At Nuart Festival in Norway HuffPost UK spoke with Saber, one the best-known graffiti artists in the world who can't reveal his real name. We found out why he's campaigning against Mitt Romney's 'coup' of his country, why he's hated by Fox News and why he knows the best way to hide from police helicopters...
"The arts are pretty much decimated in America, did you know that?"
I'm sitting in front of one of the most notorious graffiti artists in the world, and he's getting angry. Only two minutes after meeting LA-born Saber, he's already warming to a theme that has dominated his life and career - the battle for America's artistic soul.
"Then you have candidates like Mr. Mitt Romney saying that he would completely eliminate funding for The National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and NPR if elected, claiming they're a 'budgetary nuisance'," he continues.
"These things cost .003% of the budget, and Romney says it's a fucking budgetary nuisance! And so art is nuisance now in America, by the way - I don't know if you knew that, but art is a nuisance..."
A nuisance is how Saber's critics would describe him too - if they were being polite.
In late September this year, he pulled off the latest stunt in an ongoing protest campaign called #DefendTheArts. It involved sky writing slogans above the skyscrapers of LA, including: "Mitt Romney hates arts" and "Art creates jobs".
News and photographs fizzled around Twitter, where Saber's cause briefly flared up as a trending topic. It was, he says, as much an act of exasperation as anything else.
"I did the planes because in LA, murals are illegal. I can't paint in Los Angeles. So what do I do? I paint in the sky over their houses.
"The city government is so inept, they allowed billboard companies to lobby them to the point where they threw art under the bus and said murals are now 'signage'. So if anyone paints one, even on their own building, these sheriffs will come up with their guns and moustaches and harass the shit out of them. At the same time, the billboard companies have 4,000 illegal structures up in LA..."
In person Saber is one of the most charismatic and intense people you're ever likely to meet, a disarming mix of passionate activism and world weary nihilism - characteristics that begin to make sense when you consider his early years as a street art pioneer in one of the most unforgiving inner city environments in the world.
Throughout the 90s, Saber was a leading figure in an endless tussle between artists and the police to own the streets of LA, where a zero tolerance policy meant any graffiti found was removed and anyone caught with a spray can was prosecuted. The artists' reaction was to tag increasingly extreme corners of the city where their work would survive longer, literally risking life and limb in the process.
"We did things back then that were insane, we absolutely no concern for our own well being," he says.
"The city was so efficient at removing our existence, we said 'we're going to make it harder for you to get at'. That's when we began to utilise cityscapes in a way that advertisers could only dream of. Climbing was part of the evolution of graffiti that hadn't been done yet. No rope, no nets - if you fell, you fell, if you died, you died. I impaled myself in my stomach. I lost friends..."
All of which begs the question of why. What made it all worth it?
The easy answer, of course, is the thrill. In a city thick with sin, where gang and gun crime are part of everyday life, how does a young person locate a sense of rebellion? Looking back on his youth spent running away from helicopters (there's a technique to it that he's happy to share, mainly involving chasing shadows) and getting bailed out of jail, Saber admits: "The battle to fight the machine, to exist for longer, became relentless. The thrill became so addictive it grew into something that was unstoppable."
But there is a deeper motivation, and it's that which brings us back to #DefendTheArts, Mitt Romney and why today, as a fully grown, law-abiding father, Saber is still as passionate as ever about street art.
"Let's go back to the kids," he says, displaying a tendency to talk in theoretical anecdotes that reveal - ironically enough - the skills of a politician.
"A kid goes to school and all he sees is grey - palomino beige they call it, the colour of the new world order. What is that doing to him?
Saber at work, Nuart Festival, Norway
"There is a natural chemical response that happens when people see colour, or architecture, or a piece of nice ass - when they see something beautiful. Without that inspiration, you become dull, you become lost, you become desensitised in a way that is totally unnatural.
"It destroys your mind. It destroys you. Some young people do not have access to arts whatsoever in LA. They can go on the internet, but not all of these kids have access to the internet."
If such arguments seem like a luxury at a time of financial crisis, Saber claims there is a solid economical argument to be made too.
"The second largest export from the United States today is the creative industries - not goods, but intellectual property. And beneath the so-called gatekeepers of art are a lot of working class people that the art world depends on - right down to the guy who has to show up in a truck and package it. Yet in Los Angeles, they spend $30m a year actually eradicating art!"
