The Writing on the Wall
Zoning official uses graffiti to alter the urban landscape—and perceptions
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
John Lorne stands admiring a graffiti mural on Second Street and Kinley, near Downtown. It’s a portrait of a Native American spiritual leader who has feathers for hair and a face that appears flooded with the blue sky. “Look at the shading in there. Look at these lines,” he says in a Bronx accent. “Look at this eye.” He points an imaginary spray can close in against the wall to simulate a fine point.
True appreciation of a piece, Lorne insists, comes when you lean in close and run your fingers over the thick aerosol paint coating the adobe. “Now step back and look at it from far away,” he says. It’s a whole different picture.
Lorne is a writer, an artist who chooses aerosol paint over more traditional supplies. His nom de plume is Slip, of New York’s legendary Morris Park Crew. For someone working a 40-hour week and preparing to put a son through college, graffiti is a unique passion. “I mean, I’m 45-years-old,” Lorne says.
Lorne works in planning and zoning in Sandoval County, but he has been closely following a city project in Albuquerque’s rebranded International District (formerly known as the War Zone). Bonds just passed that will provide the Southeast Heights Coalition with additional funding for an urban landscape rehabilitation project. It’s the culmination of years of community meetings on ways to improve the district’s neighborhoods. Much of the grid in this area was first laid during the post-WWII Air Force boom and affords residents with scant parks or walkways, says Moisés Gonzales, design consultant for the project. One goal is to transform otherwise unsightly alleyways into urban walkways adorned with plants in rain-harvesting pots—and murals.
While brush muralist Richard Brandt has been commissioned to paint the first alley, near San Pedro and Kathryn, Lorne was assured that later phases of the project would welcome his contribution. But he couldn’t wait, and he didn’t see how a grant was necessary to do something good for the community.
“I don’t know how he did it in aerosol.”
So Lorne took his portfolio and got in touch with businesses in the area. Owners could choose a theme, and Lorne would make a mural using aerosol paint at no expense. Gonzales says he’s glad to see someone take the spirit of the improvements and run with it.
One business that accepted Lorne’s offer of free facade beautification is Marrakech X-Press Smoke Shop. The original image he painted over was of a water pipe. Not only has the alteration made the area nicer, Lorne says, but now law enforcement will look at the business in a better light.
Lorne’s two murals in the International District are interpretations of other works. He's always sure to include the original artist's name. Inspired by “Pilgrimage to Chimayo” by Colorado artist Jan Oliver, the smoke shop’s mural depicts a trek made every year to the church of El Santuario de Chimayó.
For Oliver, the church is more than just an important Southwestern religious site, she says from her home in Colorado. She says dirt collected from the church enabled her bedridden grandfather to walk for one day. In the mural on San Pedro, the church radiates brilliant colors into the dark cosmos over the pilgrims. “It’s fabulous to see big,” Oliver says.
She feels confident that graffiti art, in Lorne’s hands, is nothing but positive, while admitting she has not always been so understanding. Even now, she cannot quite wrap her head around the the mechanics of the medium. “I don’t know how he did it in aerosol,” she says.
Lorne says he hasn’t always been on the good side of graffiti art. He began by painting New York City freight trains illegally. Covering entire cars—on the sly to evade trainyard security or police—Lorne was a part of graffiti art’s controversial origins in the '70s, best recorded in the cult classic PBS documentary Style Wars. Of the writers with whom Lorne worked, some are dead and others are accomplished artists.
“The speed at which spray artists can beautify an area is tough to beat.”
Jimmy Lucery, who teaches hip-hop culture at the South Valley Academy
“I have friends today who sell art throughout the world,” Lorne says. “Never worked a day in their life.” Their original canvases, he points out, were trains.
Not surprisingly, many people are impressed by Lorne’s roots. Jimmy Lucero teaches hip-hop culture at South Valley Academy and meets with Lorne on a regular basis to share ideas on repairing the public image of the subculture. He says he is honored to know Lorne, someone whose artistic origins coincide with such a formative era not only in graffiti art, but also hip-hop. As for urban landscapes, Lucero says, “The speed at which spray artists can beautify an area is tough to beat.”
After moving away from New York City more than two decades ago, Lorne put his spray can on the shelf. While Lorne’s son was looking at images of graffiti art on the Internet one day, Lorne mentioned that he used to write. His son didn’t believe him. Lorne tried to dig up pictures of himself with his work, proof of his past. He caught up with writers Seen and Blade, old friends who, he learned, had become internationally acclaimed graffiti artists. Then filmmakers of Style Wars showed up at Lorne’s house a couple of years ago to do an interview for a 25th-anniversary follow-up to the classic documentary. Lorne’s artistic passion was revived and he began to paint again.
Lorne brushed up on his skills at what is commonly called the Acme Yard. This alley of corrugated metal along a small arroyo in the North Valley is a haven for legal graffiti art, and Lorne is grateful to Acme Iron & Metal Trading for allowing artists to work there.
There are few New Mexico businesses that permit this kind of environment, and Lorne is saddened by the bad rap graffiti art struggles to shed. Not everyone who buys a spray can has the wherewithal to pitch a mural project to a business owner, yet the essence of graffiti as an art form remains in painting walls or other built structures. Lorne says the city should step in and provide kids with places to paint.
Last year, Santa Fe, a city known for its art-friendliness, spent $400,000 on graffiti cleanup, Lorne says. He can only shake his head, he says, at such misguided city resources. Both Albuquerque and Santa Fe have built skateparks where people can skateboard, bike and rollerblade without damaging city or private property. He wants to know why the city won’t build a paddle ball court, say—someplace that has walls for graffiti art.
The fact is, most people are apprehensive when they know a spray mural is going to be thrown up over a wall. But once the work comes out, Lorne says, “They’re whistlin’ a whole different tune.” Plus, he assures that “there are a lot more people out there that have got a lot more talent than I do.”
Lorne has set his sights on a vacant strip mall on San Mateo and Kathryn for his next mural. He hopes to convince management that a fresh mural will help resell or rent out the property. “I understand businesses because I’ve owned them. I understand politics because I work in it."
Lorne holds the conviction that aerosol leads kids who are truly interested in art to other creative areas. “Whether it’s photography, brushwork, acrylic work.” He adds, “So if I notice that kids are into art, as opposed to gang-tagging, I just try to push them in the right direction.” But he doesn’t presume to be able to reach everyone. “Unfortunately, some kids wanna do things illegally."
Might gangs view the murals as an encroachment? Absolutely not, Lorne says, because his murals have nothing to do with tagging territory—just art. In fact, while painting a mural for Sais One Food Mart in the International District, Lorne received positive feedback from unlikely sources. “I’ve seen gang members come by over there on Louisiana and Trumbull and give me a thumbs-up,” he says.
An employee of Sais One Food Mart says the business used to be plagued with tagging. In the three months since Lorne finished the wall, there has been only one tag—a name scrawled over a small no-trespassing sign on the periphery of the untouched mural.