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."