Episode 2 Transcript: Scared Straight
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It’s Spring 2017 and I’m on the 733 bus line, heading west on Venice Boulevard. I’m sitting in the back of the bus. It’s the early afternoon, and there’s nobody else sitting next to me. I’m listening to music on my headphones when I notice an old friend hop on. It’s Ivan. And we used to be in the same circles when I used to tag in the early 2000s. Ivan hasn’t changed one bit. He’s still wearing oversized t-shirts and still speaks from the side of his mouth like he used to when we were teenagers. His hair’s still cut really low, too. It’s been more than fifteen years since we last saw one another.
Ivan: “Oh shit, what’s up man?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We dap each other up and hug. He sits next to me.
Ivan: “Ey……..you still write?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: “Yeah……..I do still write.” This is California Love, and I’m Walter.
[Scared Straight ambi]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I was twelve years old, and I was wearing the grey crew neck sweater and matching sweatpants that the officers had issued to me. My last name was written on the back of my sweater to identify me. In ‘97, the Scared Straight program met at the downtown L.A. Central Police Station three times a week. Twice a week we had classes, and on Saturdays that’s when we had boot camp.
They made us do push-ups, burpees, squats, sprints, and more burpees, and all on the station’s hot roof. About two dozen of us, all under the age of 17 were in the program, usually because a judge had ordered us to attend for some crime we had committed. One of the guys was a graffiti legend named Sight, a South Central writer whose name could be seen throughout the city. He was, what writers called, an all-city bomber. His stuff was everywhere.
I was like, “Damn, that’s Sight!”
Sight: What I do remember is um — all the cops getting mad at me, screaming at me in my face. The saliva all in my face.
[Scared Straight ambi]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some people were there for skipping school, fighting, or violating probation. But Sight and I? We were both there for graffiti vandalism.
Sight: I had about 10 or eleven warrants for graffiti, all kind of stuff…
[Door slam, footsteps]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I started tagging with a group of friends I had met in middle school. And once I learned how to tag, I began to go out and paint the streets. Maybe it was all the things I was seeing and experiencing at home that drove me to be as far away from it as possible. My mom had a boyfriend at the time — this white dude — who was unemployed and smoked weed and drank heavily every single day. He was abusive and controlling towards me and my mom. And he and I would often physically fight, which led to numerous visits from the police. Home was definitely somewhere I didn’t want to be.
And Sight’s home life? It was just as rocky as mine.
Sight: Me and my mom were sleeping in parks in the car, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for night. We slept in a lot of back streets in South Central L.A., like Western, Imperial. And then the sheriffs will kick us out.
Sight: And we’ll move on one block over.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Graffiti was a lot of things for me. It was an outlet — a way for me to take out the rage, pain, and the hurt I was experiencing at home. The streets and walls, they were basically my therapy.
Sight: I existed when I did graffiti. I existed, and that’s why I started doing it, that sense of awakening, rebirth.
[Scared Straight ambi]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The first Saturday that Sight and I were there, the inmates and guards took turns yelling at us. And he and I smiled at each other the whole time. (AW-HA). We thought they were suckers. Our moms were both with us that day. And we knew the guards couldn’t put their hands on us. So we felt safe. And we talked our shit.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Punk-ass cops.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But Scared Straight? It actually didn’t scare me straight. In fact, it got me deeper into graffiti. About two years after I finished the program, I started catching spots with a guy named Aloe. He was pretty well known in the graf world — and the crazy part? He looked just like one of my favorite rappers.
Aloe: Yeah, everyone used to call me Tupac.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: In just a few months, we became like brothers and we joined the same crew.
Aloe: You were young and willing to do graffiti, so I was like, “Hey, we could be besties. And let’s do this together.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Aloe’s talking like an old head right now, but he’s really only three years older than me. He and I spent everyday together painting the city. This means going out and tagging.
Aloe: I remember there were times I’m like, “Uhh, I don’t really feel like doing this.” You’re like, “Come on, let’s go.” And I’m like, “All right. Let’s go.” And we would go, and then it’s like once we’re there, it’s like, “Ah, like I’m so glad like I did this.” There’s a lot of people, too, like I knew a lot of people too and not everyone — like, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Let’s go. Let’s go.” But like who really wants to go, you know what I mean? Who’s really gonna go?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Aloe and I spent a whole summer together. And our bond was stronger than any relationship I’ve had as an adult. ‘Cause he was also unhappy and tormented by his home life. We were just kids, but we understood each other’s pain, and how ignored we both felt.
