I first came across the fierce wildstyle of Mexican-American graffitera Jerk LA in issue 3 of my favorite grrlz graf mag COP Magazine (buy them!). Months and months later, her work appeared on my Facebook news feed and so I started doing some casual digging (“like” her artist page: www.facebook.com/Jerk.LA213). I found that since she was “managing her mischief” like a BOSS (pardon the HP reference), Jerk’s prolificacy was featured in a 2002 LA Weekly article (a decade old, but highly suggested) by Stephen Lemons.
I messaged her requesting an interview quickly thereafter and it was game on!
For Jerk, the fundamental characteristics of graffiti subculture (i.e. anonymity and mystery) produce a unique kind of artistic cultural space—where (with the use of an androgynous tag name) her artistry can be judged without sexist presumptions about women’s artistry as less than men’s. No room for the offensive and ridiculous “good for a girl” rhetoric here. Below, she shares her experiences with, and navigation of, gang life in Los Angeles, CA, her perspective on neighborhood-based crews, and her determination to always push past her own aesthetic limitations.
Tag and how you settled on the name:
I am JERK. I chose this name for a couple of reason. I liked playing with these letters the most and I did not to give away my gender. I think for the most part since we were all kids on the play ground we’ve all heard “you run like a girl or you this or that like a girl” since then I’ve quickly notice how much society embeds the notion that females are inferior. So because graffiti allows you to exist without a profile picture I choose JERK. The more I learned about the graffiti scene, the more I realized that to keep to myself would allow my graffiti to be judged on the same level as the rest without the “it’s good for a girl” assessment.
I am not a bum; I have a career. I finished high school and later completed schooling for my career. I knew it was important to have a plan b; always. In general, I am a very quiet person, so I spent a lot of time watching and listening to what others were doing and learning from their mistakes. I grew up amongst gang members telling me not to be like them. Watching drugged out people that never left the neighborhoods and never did anything with their lives because they chose to give up control of their life…I mean who really makes a conscience choice to live like that? I think because I kept my eyes and ears open it allowed me not to fall into peer pressure so easily. I guess I’d rather just stand alone, then to follow the crowd.
Crews (If you rep a crew, what are the pros and cons and can you share a bit of the history):
I have represented a few crews in the past. I currently represent Can’t Be Stopped (CBS) crew. CBS has been around since the 80’s and is out of Hollywood. This crew has represented graffiti illegally, but is known more for really pushing can control and creativity, competitiveness amongst each other to produce competed concepts for their legal murals.
I would say every crew essentially starts out with childhood friends and from that you have individuals who are going through the growing up process together. So the dynamic of the crews change throughout time. There are changes in personalities, everyone questions and or comes to the conclusions of what graffiti means to them and what they feel is important to be known for in the graffiti scene. Sometimes everyone moves forward together and sometimes crew members need their space. Every crew offers different things—it’s just about who you get along with the best or if they have what you’re looking for…or sometimes, a crew will scout you out because you have something to offer the graffiti scene.
How would you describe your style?
I wouldn’t really know how to describe my style because I am always trying new things. I like to play with letters a lot. I often get bored doing the same letters or color schemes and composition. I’m sure my style will always look like mine, but I definitely try to change it up and push myself to do better than my last piece, almost as if am in a competition with myself.
Writing for how long and how did you get started?
I started writing as a very young teenager. It was almost a subconscious act. Graffiti is all around us, I grew up seeing graffiti but not thinking it was abnormal, from freeway spots to gang writing. I’ve always had an interest in art in general including fonts. In elementary I took a lot of free after school art classes taking drawing, print making, painting and I was even able to join a figure drawing workshop, which was not offered to everyone unless you fit the age group. So the creative spark was there. I actually started messing around with graffiti from really just walking around the LA River and picking up cans and just starting to tag. Once I started to get some sort of a grasp of what graffiti is, I just took to it naturally. I still make art—some is graffiti related others are not
Graffiti is often spoken about through and alongside the hip hop nation. Is this something you identify with?
