Mostly True: Tales from the Rails
Organizer inspired by the tragedy of a famed graffiti writer; and Verb Collective closes
Kids all over the country have seen Diar's work rolling down the tracks of their train yards, says Frederick Swiftbird. "Being prolific, he's painted thousands of trains, whole cars, full cars," he says.
In late February, West Coast graffiti writer Diar was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Swiftbird, an Albuquerque writer and event organizer, found himself affected by the tale. Swiftbird uses a wheelchair. Born with Klippel-Weber syndrome, he lost the use of his legs at age 14. "I've been in the hospital for a two-month stretch when I first became paralyzed," Swiftbird says, and Diar’s still in the hospital.
Swiftbird doesn't paint walls, he says; he doesn't tag the community. "I'm not a current writer, but as a writer, you don't say you're not a current writer," he says. "What I want to give to my culture—which is hip-hop—is my skills as a director and a producer."
He's taken up Diar's cause and assembled an event called "Mostly True: Tales from the Rails," a graffiti and hip-hop benefit held at the Verb Collective on June 21 and 22, the proceeds of which will go to buying Diar a head-controlled wheelchair and a voice-activated computer.
Diar melded the practices of East and West Coast graffiti writing over more than a decade of steady work. In New York, writers put their names in as many places as possible, Swiftbird says, often without thought for how it looks. On the West Coast, aesthetics are given more weight. Diar spent his years spraying both quantity and beauty. "As soon as I started working on it, things started falling into place because so many people respect and appreciate Diar's work," Swiftbird says. Because graffiti relies so heavily on anonymity to protect the writers, a lot of people know about Diar or have seen his work, Swiftbird adds, but they don't know who he is. "This guy and I have a lot of friends in common," says Swiftbird. "It was a no-brainer for me to do this."
Who is Bozo Texino by Bill Daniel will be screened at the event. The documentary studies another kind of train painting done by old-school train-hoppers. "They know trains like the people in L.A. know freeways," Swiftbird says. Using solid paint sticks like pens, the hobos leave marks to show other hobos where to find food or the best spots for sleeping while avoiding police. Like other graffiti writers, these train-hoppers get addicted to sketching a single moniker. Daniel is among the first to document hobo train graffiti. "He's a cult icon," says Swiftbird. "He's really respected in the culture for opening people's eyes to the fact that this other line of graffiti is going on."
Daniel, along with renowned West Coast writer Jaber and ZEN DTC, were among many who offered up their talent for the Diar benefit. "I've gotten thousands of dollars in merchandise donations," says Swiftbird. "Prints from famous artists like Buff Monster and Bigfoot. And local kids are excited about helping, because some of the names are famous."
Swiftbird wants to let it be known that he really loved the Verb Collective space and appreciates what the collective is doing for him by allowing him to put on his event, which will be the last at the venue. "They weren't going to have more shows, but they realized what kind of work I put into the show and let me use the space one last time," he says.
Verb Collective's been open for a year and a half, curating art shows; promoting live music; hosting freak shows, workshops and film-screenings. "Our mission was kind of to just make it possible for people to make art—any type of art, really anything," says Christopher Blaz, chair of Verb's board of directors. "We'd been talking about it for years and years. There's a real need for this sort of thing in Albuquerque." With crackles of stray creativity shooting around the city, he says, there aren’t a whole lot of places to express it unless an artist starts to call him or herself a professional. "We see this kind of thing evolving, this concept of developing a free space in the context of, Come and be who you are and make what you want."
Though these spaces are free conceptually, practically, they're anything but. "It's expensive to rent a building like that," Blaz says. "That's one of the reasons we're closing the space. We found we were falling away from our original mission because we were so caught up in making the bills." Though the building will no longer be home base, the collective intends to stay together, using public spaces like parks for puppet shows, painting workshops and other events. Blaz isn't afraid of Verb Collective falling away without a mothership. The collective met regularly for painting parties for a year before it found a home, and it only grew stronger over the last 18 months. "The spirit of the community is potent."