Focusing on the collective unconscious of Los Angeles, Ryan Graeff, aka Restitution Press, aims to provoke and challenge the status quo to improve and be a catalyst for change. Born with a last name that is short for graffiti, the edgy artform has a central role in Graeff's story, and was instrumental in both building up -- and destroying -- aspects of his identity. It's a story that comes full circle when Graeff’s focus on being a positive influence in his community was only possible after falling into the lowest depths of the subculture.
Graeff grew up in El Segundo and the city of Los Angeles has continued to be an important home base for the artist. Whether it’s the city’s many landmarks, street names, or the diversity that fills its neighborhood, Graeff engages this urban environment through recognizable symbols, and cultural landmarks that he transforms into layered collages. The images are stiched together like memories lovingly recalled.
He took part in skateboard culture as a young person, and hanging out near the beach and listening to hardcore music were the earliest influencers on the aspiring artist. It was within these cultural activities that graffiti was first introduced to the inquisitive artist. “A few friends starting doing graffiti and it turned me on. Plus my last name was Graeff so it seemed like it was meant to be.”
After learning some of the basics with a spray can, Graeff had a new outlook on the city. “Riding the bus to school, it became an obsession. Looking around downtown and seeing all of it.” Graeff was still learning and during these early years he longed to create work of significance. While he didn’t attain a high skill level; he made up for it in aggressiveness and a willingness to keep creating.
Graduating from high school in 2000, Graeff moved north to San Francisco and became deeply involved in the graffiti scene. During this period, Graeff was introduced to a number of influential graffiti writers that became comrades in arms. Noticing how the public reacted to their work, he took note of how graffiti impacted his circle of friends in addition to the general public. The ability of folks to recall an image or artist’s name by memory was a significant accomplishment and Graeff attempted to achieve this himself by doing as much work in the streets as possible.
The Bay Area was in the midst of recovering from the dot-com bubble collapse and the city itself was experiencing some radical changes. According to Graeff: “It was a graffiti playground.” Graeff was determined to be successful and his independence and self-assurance won him points within his community but it also got him into trouble. Characterizing himself as a little wild: “It got more and more intense by joining a crew. The negative aspects of prison time and violence became more paramount. I could not keep up with it. My graffiti could just not keep up with the movement.”
The world was also changing and Graeff sensed that he needed to change as well. “After 9/11 everything changed. Security became paramount and nothing was accessible the way it use to be. I also wanted to be more positive and not take a negative path,” he says. The culture of the streets was eating away at Greaff and that’s when he decided to return home and apply for admission into the illustration program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
The act of graffiti is dangerous and expensive -- a combination that Graeff became frustrated with when the final product had such a short shelf life. “I needed to focus on something that is positive… going through some dangerous experiences gave me some perspective on my life.”
Enrolling in a design school was life changing for Graeff. The education he embraced in graffiti came to play in a significant way and was enhanced through his formal training: “It was an education about materials and it gave me source of existence.” Influential professors like Bob Kato and Tony Zepeda along with fellow students ABCNT and Andrew Hem became important mentors and collaborators. “The people and training gave me the confidence to make it on my own and make art about my life experience.“
One particular class assignment was especially influential and birthed a logo the artist continues to use to this day called the Bandit. Graeff was charged with creating a 2D image that was purposely iconic. He took what is now called a selfie with a digital camera by covering part of his lower face with a track jacket. The pose is something everyone did in graffiti culture when taking photos to hide their identity. Graeff “...traced over the photo in a naïve fashion and the balance of the black and white seemed to hit the mark.”
Later, Graeff explains that he was drawn to do something proactive with posters and he revisited the class project and enlarged them for outdoor installations. The emotion is different when doing posters than graffiti and the less harmful aesthetic and materials seemed to be a good fit for the artist who was determined to find a new way to express himself. The imagery stuck and led to thousands of posters distributed and invitations to exhibit in gallery shows as the movement of street art began to gain notoriety.
Through Graeff’s continued education screen-printing became another major influence. By haphazardly incorporating screen-printing into his designs he was able to produce multiples that were unique. This helped birth the Restitution printing and his own zine. “It was originally a way to keep friends together and to have a reproduction of the street art that we had done in the past.” Yet they grew to become desired art products themselves.
These artistic endeavors through the name Restitution Press became an obsession and Graeff printed on everything he could. “I like to teach others through provocation and stimulation, challenging the status quo through my own example. Restitution Press is a catalysts for change whether it be in their family, social circle or society at large.” This movement became a very positive contribution that has resulted in a recent mural invitation by the police department in the city of Inglewood. The 77th Street mural Graeff explains is “…the ultimate sign of love by bringing two cultures together. Someone needs to be a liaison to bring folks together and change the culture.” It’s a role that Graeff is determined to fulfill as he creates works that last and that also portray the beautiful and accessible.
Top image: Ryan Graeff, "Hermosa Beach," 2011.