Graffiti writing (image courtesy Stefano Bloch)

A recent cover of the New Yorker by Kadir Nelson, titled “Art Connoisseurs,” depicts two stylish art viewers pausing on a sidewalk, art magazine and wine glass in hand, admiring a colorful splash of graffiti on the side of a brick building. According to an online New Yorker piece, “Nelson developed his own tag for the image.” There’s nothing shocking anymore in looking at so-called graffiti as fine art, but tags aren’t generally what come to mind, at least to me. Like many outside the graffiti subculture, I’ve conflated graffiti — usually lettering, always illegal — with street art, usually figurative and these days often sanctioned by an owner or community. Which is why, when I began Stefano Bloch’s Going All City: Struggle and Survival in LA’s Graffiti Subculture (University of Chicago Press), I expected a West Coast version of Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring, about artists who made their talented way from the street to galleries.

Going All City: Struggle and Survival in LA’s Graffiti Subculture by Stefano Bloch, published by University of Chicago Press

But Bloch’s story couldn’t be more different. For one thing, while his author bio calls him “a semi-retired graffiti writer” — meaning he throws up his tag on unsanctioned public spaces — he’s also an assistant professor in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. As much academic as artist, Bloch has written a memoir that reflects both his life on the streets and as a scholar.

“Graffiti is everywhere,” he writes, “especially if you are paying attention.” Bloch, it seems, was always paying attention, even as a young kid raised by a heroin addict mother, with an absent father who died from AIDS, and a volatile stepfather who was in and out of prison. And as a professor of geography and ethnography, Bloch practically has a PhD in paying attention, to urban landscapes and the people who inhabit them. All this is invaluable to a story filled people and places mostly absent from popular culture. From stealing CDs and car parts, to police putting a gun to his head while playing in an arcade, to getting hit by a car while racing across the freeway while tagging, to skipping the hospital for injured undocumented friends, Bloch’s stories are gritty and violent, but also matter-of-fact. He writes, “Many of my stories may appear outlandish to some readers who have not experienced the complexity, incongruity, violence, and madness of being poor and disobedient.”

Large Cisco tag on wall (image courtesy Stefano Bloch)

Going All City is that rarest text, both a gripping memoir of life on the street, as well as an academic treatise, complete with scholarly endnotes. There’s no sleight of hand — the first endnote occurs on page one — and the casual reader and academic alike should enjoy the ride, and will likely learn a lot. Bloch’s story is personal, but also a primer on graffiti’s history and technique, as well as its artistic and social import. His descriptions of deploying spray paint are particularly poetic:

You have to use your whole body to make your letters proportionate and stylistically coherent, your pointer finger maintaining the perfect pressure to avoid an inconsistent flow of paint, the arm opposite your writing hand extended as counterbalance, your legs spread slightly more narrowly than shoulder width for stability, your knees bent just enough to allow you to move vertically through each letter, and your weight over the balls of your feet to allow you to move smoothly along the wall horizontally, all while relying on your hearing and peripheral vision as you watch out for possible gangsters, cops, or heroes who want to stop you, jail you, kill you.

Stefano Bloch (photo by Maria Celis)

Like many poor families, Bloch’s moved regularly, whether from evictions, windfalls, or his stepfather’s periodic homecomings before leaving for jail again. His story mostly takes place in ’90s Los Angeles, where Block discovered graffiti writing and blanketed the city with the tag “Cisco,” a name that, like much of his childhood, reflects both Bloch’s innocence and lack of it: “’Cisco’ is a nickname some friends at school gave me after I told them I had downed an entire bottle of Cisco, a highly fortified wine that some called ‘liquid crack.’ I was lying, but the name stuck.”

By age 16, Cisco had achieved coveted all-city status, meaning his tag could be seen and recognized across Los Angeles — no easy feat for a kid without a car in a sprawling city with complicated public transportation and dangerous gangs patrolling and controlling neighborhood boundaries. Though, as Bloch’s memoir amply demonstrates, there was at least as much danger to graffiti writers from the LAPD as rival gangs. That Bloch lost friends and family to violence, and to jails, isn’t surprising. That he got out of Los Angeles intact, and in school, is.

Cisco tag on electrical box (image courtesy Stefano Boch)

Bloch left high school without graduating after he was, ironically, falsely accused of writing on a bathroom wall. But after years of him tagging college campuses across Los Angeles, from USC and UCLA to Cal Northridge and nearly a dozen community colleges, their pristine spaces appealed to him. When at age 18 he could attend community college without a high school diploma, he enrolled at Los Angeles Valley College and embraced higher education. For his BA degree, he chose Santa Cruz because its leafy location wouldn’t tempt him to go out writing.

In 2001, after graduating from UC Santa Cruz — with academic prize money in his pocket — he returned to Los Angeles, where “graffiti had been rebranded as ‘street art’ and, at least for me, had lost some of its allure.” Writing, at least on walls, became mostly (though not entirely) a thing of the past.

Tagging, Bloch reveals, is no different from any other kind of writing, a way of saying: I am here. See me. Graffiti writing is insistent. We may not always want to know who else we share our plot of earth with, but after reading Going All City it’s much harder to look away.

Going All City: Struggle and Survival in LA’s Graffiti Subculture by Stefano Bloch is now out from University of Chicago Press.

Bridget Quinn is a writer, critic and art historian living in San Francisco. She’s the author of She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next, illustrated by 100 women artists, and Broad...