Published on September 7th, 2015 | by gatsbyadmin


RISK! “Old Habits Die Hard”

RISK has always been about taking risks. What kind? Whatcha got? Street Art? A blank wall, bus, or train car? To quote the title of RISK’s new beautifully illustrated hardcover memoir, “Old Habits Die Hard”, there is no risk too great for this legendary artist.

New Orleans’ French Quarter was where the Strip Club and Bar, “Wolf Girl” stood, until it sadly burned down. When it was reopened, now called “Kelly’s”, it was simply a bar. 1967 was when the Owner’s newly born Grandson was named “Kelly,” after their Louisiana Restaurant and Bar.
Kelly Graval’s parents divorced when he was very young, causing him to be shuffled around from Mom to Dad to Grandma to Dad to Grandpa, and on, and on…as goes the lifestyle of many children of divorce.


New Orleans was also where the “Bucktown Bad Asses,” a local gang affiliated with the band “The Dukes” called home. Kelly’s Uncle took gallons and gallons of white paint, mops, and wrote “BUCKTOWN” across the 17th Street Bridge. This was the first real piece of graffiti in The Big Easy, above the direct road into town. You could not miss it. This visual and the awe of seeing the bright white “BUCKTOWN” is something that stayed in Kelly’s head forever, and still is. This was the first “graffiti” he had seen, and one of his rough and tumble Uncles was the artist. Foreshadowing? Perhaps.

The first bit of painting that Kelly got into was really a byproduct of his new obsession: BMX Bicycling, and stealing other kids’ bikes. Since most of these bikes were stolen from other schools, he would take them home, and spray paint them to look different. This was the beginning of a decades long artistic venture.


Eventually, his Mother told him he would be visiting his Father. This visit was really a move to Lake Tahoe, CA from New Orleans, LA in 1979 to a home where crystals dangled from the ceiling, incense filled the air, and beads were everywhere. Kelly took to being a “Hippie” very quickly, which surprised him. Marijuana smoke filled the air, and between his Grandfathers, Father, and Uncles, he was learning the “Old School Tenets,” like, his Father’s classic, “Never bring Cops back to the house! Always go to the station!!” and “Blood is thicker than water.”

BMX in the snow is not as easy as one may think, however, snow skiing certainly is, and within weeks, Kelly forgot about BMX & was on the Ski Team at his High School. He was a natural & naturally, became obsessed.  While a teenager in Lake Tahoe, skiing, and going to school, a new obsession was beginning to bubble up. Kelly had become friends with Christian Love, also known as the son of Mike Love, “The Beach Boys” lead singer. The two spent countless hours together, with Christian regaling Kelly with his tales of the “new” extreme sport that was becoming something to talk about in the SoCal neighborhoods, and to either get good at, or get laughed at, called skateboarding. Christian gave him his very first skateboard deck, and this was a game changer. It was now all skateboarding, all the time.


In 8th grade, at about 14 years old, it was time to move yet again. Manhattan Beach sounded perfect to his father. This wasn’t really much of a problem since surfing had become the new obsession, replacing skateboarding for the time being, which had replaced BMX Biking.
It was all so exciting. Was it really true? The constant sun, the beach bunnies, the rumors that you could be in the water before and after school. Everyday? No brainer! Just ditch school and go surfing. Why wouldn’t that appeal to a risk taking teen who was ready to just have a good time?

Moving to Beverly Glen, a sleepy, hillside canyon suburb of Los Angeles just over the hill from Beverly Hills, and out of their school district, University High School was the first place he was asked, “What do you write? What’s your tag?”
That day, Kelly stole two cans of paint, and in 1983 painted “SURF” on a building at “Uni High.” Kelly gathered some other surfer friends together, and began PRIME CRIME ARTISTS (PCA). The fledgling group wasted no time in covering Venice Beach with “Venice Locals,” and “ST” in reference to their friend’s band, Suicidal Tendencies. Venice Beach was a place where the East-West Coasts could be together, vibing, painting, & creating.
After some time, Kelly became a suspect in the massive increase in SURF being written all over Uni High and Venice Beach. To throw the suspicion, it was time to change his name. Being SURF was great, but it wasn’t edgy enough for Kelly…enter RISK!


