The white-painted cinder block wall inside 808 Indoor Skatepark doesn't look like much, but it's got Robert Levering and his pals practically drooling.
Canvases like this one don't come along every day. The business owner actually wants graffiti on his interior wall. Leave your mark here, and it'll stay for years, forever maybe, or at least as long as kids keep riding skateboards and stubby bikes.
Such permanence is rare for street artists, whose work tends to be ephemeral, here one day and whitewashed the next.
His buddies are eyeing the wall hungrily, but no one gets to touch it except Levering, a 29-year-old plumber who goes by the name of Entake. His sobriquet derives from his appetite when he was growing up.
“I was always eating all the time and drinking, you know, soda pop or whatnot,” he says. “I couldn't stop. I'm a big boy. I had some friends who started calling me the Intake Machine. It kinda stuck.”
Even now, Levering is a burly guy, about six feet tall and with four months' growth of dark brown beard. His hair curls out of the back of a black ball cap, and he's wearing a black T-shirt over paint-spotted jeans and brand-new (and ill-fated) Nikes. He could be intimidating if he tried, but that doesn't seem to be his nature. He smiles too easily, laughs a lot. He says he loves his life.
As well he should. He's got just about everything he ever wanted: a good job, a wife he adores, two dogs, supportive friends … and this wall. This glorious, open wall.
As long as there have been walls, humans have felt compelled to decorate them. In that respect, Levering and company are building on a tradition that started thousands of years ago.
At a stretch, cave paintings could be considered an early form of graffiti. The images — representations of humans, animals, hands, spirals, hunters and more — predate written language and were designed using simple tools (spears, sharp rocks) and colors derived from organic materials such as berries, charcoal and clay.
As humans grew more sophisticated, so did the marks they left behind. Graffiti has been found in ancient tombs in Israel and throughout Roman-held lands. Examples exist in Turkey and Greece. Vikings left graffiti; so did the Maya.
In Pompeii, the Roman city-state partially buried in A.D. 79 by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, archeologists have discovered dozens of inscriptions that show our ancestors weren't all that different from us. Among the inscriptions are insults, sexual remarks and boasts. Many bear the names of the wits who wrote them.
“We two dear men, friends forever, were here,” reads one of the tamer tags. “If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus.”
Others are hateful: “Chie,” an uncharitable soul wrote, “I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than … they ever have before!”
At least one inscription laments the unwanted prose: “O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.”
There's just something about emptiness that compels humans to fill it.
The best space
The skate park is mostly empty. At this hour, it's a wonder anyone's here at all.
The park occupies a warehouse on NE 46 near Santa Fe Avenue. A couple times a month, owner Patton Simpson hosts a “lock-in,” an all-night skate party. The kids — most of them sleeping — are still here when Levering, his wife, Kim, and an artist who calls himself Germ arrive shortly after 7 a.m. Jan. 19.
They unload supplies from the trunk of a Chevy Impala and stand outside for a while, talking to Simpson and shivering. The temperature is somewhere north of freezing, but not by much. When they move inside, they find the warehouse scarcely warmer.
“Should I turn the heat on?” asks Simpson, an expressive man who seems much younger than his 39 years. “What do you think? Do we need some heat?”
Nobody answers. The obvious response is yes, absolutely, turn the furnace on, but no one wants to tell Simpson what to do in his own business. He resolves the issue a few minutes later, declaring that he's cold, so he's raising the temperature on the thermostat.
Anyone entering the skate park passes through the lobby and through another door, which opens onto a cavernous space. Beyond a pair of metal picnic tables and a chest-high wall, wooden ramps and platforms stretch off into the distance. Graffiti occupies several sections of the wall space — work done by other artists sometime in the preceding two years.
The best wall in the joint has been reserved for Levering. To the right of the door are a couple bathrooms. To the left, the direction you must turn to get to the actual park, is the blank patch he will fill. Because of the room's interior geography, you won't be able to avoid his art. It'll stare you right in the face.
Modern American graffiti has its roots in the past. Like the Pompeii inscriptions, much of it is subversive. It's funny to think about, but your grandparents or great-grandparents may have paved the way for today's taggers.
U.S. soldiers spread graffiti on a global scale during World War II, largely by repeating a common meme. Wherever they went, they scrawled simple drawings of a long-nosed man peering over the top of a wall. Each was accompanied by the same declarative sentence: “Kilroy was here.”
By the 1960s and '70s, graffiti was common in many of the world's major cities. It became attached to countercultural movements, punk rock and political causes. It was both a voice for the voiceless and an act of vandalism. Already, though, it was emerging as a confrontational means of artistic expression. As the 1980s neared, graffiti artists were finding appreciative audiences in galleries on the East Coast.
The latter decades of the 20th century gave rise to rap and hip-hop. In the early days, at least, it was a natural partner for graffiti; both were urban forms of outsider art, risky and young, each growing beyond its borders.
