school.
So you met TERM right when he started US?
Yeah, there were some other pretty funny tags around that time. Our other friend wrote LOSR, ha ha. There was another crew, NSC from San Carlos. NON STOP CRIME, kinda corny. That was ’89. These were old school skater guys. These were guys skating with no nose on the deck. There was this other guy that wrote NEVER. NEVER was a huge skater and writer, he could ollie the GONZ channel at EMB and he would just rock El Camino with spray paint tags. Around ‘91 there were a lot of writers with great tags. Remember UB40, TOM MOSH, JOOP, or ELEMENT? These were graffiti writers that were cool but not cool, you know? They’d just do it. You’d always see their tags alone, not with like five other tags around them. Just them in the middle of nowhere you know? They were sort of like cult figures even amongst other graffiti writers.
Was there an original name for US? I’ve heard so many.
It was always like ‘whatever’. I mean off the top of my head, UNDER SHADOWS, UNDENIABLE SICKNESS I think was the first name. It was kind of trying to be cool or whatever. I thought that was funny. UNITED SHOPLIFTERS, URINE SAMPLE. We’d come up with different ones all the time. My friend OARSE broke down MARVL into ‘Menthol And Regular Viceroy Lights’, that cracked me up.
Were you automatically put into US because you were friends with them?
I don’t remember. Being in a crew is a big part about bringing graffiti to a more professional level. I kind of fell out with ORFN and REVRS when we all first started for some reason. They had their own trip and I wanted to go to the city. I looked up to these guys like TWIST who are all city, FIVE-0 and TWIST and SKETCH. TMC was really big back then. MYK and JUL were all over the freeways. I started skating Embarcadero and I met this guy named Leon who was the leader of IBC which was the skater graff crew. I thought it was really cool that this crew had sponsored skateboarders on it and it also had serious, big graffiti writers. I got in IBC basically after befriending Cole and racking forty ultra wides. I gave him a bunch of markers and he was like, “Oh you do graffiti? Do you want to be in IBC?” I didn’t even know what it stood for. It stood for ILLEGAL BUSINESS CONTROLS, which is also sort of cheesy. It was basically a drug dealing graffiti crew from Fillmore and it got handed down to these skaters. No one cared what it stood for. It had some ghetto, a hardcore root, that’s all. So I got into IBC and felt like I was a big part of that crew so that’s when I really started bombing. I was like, “Look at this! I’m in this fucking crew!” Then I went back to Palo Alto and bombed and bombed and bombed. I think that’s when I got put in US, after I was in IBC. It was a weird thing because I was already friends with those guys but I wasn’t really into it at first for whatever reasons. I kind of went off on my own.
I was friends with TERM and BISIE. BISIE and I used to go to the Embarcadero and just get laughed at because we were such white kids from the ‘burbs, you know? Well, I’m half white, but anyway. I was just really into infiltrating that and being down with those dudes. That sounds corny but then I came back and spread that stuff to US and the ‘burbs they also went to the city and attacked the hell out of it.
In high school I didn’t smoke or drink or do any of that. I was pretty much an “A” student. But I went to Haight Street and bought a sheet of acid. It was fucked up. It probably cost about $100. It was about half a binder sheet. I didn’t want to get ripped off, or to get that much, but this guy said he had some really good stuff. This was ’93 and it had Beavis and Butthead all over them. I did two or three of them and they were really good. Here’s the thing, I didn’t even smoke pot. I basically only did acid a few times in high school. Acid is good because it can inspire you as an artist and to play music. I liked using it from time to time, but I didn’t want to be a drug dealer or anything because it was a federal offense to have it and that was ten times worse than graffiti in terms of getting busted. So I freaked out and just set it on fire. When it burned, it burned blue, orange, green, and all these different colors, kinda dumb. I wish I had given it to a friend or some random hippie or something. Teenage shenanigans I guess!