BLUE LINE Los Angeles Metro Tunnels
The Blue Line of the Los Angeles Metro Light Rail System was a godsend for street artists. This Line runs from Downtown Los Angeles, south straight into Long Beach, CA. The ability to be painting walls in Watts and South Central simultaneously was a dream now realized, nightly. Pretending to be workers and going back night after night, construction on the tunnel allowed even further access into completely inaccessible areas. If you rode the Blue Line in 1990, chances are that you could not have missed seeing the bright and vibrant pieces of eye-catching art all along the tunnels and walls.

RED LINE Los Angeles Metro Tunnels
1991 saw the construction of the Red Line through Los Angeles. Crews began tagging train cars, however the paint would be stripped and re-painted by morning. The LA Metropolitan Transit Authority was catching on. The artists couldn’t even get pictures of their own artwork, they were being taken down and cleaned so quickly. Eventually, a few Senior Transit Detectives showed up at RISK’s door. It’s not completely clear how this conversation went, but it was something along the lines of “Leave the Red Line alone, don’t paint these brand new trains or anything related to the beautiful LA transit system, and we’ll forget that we have photo albums of planes, trains, and automobiles covered in your name. For years.”

RISK barely graduated from University High with the aid of certain art teachers recognizing his talent and vouching for him, and he attended as a scholarship recipient to the prestigious University of Southern California majoring in fine arts. This is where the kid with spray paint stained fingerprints learned about the premises of contrasting colors, concepts such as the artistic “pyramid theory,” and translated these basic art class rules into his edgy graffiti art, and the result was magical, making his technique sharper than ever before.

When the Dean of Arts at USC asked him to paint the roof of the Art building, RISK enlisted his colleague MEAR, to help him paint Tommy Trojan in bright and vivid school colors. The buzz on campus was overwhelming, so naturally, the Dean wanted to see it, and was completely amazed. It was beautiful and exactly as she had hoped they would deliver: something to show some USC School Spirit!
When she asked what they used to make this piece and was told it was spray paint, her immediate reaction was, “Oh, we can’t have that. That’s anarchy. Paint over it.” This exchange is what ultimately became the last straw for RISK. He intuitively knew where his skills lay, and these people, with the exception of a few art teachers, were just never going to understand his artistic vision. With only a handful of credits left to graduate from this highly respected institution, he found himself vacillating about whether to return to complete his degree. Anyone with eyes can see the talent which cannot be taught in his artwork. He obviously had mad artistic skills to begin with, but USC did help him refine and understand art techniques that he still uses today.

The Yards
Abandoned yards of all kinds littered 1980’s Los Angeles, and also served as the ultimate classroom during this time. There were unpainted and unsecured walls for as far as you could see. “The Motor Yard” off Motor Ave saw RISK doing hours and days of experimenting with the concepts he had previously studied at USC. These yards were also brutal at times with fights seeing someone shove a metal pipe up another person’s ass, for example. The Belmont Yard is the first place RISK was shot at. The Motor Yard was the most comfortable to be at according to RISK. He still carried a gun, an shot at an abandoned VW Bug sometimes, but never really caused problems validating a street solution. Except for once. PURE came screeching through the yard asking RISK, “Where’s JA at??” RISK didn’t realize he had been shot in the leg until he was already well over the wall, and sprinting away, utilizing his adrenaline’s super human strength, as you do when being shot at.