Casting a shadow over both was gang violence. Beyond a doubt, graffiti is bound up with gangsters, who tag public and private property as a way to expand turf and build reputations. A whole vocabulary, impenetrable to most Americans, is spelled out on tagged railway cars, commercial buildings, billboards, benches, street signs, bridges and more. At their simplest level, such tags identify members of gang sets, but they also threaten and taunt, generating real-world consequences.
Not all street artists are gangsters, though. Graffiti artists chafe at being lumped in with tagging thugs, particularly now that graffiti art is being sold by brokers and has found its way into the homes of celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera. Certain spray paint virtuosos, most notably British stencil artist Banksy, have elevated the form to the point where their illegally painted creations are valued as public art. One of Banksy's pieces, “Keep It Spotless,” sold for a reported $1.87 million at a 2008 Sotheby's auction.
Banksy is interesting, as well, because he has kept his true identity secret all these years. His work reveals him as a sly, witty, rebellious political and social commentator. Common targets include police and big business. In one piece, a man — poised as if to hurl a rock or grenade — instead is frozen in the act of throwing a bouquet of flowers. In another, a British traffic warden is painted on the working end of a steamroller, appearing flattened and surprised.
Other significant artists include King Robbo, who famously feuded with Banksy; Lady Pink, Daim, Dondi White and Blek le Rat, whose style Banksy often is accused of imitating.
The next great artist — or perhaps the world's worst vandal — may be painting walls in your neighborhood right now.
Paint and consequences
Levering doesn't waste any time.
Once his spray paint cans are arranged neatly on a folding table and work lights have been set up, Levering gets to it. He chooses a paint can, stares at the wall as if it's speaking to him, and sprays a rough outline across its surface — loops and spikes of color, overlapping one another, extending, sprawling across an area perhaps 25 feet wide by 8 ½ feet high.
It quickly becomes apparent that he's painting a stylized version of his nickname, Entake, in capital letters. Over the space of 20 minutes, he fills the first letter with green paint the color of toxic goo. Sickly spheres appear to float upon its surface; globules drip down.
“He makes it look so easy,” says Destro, 35, one of the artists who've gathered here. “I've been watching him for years. He's gotten so much better. It kind of makes me sick.”
Destro — stick thin with glasses and a couple days' stubble — is an intriguing fellow. In everyday life, he's a single father who owns a construction business, pays taxes and tries to be a good neighbor. There's a reason he won't share his real name, though. When he gets a bellyful of drink, he is carried along on a wave of anti-social rebellion and must find something to paint, even if — especially if — it's illegal.
“I'm kind of in a unique position,” he says. “Because I do construction, I know how much financial damage we can cause.”
Putting a dollar figure on illegal graffiti is tough. Replacing a stop sign that has been tagged beyond repair costs about $80, said Brian Maughan, Oklahoma County commissioner for District 2. Other items are harder to gauge. Oklahoma City contributes $100,000 a year to Maughan's anti-graffiti SHINE program, which puts people sentenced to community service to work scrubbing signs and hosing paint off public walls. The Community Action Agency donates cover-up paint; the city provides free water for the power washer.
Since the spring of 2010, SHINE has cleaned up 683 graffiti sites. Many require repeat visits. If you've ever wondered why so many outside walls are painted in shades of red or brown, it's because those colors best conceal graffiti remnants.
“To me, it's not art-looking,” Maughan said. “Most of it's just bad.”
Manik, 34, sits beside Destro on one of the skate park's battered picnic tables, sketching out graffiti designs on loose sheets of paper. Manik is clean-shaven and tidier than the others; a cloak-like scarf drapes artfully around his neck, and his pale fingers seem delicate.
He's married and has adult responsibilities, but his desire to paint leads him to commit vandalism, risking arrest, fines and incarceration. The last time he was stopped by police, he says, he was spray painting a bridge. Unlike Destro, who once plunged into a river to escape from the cops, Manik didn't try to run. An officer who checked his identification took one look at his birth date and shook his head. “This just keeps getting better,” he said.
Generally speaking, graffiti is a young man's game. Kids can afford the consequences; adults can't.
In Oklahoma City, vandals can be punished under a municipal code or state law. In practice, said police Master Sgt. Gary Knight, most cases are filed at the state level because the penalties are tougher. Those lucky enough to be ticketed by the city can be fined up to $750 and jailed for up to six months. Under state law, vandals can be convicted on misdemeanor (if damage is less than $1,000) or felony charges. The steepest penalty is a $1,000 fine and two years in prison, but victims also can seek restitution up to three times the actual amount of damage.
‘I can do better'
These days Levering only paints on walls with the property owners' permission. Often they're happy to see a blank space transformed into art. Sometimes they pay for it. He charges $100 an hour to paint murals; once he earned $1,000.
