Cristian "Smear" Gheorghiu: My SoCal Art History

The history of art in Southern California isn't linear; it is a fluid, multi-angled continuum made from the personal experiences of many artists from myriad backgrounds. So to trace the trajectory of Southern California art, Artbound is creating a collective timeline comprised of the decisive events that shaped artists' creative development. We hope that in the space between these personal histories, an impressionistic view of Southern California's art history will come into focus.

Today we talk to Los Angeles artist Cristian "Smear" Gheorghiu.

Cristian "Smear" Gheorghiu.

Cholo Writing

Why was Cholo writing so influential to you?

Cholo writing is the earliest form of Graffiti or vandalism I can remember seeing on the walls growing up in my neighborhood of East Hollywood, which is near the Melrose and Western/Vermont area. I would see it up on all the walls while walking to and from school or to the store with my parents. There wasn't really, for lack of a better term, "hip hop graffiti" at that time. It didn't really take hold yet in L.A. like it would later on. That was the first kind of graffiti I would see and I was enthralled by it. It just captured my imagination, I was like, what it is this? What does it mean? Why is it here? I had a feeling that it had sinister overtones to it but I just wasn't quite sure. I just thought it was interesting, the really rough angles to it. Cholo writing implanted the little seed into my psyche growing up and took root and influenced me later on when I started doing graffiti myself.

Photo: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library archives.
Photo: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library archives.

When did you find out what Cholo writing meant?

It didn't take me all that long to find out who did it and what it meant. I quickly lost the romantic notions I had made up in my mind about it when I found out what was really behind it, the whole gang thing. But that still didn't take away from the power of the actual writing on the wall. I was still in elementary school when I figured out what it all meant. l started seeing the guys doing it on the streets, hanging out, drinking. You'd see people sitting there doing heroin on the sidewalk just sitting on the curb like it was no big deal, that kind of stuff. But like I said, it was the writing that stuck with me and metastasized in my mind. And then when this whole hip hop graffiti started taking hold, it gave me the key to the door of writing on walls without having to deal with all of that gang stuff. I can do just the writing, thank you, you can keep the other stuff.

The history of graffiti in Southern California can be traced to the 1940s. What do you think all of this meant for L.A.?

Even before the advent of spray paint in the L.A. River, there were parts under the bridges where zoot suiters or pachucos would get sticks and tar and write their neighborhoods on the walls. Graffiti has been going on in L.A. since forever. For instance, I've seen an old picture of Jim Morrison from the Doors at the beach and on the wall behind him in the 60s there is all of this spray paint and gang graffiti. This was way before it blew up in Philly and New York. Graffiti has been going on in Southern California and even Texas and a lot of Southwestern states for a lot longer than it has on the East Coast.


Who was the graffiti artist Chaka and how did he influence you?

When I was a teenager, Chaka's name was on everything. His style was really plain and easy to read - your grandma could read it. This guy's name was on everything from San Francisco to Los Angeles: shutters, utility boxes, walls, poles, buses. Basically wherever your eye would rest to focus the name was there. His crew mates knew who he was but people at large didn't know. He was this mystery. Especially for a 14-year-old kid, you're not going to be in the 'in crowd', so it was like magic to you. How does this guy do it? Does he sleep? You're just starting to wonder all these things.

Chaka's signature in Los Angeles. | Photo: Anarchosyn /Flickr/Creative Commons License

And then the shadow was revealed in 1991 when he was arrested. He was this kid. His arrest really left an impression on me. It was really serious because at that point graffiti had never been in your face. You saw it on the streets, in the corners, on the walls, but as far as for the public at large, the media had never really acknowledged it the way they did until Danny Ramos, a.k.a. Chaka, got arrested. I was about 14 years old, standing around watching news with my parents. Suddenly they show the video of how the police tricked him and lured him into admitting who he was. They asked, "Hey, what are you doing over there?" with their hidden cameras. He went up there and pointed at his graffiti and then it was just everywhere. It was like wildfire. Everyone was talking about it and wanted to do graffiti. It was big especially for an urban kid seeing this. It made you feel like you could have a voice too. You could make a big impact. Chaka is an L.A. graffiti legend even to this day.

Cause of Insanity Crew (COI)

What impression did the graffiti crew Cause of Insanity leave on you?

The Cause of Insanity crew (COI) was a crew that started in the late 80s, but in the 90s I started really taking notice of them. There was one guy in the crew, Oiler, who, in my opinion, was even more amazing than Chaka. He did it longer than Chaka since Chaka got arrested and couldn't write anymore. Other guys in the crew like Man and Vile were really talented artists. The murals were amazing, especially for that time.