Back in the day, Michael Jackson was known for being the baby brother of the Jackson 5 and was doing everything he could to break out of his childhood image as the “cute kid that could sing & dance.” Everywhere he looked for edgy art to give a street cred vibe to his image and music videos, and he repeatedly saw the name RISK!  Why not go to the source? If “RISK” is what was being seen and talked about, then this would just add to the realness of the look he was going for in his videos. This led to years of collaboration giving Michael’s videos a look that only RISK could envision and bring Michael’s creative ideas to life on the little known startup cable channel MTV. The background sets seen in Michael Jackson’s music videos show the real impact of street culture graffiti as it was becoming a mainstream and “respected” form of art, now shown in gallery collections and beautiful hardcover coffee table books! Beginning with Billie Jean (1982), Beat It (1982), The Way You Make Me Feel (1987), and culminating with Black or White (1993). RISK went to work on movies like “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), and many more music videos for The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and rappers like Ice Cube’s “Who’s the Mack?” (1990). He does say that his favorite music video to work on was Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

In 1989, RISK was part of a gallery show called “Third Rail.” The name always struck a chord with him, as “Third Rail is the rail system that conducts the electricity that runs the subway system.” The name evoked an element of danger and high energy, the core concepts of his artistic vision. After over a decade of creating artwork and drawings on the side, RISK realized he had enough designs to start creating clothing using his designs. For 16 years, Third Rail Clothing was prominently featured in photoshoots, magazines, music videos, and seen on celebrities from all genres of the entertainment industry.

In 2006, after nearly a decade of the challenges of managing a clothing company, he painted a storage container as a birthday present for one of his four daughters, relighting the fire inside of him that still burned for street art. RISK still belongs to both AWR and MSK Crews. Recently, he traveled to Barcelona, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and all over the world with The Seventh Letter.

RISK’s first solo gallery show was in December 2008 at “Track 16 Gallery” in Santa Monica, Ca. The title of the show was “Twenty-Six,” representing how many years he had been writing at that point, and coincides with the 26 letters of the alphabet. A completely different  take on every letter was painted, and to look at each letter is to see a unique picture. It really is a stunning take on something so simple. Letters. 26 of them. Beautifully written, mounted, hung, and admired by the art world. Not quite the same as the overpasses of New Orleans, or the retaining walls of the 101 Freeway, but still evoking similar feelings.
The Seventh Letter embarked on their “The Seventh Letter Korea Tour” to the R-16 World Urban Street Competition. RISK also traveled to Barcelona, Spain to paint murals around the city. was created to feature his EXTENSIVE catalog of canvases, and also an online store where his art is available for purchase. His art studio contains over 3,000 cans of paint, canvas for days, forklifts, and two industrial car lifts. You just never know what equipment you will need. Don’t forget your respirator!

RISK looks at destruction and sees the potential for beauty. The neighborhoods and streets that were known as “scary, don’t go that way,” are now splashed with welcoming color and eye catching visuals, inviting neighborhood pride and fomenting gentrification. The Beautifully Destroyed Concept has been exhibited at Art Basel in Miami, and led to multiple collaborations with the celebrated artist Sheperd Fairy. Paris, Detroit, and many other cities worldwide have seen his work brightening their neighborhoods, often anonymously under cover of darkness without being credited, which is a significant part of the RISK!

This past July 2015, RISK worked with Special Olympics athlete Michael Bluechel on a mural for The World Games using Microsoft’s new app, “Fresh Paint.” The times, they are ‘a changin’, and now anyone can paint spectacular pieces of art, digitally.
There is also a beautiful new mural on the wall of The Eco Station in Culver City, a hands-on museum caring for abandoned and at-risk wildlife, mostly exotic. The Eco Station also works with educational outreach programs an with over 40 California school districts.

RISK’s use of color is striking, always. Sometimes the colors are “Icy Grape Purple,” or “Tropical Magenta,” and they always fit together just as they should.
Using the background as the canvas is innovative for any artist, let alone one whom is hanging off overpasses, and crawling through tunnels.
The traffic in Los Angeles is never fun in any way. There is really no way to make that drive become what you would consider, “A grand time whilst riding in the car.” Then when you pass the Mulholland Drive overpass to read RISK! on the 405 freeway, one of, if not the largest freeways in Southern California, will bring a smile to the most disgruntled commuter.
When you see graffiti, sometimes you’re led to think, “How in the….you’d need a ladder…how’d he get up there?!” There’s just so much RISK involved.


Written by: Courtney Gilmore @ogofcbd

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