As I venture into the night with Spanto, everything becomes a threat. LAPD squad cars creep like sharks in shallow water, ghetto birds zigzag across the sky, and gangsters lurk in the shadows of front yards and in the fluorescent glow of liquor stores and gas stations.
The freeway beneath us, even at 2 AM, was lousy with cars, each containing a potential snitch with a cell phone. Our clique of five stood vigilant while Spanto and 2Tone filled in a massive tribute to the late LA legend Trigz. Still, we were caught off-guard by a couple that walked by, one of whom was wearing only a lanyard and socks with no elastic.
"We'll be out of here in a minute," Spanto told the interlopers, painting all the while, unflustered. Amid the barbed wire, broken glass, dog shit, and human shit there's an odd, almost classy civility to the bizarre encounter. Spanto is a man of tradition. As such, he carries himself with the dignity of a bygone era. He evokes a time when young Latino men palm-combed perfect pompadours in the rearview mirrors of glistening lowriders. A time when correspondence from the penitentiary came painstakingly embellished with ballpoint-pen renderings of peacocks and hourglasses. A time when the creases in your Dickies were as important as the burner in your belt. A time when the tough kids still slow-danced to their parents' jams and the neighborhood was all they knew of the world.
"[Our culture] is fuckin' romantic as hell," he told me. "It's beautiful. The way you dress, the music. Everything—the whole culture to me is just absolutely fucking gorgeous. You talk about what you wanna be when you grow up… I wanted to be like my big homies."
Venice, Los Angeles, has always been fertile soil for outlaw subcultures, be it the famous skaters and surfers of Dogtown, the thrashers at a Suicidal Tendencies or Beowulf gig, or the wild-style burners who riddled the wall of fame at the beach. Spanto's eyes beam when he recalls the significance of his home turf. "There was so much culture coming out of there, man. Skaters, punk rockers, graffiti artists, and so many gang members."
But before the taggers and skaters and punk rockers who started painting for the sake of painting, gangs adopted the medium for territorial and memorial markings. "My grandma, she's 86 years old. She used to tell me that the first writing she ever saw on the walls was Venice13, way before any sort of modern-day graffiti writer."
Venice13, to which Spanto claims allegiance, is a dominant gang in the city. It has a tumultuous 50-year history in the neighborhood, notorious enough to be targeted by the controversial LAPD gang injunctions of the 90s. His formal introduction to gang life began around the time most boys were learning the rules to touch-football, catching his first tags in the third grade. "I remember being little and hearing gunshots outside and hearing tires screech and shit. Most kids would freak the fuck out, go hide or grab their parents, but I was drawn to that shit. I wanted to go outside. I had to know what was going on outside."
It was in this environment that Spanto came to find himself, with the help of the older boys in the hood. "Everything that I learned from the big homies, I took with me," he explained. "I didn't learn shit in school; all my attention went to what the older homies taught me. I was studying for [the streets] like I was studying for school. I got all my game from big homies—the way they dressed, ironed their bandannas, creased their clothes."
There's something menacing about a Spanto tag. They're neither colorful nor flamboyant. They are rudimentary and looming, with all of the sharp angles of a traditional cholo hand style and the hard truth of the stock caps he uses. It's a utilitarian approach to vandalism, as opposed to an exclusively artistic one. "If I go to my enemy's neighborhood and I wanna go strike up one of their walls, the most disrespectful way I can do it is to be as big and as bold as I can—nothing cute or stylish. It's the biggest fuck-you, you know what I mean?" He isn't getting up to flaunt his style or skills. He isn't getting up for internet fame or gallery appearances. Progression as an artist isn't the point; the importance is placed on preservation of both a mentality and a moment in time.
"Most of the graffiti that I saw isn't what you would call typical, or regular, graff. It was gang graffiti, you know? Like Venice13 or Suicidal. These mad aggressive letters."
A strict adherence to raw aggression over artistic flourishes speaks more to the single-minded formality of gang life than it does to the larger culture of graffiti. It has more to do with living up to a code of conduct. The style is just a means to reflect an ideology. "Back then there were rules. If you're a gangster, you don't write this way. If you're a graffiti writer, you do write this way. For the gangs, every letter had its own rule, if that makes sense. If you were a Suis, or Suicidal, and you struck up on a side of a wall with a spray-paint can, you wrote a certain way. You didn't have curves on your letters. You didn't have flairs. You didn't have this or that. Growing up seeing this shit molded how I write now." It was clear that he was talking less about preserving a way of writing and more about preserving a way of lifestyle that's rapidly disappearing.