Right when I started graffiti I went back to the burbs. I was bombing in the cities but I was trying to get some fame in my neck of the woods, which is basically Belmont and San Mateo. I did this huge tag on El Camino on this truck and a few days later they pulled me out of class. I had just started to get going with it and had some momentum. They pulled me out of class and were like, “We had some hidden cameras set up and we caught you doing graffiti on this thing.” This is like ’92 right when I started. I’m like, “Oh my God!” I think basically someone narced on me. Someone told them it was me and they used that ploy to pressure me to admit to it and I was on probation for a year. So I get arrested. Back then everyone was very strict, “You can’t narc on any writers, bro” and “Never retire!” I was like, “Why even confess to doing my own tag? Much less admit having knowledge of other people’s affairs.” So I’m on probation but I started getting up so much. My routine went like this: I’m in high school getting good grades, I’m a little weird and rebellious because of my graffiti and skating and stuff. I live in this second story building in Belmont and I had a ladder up to the window. I’d climb down just after it got dark, like eight or nine, I leave the house through the window while my parents were there and I took the bus to San Francisco. I have a backpack full of paint that I got through various ways, sometimes you pay for it, whatever. The best time I’ve found to rack paint, it still works to this day, you go to Wal-Mart and get a dollar can. You Xerox the sticker off that, and then you make stickers off the dollar cans and put them on your eight dollar Rustolem. That was one way. So I had taken the Rusto, fat caps and stuff to clean my hands and I’d bomb all fucking night and take the 7F bus back or whatever, just me. That was the best way to get up because no one is going to steal my fame. I don’t want my tag to be up next to my friend’s tag every single time they see the tag.
How old were you at that time?
Fuck, probably 15. One of the first nights I went out to do that I was just kind of getting a feel for the place. San Francisco city streets at night felt like you owned the place. There’s nobody out there. It’s also kinda dangerous, I didn’t think about that then. But you’d see all these tags and go, “This is how they do it. They just come out at night. That’s the way they can get up in these crazy spots. I got cocky and started just doing tags with people watching and stuff.
I was on Market street and there was some guy hanging out sitting on the bench ten feet away and it’s one or two in the morning so I do a huge tag on another bench and I start walking away and these two guys are like, “HEY!” and they ran up to me, grabbed me, put me on the ground and were like, “We are undercover cops here on a drug bust and we just caught you doing that.” He pulls my hoody and shirt up over my head, takes my can of paint, shakes it and makes like he’s spraying it on my head but just sprays it right by my head, ahhh. This is the difference between San Francisco and the suburbs. The only thing that happened was I got pulled into the police station and was given a citation. I think my parents had to pick me up too, and that sucked worse than getting the ticket.
That kinda thing happened a few times over the years and that’s one of the reasons I don’t get too crazy with it anymore these days. I live in Las Vegas now and I work in film, I went to UC Santa Cruz and I got a film degree. I spent the night in jail once in Vegas for being drunk on the strip during New Years Eve, go figure, and I met a guy in there that was a graffiti writer. He had been in there for like seven years. He did a tag in Vegas and they linked his tag to other tags in LA that might or might not have been him and they decided that he was responsible for millions of dollars worth of damage. As I was told once I was responsible for millions of dollars worth of damage on El Camino, or at least that’s what they were trying to insist. But yeah, other places sometimes consider graffiti to be a serious crime. But in my opinion, it was more of like a youth culture movement and society would have to adjust to it someday as it has done, what with all of the skate parks in every city. Back in the 90’s skateboarding and graffiti were still pretty underground. Now it’s all more mainstream, and graffiti art is more socially acceptable.
Graffiti in the 90’s in San Francisco was very liberal. That was the whole reason, monkey see, monkey do, you know? If others have this freedom to express themselves like this, I wanted to try that too. I had a lot of friends that after I did what I did they said, “I can do this too.” Everyone started bombing. You know AMAZE US? I think I kinda had an influence on his word, ha-ha. After all this hard work bombing just by my self, these guys saw how easy it was and did it without any fear. That was San Francisco. TWIST would get busted and they’d just give him a ticket, you know? I heard that story many times. I heard how those guys got busted so many times and nothing would ever happen to them. So that was kind of a magical wonderland of graffiti back then. Plus I was under 18. That’s how kids thought. You want to be a graffiti artist you gotta do this now while it’s hot because once you’re 18 you can’t do this, I mean you can but… I know people who started writing back then, like CEAVER 640 from Oakland. He’s been bombing none stop, since before I even began, and now he gets paid to do legal walls sometimes. It’s incredible, since he was my age, and I hear the craziest stories about him.