My friend's older brother Sweat was from the COI crew. He's actually the one that gave me the name Smear. He used to be Smear before I was, but then he had a run in with a guy from one of his other crews that wrote Swear. He wasn't just from COI, he was from other crews as well. This guy from his other crew had the name Swear and they had a little meeting about it and he ended up punching him and he came home and asked me if I wanted the name Smear, and I took it. That is another reason the COI crew had such an impact on me. I got my name from a member of the COI crew and these guys are still going strong. The guys that were doing the amazing murals, they've gotten even more amazing as the years progressed. Their work is just untouchable. Their technique and shading, their own personal touches, you can tell they just evolve. It is amazing, just like real craftsmanship. They are at the pinnacle. Man One now has a gallery called Crewest in Downtown L.A. It is one of the first and oldest street art graffiti galleries in L.A.

Martha Cooper's "Subway Art"

Why was the publication of Martha Cooper's seminal graffiti book "Subway Art" in 1984 so significant?

Martha Cooper's book, "Subway Art," spread the graffiti gospel from East Coast to basically the world. It was seminal. The first of its kind. It was the first legitimate tome with the graffiti subculture in it. It was basically a step-by-step handbook. It showed the styles, it showed you the meaning, the glossary with the words - even had the techniques. It just encompassed everything. It made graffiti spread like wildfire. If you could point at any one thing and say this blew graffiti up, this would be it.

'Subway Art' by Martha Cooper at Collectors Confab at Chronicle Books, San Francisco. 2009. | Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Has there been a Southern California counterpart to that?

An equivalent could be "History of L.A. Graffiti" by Robert Alva & Robert Reiling. There is also a book called "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art" coming out in the fall by a professor at Azusa Pacific University. The book is like Martha Cooper's but because he is an art professor it will be more academic.

Basquait Exhibit at MOCA

How did the Basquait exhibit at MOCA influence you?

The Basquiat exhibit in 2005 at MOCA Grand Avenue was really influential to me because at that point I was starting to paint after doing stuff on the street. I was moving on to painting on canvas and I wasn't really that committed to it yet. I was just kind of dabbling and screwing around and when I went to see that show, all of his work in one place, it was overwhelming. It was like a real eye opener. I saw the show about six or seven times. I went back and tried to soak as much of it in as possible because there was so much stuff and his work is so layered. There is so much to it that even one piece would be hard to to soak in.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 'Six Crimee'. | Photo: Meowius/Flickr/Creative Commons License

What was it exactly that was so intriguing? Was it that he took street art and put it in a different context?

He took the street language off the streets and still kept its essence and put it on canvas and it was fine art. But it also had the naive spirit to it. You could tell he had no real schooling. He studied Picasso and all these guys but he took it in, digested it, chewed it up, and spit it back out in his own way. But his was really raw. His signature was unseen. You could just tell there was some honesty and purity to it. A lot of other artists, you can tell they are just going through the motions or fronting or posturing. You could just see some real honesty that strikes a subconscious chord. It just hits you at some spot where a lot of other artists won't hit you. For instance, I don't really like Dali. I just think his stuff is contrived and phony but with this dude's stuff you could just tell that there was no bull. It was just pure and honest.

What really hooked me about his work and I'm sure a lot of other artists in L.A. and around the world was that you could do it. You could put the ingredients together, it may not look as good as him because he had the intuitive way of doing his work, but you didn't have to go to school for it. You could just start doing it, keep working at it until you have your language down too. You built it up. You fed it, worked at it but you didn't need that formal training as long as you had something interesting to say, as long as you had an interesting way of communicating it with the canvas. It could be done. It gave me that inspirational push.

L.A.: Street Art Capital of the World

Is L.A. the street art capital of the world?

I'm inclined to think that it probably is. I would go further and say it is the art capital in general and not just for street art. I think L.A. is it right now. It is the spot where things are happening, everyone's eyes are on L.A. at this time. It used to be France, then New York and now boom, it's Los Angeles. I think it's going to be like this for a while. It's the wild wild west. There are so many interesting, strange, insane, traditional, non-traditional things going on over here. It's a stew. This is it. This is the flavor of the world.

L.A. Mural Ordinance

What is the mural ordinance all about?

In 2002 the city came up with a law that said murals on business and private walls are basically like advertisements. So you had to go through all these loops to get a mural approved. It's basically the government and the powers that be saying what should and shouldn't be on a wall. It's basically them trying to curate the walls of the city. In a lot of ways, it is of course a way for them to combat the dreaded scourge of graffiti whether it be legal or illegal, whether it be a tag or some elaborate well-rendered, amazing masterpiece. Even though it is so mainstream, it is still just so wild and uncontrollable and they are afraid of what it represents in a lot of ways and they don't want a lot of other people to get the itch. There is a destructive side to it but at the same time, it is an amazing art form and it's an attainable art form for anybody. It's really easy to express yourself in the medium.

Smear Slap in the Arts District, Downtown L.A. | Photo: John Williams/Flickr/Creative Commons License

How would you describe your work?

My work is basically all the influences I have subconsciously and consciously grown up with: cartoons, all the books I have read, all the documentaries I have watched, all the thoughts I've had, all the feelings I have experienced. I have all that stuff inside of me. We all have all that inside of us and I just let it sit there. It sits there and then when I'm in front of the canvas, I just let the conscious and the subconscious work together and figure something out, let them talk it out and release it onto the canvas.


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