Nineteen-year-old Erik DeBat says he used to get an adrenaline rush from doing graffiti, a high from knowing that his name was in so many places. He ran with a pack of ten other taggers who called themselves "Mad" and prided themselves on eluding the cops. On certain nights, in a location spread by word of mouth, they met with other packs of writers, pulled out their portfolios, and tried to impress each other with snapshots of their tags--the number, the locations, the bravado, the stick-to-itiveness, the colors, the angles, the art.
Now some of his graffiti-inspired paintings sell for $1,000 or more. He's stopped working in subway tunnels and on el platforms and moved to the basement of a Roscoe Village apartment building owned by his mother, who lives in San Francisco; he wears a ventilation mask against the fumes. And this month his work is starring in a show called "Graffiti 1990 and Beyond" at the Fun House gallery.
It started for him in grammar school on the northwest side nearly a decade ago. He was a white middle-class kid from a good home who was fascinated with underground culture.
"Graffiti was a natural step for me in 1984," says DeBat. "I grew up in the city and merged with all different kinds of kids. I was in the streets with Spanish and black kids, and I went to high school dances and started break dancing. Then came rap. Then graffiti."
He became a vandal, spray painting his nom de plume, "Risk," over and over, all over Chicago in every conceivable shade. In subway stations, he wrote even as trains were coming or while standing precariously near the third rail. His name was along rooftops in every neighborhood.
His friends were doing the same thing. "We'd look in the backgrounds in movies for our names, in pictures in the paper. We got our names up so many times it was unbelievable."
In 1988 the cops cracked down, harassing and arresting taggers. The older taggers stopped, but Risk kept on. He realized he was going in a different direction than his cohorts: his work was getting good. All his allowance and money from a part-time job in an art store went to buy black-market spray paint (it's illegal to sell it to minors) for two bucks a can.
When the cops started making threatening calls to the DeBat family, Erik's dad, Sun-Times assistant managing editor Don DeBat, took action. The senior DeBat encouraged his son to contact area interior designers and get his work off the el platforms and into million-dollar town houses and suburban manors.
"My dad was sick of hearing stories of illegal murals," says DeBat, "and he wanted me to take on a positive approach and make money. So [designers] Bonni Morris, Shelly Barrad, and Jean Zoller got interested in my work. They were interested in something different. I enjoyed taking "the street' into homes and having it be acceptable. I started using more pastels and lighter shades."
The designers would give him swatches of fabric and he would come up with murals, which had the name Risk incorporated into the abstract shapes and flowing designs. "Half the time they didn't know they said anything," explains DeBat.
From there, DeBat was spotted by artist and Fun House gallery owner Craig Kersten, who was taken with his work and included it along with Keith Haring's in a show this fall. The current show is almost entirely DeBat's paintings.
These days, DeBat says, he's not above sneaking in an illegal mural when the spirit calls. (Sometimes he gets permission first.) Recently he and fellow tagger-turned-pro David Kaplan spent three consecutive weeks decorating a Wicker Park warehouse wall 9 feet high by 35 feet long. They worked from midnight until five from an adjacent rooftop, wearing old baggy clothes and carrying duffel bags filled with the tools of their trade. Just in case, they had $100 in their pockets for bail. The mural pictures a baby in a straitjacket with a can of spray paint nearby--just beyond reach.
"Your eyes adjust, but working in the dark makes you a better artist," says DeBat. "You learn how to follow the sketch in your head and how the color will look in the daytime. When you revert to working in light, it can only enhance your ability.
"There's a fine line between vandalism and graffiti art, but in time, character and different subject matter take over. Vandalism is just a scribble, just a name."
Occasionally, DeBat and Kaplan go through subway tunnels for old times' sake, looking at their work--or what's left of it. Sometimes they're shocked to see how younger writers have nearly covered their earlier attempts at immortality.
But DeBat hopes he'll get more chances at everlasting fame. He's been taking drawing classes at the American Academy of Art and plans to enter the Art Institute next year to study graphic design. His paintings have become less abstract, and he often draws fine detail with the paint instead of just pressing the nozzle. His work still has a "street flavor," though.
A few years ago, graffiti artists briefly became the darlings of the New York art scene. Aerosol-art paintings there were selling for $5,000 to $6,000. "The New York art world loved 'em and left 'em," says DeBat. "The kids couldn't relate to the ritzy people. They didn't know how to talk or act." The taggers' popularity died in the early 80s.
"What I'm doing now is sort of like neo-graffiti," says DeBat. "It's the second coming."
"Graffiti 1990 and Beyond" opens Saturday from 9 to midnight at the Fun House gallery, 1139 W. Fulton Market, and will continue through the end of December. The gallery is open 1 to 6 Fridays and noon to 6 Saturdays or by appointment. Call 226-4255 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Kawano.