You have a very specific one liner bus hopper type tag. Is that where it originated? Hopping busses?
That was from scribing bus windows. There are elements to a graffiti letter, right? A. It has gotta look cool B. you gotta do it fast so you can get up in a sick spot and make it look natural. Another kid gave me props for being on so many bus windows. I always had a rock. I didn’t even use the little grinder, scribertool. That’s cool but in terms of not being caught with a pocketful of utensils or whatever, the best thing is to find a small rock with a sharp side to it right before you get on the bus and when you’re done with it you just chuck it. But basically it’s just from scribing windows and wanting to do it really fast and if you stop and start too much it will look funky.
Was there anyone at that time that was innovating with those styles?
I learned a lot from the way people wrote at Embarcadero. Those styles and the letters my friend taught me. The basic letters I learned came from that graffiti alphabet he gave me. The big crew that he jocked was ARM, Always Rocking Munis, in SF. I’m sure they’re still around. That’s one of the longest running San Francisco bus tagging crews. They go back to the 80’s.
So he gave me this alphabet and how these letters worked, basic technique on how to put them together and you practiced that. With the alphabet you could take anything and make it look cool to the point you’re writing a whole letter in just graffiti letters, you know?
Then I went to San Francisco and found myself riding these buses with actual San Francisco writers and seeing how they do it. We’d be on the bus at nine o’clock at night going wherever we’re going and all of the sudden all five of us bust out ultras and just start getting up all over the freaking bus and the bus driver isn’t going to do anything about it and we’d just get off it and skate away. Sometimes we’d get on the bus and there’s a big stack of transfers and we’d just grab the whole stack and say, “thanks” and we wouldn’t have to pay for the bus for the rest of the day.
Who was up a lot in the peninsula at that time?
In the early 90’s I would take the bus all up and down the peninsula meeting skaters and checking out their spots. Then I went to Embarcadero, got into graffiti, came back, and started going more often to Stanford. Stanford was a great skate spot back then. No one would bust you. We’d just hang out there all day long and skate. It was sort of a hub for skaters, punks, and graffiti dudes from all along the peninsula. Palo Alto’s basically ORFN’s turf and being up all around there going down into San Jose even was really impressive. Before ORFN was ORFN he was a huge skater. He had a sponsor me video that had him ollieing and kick flipping sets of ten stairs, doing huge handrails, and all this stuff. Guys in Palo Alto were really into the LORD’s crew from San Jose, but their letters are kinda different. I remember my friend was like, “Those are toy letters,” but I was like, “No, no they’re just different.” He wanted me to write like the San Francisco guys write, not to do all this crazy stuff the San Jose guys were doing. That was the attitude, but I’d go to San Jose too. I was trying to go all city from San Jose to San Francisco and up and down the peninsula. But yeah, they had different styles that mixed in the South Bay stuff too. South Bay stuff was pretty cool. ORFN was absorbing a lot of San Jose styles.
I had a friend named TSK who moved to New York and wrote PACMAN and he is a long time graffiti writer. He started in ’92 or ’93 and he still writes graffiti. I don’t know if people know ORFN’s story but he really was adopted. That was kind of part of his thing. I went to his house back then to ride this mini ramp he made and he had a bag with at least 300 Sakura streakers, ha-ha.
He has a fetish for every little utensil. He’s collected everything. So I went to his house and he had packages of every type of sticker you’d ever want to use and some you wouldn’t want to use, every type of rare ink from Marsh Ink to regular ink. huge bottles of it. There was Marsh and there was another one that if you got it on your hands it’d give you cancer or something. But yeah it was a huge supply of stuff. I was pretty impressed.
It was weird going to Stanford as a high school kid. I felt very privileged. I was hanging out with people getting their PhD’s and shit. There were some cool skaters going to Stanford. We ended up learning a lot of cool things from them. One I remember was Magic Dollar. Ever heard of it?
