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It was during the early 80’s when the graffiti movement finally graced Toronto’s urban landscape, with it giving birth to one of Toronto’s (and Canada’s) most famed and respected graffiti artist. SKAM’s journey has been nothing short of miraculous. With the odds stacked against him, from living on his own since 18, to having a family that didn’t support him, and compounded by the reality that his only social circle was that reflected in his association with youth gangs, how did he ever make it?! To that there is only one answer from SKAM:
“Graffiti saved my life! If it weren’t for graffiti, I would have probably been into drugs or other criminal activities.”
So thus began his incredible story: for 2 years, SKAM began tagging as much as he could to get his name out there and more importantly, to gain the respect needed from the tight-knit community of artists. It was in August of 1993, having watched a feature on Rap City that he discovered the “Hall of Fame” (a famed stretch of wall between Dundas Street West station and Keele Street station) and did his first piece. And the rest is history.
Today, SKAM is not only one of Canada’s most praised graffiti artist but he is also co-owner of Livestock on Spadina and Adelaide. The man, who came up with nothing, has truly defied all odds to become something.
We had the chance to sit down with this Toronto OG and reminisced about the past, present and future…
How did you become part of the graffiti culture?
I grew up listening to the likes of Rakim, Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy so I was heavily into the Hip-Hop culture and B-boying, my older brother got me into all that. My first hit of graffiti came when TYKE, a famous L.A. graffiti artist came up to Toronto to visit his cousin in ’92, who happened to be a good friend of mine. That’s how we met. That’s also the first time I saw someone actually do graffiti in front of me. I was totally amazed…Then I thought to myself that why didn’t I do this before?! I was in art school and loved hip-hop, it was the perfect match. So I picked up a spray can and started taggin, this was when I was 18. By the mid-90’s you couldn’t go anywhere in Toronto without seeing my tags, I was truly allcity. Every other night I’d go out with paint and just tag the city. I was actually wanted on Crime Stoppers by the mid-90s.
For someone who doesn’t understand the culture, what do you get out of “spray painting” some building’s wall and what does this achieve?
I had a really rough childhood, I lived on my own since 18 (92). Back then there were no jobs, internet etc nothing for a kid to do. It was HARD! I truly grew up in hard-knocks. I was raised old school with a lot of abuse in my family. It didn’t help that I was an Asian kid in Hip-Hop scene. Back then Hip-Hop was a black, white or latino culture. I went to Central Tech. back then it was the 3rd biggest high school in North America and we had metal detectors, that was a big thing back then. Not now when all that is very common.
So when I got into doing Graffiti, it was my escapism. For the first time, someone said I was actually good at something. All my life my parents were totally unsupportive and didn’t believe in anything I did. Fact is GRAFFITI SAVED MY LIFE! I swear if it weren’t for it, I would either be dead, addicted to drugs, or in jail. When graffiti entered my life I moved away from the life of crime, and concentrated on the art.
What’s the story behind the name SKAM/SCAM?
It basically speaks for itself, before I got into graffiti I used to rack a lot. I actually hung out with Vietnamese gangs back then…we were doing crazy things, breaking and entering, stealing car stereos etc. I had to do what I had to do to survive back then. So when it came to coming up with a name I thought to myself what am I good at, “I’m good at stealing”. Also it helped that it looks aesthetically good when I write it out. I started off writing SCAM (with a “c”) but got bored so I switched it to SKAM (with a “k”) in ‘97
When I started there was no support, very underground. We were stealing paint unlike today where you can buy special paints developed specifically for graffiti use. There was no internet, no art shows or festivals. When I first began, I had actually thought that I was the only graffiti artist in Toronto, but I soon found out that the scene had been in the city since the early 80’s with OG writers like Kid C, Pez, Galooch, Ren, Cyber and TCM crew. These were OG heads that I looked up to. It was a very tight knit community back then unlike now where there are 100’s of graffiti writers.
Was there and is there still a code that taggers live by? The do’s and don’t as you will when either creating a piece of art (i.e piece) or simply tagging a wall with your name?
You don’t write on religious buildings, people’s cars or houses. Apart from that, the rules are the same as it was back then. You can’t go over someone if you can’t burn them. Don’t go over kings, OG’s or old tags that have been riding over 10 years. Consequence is beat downs if you are found…(laughs). I ain’t gonna lie, it’s true. Either that or your shit gets ragged. In the States it’s more serious, you get killed for that bullshit. But then again, the situation in the States is a lot worse. You can’t buy spray paint readily in the States, it’s all locked up, you gotta ask the store manager. In Chicago they have a ban against spray paint, you can’t buy any in the entire city!…you gotta head to another city or outside the city if you want to buy spray paint.
Graffiti moved to NYC in the mid 70’s and is considered to be one of the 4 main elements of hip hop. What part does graffiti play in the Toronto urban/hip hop culture? Do you see them as 2 separate entities or do the 2 art forms have the same connection as in the states?
They don’t really combine here in Toronto… only old heads that know can appreciate it. For the most part they don’t know about graffiti… the culture is so different here, it’s all about the music and hype. Not the 4 elements. All show biz. People need to know that there’s no element that’s stronger than the other, it all has to work together, and only true hip hop heads know that.