Much of gang life, like the pursuit of "fame" among vandals, is wrapped up in the basic human desire to leave a legacy. It is the reason gang members invent an identity, so-and-so from such-and-such set, and then go about building a rep and advertising it on the walls. It's also the reason that when a friend is murdered, it's important to have a name-bearing tribute displayed on a T-shirt or wall. For Spanto, the concept of immortality, or at least legacy, is of greater significance as he faces the greatest challenge to his already precarious lifestyle.
In 2012, he checked himself into a hospital, seeking a quick cure to a persistent flu. This happened twice more, and on the third visit he refused to leave. His blood work was done, he was put in a wheelchair, and led to a different ward. There, he recalled, "a little Vietnamese lady came in and she was just like, 'You have cancer' and she dropped the fucking pamphlet on my chest. I opened it up, and it pretty much said that I was going to die." What the blood work had revealed was a complicated case of cancer that included lymphoma, leukemia, and a tumor behind his heart. The doctor told him that if he didn't start chemotherapy within 24 hours, he would be dead. Even with the chemo, the prognosis was not good. Spanto was told that his treatment would only last about three years. At 15 months, he's nearly halfway done.
He met the diagnosis with the same bravado that had served him well in the worlds of gangs and graffiti. It was just another threat to best, like rival bangers or cops or a hot spot that others are too shook to bomb. "It makes me angry," he said of the disease. "It makes me wanna go out there and do my thing even more. I climbed a billboard, yeah. I bombed some shit, yeah. I have cancer, yeah. I don't care. We can still fight, we can still shoot. I'm still a gangster. That's just me. I'll always be Spanto. Even if I die, man, it's nothing. That's the way I'll live until I'm put in the dirt."
Despite the hubris, he's contemplated his situation enough to develop something of a philosophy behind it. "There's definitely something really monumental that I'm supposed to learn from this, which I haven't exactly figured out yet. I just know that I'm supposed to learn something that's gonna drastically affect me, the people around me. There's a life lesson buried somewhere in this cancer." And despite the depression that surely comes with driving oneself to chemotherapy sessions and having your sleep induced by countless narcotics, it seems as if he rarely gets bogged down by it.
"I've always kinda fancied myself as just that slick little dude. Always gonna get away. Never gonna get murdered. You can't kill me. I remember taking showers in the hospital, and beating on my chest, like, 'You can't fuckin' kill me!' I'm just not done yet."
He and his friends even gave the fight a name, striking up Chemo Boys beside his graffiti, as if it were a crew, or set. His battle against cancer reflects a gang mentality: By naming it, claiming it, making it his own, Spanto is essentially robbing his affliction of its psychic power against him.
With this newfound resolve, while undergoing treatment, he became more active than ever in graffiti, in business, in recreation—in being Spanto.
Over the course of his life, he's found himself in the cross fire of numerous shootouts, and in three separate incidents he's been shot. Yet he finds these brushes with death pale in comparison to his battle with cancer. "Getting shot is quick. Getting shot is easy. I don't really bat an eye when that shit happens," he explained. "Getting shot, you don't really break it down in your head until later. Chemo is long. It's fuckin' painful. The mental part of the chemo is the worst… This is long, old, boring, and dark—as opposed to the other one, which is exciting, flashy, and quick."
A case could be made that the graffiti is therapeutic, that the impetus to go out and bomb is really the instinct to keep on living. And the challenge of the action only bolsters this. "A lot of people know that I'm sick, so it's funny to me. Like, how the fuck did that fool do that shit? Isn't he half-dead or about to die? Isn't he in his hospital bed? How the fuck did he go out and catch this spot? I've never looked at it before as something that I gotta leave behind."
Despite his nefarious image, people admire and respect him. And the recent spate of "Spanto Lives" graffiti across Los Angeles—a gesture usually reserved for those who have passed away—is testament to that.
As the night settled down, Spanto admitted that he hadn't been feeling well all day and that he was dreading the new round of chemo scheduled for the next morning, so we decided to grab some dinner at a nearby taquería. Even though we spent the meal being eyeballed menacingly by both a pair of cops and a tableful of Salvadorans, he remained overwhelmingly positive.
"I feel like I take care of and nurture my little homies now," he said. "Just giving that love back. I'm in love with the streets. I'm in love with my neighborhood. I'm in love with subculture, and that'll never go away. Love is so strong. You get what you get, but it comes back."
On our way home, the streets were desolate enough for us to speed while Ice Cube's " Steady Mobbin'" rattled our ride. Spanto was still griping about chemo in the morning when he suddenly thrust himself across the driver's seat, halfway out the window, and yelled, "Fuck CRASH!' at the undercover gang unit coyly lurking in the shadows of a nearby park.
Spanto still being Spanto.
Follow Sammy Winston on Twitter.