No, what is it?
Magic Dollar kinda ties into ORFN having those 300 streakers. We didn’t have money for that stuff. Magic Dollar was a trend that lasted about two years, between ’92, ’93 and maybe ’94. You take clear packing tape and you put it on the edge of a dollar bill in a certain way. You’d find these old Pepsi machines, put the dollar in, the machine would take it, register it and start to suck it in. But if you held down the change button and pulled the dollar out, instead of Pepsi you’d get four quarters. It just made perfect change for your dollar. We’d have special missions at night where we’d go out and A. Drain machines and B. Do tons of graffiti along the way. Not trying to draw attention to those spots. Stupid kids started tagging on the machines, I never did. Actually, I did do that a few times but I realized that it wasn’t good. So we’d go on those missions and sometimes come back with $80-$100 in quarters. If we went out together we’d have to split it evenly. We’d also have a backpack full of sodas, Amos cookies and potato chips.
Sounds like a teenage wet dream to me.
It was a teenage wet dream. There was also ‘salting’ the machines, but I’ll leave that to your imagination. So after bombing we’d come back to the crib and in my room I had 100 cans of every type of soda and a bag of every type of snack from the snack machine. I had to hide that shit from my parents ha-ha. In the city if you go to an arts and crafts store there’s no way you’re gonna steal anything from there. That fantasy got played out a long time ago. But in the suburbs it was ripe for the picking. You go to any of those arts and crafts stores and they’d all have pilot ink and ultras! All the clear Krylons had phantom caps. After a while you couldn’t even find a phantom cap on a clear can of Krylon because so many graffiti writers had stolen them. There was also a type of shoe polish that had fat caps on them. I remember towards the late 90’s I went with some friends to Home Depot and we just loaded up a shopping cart almost to the brim with not just cans but full boxes of Rustolem and just walked right out the store. I don't advocate that shit at that level, but Magic Dollar was just a great excuse to ride on the bus or drive around from Palo Alto to San Jose and just explore. We’d just be rocking tags and collecting money.
It got played out though. It also worked on Bart tickets. You could get $20 or $30 from a Bart ticket dispenser but there were cameras and I heard some pretty crazy stories about people getting in trouble for that stuff. I just wanted to mention it because you were asking about how things have evolved in Palo Alto. We met people that knew the same tricks we did and we’d go out together. I knew a lot of people where we all skated, we all did graffiti and we all knew these little tricks.
When I hear you talking about hiding tags or saying it’s not cool to tag on soda machines your ripping off it seems like you had a way different way of looking at graffiti then most. Where do you think that came from?
My perception of graffiti is you gotta have an eye for spots, and respect certain things if you care about longevity. You gotta look at a spot and go, “How stoked would I be if I saw such-and-such writer on that spot?” The difference between what makes a toy a toy and a good writer a good writer is courage. You see a tag on a spot and there are two schools of thought: First is, God damn that took balls, that’s brave to get your tag on that spot. Wow. Then there’s also, wow, clever. You can do a tag on a bus window and it’s not hard to do but you think, “Oh wow, he scratched his name into that window and it’s going to last a long time and people are going to see that.” So there are a lot of people that think, “BOOM, I’m up on El Camino, I’m up on a billboard, I’m up on the side of a bus, I’m up on a train or whatever.” Those are huge adrenaline rushes but as you go from spot to spot you stay in action by doing the cutty tags you’re talking about. Why waste those tags too? Not every tag is going to be a blockbuster. I love seeing pole tags because I’d see other guys that had tagged there from ten years ago. I wanted to be the guy people saw in ten years. They’d see how I did that and hopefully they wouldn’t write their tag right next to mine. They’d find their own cool spot that’s similar but not mine. Yeah, poles, power boxes, rusty things. You see rust on the back of a sign you know if you write on that no one is ever going to clean it.
Was there a person that started doing it first or something that inspired everyone?
It just evolved. People that do graffiti, the psychological aspect is, “I wanna do my graffiti and have it be seen!” So they’re not looking at the little stuff because they don’t think people look at that, but it can be more personal. They want to run to the biggest stage and go, “TADA!” But yeah it was just an evolution; I can’t say any one person started doing it.