Aloe taught me how to tag on the Venice Boulevard bus lines. We caught spots on the panels and the overhead lights.
Aloe: I taught him how to do everything that he knows.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Shut up!
Aloe: [LAUGH] So you're scribing into a transparent case. So people wouldn't be able to see it. There has to be some way to make what you just wrote pop out into the world. So usually what we would do is we would take like dirt from somewhere.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So we’d lick our fingers and rub the tops of the lights
Aloe: You would smudge that on the spot. The dirt would end up filling the spaces of the graffiti spot that you just caught.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Bam.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Now your spot is going to be seen.
Aloe: I used to show him like different slap tags and how you write on a slap tag. For those of you that don't know, like Post Office used to have like stickers that people use for mailing. And graffiti artists just go and grab them. They’re free stickers. We could just write what we want on them.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We’d sometimes go back to Aloe’s house after painting and lock ourselves in his room.
Aloe: Just smoke and drink in there, play music. Lot of Wu Tang. Lot of Tupac.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: All eyes on me
Aloe: Lot of Nas, lot of Biggie. And just write, just write, just write.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We wrote our names all over the city because we felt invisible and it was fun.
Sight: I existed when I did graffiti. I existed.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We painted freeway overpasses: National Boulevard, Robertson, Crenshaw. We painted billboards on Venice Boulevard. We painted at the Belmont yards, the L.A. River, and the motor yards. We were everywhere. But our names rarely stayed up for more than a few days.
For four years I tagged, and for four years a white guy named Joe Connolly painted over our spots. 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. This guy, Joe, made it his mission to buff out tags using paint and equipment he had purchased himself. Seeing him buff out my throw ups wasn’t a good feeling, because creating that art took a lot out of me. Like this one time, when I spent an entire night doing a piece with large bubble style letters on a rooftop near Pico and Robertson, and it was gone the very next morning. And I knew it was Joe. And it wasn’t just us, it was all of us. There was a whole city of kids putting up spots, trying to be seen, and then this white guy named Joe would come out and erase us again.
Joe was definitely a villian. It felt like he was our villain.
Joe Connolly: You could write all day long but you're never going to get up in the morning and see your shit ‘cause it’ll all be buffed.
Joe Connolly: “You couldn’t even read the sign earlier. You could not read the sign.”
Joe Connolly: My name is Joe Connolly. They call me The Graffiti Guerilla, among other things.
Joe Connolly: “Look at that! Isn’t that beautiful? I mean, it’s not like it was the day they made it. But it’s nice. Isn’t that nice looking?” Scrubbing sounds fade under.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Joe was a one man anti-graffiti unit. You may have seen his infamous sign up at Pico and Fairfax. It says:
Joe Connolly: Graffiti no longer accepted here. Please find a day job. Thank you. 1993. Joe Connelly, The Graffiti Guerilla.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Joe used to chase us out of the motor yards and paint over our spots. We all thought he was a city employee, but really Joe acted alone.
[Sounds of painting ambi]
Joe Connolly: After the King riots, a neighbor organized up. The building was still burned out, trees didn't want to get planted. All these people want to fix the neighborhood. Helicopters were everywhere.
So I went to this meeting, and they had all these things that people — they wanted people to do. There’s only like 7 or 8 of us there. So I'm sitting there and I'm thinking I'm not gonna say anything. I'm not volunteering. I mean I’m working seven days a week. I got two little kids. I'm making money. I'm not...
So they said uh graffiti was the last thing on the thing. They said, “You're taking graffiti.” I'm like, “Yeah, cool. That'd be excellent. ‘Cause there's no graffiti around.” I go out the next day. And I start driving around. I'm like, Oh my God.
Joe Connolly: “Kay, we out, right”?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It was late summer 2000. Aloe and I spent a night catching spots all over the Westside before going back to his house to chill. And then, at 4 a.m., I got a weird craving for Hawaiian Punch. So we decided to walk to Ralph’s.
Aloe: And then you took a streak, and then for some some stupid reason I was like, “Hey, let’s record this.” And I took this video camera that I had.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We didn’t make it to the store.
