Bombs Away – Saber
There isn’t a hell of a lot separating the realms of tattooing and graffiti. Both methods of expression have traditionally been shrouded in secrecy, with an unavoidable stigma of taboo from the general public. And as good as you might be, to many your work will never will be anything but desecration. Graffiti legend Saber knows that all too well. At 32, the iconic Los Angeles–based street bomber has been through everything from jail to personal injury in his quest to be regarded as a serious artist. And even now, with a handful of “legit” projects under his belt, the struggle still continues.
A true product of his environment, Saber’s creative influences infiltrated his psyche at a very early age. Born in the suburbs of Los Angeles, he spent much of his youth in the shadow of his parents’ advertising agency, which operated right out of their Glendale home. And while Dad was an accomplished art school grad, it was Mom’s time at Don Post Studios, a renowned supplier of latex and animatronic movie props, that brought the dark, futuristic vibe to Saber’s style. “I grew up playing with the real Alien creatures,” he remembers. “[My mom] had the original face-hugger in her office, so I had some pretty exotic ideas around me.”
Coming up in an age that saw such powerful pop culture elements as skateboarding, graffiti, anime, and punk rock all on a collision course with each other, Saber developed into a problem child. “I was kind of an unruly kid,” he says. “There were so many things going on in that era that could get you into trouble. But my parents always encouraged me to use art as an outlet. I would paint and it would help to calm me down.” Inspired by characters like Wolverine and the Transformers, his canvases and sketchbooks began to pile high, unable to keep up with his desire to replicate, modify, and create anew. It was time to seek another channel.
At 13, Saber first started to toy with a new medium, spray paint, and the twisted combination of expressionism and vandalism that is graffiti. But it wasn’t until his older cousin took him to L.A.’s famous Belmont Tunnel that he became hooked. “I was doing my little drawings, and she said to me, ‘Oh, you think you know about graffiti, huh? Well, let’s go to Belmont.’” Inside the spray paint–covered burrow, Saber first witnessed piecing and the “mind-set of elitism” that comprises the movement’s core. “I was just obsessed, immediately,” he exclaims. “And through skateboarding, from that point on, I was always on a mission to find something to paint-whether tunnels or a trash can, it was just what I did.” Ducking the law as well as rival crews, the teen cut through the City of Angels in a manner reminiscent of his now-famous tag, spreading his rapidly developing talent everywhere. “The name Saber really didn’t derive from anything in particular,” he admits. “My friend actually came up with it first but didn’t want to use it. He said I could have it if I wanted it. When I analyzed the letters, as well as the order they were in, I knew right away it was a perfect name for writing.”
Saber’s parents knew almost immediately of the new direction his creative side had taken and were not thrilled. Unable to stop his stealing, breaking and entering, and frequent injuries, they expressed disapproval that turned to disappointment. Magnifying their stress was the new crackdown the city had launched on graffiti artists. Fellow writers, some close friends of Saber’s, appeared on the Fox 11 News and the front page of the Los Angeles Times. “During high school it got really sticky,” he recalls. “My good friend became the center of a really big publicity case. It involved $4 million in property damage and was all over the fuckin’ news and the talk shows. [My parents] were not happy about any of that at all, obviously. But what they were happy about was my general extremism toward it. It was the other stuff that was hard to explain-the fact that I was getting hurt all the time, my friends getting killed. That was hard to explain. But our whole mind-set was just wrong back then, and so many people were out of their heads. Everybody was just listening to way too much gangster rap.”
With the gang mentality taking hold not just within the Los Angeles graffiti scene but seemingly throughout the entire city, it wasn’t long before Saber began to wonder if he had gotten in over his head. “Things became very obsessive-compulsive and dangerous,” he explains. “When you’re willing to risk your freedom or well-being and at the same time are willing to hurt others, all to accomplish a goal? Well, it’s a sign things have gone awry. Back then we got desensitized to a point of no return, where death and violence became nonchalant. I was just making terrible decisions. Everybody was in that gangster-rap mind-set, and a lot of people didn’t come back from it, literally and figuratively.”
Determined to distance himself from the vicious tribal mentality that had his beloved city in a choke hold, Saber set his sights not on executing rivals, but on creating the large piece of artwork that had been haunting his dreams. After picking a desolate spot along the Los Angeles River, in a run-down industrial area, Saber set out to make history. “My buddy Fate gave me the idea of utilizing rollers as opposed to spray cans, to hit all the ground we were going to attempt to cover,” says Saber, whose finished work would eventually use 97 gallons of paint and measure nearly the size of a football field. “It was like a bad relationship. I had no idea what the fuck I was getting into. But I’m the type that once I start something, I absolutely have to see it through to the very end.”
Saber’s all-or-nothing mentality is also evident in his ink. Having waited almost 22 years before letting another artist tag him, the radical jumped in headfirst, opting for a substantial back piece, courtesy of Grime at San Francisco’s Primal Urge. “I knew for a while what I wanted, and I knew it wouldn’t be quick,” he states. “So luckily, I avoided all those random times I could have been in someone’s chair with them saying, ‘Hey, let’s do something.’” After almost 40 hours of work by Grime, Saber’s back is now adorned with a flaming sword (or saber, if you will) accompanied by an angel and king.
Elsewhere, his biomechanical sleeves tell another tale of extremism. Describing it as “winning the tattoo lottery,” Saber found himself chosen as a ready and willing canvas for the TLC show Tattoo Wars. With Guy Aitchison on one arm and Aaron Cain on the other, the graffiti artist kicked back as the pair ran a virtual head-to-head tattoo marathon on his arms. “The crowd voted Aaron Cain as the winner,” he says. “But I took the trophy and smashed it. I said, ‘This contest is stupid. I’m the one that won here.’ They didn’t show that part.” Overjoyed with the outcome, the experience has only fueled Saber’s passion, and he now plans to outfit himself in a full biomechanical suit.Recent days have seen the graffiti master applying his talents to more “legitimate” subjects, such as clothing for Upper Playground, airbrushed art cars for Scion and Hyundai, and projects for Harley-Davidson and Levi’s. His monograph, Saber: Mad Society, has brought a whole new level of diversification to his realm. But his burgeoning empire does not come without personal conflict. “I need money, so that means sometimes I need to be a whore,” he admits. “Other than that, I try not to lend any more of my essence to [my clients] because they are corporations, and that’s still somewhat against what we stand for. That being said, I’m always down to leave my mark on pop culture. Sometimes I just need to get paid for it.”
Saber’s main struggle now is being regarded as a serious artist rather than just a graffiti writer turned modern-day icon. “We’re getting to a point, me and others like me, where it’s going to be hard for the mainstream art world to deny our achievements. Soon they’re going to have to see that what I do is just as much of a fine art as anything else in galleries and exhibitions. But in the end, whatever path I’m able to carve out, no matter how big or small, I’m happy to have it.”