Meet the Mayor. Alamo City graffiti icon Cien isn’t quite sure when he was first acknowledged as San Antonio’s prime ambassador of hip-hop culture, but over the years the title has stuck. For 12-ounce prophets residing in Bexar County and beyond, Cien is who you go to when it comes to aerosol art in San Anto, despite his Illinois origins.
“Coming up hip-hop-wise, I was into it since I was 5 years old,” says the Windy City native. “As far as getting involved, ’89 was when I started to get into graffiti as far as tagging. Mainly, I would say it was a competitive streak between friends just trying to get our names up and trying to do our thing without being involved with all kinds of other Chicago city life that was going on at the time.”
By 1993, Cien was painting every day, and he had graduated from basic tagging to crafting elaborate murals. He relocated to San Antonio four years later, where family awaited.
“I was kind of concerned about my sanity when it came to graffiti and the hip-hop scene,” says Cien, recalling the move. “A lot of things have changed. When I first moved to San Antonio, I was out in search of what I had back home. That feel, that vibe of the scene, and that vibe of the community within hip-hop. I was looking for these comforts, and they really weren’t there.”
The Mayor was 21 when he moved to San Antonio, and he eventually connected with other writers whom he considers friends to this day. In 2000, he co-founded the Laws Crew with fellow artists Supher, Supa, Duo, and Shek, who were all key figures in the success of the popular Clogged Caps Festival.
“San Antonio itself has a huge graffiti scene, and it influences a lot of Texas cities,” says Shek. “I’ve always felt a connection with expressing yourself and finding something like graffiti tied into it instantly. Defining yourself through style was intriguing to me, and trying to show that I have more style than anybody else, or just as much, meant a lot to me. So that was a real strong point that drew me towards that direction and stuck with me for the past 12 years.”
As hip-hop culture’s first element, graffiti has often been its most controversial. Earlier this year, Texas lawmakers proposed stiffer penalties that would cost a first-time offender his or her driver’s license and would net third-time offenders up to two years in jail.
“In Chicago … how they’ve dealt with their situation, and it’s always been that same idea of stiffer penalties,” says Cien. “The backlash is creating worse environments for the kids that are getting caught. These young kids, first-time offenders who don’t have anything on their record but this stupid little graffiti thing, are now part of this system that’s gonna drag them down as hard as it can. Half of these kids are looking for a home of their own, a place to fit in, and they’re gonna pay for it with their lives.”
For the past two years, District 6 City Councilwoman Delicia Herrera and council assistant Sean FitzGibbons have been working toward a compromise through the Gallery Bound Program. The innovative program pairs District 6 students and youth entangled in the Bexar County juvenile probation system with artist mentors such as Wendi Kimura, Aaron Moreno, Marcus Ramos, and Shek, culminating in an art show.
“The artist mentors are teaching these students to evolve as artists,” writes Councilwoman Herrera via email. “While some tagging can be beautiful, colorful, and take years of practice to perfect, it is still text-wrapping, glorified fonts, and most of it is wasteful vandalism. This program teaches these students to branch out and create art that comes from within, to stretch themselves artistically into creating something that is not only attractive but substantially important. We are teaching the participants that art can be meaningful and that it can create discussion and dialogue.”
“It’s my turn,” says Shek. “I’m at that point where it’s my turn to give back. I painted my first mural as a troubled graffiti youth with Cruz Ortiz on the East Side. That made a huge impact on me.”
“These kids sit in the gallery when it’s done, and they see it hanging on the walls, and you see it in their eyes that they are amazed at themselves,” Shek adds. “You’ve shown and brought something out of them that they didn’t even know they had. That’s the kind of programming that we need the city money going to, other than loads and buckets of crappy-colored buff paint.”
“I just hope that people can understand just a little bit more about what it is that they’re getting upset about,” says SA’s graffiti Mayor. “These kids are not aliens from outer space coming to invade your property. These are your kids. These are your neighbor’s kids. These are your co-workers’ kids. This is your family. You’re asking a lot if you try to get these people into trouble for something that doesn’t really mean that much. You’re hurting yourselves and your people.” •