I KNOW ENOUGH about the world of graffiti to know that I know nothing compared to those who grew up taking very real physical risks on the streets to make their names known, often practicing their craft at night and in secret. Stefano Bloch is such a writer.
As a tagger — one who paints a nom de plume on virtually any city surface with aerosol, marker, or roller — he is the ultimate insider in an outsider subculture, a legend for his productivity and tirelessness; and his insight into this world is frank, compelling, and enlightening all at once. His new book, Going All City: Struggle and Survival in LA’s Graffiti Subculture, is a counterpoint to stereotypes regarding graffiti and an explanation of why he and others gravitate to it as a form of expression.
Bloch’s tag, “CISCO,” was an autograph on a city that never asked for it in the first place. Writing graffiti as fast, frequently, and as large as he possibly could was a way of defining his existence throughout the 1990s. Graffiti was a name maker, a call box, and a competition. In the broader world, graffiti remains a contentious societal issue, but within the subculture — as Bloch makes blazingly clear in his work — it also functions as social tissue: a bonding force that connected him to a tribe capable of providing structure and meaning where nothing else could.
“You can’t impress another gangster in any sort of measurable way without resorting to violence,” he writes, “but as a graffiti writer you could catch more tags, hit more spots, go farther, and get more fame. You could go all city.”
Throughout, Bloch proves himself a witness of extreme perceptivity, but he is more than that. He is also a tremendous writer of prose, clear-eyed in his intent to explain difficult circumstances, and he does so quickly and efficiently so that they might be understood by those who do not share the same background. His writing thrums with the keenness of earned insight on everything from the organized money-making schemes that fuel late-night bombing sessions to the realities of social structures in impoverished neighborhoods. And yet, as Bloch makes clear in the introduction, this is not a book about romanticizing, criminalizing, or intellectualizing graffiti; instead, it is primarily about his experiences and identity as a prolific writer, which is why the book’s timeframe spans years — from the beginning of his career, to the day he stood up in a courtroom to face a judge.
Going All City is ultimately a memoir tempered by the disciplined lens of ethnographic study. The author describes this practice as “mining memory to connect real-world experiences with scholarly insight.” And yet, rather than weighing the text down, or rendering it less readable, this added layer of insight is illuminating in its ability to connect the author’s experiences to historical and social forces around him. The applied critical lens allows its author a degree of detachment necessary to relate the frequently painful experiences of his youth. (In fact, it is only in the author’s note that Bloch briefly describes the emotional toll that this work took.) Clear and sharp, packed with facts and difficult-to-shake details, the work seeks not to push the reader into sympathy, but something much more important: to promote understanding, and even empathy. “If you, the reader, find the constant movement to new places and living situations confusing or disorienting, imagine how I felt. Stability, order, and coherence are luxuries many people don’t have.”
The work is all the more remarkable for it. These formative aspects of Bloch’s life experience, so frequently ignored in the broader Los Angeles narrative, would perhaps not be taken as seriously, to say nothing of studied, without such academic rigor behind it. And they deserve to be. Few works explore Los Angeles with the depth that Going All City accomplishes — and, at 240 pages, so economically — while also touching on the importance of art, the difficulties of family, and the struggle to belong.
This is perhaps why Going All City is, ultimately, a work of profound orientation. It provides a way into spaces and places not often seen or studied for what they are — multiple, overlapping worlds with codes and conflicting expectations of behavior (gang neighborhoods, graffiti crews, and more) — while commenting on social inequalities and structures that maintain a status quo that many, including the author himself, can find difficult to escape:
When we met, Cody and Jorge weren’t taggers or gangsters, just teenagers in the neighborhood. But people are intent on applying labels, so if you were not a gangster you were a church kid, a school boy, a party girl, or something. No one is nothing, and no one can afford to be seen as neutral.
Although Bloch skillfully deconstructs these overlapping social structures in the quote above, the phrase “no one is nothing” stuck with me throughout the book and seemed applicable thematically to the whole work as a statement of human value. The further I read, the more I realized that it could apply to all the people mentioned in Bloch’s work: his nomadic mother, his recidivating stepfather, his former crewmate turned friendly rival, and more.
This is also true of the author himself. He is not, and never was, nothing. What’s more, his decision to pursue education with the same zeal that once fueled his nightly bombing sessions enabled him to become something more: the most astute of witnesses, an expert at decoding and explaining the (at times invisible) societal barriers that keep people locked into certain forms of behavior while also pushing them to seek alternative means of expression.
Yet, for a book so meticulously crafted to fit within a broader tradition of study, with supreme attention to detail (e.g., the finished edition contains an author’s note, footnotes, an index of gangs, crews, and groups, as well as a glossary of tagging terms), failing to caption its photos with locations, artist names, or a brief note of relevance seems an unfortunate design decision. Occasionally, the photos can be deduced from nearby context; in other cases, however, they cannot. Failing to provide such information is the lone blemish on an otherwise hugely impressive work.
Going All City is a memoir, but it is more than that. It is an accessible autoethnographic study of a vibrantly visible but primarily silent subculture during a difficult time in Los Angeles’s recent history, but it is still more. Chaz Bojorquez, the godfather of L.A. graffiti, once likened graffiti on city landscapes to scarring, because “it shows you where it hurts.” Which is to say, the presence of graffiti makes it plain and obvious where people are hurting and being hurt. And this work, it seems important to say, is proof of that statement. It is a book of the author’s own scars. Its collective truth comes from healed wounds and a willingness to think deeply about how they occurred, to place them in a broader context so that others might learn from them. As a result, it is also a work of incredible generosity. Throughout its pages, Bloch is careful to speak only for himself, and is often at pains to place his lived experience in a broader social and academic context, all the while making clear that nothing is as easily categorized as it might seem in Los Angeles — not cops, not gangsters, and certainly not graffiti.
In many ways, this approach is what makes Going All City a work of enduring value, deserving of wide readership and broad attention beyond the academic world for many years to come. It is not a work for the fainthearted, for those who prefer to ignore certain areas of the city, or for those who already hold unchangeable views on what Los Angeles should be. Instead, it is a cogent, dynamically observed work on what Los Angeles is — especially in its most vulnerable areas — whether we like it or not.
What’s more, it deserves direct admittance into the nonfiction canon of Los Angeles literature alongside such works as Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside (2015) and Luis J. Rodriguez’s Always Running (1993). It is a work not simply of insight and gravity, but also of unflinching wisdom regarding those deemed to be the least of society — those who are not nothing — and what they have to offer all of us when given a platform to speak.
Ryan Gattis is the author of the novels All Involved (2015), Safe (2017), and The System (forthcoming: July 2020). He is a member of L.A. art collective UGLARworks, and a mentor in PEN America’s Prison Writing Program.