[Marker scribbling ambi]
Aloe: We cross the street, and you decide to start tagging on a trash can. And my dumb ass – instead of looking out, looking back – I’m looking in through the lens at you, and –
[Police radio ambi]
Aloe: Police pulled up on us.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: The cops handcuffed us, made us sit on the curb, and then separated us for questioning. I was already on probation for a previous graffiti offense. I thought I was for sure going to juvie.
The cops says to me,
Voice: “What’s your name?”
Back then, I hadn’t started also using my mom’s last name, Hernández. So I said, “Walter Thompson” and the cops were like,
Voice: “That’s not your name.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: They thought I was lying to them. They thought Walter Thompson sounded like an eighty-year-old white dude’s name. And, now that I’m thinking about it, they were kinda right.
Aloe: I remember them asking me about that.Voice: “So what’s your friend’s name?”
Aloe: And I was like, “Bezoe.” [laughing] ‘Cause I’m not trying to give up your name. I didn’t know what you said. So I was like, “Bezoe.” And the cop was like,
Voice: “Stop fucking around.”
Aloe:I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know his name.” ‘Cause I was like, “Maybe he’s not gonna give his name.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So Aloe and I start laughing at the cops for not believing me. But the cops? They didn’t think it was funny. They got mad, and they got frustrated –
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And put us in separate cars and took us back to the station. I went home after three hours. But Aloe? He was there for almost 3 days.
[Spray can ambi]
Sight: People can just know me as Sight. S-I-G-H-T.My mom kicked me out when I graduated from high school. She kicked me out because she felt she couldn’t afford to take care of me anymore. So here I am thinking I'm about to get ready to go to community college. Nope.
I used to sleep in my homie’s garage. I used to sleep in the garage with the dog right here on Normandie and 76th, ‘cause he couldn't let me stay in his house but he was like, “Hey, I got a garage.” And me and sometimes me and the dog would fight over who would sleep on the couch.
That's where graffiti really kicked into high gear because I was out, depressed, lonely, hungry. And this is the only thing that kept my spirits up, letting that trauma out, doing graffiti.
There’s a human need to express yourself. Unfortunately, the lower classes and the impoverished don't have the spaces and the walls to just be creative. They don't own nothing. They can't write on their own apartment building, they gonna get kicked out. They don't have a house to do it in the backyard. So where they gonna do it at? The streets are they canvas.
Ambi of Joe scrubbing graffiti fades under: “Look it: they got stars, and they got — they got can control. It’s popping at the top. This is somebody that’s been in the game for a while. This is nice.”
Joe Connolly: Once I started noticing it and all that, I got interested in it. And then I started studying it and going out mainly with taggers.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “Isn’t that some shit?”
Joe Connolly: I said, “Look I just want to travel with you guys.” They’re like, “Oh, fuck you stupid white boy.” I’m like, “Okay. Well, I’m gonna learn about this no matter what.” I said, “I just want to learn.”
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “See that? See where it’s skinny and it goes up like that and it pops right there with that little circle? That’s called ‘can control.’”
Joe Connolly: There’s nobody, I don’t think there’s anybody in the world that gets graffiti like me. I don’t-I don’t-it would take a lot.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “Oh, man. Look at this. This stuff is–this is stuff on top of stuff on top of stuff.”
Joe Connolly: A lot of people get — they don’t get that graffiti has to start with all these tags, and then it moves to a throw up and then it can be a mural, then it can be a burner, it can be a — a production, you know, and so only a small amount of people are gonna be able to get the art side of it, the real art side of it, whatever that might be and then make a living at it, and that’s cool. But if they aren’t allowed to tag, they won’t get there, and the world would really suck if we didn’t have graffiti.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “I mean okay yeah some of this stuff takes a while to get to. But if you get out every day it takes no time.”
Joe Connolly: I don’t get excited by graffiti. It doesn’t bother me that it keeps going up. It has to go up, otherwise the artist can’t emerge, and they should be entitled to emerge. I mean it’s-it’s-and a lot of them their stories are interesting to hear.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti: “Well, kind of can read it.”
Joe Connolly: So why would I keep painting out graffiti if-if I enjoy it? Because A) they have to do it. 2) They expect it to get painted out. And 3) kind of gives them a fresh canvas to keep going.
Ambi of Joe cleaning graffiti fades out
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It all sounds like bullshit to me, too. How could somebody love graffiti soooo much and spend every day destroying it? It just doesn’t really add up — right? It sounds like something he says in front of taggers so that he won’t get beat up.