If you walk down the street and you’re a basic writer you bomb the place, in two weeks it’s gone. What a waste. You can walk down Mission Street and not even bring spray paint. Just have streakers and hit all the tiny little pieces of metal and that stuff could last a long time.
Do you think it started in the city or the suburbs?
I think it started in the city. In the city when people write on stuff they let nothing go to waste. If you go to 16th and mission, I used to go there a lot for punk rock shows, you look underneath an awning and on this green cloth on the inside of the thing would be covered in streaker tags or silver paint pens. Of course I give the city credit for that but then you go back to the burbs and there’s no scarcity of things to get your tag on. If you treat it like that, if it keeps spreading, that back of that green awning, to me that’s pure gold. I can’t even find a rusty pole in San Francisco that I would be the only tag on. But go to San Mateo and I’m gonna be the king of that stuff. Ha-ha. But there was no one else even trying to do that in ‘92, you know?
Besides you ORFN and REVRS who were some of the main people getting up at that time?
Okay, some of the guys that blew my mind at that time, people that I didn’t know how they got some of the spots they did, guys that were constantly up on the huge freeway overhangs would be MYK and JUL of TMC. They had the most mind blowing spots consistently up along the freeway. If I got up on one of those spots it would take me all night to figure out how to get up there and I’d spend the whole night just to get that spot. They would do that stuff like it was no thing.
In no particular order, some I mentioned before, the DANK DADDIES and BFR in Redwood City, with MERG, WPN, STNKWEED (RIP) who played in bands like Plutocracy, No Less, and the Riff Merchants, other Redwood City and San Carlos guys like XMAS, EONS who played guitar in Spazz, OARSE and his ACP crew, KEGS, CERT ONE who played all sorts of hardcore bands like Living War Room, Sheep Squeeze, Lost Ground, and many others, KODE, REVERS, CYME, RENOS, and the HTK crew, BUSY, JADE (RIP), DISCO, JOSHY, AMAZE, and the OPM crew from Millbrae and Burlingame, old school guys like ASSUME, XMAS, NEVR, and STACK US. The little baby crews we created when first starting out like UGT (Unstoppable Groove Threat from the magic dollar thing), DOH (Dukes of Hazard), and its GLUE and WAIF tags, ZIMA US, a writer friend of ours who was a girl and totally crushed, ZINE US, and BRACE IBC, who moved to Belmont and went to the same high school as me, TSK and TORE from San Jo that got up everywhere between there and Palo Alto. Plus whoever else I forgot, you know who you are!
Any concluding thoughts or comments?
Yeah, for me graffiti was a solo trip. Not something I did to conform or be part of a group. In fact, those groups didn’t even exist when I started and the only way I knew most other graffiti writers was through their work on the streets. That’s where I felt the connection. Like I never met UB40 in person, but every time I encountered one of his tags in the middle of nowhere that was him putting his money where his mouth was or whatever and that impressed me. It wasn’t like I was just sitting around a coffee shop wearing baggy pants, smoking cloves, and doing pieces in black books all day trying to meet girls. For me, it was like I purposely did graffiti to be rebellious and to create my own identity and to not fit in with most of my peers. At our high school you were either a gangster, a jock, or like a rich preppie kid that drove their parents BMW to school, or like a rich preppie jock that pretended to be a gangster. The only things I was into, going back to when I lived in Texas, were skateboarding, bmx, and punk rock. One time after bleaching my hair, I dyed it by soaking it in green pilot ink and just went to school and said nothing about it. It was cool I guess that after a few years ofrunning around at night by myself with a backpack full of paint, getting in trouble all the time, that it became sort of popular. That in time being a graffiti kid in school would be as acceptable as being a gangster or jock or whatever. That girls would even become writers, though mostly just to hook up with graffiti dudes. But I would have never gotten into it if was popular or ‘cool’ in the first place. That was the whole point of it for me in the first place. If I was going to be a freak and not fit in at school, I might as well take it to the next level and transform it into some type of art, that’s all.