Graffiti has long existed before the concept of hip hop formed. I think at the time when graffiti was forming most of the graffiti youth at the time listened to hip hop music so it was a natural unification. I think hip hop as a whole offers a sense of a culture but this is not something I really identify with.
Does your graffiti take on a social message, or primarily is it about style—or both:
If you have longevity in graffiti you’ll find that it begins to evolve as you grow. So for me it’s really both in a way. To me, graffiti will always be about getting up but style is just as important to me as well. When it comes to social messages: sometimes there is one sometimes there is not. Usually I ask myself that when I am thinking about doing a graffiti mural. So it is never solely one meaning or the other.
How do you feel when you see your pieces up?
When is see my graffiti murals or just pieces I did at a yard I always think of what I could of done to make it better, or what I can do to the next one.
How do you feel when you are getting’ up? What emotions do you associate with the act?
There is rush of emotions all at the same time when getting up. There are a lot of elements to consider: late night, cops, gangsters, bums, quiet, lonely streets. With all those things you have the feeling of freedom, adrenalin, not knowing, nervousness, fear and fearlessness.
What does the word “community” mean to you in relation to graffiti culture:
To me community means people that you can relate too. I think this also means the acknowledgements from your peers or fellow graffiti writers in a way. For example, I (as well as many graffiti writers) mutually feel that if you have not covered the illegal part of graffiti you’re not really a graffiti writer.
What do you think is the historical significance of graffiti?
Graffiti has a life of its own, even if graffiti is or is not thought of as a legitimate art form it will always exist. Graffiti offers both sides of the fence: there is the guerilla punk rock side to it and then there is the reformed side of it. It was its way of dipping in and out of the art world. Just like there is a fine and hazy line between fine art and design I think those lines are debatable between fine art and graffiti. I think in my art work is where I sometimes find that challenging. Sometimes my work is graffiti influenced and sometimes not…and sometimes I marry them.
Do you think of yourself as a feminist?
What is feminism to you?
The idea of feminism is like organizations that use their “flaw” as a crutch. Sure sometimes life is not fair. But if you want people to take you serious, you should state facts not emotional statements. If you are good at what you do, or are better than the next, then that should be the argument, to be treated equal.
What does resistance mean to you?
It means to object without reasonable doubt.
What are the characteristics, personalities, or traits that you associate with graffiti writers?
None, specifically because graffiti is for everyone.
What new trends or types of graffiti are you seeing?
Graffiti started in the streets as an illegal form; this is credited to paying your dues. This is the platform to graffiti. The trend now a day is to exploit graffiti without paying your dues. I don’t think there is a problem with people using spray paint as a medium in their style of art work but that does not make you a graffiti writer, or graffiti anything for that matter, just an artist.
How does graffiti fit into your past, present and future?
Graffiti was a fun pastime and a creative outlet and it really has not changed much today. Obviously as I get older I have to be more conscience of how I get up, there might be a time when I will stop getting up because the risk might not be worth getting the responsibilities compromised. I think when that time comes I will hopefully feel fulfilled with myself in that I have paid my dues in graffiti where I can just be ok with doing legal’s, so we’ll see. Alongside with graffiti I have always created art work as well and shown in various art shows that were not graffiti related art shows.
Tell me what you know about women in graffiti history?
In general not much is expected from women, because of the embedded ideas that women are inferior. A lot of times because there are few women in graffiti they are put under a microscope. If they are talented, or they are the bomber of the year, for the most part they are doubted and people—men and women alike—look to see if there is a male that the females’ work can be accredited to. When a female graffiti writer builds their longevity, consistency and is well rounded in graffiti they are given their respect and place in the graffiti scene. I do think that was one of the benefits of choosing the name JERK, because I got the credit and was taken seriously and by the time people found out I was a girl it was more like, oh. There was no “for a girl” reference at least to my knowledge.
Is there a message you’d like to send to aspiring female graffiti writers?
Always strive to do better and never settle or assume you’re any good at what you do.