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Graffiti art earns space in Oklahoma City's cultural landscape

Graffiti artist Robert Levering and his friends are challenging traditional criticism of their art form.
by Ken Raymond Modified: March 1, 2013 at 1:25 am •  Published: March 4, 2013

“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.

by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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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.”

Robert Levering,

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