Joseph Sullivan walks out of the Copper Lounge after our interview. And because this is Albuquerque, he knows the doorman. They greet each other, shake hands. The doorman's putting together a documentary about local graffiti art, and he wants Sullivan to be in it. "You got a number?" he asks. Sullivan digs his wallet from his jeans' pocket and pulls out a plain white card. The doorman's eyes widen briefly. "You're an attorney?" he asks.
Sullivan, a.k.a DJ Kayote on KUNM, isn't dressed as a lawyer. In some circles, his reputation with a spray can outranks his legal career. He's been serious about graffiti art since 1988, when he painted ceaselessly on the streets of El Paso—until he came to Burque for law school. "You can't really get caught once you're in law school," he says. "You'll screw up your whole career. So I stopped cold turkey." But, he notes with glee, he's had the opportunity to defend other graffiti artists in court. "It's awesome," he grins.
Walls that artists are permitted to paint and shows like "Bomb the Canvas 2," an exhibit opening this week at the N4th Gallery, have allowed Sullivan to continue his graffiti habit. The annual show, now in its second year, is the brainchild of Rick Padilla, a community activist who often works with youth. Padilla hit up Sullivan and a writer who goes by Unek (pronounced "unique") to help find the artists for the gallery. "Because of my involvement in the scene, I had a lot of access to a wide variety of writers," says Sullivan. "A lot of them are people who have pretty much quit. They've grown up a little, and they're doing legal walls."
Sullivan is especially excited about an artist known as The Mac, who's world-famous for his photorealistic portraits. "After this show, they're going to fly him to Belgium. He painted some ancient chapel out there," says Sullivan. "He's had stuff in renowned museums. He just happens to live next door and be a good friend of mine." The Mac does fine art, notes Sullivan, and though the photorealistic portrait movement has come and gone, no one's done it with a spray can. "No one's done it in an alleyway. No one's done it on a freight train. He can do those anywhere, in the middle of the night. I've seen it."
In Sullivan's mind, that gives The Mac a lot of credibility. Sullivan has no respect for someone who only works on canvas. It's not graffiti once it's in a gallery, he says. Then it's just art done by people who also do graffiti. Respect comes with putting your work in public spaces. "It goes back to the performance aspect of it, being in touch with your city, being in touch with nature, with organisms and knowing where you're going."
Leaving one’s mark all over a city is called “bombing,” and the bombing scene in Albuquerque has dwindled. "It's happening, but it's gone in a couple of hours," he says. Sullivan has an interesting perspective on the cop/graffiti writer relationship. "As a kid, growing up and being involved where I was involved, you kind of hate cops." But Sullivan says his law practice helped him gain an appreciation for what cops do. "When people are like, 'Fuck the police!’ I'm like, ‘Hey, you know, those guys go through a lot.’” He says officers and writers often have similar adventure-seeking personalities. "It's funny, but they're one step away."
Through his travels, missions to other cities he calls "graffiti vacations," other artists he’s met always seemed to know something was going on in Albuquerque. "The arroyo system here, the way it's set up, it's perfect for graffiti and it's perfect for skating," he says. "There's been a lot of development around here."
Pressure from the city government and life under a staunchly anti-graffiti mayor haven't been able to stop writers in the 505. Sullivan should know. One of the legal murals painted over this year by the graffiti unit was his. The Pop 'n' Taco on Edith and Central boasts a wall painted by local artists that was whitewashed by the city's graffiti cleanup crew ["White Wash," May 10-16 and "Wipe Out," May 17-23]. But that's OK, says Sullivan. They were getting ready to redo it anyway. And since then, the wall's been restored to its full glory with a new mural.
The point, Sullivan says, of gallery shows and legal walls is to help people find a way to respect the art. "Graffiti's kind of an intimidating topic to someone who hasn't been exposed to it. It's hard to appreciate when someone writes on your trash can or your building, garage or whatever. This is a way for the public to come in and be able to relate a little easier to graffiti," Sullivan says. The show will be a great place for people to come voice their opinions about graffiti, he adds. "Maybe the mayor will show up."