As an internationally recognized artist, what are some basic steps for someone that wants to begin tagging?
To tag you do have to go and do illegal hits, that’s just the reality. You have to pay your dues on the street. You have to commit vandalism, that’s just the reality. I’m not telling anyone to go do illegal shit, but that’s the first step of getting respect in the graffiti game. Unlike music, there is no demo tape or anything thing like that, it’s all on the streets. You gotta bomb your name a few 1000’s of times to get any respect. It helps to watch older movies like “Style Wars” and check out books like “Spraycan Art” or “Subway Art” and do as much research as you can. Also graffiti is all about lettering, that’s the first rule, characters and fancy backgrounds are second to the art of lettering.
It varies, sometimes I sketch before hand and sometimes I don’t. Nowadays with over a 1000 plus pieces under my belt I just free style. I get inspiration from anywhere and everywhere: fashion, art, music etc.
Graffiti culture has been and still is associated strongly with gang culture. What are your thoughts to those that consider them one and the same?
Graffiti started in the hood by kids who wanted to get away from all the violence, drugs and poverty, something to uplift themselves. In graffiti there are crews, ignorant people call them “gangs”. Reality is that if one crew trespassed on another’s work, it could lead up to violence. (But this “gang culture” is not the same as the stereotypical definition of gangs)
What differentiates what you do from gang art? (as an artist and to the general public
You don’t really see it that much in Toronto; West coast (Los Angeles), yes. Gang art usually tends to be boxy, and has its own style of calligraphy and usually only use one colour. It’s never a piece (i.e mural of any sort, just the gang name) and never in full colour. Typically, they use block letters, and very Mexican style calligraphy. It’s easy for anyone to tell the difference.
There was an interview done with a local artist and he was asked about his feelings towards the scene in Toronto. He was quoted as saying that the scene here “sucks” and that “most Toronto writers are garbage because there’s too much bombing without style in the city.” What are your thought on that? (Is this a true statement about the Toronto scene?)
Yeah it’s kind of true, but that’s probably cause he didn’t go in the right areas. Graffiti is a special thing to members of our crew; we sometimes do murals in the middle of nowhere where no one will ever find them, secret spots. I know if I came as an outsider, I’d say the same. The common areas of the city don’t represent the true reality of the culture here in Toronto, I would have to take you on a tour.
There’s almost a contradiction when on one side the city of Toronto actively supports events like Manifesto and Illuminato featuring graffiti work, while on the other side, there’s a city bylaw that essentially outlaws the basic origins of graffiti (freedom of expression)? Is there a median between the two opposing sides?
People are very ignorant. People love to combine graffiti and gangs. Most community mural project organizers automatically think spray paint use is graffiti related, and can’t understand it’s a tool for some artists. If we did the same pieces with a brush it would be OK. All these government officials are anti-spray paint, as a result as it stands right now, that won’t change, not until an open-minded younger generation makes its way into political ranks.
How did you get involved with the sneaker game?
It all started on my many solo trips to NY in the early-mid 90’s. I’d go down there to better hone my skills and get inspiration from the heads down there. So naturally I found and bought sneakers down there and brought them up. Most of the kicks I bought weren’t available in Toronto at that time, so I would get mad props for my sneaker game. Back in 96-97, there was an Uncle Otis on Queen Street. Being an artist, I bought a lot of underground brands; which introduced me to Uncle Otis in the first place, as that was one of the only dope shops back in the day. I was close with the staff there too. One day I walked in, and they told me that they were looking for an employee and that they thought I would be a great fit. That was the first opportunity in fashion (boutique). The company was bought by Vice magazine in ’99 and by 2000, Vice opened 4 more stores: one in Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles and in New York City. In 2001, the manager at my store got fired and naturally I was next in line to take his place. Soon after that, they started sending me on buying trips to Magic…soon after, I moved to Goodfoot. After a few years there, the guys at Livestock who I knew from my days as a buyer offered me an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse.
It was Amazing! In Feb’09, LV commissioned me to do a piece for the Bloor boutique in Toronto. It was a great experience; they gave me a lot of freedom and creative license, which was great because they loved the end product. It was a great experience. And to be able to say that you did something for Louis Vuitton is major, especially in the fashion industry.
The graffiti culture began to be commercialized in early 2000 (IBM in 2001, Sony in 2005), is this the next step towards the future for the culture or do you think it should remain underground?
I think it’s good for the culture, more artists can get paid. Now we can have a voice and make a living off of it. Not only that, but now people can actually choose to do graffiti as a career. Also I think it’s a good way to educate the ignorant people out there that think it’s all about gangs and violence. It’s art!
For someone that is an OG in Toronto’s urban culture, where do you see our graffiti scene headed?
Well, it’s been up and down lately. For the first time in 15 years, Toronto has no graffiti expo. There is no funding whatsoever for this art form and it is a shame. On the flip side, you see it a lot more in different media (TV & print).
In the 17 years that he’s been in the graffiti culture, like the inner-city youth of the Bronx in the early 70’s, he turned negative into positive…turned nothing into something. He is living his dream and doing what he loves. How many of us can honestly claim that?
** SKAM: big shout outs to my Livestock family and all the hip hop crews that I represent. **