It’s been many years since I last wandered down Long Beach Blvd. And no, it’s nowhere near Long Beach – it’s in Lynwood. And Compton. I would cycle up and down here and feel so adventurous stretching my wings beyond Watts and South Central. There’s a few more people on the streets now, a few more franchises but still the sense of being on the margins, of the impersonal stamp – even if it’s from the numbered, not named, streets, the sterile concrete buildings. Then there was the end-of-the-road feeling the rear edge of Alameda Street evokes, leaning against the railtrack, a reminder that this was the industrial core of the city, a place of struggle and survival, not for dreamers, not for artists. Forget imagination; you had to be a pragmatist to live here.
Yet it was in Compton that arguably some of the greatest, most original ideas and visions of the past 25 years began. It was here – not Hollywood, not in some studio executive’s brainstorming session or in an art student’s jotter. It was amongst real Americans living a limited lifestyle and just dreaming of dreaming. Dreaming of another way of living.
I’m here to meet with Riskie for various reasons –this interview being nothing more than a recorded update. It is rather a surreal experience as he entered Death Row around the time I picked up my computer and walked but we shared the same office buddy – Hen Dogg.
Hen Dogg was a deep thinker, an artist, quiet, low-key, a wise soul who’d been to the Pen and had no intentions of returning. He’d walk into the office every morning, Pendleton-buttoned-down, razor-creased khakis or long shorts…carrying his briefcase. He was also one of Suge’s closest road dogs from Compton. Hen Dogg helped train and raise me. He was Suge’s real eyes and ears in the office. Before emails, text messaging, stuck in a windowless, airless office for hours at a time, we’d escape into our shared thoughts and experiences, just conversating and exchanging. He saw me sell my first feature film script so started to write his own which I typed up for him. He was shot and killed eleven years ago but he played a major part in building the Death Row engine. And me. And it was Hen Dogg who brought Riskie, Compton’s original airbrush genius, into Death Row. Suge then introduced him to Tupac and it was Riskie who painted the insert for ‘All Eyez On Me’ and the iconic, terrifyingly prophetic album cover for ‘The Don Killuminati – the 7 Day Theory’, Makaveli’s debut album. But how does a parochial swapmeet airbrush hustler become an international artist? And where does he go from there when it all falls apart?
I arrive at his studio on North Bullis Road in Compton. It’s filled with canvases, aerosoled ice boxes, decorated box-fresh trainers, life-size OG cut-outs and other bizarre items.
‘I was born in Torrance, California and I didn’t move to Compton until 1978 with my mum who got married. We got a house on McMillan Street . My elementary school was right around the corner. I’d spend a lot of time at my grandma’s house in Long Beach but after she passed, I spent more time in Compton.
‘Back in the 80’s, gang violence in South Central was at an all-time high. Crack had just come to Compton. Everyone was selling dope, had pagers and gang-banging was just the norm and everywhere. You know, the majority of my friends, we’d say, ‘Have a good weekend. I’ll see you Monday.’ But you’d be lucky to see that person on Monday. Drive-bys were like a new pair of shoes – it was in style. I didn’t know anything else. I mean, this is where I live and I know people from the streets who were doing that kind of thing. Every day living – you were just always watching out for yourself.
‘Selling drugs – it was just an easy hustle. I’d see all my friends with new stuff. Now my family wasn’t poor but peer pressure began to get to me. One person put me on selling drugs and that was that. Selling drugs is just the same as taking them. It’s an addiction because of the money. It’s an addiction just in itself. I was about 17 when I started selling drugs. I sold dope all the way up until I was 30 on and off. But I’d also be drawing since I was fifteen or sixteen. So many young people were dying and people would ask me to do memorial t-shirts. I had a friend named Twon who had passed. People wanted me to do t-shirts . Often, I’d do a portrait with writing around it. It wasn’t a lot of business but there were people from the neighborhood who wanted stuff done.
‘My art teacher at high school was Marta Ferris. That was the first time I had an art class. She started teaching me a lot of things I didn’t really know. I went from street art to fine art. I didn’t graduate high school because I’d ditch classes and be in her class all day. I was really into hip hop and really wanted to do art. My biggest dream was to work for Disney but I didn’t know how that would work being an artist from the streets.
‘Gangs and tagging used to be different back in the day. Taggers would just tag their name and crew. It was about art and the culture being an artist. But in the 90’s all the taggers started being gangsters and taggers at the same time. They mixed it up: tag-banging. I shied away from it and was standing on my own as ‘Riskie’. I had been part of a tagging crew: D.T.S. :‘Down To Serve’ or ‘Dare To Surrender’. We’d flip it anyway we wanted. We were 17 and there were 10 or 11 of us. We were deep. We used to wear the baseball caps with D.T.S. on them. We’d do hospital smocks. One of my boys, Faze 1, he’s now a popular photographer in Los Angeles, but his mom supported him so he got an airbrush. He showed me his airbrush and we all learnt off that one. I saw him recently and he said, ‘You stuck with that. I wish I had.’ They would come to my house and I’d airbrush everyone’s smocks so we could all look fresh.
‘I started doing my airbrush hustle at Compton swapmeet between 1988-89. I had an airbrush mentor. I learnt bits and pieces more from him and high school. His name was Cliff and he’d teach me techniques. I used to learn from him and then do my own things. I was selling t-shirts before high school football games. People were always asking for one. I never had to ask my mum or dad for lunch money as I always had my airbrush hustle on.
‘I used to stay in my parents’ backhouse and use the windowsill as an easel. I used to mess my mum’s window up. If that wasn’t bad enough, I did a big giant mural one day on her sliding door. She came in from work and was like: ‘Oh no! You better take that down right now!’ I had really fucked up the window. ‘You bad enough. You fuck up the window. Now you want to paint on the outside of the house?’ I told her : ‘Damn, mum, I’m going to be a famous artist one day!’ I really believed that. I wanted to be like J.P. Basquiat. I was truly fascinated with him and Andy Warhol. I so wanted to be an artist but I was so into the streets, I didn’t see that happening for me.’
But Compton, the home of hard realities, had a strange way of making dreams come true…
Words by Nina Bhadreshwar