Voice: “Hey, Thompson. Your mom’s here. You’re out.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: After getting arrested that night with Aloe, I changed my life. My mom was the reason. She picked me up from the station at 6 a.m. And it wasn’t the first time. But there was something about that night that was different. She looked worn out. She looked like a mom who had no more fight in her. I was really tired of disappointing her. I was afraid of her being afraid for me. And I knew I had to change things up.
Aloe: I remember trying to call you, and like you were avoiding me. And then I finally got ahold of you, and then you said something like, “Oh, I’m just kind of busy right now.” And I was like, “You? Busy? For me? What the fuck’s wrong, what’s going on right now?”
[SFX of answering machine: “Please leave a message after the tone.” Beep.]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I stopped answering his calls.
Aloe: Yeah, like you pretty much ghosted me from right there.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I started going to class again.
Aloe: It was just like, yeah, what the hell, dude?
[Answering machine: beep]
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I started playing basketball again.
Aloe: So I’m getting teary as I’m s-saying this right now.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And I quit weed and stopped drinking, too.
Aloe: After that, I just-I think I couldn’t find anyone else to really connect with. And then I actually started getting more into like fighting for some reason. I was never like a big fighter, but all of a sudden I’m like Mr. Macho Man, and I want to fight everybody.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: My best friend and I wouldn’t see or talk to each other for 17 years. It was one of the hardest choices I ever made. Because I left friends behind who I considered family. And it hit the hardest when I’d see their names on the walls and not my own. It felt like they had carried on with their lives and forgot about me. And it was harder because deep inside I knew that it was something that I brought upon myself.
I left a world where I was completely seen only to re-enter a world where being seen wasn’t guaranteed. And for a 14-year-old, it was all really confusing.
I wanted to change. And soon the entire L.A. graffiti world would also change.
MIDROLL BREAK - 18:28
Walter Thompson-Hernández: By 2006, Sight had briefly stepped back from graffiti. He was no longer homeless, but his mom was. He was working to save money to buy his mom a home because he wanted to rescue her from the parks she was sleeping in. He was going to school at a community college and working two jobs.
Sight: And my grandmother was like, after she saw how productive I was and how serious I was, she was like, “Look, why don’t you just live here?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: About the time I walked away from graffiti, what used to be a misdemeanor offense was now a felony. Graffiti artists started doing hard time for their art. Some people in L.A. referred to this time as a “Terror Campaign.” It’s when taggers’ homes were reportedly being raided like they were drug dealers, or members of a violent gang.
Sight: It was a perfect sunny day at South Central L.A., as Ice Cube would say, and a couple days before Thanksgiving, 2006.
Sight: You hear loud bangs on the door. I’m-I’m in the bed neked, asleep. My auntie go open the door. I told her, “Don’t open the door. I don’t know who that is.” She opened the door anyway.
Sight: Police come in looking like they’re in war gear. There’s like seven, eight of them. They got assault rifles with beams coming out of them.
They pull me out, and into the main den. And they’re like, “Where are the drugs, and where are the guns?” I’m like, “There is no drugs and guns here. You got the wrong person. You guys raided the wrong house. There is no drugs or guns.” They’re like, “Where is the guns and the drugs?”
They’re tearing up the whole house. They put some shoes on me, no socks. Pants, no belt. Shirt. Handcuff me.
Sight: They walk me outside. They got a whole neighborhood outside watching. You know how nosey people be.
[Car door closing, car starting and driving away. SFX of police station and white noise]
Sight: They took me down to the Sheriff’s station in um Watts, and they were high-fiving, man. They were high-fiving. They were like, “Yeah! We got this dude. We’ve been looking for this dude forever.” I’m like, “Wow.” And through my head I’m like, “I didn’t know graffiti was this serious.” If I knew graffiti was this serious, then I would have not have been messing with it.
Sight: They get me into an interrogation room. I don’t know no law. Sit me down.
Sight: They sit down a folder of paperwork about 6 inches tall, all photos of stuff I did in L.A. And they open the folder, they show me pictures. I’m like, “Dude, this is all, stuff is all, stuff is old, dude.” They were like, “If you date these to a more recent date, we’ll let you out today.” I’m like, “For real?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: But it wasn’t for real. Sight was charged with multiple counts of non-violent felony vandalism. He says the evidence he signed ended up being used against him in court. According to him, they had him date pictures of his tags to a more recent time, to land within the statute of limitations. Sight was facing around 30 years in prison. So he did what he had to do and took a deal for eight years and eight months. His sentencing was just part of the city’s draconian anti-graffiti movement. And multiple hometown heroes like him were arrested.