That's pretty good money for a kid who grew up poor.
Levering was raised on Oklahoma City's south side. His parents, alive and married now for 30 years, are loving and supportive, but they weren't always around; his father served in the military, and his mother suffered from chronic fibromyalgia, a pain disorder.
“Growing up, I would just go tagging around the neighborhood with my friends,” he said earlier. “I was always interested in the different lettering fonts that the different local gangs would have in the neighborhood graffiti. I'd think, ‘I can do better than that.' I really liked the art and doing Old English style letters. That's really what got me started.”
At age 14, he left the Crooked Oak school district and moved with his family to Moore, where he quickly became smitten with a friend's older sister. Kim, then 17, was a strikingly pretty, independent girl who had moved into her own apartment when her parents divorced.
The age difference didn't matter to him. He pursued her relentlessly for years, enjoying little success. Both dated other people during that time, but he kept circling back to her. Gradually she realized that she had feelings for him. One time, she erupted in outrage when she learned one of his girlfriends had punched him; Kim wanted to protect him.
Another time, she was lying out by the pool with Levering's mother. Kim, who has poor uncorrected vision, had removed her eyeglasses. She strained to see an approaching figure.
“Who is that?” she said admiringly. “I haven't seen a guy who looks like that at these apartments.”
Levering's mother laughed but didn't say a word. Only when the man spoke did Kim realize it was Levering. They began dating when he was 22 and have been together ever since.
He's been developing his art the whole time, of course, not only his graffiti but also sculpting with molding clay and painting on traditional canvases. He has painted and repainted the interior of his garage so many times the walls are smooth. Kim struggles to merge her aesthetic with his; his paintings fill the walls of their house. Art is his passion — he tries to spray paint a wall every weekend — but he doesn't expect to make a living from it.
After graduating from Moore High School in 2002, he enrolled at Oklahoma City Community College. After a year, he decided college wasn't for him. OCCC was significant, though, because it's where he met Merk, 29, a talented graffiti artist who has become one of Levering's closest friends and biggest fans.
When he left school, Levering took his first job with a plumbing company. Over the past 10 years, he has worked his way up through different jobs and different companies. He earned a recent promotion to superintendent of a commercial plumbing operation.
“It's crazy,” he said earlier. “I love it. I came from nothing, and now I have everything I want. Took a lot of hard work and hustle.”
Community of outsiders
Levering is hustling through the skate park painting.
“He's so fast,” someone says.
“Yeah, he's really fast,” replies another.
Across the way, some other graffiti artist previously spelled out “808” in shades of black and gray. It looks great, but it's much smaller than Levering's piece and took nine hours to complete. In the space of two hours, Levering has already filled all of his letters with color and is about to start adding the details that will make the picture pop.
Merk watches closely.
“We're pretty much the same,” he says of his friend. “Always wanting to go paint. All about painting and getting better. We're gonna paint until we can't paint no more. My boy would always be trying to stretch the limits of his art. Even the characters he's been doing lately, they've been pushing his limits.”
Levering's painting is pretty easy to read, as graffiti goes. The first five letters are clear, E-N-T-A-K, but the sixth one requires a little squinting and a loose interpretation of the alphabet to recognize as an E. It's in the shape of a fish hanging from a fishhook.
As Levering continues, his piece acquires a strange gravity. Painted goo drips from each letter, pooling in interior recesses and puddling on the floor. At the same time, some droplets appear to be moving horizontally. In the world this graffito occupies, Newton would've been pounded by apples hitting the top of his head and the side of his face at the same time. It's a cool effect.
God knows Simpson, the park owner, couldn't be more pleased. He's trying to learn how to paint, so he's been watching Levering like an apprentice. Simpson stands near Germ and Merk, shaking his head at times, lamenting that he'll never be as good as they are.
The fact that they're here at all, together with their other painting friends, speaks of Levering's abilities and reputation. These aren't guys who give respect easily. Some, like Destro, have anti-social tendencies. Most, like Manik, are fueled in part by adrenaline and risk. None have much love for the local, mainstream art community.
Yet they've found each other.
“At first, you know, it seemed like there weren't any other guys like us out there,” Merk says. “It was kind of lonely. Then we ran into each other one night, looking for a place to paint, and it was like, ‘You do this, too?' Then we started meeting more and more artists, and we realized that this is bigger than we thought.”
By the time Levering finishes the final detail, about four hours have passed. He steps back from the wall, tired but grinning, with paint clinging to his beard and new shoes. Simpson begins clapping. Others jump in briefly, and then the warehouse falls momentarily silent. The work lights continue to shine on the painting, brightly colored, boldly outlined, somehow electric and alive.
Is it great art? That's for someone else to determine. To everyone here it's amazing.
That's more than good enough.
It's crazy. I love it. I came from nothing, and now I have everything I want. Took a lot of hard work and hustle.”