By Eric Nakamura

While walking in San Francisco, I couldn't help but notice the massive quantity of tags. In some of the neighborhoods like SoMa, Downtown, the Mission, and even Chinatown, I glanced out of a bus window at a PacBell switch box that was covered with varied colored scrawls and "Hello My Name Is" stickers, which had even more scrawls on them. Then as I laid back and looked around, the entire interior of the bus was full of tags, window etchings, and more stickers. I could only laugh at what the anti-graffiti tight asses must think if they read that their city is possibly the tagging capitol of the planet.

Some people view tagging as a plague or a virus that ruins the scenery of a city. One of them is Twist, a half-Chinese American tagger and artist of epic and totemic proportions. Although he agrees that tags are destructive, that's precisely why he digs them. The feeling of utter destruction with an aerosol can gets him off. And the best is that it can be done in seconds. He loves seeing a clean neighborhood transformed into a mess overnight by the hands of a little kid.

Twist is San Francisco's number one son (to some people). His works of graffiti are well-known, and can be seen on walls, billboards, signs, bus benches, trucks, buildings, trains, poles, and in museums, galleries, stores, books, and on surfboards, skate decks, record jackets, and t-shirts. His style is so well-liked that the Museum of Modern Art took a look at his work in his live-in studio and deemed it fit for an exhibit within a group show. Unlike a lot of graffiti artists out there who paint a word in a highly stylized, colorful, and funky manner, Twist does something different; he spray paints unforgettable faces in black and white. His art is so distinct that it stands out everywhere and people know exactly who authored the art even without a signature. From being strictly a street tagger working odd jobs, Twist can now survive by painting all day with city grant money.

A visit to his East Mission loft/live-in studio is as cool as any artist's domicile who works his or her ass off. There's paint everywhere, art randomly strewn around, sketches on slips of paper piled on top of each other, and an occasional finished piece sitting in a corner. He's a mellow and unpretentious guy with no ego problems.

The first thing I had to admit to him was that I didn't know much about graffiti and tagging except from what I've seen and read. He came back slowly with, "Don't worry, I don't either." So I started asking the normal-ass questions that everyone asks him these days.

When did you start doing graffiti?

"I started in 1984. I was severely into riding scooters and stuff. I was loosely a mod, I was into scooters and had a Lambretta. There's this guy we'd go riding around with, and he'd stop at all these stop-lights and get out a can of spray paint and do this head design and write "Zotz." I thought, "What are you doing?" And he introduced me to it."

Did you always tag Twist?

"No, I had some dumb ones. It wasn't Twist for starters, it was Slam or something dumb like that. I came up with Twist a year after that. It was the name of a scooter magazine. I didn't like it that much, but it was one of those times when you want to do it so bad and you need a name, and I still hate it to this day, it's dumb. It's ridiculous."

What's the coolest place you have ever tagged?

"I wish I had one of those great stories. I did some in China which was scary and crazy. It was on the Great Wall. That was the hairiest thing. I was in another country and I didn't want to get caught. I went on a trip with a bunch of people. I was there for three months. You take these tours and they let you go on your own, so I brought paint with me and found a spot. I brought one can and did a head drawing. There's a lot of graffiti and people carve things into the wall. I was surprised to see it. It's mostly carved in. It's one of those stupid things. It's just a monument in another country. I don't want to impose myself or something, and it was one of those opportunities. It's going to fade eventually. I'd rather have carved something."

Where do you get ideas for your faces?

"The drawings come from things I see on the streets like a man passed out. I was on Market Street the other day and this guy was drawing on his face with a ball point pen and he was doing it for hours. It's kind of sad and humorous at the same time. It's the kind of thing that inspires me. It's extreme, super-sad, but humorous. It's my biggest inspiration. You want to look but you don't want to look."

Do you get scared?

"Scared shitless. I'm still scared to this day. I get chased. I've been caught, but I've never gone to court. I've gone to jail for a night, but I've never been written up. I'm cautious."

After I got the regular questions out of the way, mostly to satisfy my own curiosity, some things started to not make sense. While the 31-year-old Twist still tags along-side the teenaged kids, he is also doing public art projects and getting paid a fair sum. Obviously, a bust would be imminent. But he chooses not to worry about it. With his name making the papers as a museum exhibited artist, tagging is one of his favorite things to do. "It's a nasty thing," he admits. It's something that still pisses people off, whereas if you take your time to do something, people say, 'That's nice.' I love tags, I think they are the most beautiful things in the world. Even people that I am friends with say they hate that tagging stuff. I like it for that reason alone. It's very destructive. It's one of those things that's very powerful and quick and you can still do it. It's 1997 now and it still pisses people off. It can't be accepted in the mainstream."

The public art portion of Twist's career began recently. As younger members of varied art organizations came to power, he started to get jobs and grants including the MoMa show. The art world is now knocking on his door forcing him to work inside for money rather than outside for the rush: "The art world is so removed from the graffiti world. It has little to do with graffiti. I feel like when I do something indoors, I have to do three times as much outdoors to keep my street credibility. The street is the most exciting part. It's accessible to everyone. In the art world, everyone claps, 'it's great.'" Yet eccentric rich people are hitting him up to sell his art for some bucks, and Twist admits that it's weird for him to be doing it, but he does.

Even though his art is on walls, and his street punk rock credibility is going down a bit as a result, he can only come back with, "I feel like I do my part every now and then."

Recently, Twist has taken to painting on trains, and is now possibly getting national exposure. Meanwhile, he has an interesting and romanticized view of it, citing that there's an American nostalgic feeling of writing graffiti on a train. Further compounding Twist's philosophy on the graffiti style are the oral traditions that develop. When I brought up perhaps the most notorious tagger ever, Chaka, the response was, "He's great. The whole folklore tradition of people telling stories about the guy. He's going to be a Paul Bunyan. Stories will keep going on that guy."

In the past, delivery trucks worked as a great canvas since they travelled on freeways. The best one he suggests are the Chinatown trucks, which are notorious for never having graffiti painted over. To this day, there are a few trucks driving around San Francisco with a big fat 'Twist' on their sides.

The mythology of his tagging prowess compounded with his new art gallery life isn't going to change a thing for Twist. When I asked how long he's going to be tagging, he smart-assly told me two years, and then broke into a laughter. He plans on doing it until he's too old to run. "In NY there are 45 year old taggers. A lot of those old guys are still painting."

Unlike a lot of graffiti artists who turn to clothing companies for a living, Twist wants to make a living off public art projects and grants. "I want to be in the artsy fartsy life," he says jokingly, but a fundamental fear keeps him from enjoying the spoils of the art world. Someone told me that at the MOMA opening party, he was hours late, only to end up hiding out near the bathrooms. And his reason for it was his fear that a truck owner would badger him and say, "Hey, you did that thing on my truck!"

|  Skate Monk  |  Maggie Cheung  |  Tuvan Throat Singers  |  Twist  |  Duke Seino  |

Copyright © 1997 Giant Robot.