Archival: City attorneys say it’s about time taggers are treated like criminal gang members.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: In ‘09, then-LA City Attorney, Carmen Trutanich, had a mission to go after writers. He and his staff began to gather street-level intelligence, and prepared injunctions targeting graffiti crews.
While Sight was in prison, a lot of taggers reached out to him to provide support, including one he didn’t know that well...but who I used to be really tight with.
Sight: Aloe wrote me while I was in prison. I met him only once in person on the Venice bus. I never hung out with him like that.
Aloe: He went to he went to prison for something that we were all doing. Like we-that could have been any one of us is what I'm saying. So it's like, you got to pay respects-respect to him.
Sight:For him to only meet me that once or twice and then want to be like, “Hey, I'm gonna reach out to this dude.” All I can say is graffiti did that.
Aloe: We wrote together every yeah like three weeks or so.
Sight: What am I doing, how’s everything going?
Aloe: Just trying to see where his mind was at.
Sight: It felt good, man. I felt like I wasn’t alone and I felt like graffiti is bigger than what, it’s more than what people think it is.
I was in there for about five years ‘cause I was like good behavior. Fire camp. All that stuff.
And then he was like you know, I think a year or two before I got out, he was like, “I’ll-I’ll pick you up from um prison.” And he did that. He picked me up, got my first meal, took me down to Venice Beach.
Sight: Breathe in the salty air, hear the crash of the ocean, put my feet in the water. It was good, man, but I felt-I felt broken. I felt vulnerable.
Sound of Joe showing off his cleaning supplies fades under: “This is just all of our stuff to get rid of that-that graffiti. We think. We think this is all we need. We’re not 100% sure.”
Joe Connolly: Well, the city, you know they-they I hate to say it. They killed my kid. To this day they never apologized about that.
He went on a school field trip and-and uh died in a drowning incident. They had told all of us there was gonna-there was never gonna be any swimming up there. The way it happened and all the things that happened in the city, the city could have helped me, and they never chose to help me. They chose to desert me. They’ve never said, “We’re sorry about your son.” That’s-that’s I think one reason why I stay in graffiti abatement is because I’m not able to fix my life because you can never control...it’s like trying to herd cats. You can’t control shit.
So I can control graffiti, which makes people’s lives better. So for me it just, I spent probably a small fortune on it, but it really saves me mentally.
Joe showing up cleaning supplies back up
Walter Thompson-Hernández: By 2015, I was working as a journalist, and writing about race and identity. One day, I received a call from a childhood friend, Niki, telling me about the company she had just started in Compton. Niki’s company was primarily hiring undocumented workers and formerly incarcerated people – two groups of people who live with the most stigma. I walked inside of the lobby and saw a framed newspaper article featuring a black man standing in front of a graffiti wall. I took a step closer and he looked really familiar. I took another step forward and noticed that the wall read: S-I-G-H-T in big and bold letters. It was Sight. “Oh, damn. That’s Sight from Scared Straight.”
“Do you know, Sight?” I asked Niki.
“Sight?” she replied. “Yeah, he works here. He’s actually in the back driving the forklift. Let's go see if he’s back there.”
What are the odds?
The three of us went out to lunch that day and we began reminiscing about Scared Straight and graffiti. Something told me to ask Sight about Aloe because there weren’t a lot of other black graffiti artists, so what do I have to lose? “Aloe?” Sight quickly replied. “Yeah that’s my boy.” And my jaw dropped to the floor. “Give me his number,” I said.
I called him, and nobody answered.
I went home after lunch, and later that day received a phone call from an unknown number. I answered and this mysterious voice asked: “Hey, is this Bezoe?” Aloe and I met up a week later at Urth Caffe in Downtown L.A. I was nervous and I was scared. Because even though a lot of time had passed, I didn’t know how he felt. Maybe he felt abandoned by me.
When I saw him he didn’t really look like Tupac anymore. He now had a fro and he tattoo sleeves half way down his arms. Honestly, he looked like he had been through a lot. But he still had the same charming smile and that same laugh.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: So much had happened since we last saw one another. He had gotten married. He had survived two drug overdoses. He was vegetarian. And, of all things–like of all the things in the world–he was studying to become a lawyer. A lawyer. We talked about our families, about food, and our friends. And towards the end of the night he looked at me and said he had something to give me.
