That’s only one side of San Diego, however. The other side, the side the transplants and tourists generally don’t see too much of, has a different story to tell.
It’s this side of San Diego that Rafael Reyes can relate to. Growing up in Sherman Heights, Reyes joined a gang when he was a teenager, getting jumped in against his will as a way to save his father from retribution for an infraction against another gang member. The gang became his way of life and his second family — his first family was more involved in graffiti.
That’s how Reyes came to be acquainted with the notorious graffiti crews of the 1980s and 1990s. His brother-in-law, a close confidant and highly influential person throughout Reyes’ formative years, was part of a well-known graffiti crew and went by the name Lotus Day. Reyes grew up in the midst of this world of crew battles — and the inevitable violence that comes with a life immersed in all things underworld.
Eventually, that violence and outlaw attitude landed Reyes in jail (the incident that put him there was unjust, he says, though he freely admits he has done plenty else that should have landed him in a cell for which he simply never got caught).
It was during his six months behind bars that Reyes had a change of heart. With too much time on his hands to ponder his life and the lives of his friends and family, he began to write down some of the stories he had heard or seen firsthand on the streets of gangland San Diego.
Reyes, who said he has always created art of all kinds — indeed, his portfolio includes sculpture, paintings, textiles and music, to name a few — dove into writing with all the fervor he has accorded to other art forms.
What he ended up with is “Living Dangerously,” a book that pulls together a series of fictional stories based on real-life events. The book is dedicated to, and inspired by, his brother-in-law, from whose standpoint it is told.
Reyes felt that though the stories themselves painted a vivid picture of life on the darker side of San Diego, the common subject of graffiti called for illustrations. Additionally, the people he wrote about loomed so large in the stories as well as in real life that he felt the book needed a sense of collaboration.
So Reyes approached all the graffiti artists he knew — with the stipulation that they had to have been part of a crew in the 1980s and they had to still be active in the scene. He asked those who were willing to create illustrations for each of the stories in the book, with the end effect being a book that perfectly tells — and shows — what life was like in that part of San Diego you won’t find on visitor’s guides.
“I wanted to take it to the streets and I wanted it to embody that lifestyle,” he said. “And I wanted to pay homage to all the real San Diego graffiti crews that I knew growing up, not the newer ones.”
The book is of a decidedly adult nature — it won’t be found on any high school reading lists. But it is clearly told from the perspective of an eyewitness to much of what goes on in San Diego behind the scenes. And it certainly contains a lot of heartfelt emotion, despite the violent backdrop.
Reyes, whose family owns Pokez Mexican Restaurant at 10th Avenue and E Street, has found creating the book has given him more than just another creative outlet.
“This book has been kind of liberating. It is changing my life in many ways — more than how I imagined it would initially,” he said. “It’s a story about the dynamic of human duality, how we all feel we can be greater and do more, but we get stuck in a rut because of our surroundings.”
Reyes is now working on getting the self-published book out there. Because of its adult nature, he hasn’t had much luck with more traditional means of distribution, but getting it into people’s hands, he said, is “the fun part.”
“The best thing I can hear about it is that it’s raw,” he said. “I wanted it to be real. I didn’t want to sugarcoat it. I wanted people to be shook up, kind of scared, because I wanted people to understand what San Diego graffiti culture is like. It wouldn’t do it justice if I didn’t paint a real picture of that.” It’s the real picture, however, that Reyes said brings understanding.
“Underneath all that violence,” he said, “is an undertone of love.”
Currently, “Living Dangerously” can be found at Pokez Restaurant and at Flying Panther Tattoo, 2323 Broadway Suite 101. Reyes is in the process of building a website and will be selling the book at www.theldbook.com in the near future. For more information, email Reyes at email@example.com.