At the summit of a steep incline in Elysian Heights, past an unassuming gate, down a slightly dangerous walkway, you’ll find a concrete landing that serves as the plein-air home studio of Gajin Fujita.
As the 46-year-old Japanese-American painter welcomes me to this lushly landscaped perch — with views that stretch from the Griffith Park Observatory to Koreatown — he leads me into a little shack outfitted with an L-shaped desk, stacks of stencil-making materials and a refrigerator-size rack filled with hundreds of cans of Belton spray paint in every imaginable hue, from telemagenta to Pussy Pink.
Fujita is utilizing this encyclopedic palette to render a stencil — based on an old Toyohara Kunichika woodblock print of a late-Edo-period kabuki actor — over a field of golden “spiritual language” written by his lifelong-friend and childhood neighbor Alex Kizu (aka Defer). It was Defer who initiated Fujita into the graffiti scene back when they bussed to the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), a magnet junior high school in Mid-City, from their Boyle Heights hood.
“Def lived right in front of Hollenbeck Park near the Sixth Street bridge, where he introduced me to painting on freeway walls,” says Fujita, noting the two were early members of the influential L.A. graffiti crews KGB (first Kingz of Graffiti Bombing, then later Kidz Gone Bad) and more recently K2S (Kill to Succeed), earning their stripes during the early eighties breakdance boom emanating from the Radiotron at MacArthur Park.
“There’s so much information flowing now, but there was more mystery behind graffiti writers back then because it was an incognito, illegal thing, so you couldn’t create some career on Instagram,” says Defer, joking. “Now they make cans and spray tips especially for graffiti.”
Faced with this reality, Fujita spent a few years after graduating from Fairfax High waffling — smoking pot, surfing and tagging the city from the Old Venice Pavilion to the Belmont Tunnels west of downtown. Though he’d grown up watching his father show his abstract landscape paintings at small galleries and Buddhist temples around the Los Angeles area while observing his mother restore the urushi lacquers on Japanese antiquities, it was only after spending time at the downtown Arts District studio of Matsumi Kanemitsu — the father of his K2S buddy Skept and a painting teacher of Fujita’s father at the Otis College of Art & Design — that he decided to study art full-time.
Image: Artist Gajin Fujita poses in front of one of his pieces. (Jim McHugh)