Aloe: I was just like, “Hey, do you remember this?” And I remember your face was just like, wow.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: He handed me a slap tag — remember those post office stickers he talked about earlier? Well, I had filled this one out the same night we got arrested. Before that weird Hawaiian Punch craving. This slap tag had our names on it. It said Bezoe, it said Aloe, and it said our crews. And he had kept this one slap tag–through the years, through everything.
And now I have that slap tag. And it’s one of the most important things in my life.
Meeting up with Sight and Aloe prompted me to go see what our old nemesis, Joe, was up to. Maybe it was closure that I was seeking, I don’t know. So I found Joe on the internet, I contacted him, and I spent a few days with him.
Walter: How you doing, Joe?
Joe: I’m good.
Walter: I’m Walter. Nice to meet you.
Joe to dog: Hey!
Walter: She’s good? She’s a pit mix huh?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It turns out that Joe hasn’t changed. He’s still covering up graffiti, and he’s still doing it for free. I was wrong about Joe. This dude really surprised me. He lives in South Central with his wife and cares for an abused pit bull. I really expected Joe to greet me at the door with a red MAGA hat on but he didn’t. He does have an award from Trump, though. For graffiti abatement, of all things...
Tape of Joe showing off his award: “President Trump. Best guy in the planet for community-in the state of California. 40 million people and I’m the only one that’s got one of those in the state of California.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Anyways, Joe actually hates the government.
Tape of Joe Connolly complaining about the government: “These people don’t give a shit about our people.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What he means are everyday people -- working class folks and especially people of color. And Joe’s also really into fitness: he’s an avid bike rider, and a former football player from the Southside of Chicago.
Joe Connolly: Rudy, that fucking guy stole my story.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: What do you mean he stole?
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Remember the film Rudy? The classic?
Joe Connolly: That motherfucking guy stole my story.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: How?
Joe Connolly: That was my thing, man. I wanted to be a walk-on football player
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Where? At Notre Dame?
Joe Connolly: At ND.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And then what happened, Joe?
Joe Connolly: He got there three years ahead of me and took my shit. Craziness.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Oh, well. Here we are.
Joe Connolly: Yeah, here we are.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: I decided to bring Joe and Sight together because I wanted them to talk about how they perceived one another.
Sight thinks Joe was part of the problem, you know, just another white dude who was a part of the system to lock up black and brown people. Joe, on the other hand, had never met Sight, the human. He buffed out a lot of his pieces, but he didn’t know the man. He thought Sight was just another dude from the ‘hood who got caught up in the system. So I invited them both to my aunt’s house to talk because it was a neutral space. I wanted both of them to feel as comfortable as possible.
I mean, I really didn’t know what was gonna happen. Sight’s like, you know, somebody who is really chill and really mellow, but–
Joe Connolly: Sight! Get your ass in here!
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Joe’s kinda out there.
Joe Connolly: Let’s talk! Come on! How are you, man?
Sight: All right
Joe Connolly: So you still putting shit on the walls?
Sight: Yeah, yeah.
Joe Connolly: Are you really? That’s good. I like that.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: They sat at my aunt’s dining table and talked about what they agreed on...
Sight: Graffiti, when you're when you're looking at the outside of it is ugly, it's horrible. It's this and that. But once you...
Joe Connolly: Get in.
Sight: Step foot into that world, it’s a whole nother-a whole nother perspective on the matter. You will never be able to relate unless you hang out with graffiti artists or are a graffiti artist. You will never be able to relate. It will just be judging from the outside in.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: And Sight wasn’t messing around. He came ready. He even reached out to the graffiti community on facebook to see if they had any questions for Joe.
Tape of Sight reading a few questions ending with “But that’s Cal Trans…”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Some of the questions were really angry. Sight told Joe he was really hated.
Sight: A lot of people plotted on you. Uh, they plotted on your family.
Joe Connolly: Wow.
Sight: A lot of people went after your kids secretly. I can’t say who.
Joe Connolly: Ok.
Sight: And so it's almost similar to like, I don't want to say it...
Joe Connolly: Say it.
Sight: ...I don’t want to be disrespectful but like, you know how a cop goes out and shoots a kid or arrests kids. Um...and people feel that pain forever?
Joe Connolly: Yeah.
