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Beautiful City

Beautiful City: The Influence of Chaz

Dieruno / Wikimedia Commons

Chaz Bojorquez has been called the O.G. Godfather of Cholo graffiti. He started writing graffiti in Los Angeles in the early 1960s-- his first letters were that of his own name, but soon he moved on to writing placas, or roll-calls, of Latino gangs that were prominent at the time.

The most stylized of these placas used Old English, or Gothic, letters, listing the members of the gang, signifying the beginning of an occupied neighborhood. Compared to the colorful and complicated letterforms coming out of the East Coast a few years later, this type of graffiti can seem drab and overly functional. It’s actually a common gripe among graffiti artists that gang writing lacks style. But for Chaz, this immersion in what is essentially classical type became a passion and life-long journey to discover the secret of letters.

Chaz’s resume includes travel to 35 countries to study various calligraphic alphabets, a stint in art school, and numerous commercial sponsorships. His work has appeared in art galleries (including one hanging in the Smithsonian), but it's also on skateboards, Converse tennis shoes and other clothing. You might not have seen his letters, but you very likely could have encountered his signature icon, “Señor Suerte” or Mr. Luck: a smiling skull wearing a fedora and fur collar, with cultural significance in Latin America as a protector against death.

The common thread that runs throughout Chaz’s work, though, is the outstanding calligraphy. Ancient and completely modern at the same time, his letterforms force Gutenberg to stand beside the Aztecs, and they set the deliberate chants of medieval hymns to the rhythm of the funky drummer.

This mix of the measured and frenetic is a tension that Chaz has carried throughout his own career, to great effect. This opposition is also a perfect frame to view the rest of graffiti culture through: the extreme discipline of wild style, letters over words, the art of vandalism.

Chaz has made a career of essentially looking back to move forward, and young graffiti writers today could learn no better lesson than to listen to their elders.