Saber's anti-Romney stance isn't just rooted in his fear for art funding, but in the more personal issue of healthcare.
"I have severe epilepsy," he explains.
"I am managing severe health issues without any healthcare. I have lot of family members and friends whose lives have been completely destroyed, financially and emotionally, over the healthcare issue."
In response to this in 2009, Saber made a pro-Obamacare video that was used by the Democratic party as part of their campaign for health care reform.
It featured an graffiti painting of an American flag being steady covered in pro-healthcare slogans to the steady beat of a heart monitor, up until the point that it is completely covered, and the 'heart' flat lines.
Predictably, the right wing media seized upon the clip as being 'anti-American'.
"Fox News relentless attacked me for a week, spending over a million dollars on production value, just on me. The entire network joined in. The problem with America though it that people believed that shit, so I got a lot of death threats over it, people calling for me to have 'my hands cuts off.'
Despite this, Saber says he is a reluctant supporter of the president.
"I don't like everything Obama does. The supporting of these continued wars makes me fucking angry. But he at least continued the discussion of healthare debate. At least he disrupted the idea.
"If you get sick in America you plan to go bankrupt. You plan to lose your house. It's just the way it is. That why I love the NHS you guys have - I think it's fantastic. When I hear people complain that they had to wait a month in line I'm like: Dude, I had a hole in my stomach oozing fluid and I had to sit for 18 hours with a major wound - and that's nothing. I'll wait 5 years just for surgery."
So what does he think will actually happen in November?
"I hope Obama wins, but I'm worried we're witnessing a full blown coup of my country by a very small group of rich people. The president said he's going to increase funding for the arts, and he is a supporter of gay and women rights, so that's a good thing. But the religious fanaticism we're dealing with is really extreme.
"The birth control debate is mind-boggling - when you have a group of people who say they want 'small government', but at the same time say they're going to shove an instrument up your daughter's coochie and tell her what to do with her body - and by the way, if you're gay, then fuck you - how is that 'small government'? And quadruple the defence budget?! I don't understand that. My family are all hardcore Republicans, and even they don't understand."
Any conversation about graffiti comes with the baggage of crime, politics and society. But engaging Saber on the artistry of what he does is to be reminded that, regardless of what the rest of the world think, for these guys, it's first and foremost an artform.
"The technique of what we do gets underestimated. For example, a common misconception is that 'Saber' is me. It's not, it's a grouping of letter combinations, shapes and sizes that makes a very unique handprint. It's a mantra to tap into a free flow abstraction. People miss that and just think I'm writing my name.
A recent Saber artwork
"I start with the letter 'S' and it takes me on a journey of shapes, proportions, size, whips, cuts, angles that I have no idea how it'll come out. It's a cluster, a vision inside of me. The letters are a base you build from that gives you a sort of unlimited limitation. It's like jazz - you know the piece is justified by the proportions and the shapes, by the balance. A wild style graffiti piece equates to that exactly."
Being accepted as a painter, he says, is one of his driving forces.
"I want to log and capture this dialogue we're having and insert it into art history. The box of 'graffiti' and 'street art' is a piece of shit. I can't stand those names. I think they're disgusting," he says, despite using them frequently himself.
Here, Saber seems to be a victim of the inner conflict that affects many of the world's best street artists. They still love the thrill of painting illegally and the reputation that it gives them, but resent the fact that the connotations this brings divert attention from their skills as artists. "In America," as he says, "graffiti is a derogatory word."
Now older and wiser, Saber has no appetite left for climbing bridges and being chased around LA by the police. His reputation is such that he's respected not just in the graffiti world but in the corporate world, where's he's frequently courted.
"I have access to the richest people, the biggest corporations. I can call Toyota and say let's do a big project. That doesn't help me. Those things don't help me. I don't want to do those things. What I want to do is get these kids inspired. That's what has to happen in order to move things forward.
"It all comes back to graffiti. To an average kid wanting to be noticed, wanting to write on something. And it leads him down a path, and they don't even realise they're participating in a political act. A wonderful act of dissent."
Anyone who witnesses Saber rant against art cuts, Romney, Fox news and the LAPD might begin to wonder if America is really the country for him at all - a notion he quickly sweeps aside.
"The beauty of America is that I have the right to fight to change all of that. As ugly as it gets, I can say: 'I want to change this for the better'. So that's why I do love my country.
"I can sky-write over their house."
Suggested For You
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more