Sight: This is-it’s kind of like the same.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: It seemed like the news that people went after Joe’s kids really affected him. Especially since Joe had lost his son. He was physically shaken, and he really let down his guard. Joe revealed a different side to him that people weren’t used to seeing. It didn’t feel like a performance anymore. It felt like we were finally getting the real Joe.
Joe Connolly: After I lost my son, I lost my grandmother, my parents, my brothers, my in-laws, my sister-in-laws. A lot of artists, a lot of people I knew, a lot of people in my community. I mean, there was a time in, like, ‘99-’07/’08 where there was a lot of funerals. There was just so many funerals and it just, I mean, it's-it's a lot. And so I just-and then with a lot of things that mainly with my son, and there's still fallout from that, which is now almost-it's almost 21 years. You know and-and so I then I just really became a loner.
Sight: I don't mean to cut you off.
Joe Connolly: No, no, no.
Sight: You know, I've-I met a lot of different graffiti artists, and um at least about 1000 of them that I know or more have the same story as you, or similar.
Joe Connolly: Yeah.
Sight: And I'm listening to you. I’m listening to you. And what people don't know and people forget is any kind of painting is therapeutic.
Joe Connolly: Yeah
Sight: Um painting, doing art activates one side of the brain that helps heal trauma.
Joe Connolly: Yeah
Sight: You've been through some trauma. I feel that the more-the longer that person paints reflects how much healing they need and how much the ther-therapy that that painting provides. I still do it because I still suffer through trauma.
Joe Connolly: Yeah.
Sight: That has not been rooted yet, uprooted, so...and I see it in you. You might not be doing graffiti, but you are painting over it.
Joe Connolly: Oh, yeah.
Sight: Yet it is still in a way therapeutic and provides a sense of relief. And the other side of that it’s fun. It’s competitive.
Joe Connolly: It is fun.
Sight: And there’s some people that are game. And some people that are not.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: In that moment, I think Joe finally felt seen and heard too. He wasn’t the in-your-face Joe, the wild Joe, the ra-ra-ra Joe, you know. He was soft. And gentle.
And Sight? I’m pretty sure he felt the same way, too.
People see walls with graffiti on them and think that the people responsible for the tags are criminals. But It’s hard to know that there’s a whole life behind the spray paint that emerges on the wall. And to be real, it’s impossible to see the things that people are dealing with at home. It’s already hard enough being a teenager. But imagine not having a way to express yourself. That’s really hard. Some see it as property damage. But what about the damage people are experiencing in their own lives? Each piece of graffiti is a window into someone’s life. Sometimes though, the window is hard to see through because there’s writing on it. But each window and each wall tells a different story. The walls are the first thing I see when I travel to a new place. They tell me everything I need to know about where I’m at. They alert me of danger, tell me who lives in that community, and who I need to be aware of.
Walter Thompson-Hernández: Let’s go back to that bus. Spring 2017. I’m on the 733 bus line, and we’re heading west on Venice Blvd. I’m sitting in the back of the bus. It’s the early afternoon, and there’s nobody else sitting next to me. I’m listening to music on my headphones, when I notice an old friend hop on. It’s Ivan. And we used to be in the same circles when I used to tag. Ivan hasn’t changed one bit. He’s still wearing oversized t-shirts and still speaks from the side of his mouth like he used to. And his hair is still cut really low. It’s been more than fifteen years since we last saw one another.
Voice: “Oh shit, what’s up man?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: We dap each other up and hug. And he sits right next to me.
Voice: “Ey……..you still write?”
Walter Thompson-Hernández: When Ivan asked me if I still wrote, I paused. Because, the truth is, nothing’s really changed. I am still writing. I’m just not writing on walls or buses or freeways anymore. But, I’m still writing to be seen.
“Yeah…” I told Ivan. “ I do still write.”
The lead producer for this episode is Elizabeth Nakano.
Supporting Producer Tamika Adams.
Our Editor is Arwen Nicks.
And our Senior Producer is Megan Tan.
Our Sound Engineer is Valentino RiveraOriginal music by Andrew Eapen.This episode was written and reported by me, Walter Thompson-Hernandez with help from Elizabeth Nakano.
Angela Bromstad is our Executive producer.
For more information on this episode of Scared Straight, go to LAist.com/CaliforniaLove.
California Love is a production of LAist Studios.
I’m the host Walter Thompson-Hernandez. Thanks for listening. I really appreciate you.
[LAist Studios Sonic ID]
This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.