Treefort 2017: Los Angeles Artist Prime Shows His Letters at MING Studios 

click to enlarge - Los Angeles-based artist Prime came to Boise for Treefort Music Fest. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Los Angeles-based artist Prime came to Boise for Treefort Music Fest.
Jose Reza pulled up his right shirtsleeve, revealing long scars from gunshot wounds he sustained as a tagger in Los Angeles. His right hand, where he holds his paint brush, is still weaker than his left.

"They're warning shots," Reza said of the street art he has spent his life making in L.A.'s Latino neighborhoods. "It's not meant for you guys. They're meant for people who are in this gang."

Reza signs his work as "Prime" and is widely hailed as a pioneer of the stylized graffiti lettering that emerged in Los Angeles in the 1980s. He is one of the subjects of a documentary, Dark Progressivism, which screened March 24 at Filmfort. The film tells the stories of the artists and events that shaped the L.A. street art scene, including the gang violence that inspired—and often killed or wounded—taggers and artists like Reza.

The next afternoon, he was at MING Studios with sheets of paper, brushes and Sumi ink, demonstrating his skills before a small crowd.

The work of Angeleno graffiti artists began attracting the attention of fine arts organizations in the mid-2000s, and Prime's work first appeared in the Art in the Streets exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2011. Since then, his work has been exhibited almost a dozen times and archived by the Getty Research Institute.

According to scholars, Prime is one of the most important innovators within his movement, with his 1985 "battle piece" for K2S crew versus WCA crew being called "arguably the single most influential piece in the establishment of L.A. style" by Steve Grody in his 2006 study, Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art.

Recognition as an artist didn't come naturally to Reza, whose designs and lettering grew out of the City of Angels' gang culture and tagging wars of the 1980s and '90s. Where critics have seen in his work economy of line and an inventive style, Reza said his early tags and graffiti were markers in endless turf wars between gangs.

"Most of these things consist of roll calls of the people who were there," he said.

When he was first approached by the Getty Research Institute, he was mistrustful.

"I didn't know what the Getty was," Reza said. "Maybe they were going to try to arrest us."

When Reza put brush to paper at MING, he showed his mastery of the medium. Before making his first stroke, he would run his hands over the paper, surveying the flat, white landscape. Brush in hand, he ran the instrument through the air, sizing up his first line like a wrestler sizing up an opponent.

Pressing the bristles into the paper, he created runes in short, smooth strokes, fascinated by the shapes coming to life in front of him.

"I could do this all day," he said.
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