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. Let's sit back and hear what MARVL saw.
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.
This interview will be concluded in PART 2! Stay Tuned!