Cultivating a Rose Amongst the Concrete

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Machine Community Arts Studio Provides Refuge for Young Graffiti Writers

Mike Machin runs Machine Art Studio in San Pedro. Photo by Terelle Jerricks

By Kym Cunningham, Contributing Writer

.Every day, teenagers, still in their uniforms, head from school down to the Machine Community Arts Studio. The studio is a free public art space that hosts informal “blackbook sessions” where local graffiti writers or taggers get together and practice their art. It is run by 43-year-old Mike Machin, a Los Angeles area native who moved to San Pedro more than two years ago.

“We’re not here promoting vandalism, but at the same time I’m not going to bullshit anybody and say that I’m telling these kids what to do,” Machin said. “That’s not what we’re about. We’re just trying to influence them to do something more productive.”

Machin designed the studio as a safe place where local graffiti artists could go to responsibly practice their art.

Artists were at work during a recent First Thursday Artwalk at Machine Art Studio in San Pedro. Photo courtesy of Mike Machin

“If you want to be here, you have to be drawing,” Machin said. “You have to be doing something. You can’t be scribbling on stuff. It’s providing a place for at-risk youth to come and be creative and be exposed to different types of art. At the very least, while they’re in here they’re not fighting. They’re not doing drugs. They’re just listening to music and drawing and hanging out with their friends. We try to make it so that they have to be productive while they’re here.”

Himself a graffiti artist, Machin sees the community studio as a his way of giving back to the graffiti community.

“I went on to do graphic design and I pretty much stepped completely away from the culture for a number of years,” Machin said. “I feel partially responsible for the rules not being passed along.”

Rebellious Youth

Machin remembered being drawn to graffiti even as a child. When he was young, the town he lived in only had one piece of graffiti. Machin would look at it every time his family drove past the freeway.

“I remember what it looked like: it had this movement,” Machin said. “I identified with that piece. Then it got painted over one day and I was just so disappointed.”

Machin also remembered when graffiti made its way from New York to Los Angeles in the 1980s, when he started seeing it on the sides of buildings as he drove with his dad to watch the Raiders play at the Coliseum. But it was not until the 1990s that graffiti made it to his town.

“Kids were tagging on buildings and … scribing the mirrors,” Machin said. “I was kind of a troublemaker when I was young so I was kind of drawn to it on that level.”

Even so, Machin found this so-called new art form something to rebel against.

The Unseen Art

Machin found what are referred to as landmark walls — the backs of businesses or industrial buildings that people don’t seem to care about, where graffiti artists do not have to worry about their work getting painted over.

In order to have “street cred” in the graffiti culture, every artist has to do some work that would be considered vandalism by mainstream society.

Machin got into graffiti through his involvement with the Los Angeles punk scene in the 1990s.

One of his bandmates talked him into applying to CalArts for graphic design, and from there, Machin’s career as an artist began. Machin branched out into several mediums. He works with drawing and acrylic painting as well as has several business ventures in commercial art doing motion graphics and graphic design.

Unwritten Rules

Now, Machin spends his time attempting to influence up-and-coming graffiti writers, teaching these teenagers the unwritten rules of the culture that he was taught long ago, like not to “burn the spot.”

“A place like this, where graffiti writers want to hang out — they come in and they draw and listen to hip-hop music,” Machin said. “It’s a bad idea to walk out of here and go write on all the businesses.”

Much like landmark walls, there are what are referred to as yards within the graffiti community — mostly abandoned places that the public never sees — where graffiti writers can complete more artistic work.

“You can go and spend hours in a yard,” said Machin. “But if you leave the yard and start writing on shit outside, people will notice that spot and then it will burn the spot. You won’t be able to go there anymore.”

Machin said that the most important unwritten rule in the graffiti community was one of mutual respect.

“If you go into a yard and you see something and you can’t do something better than that, then you shouldn’t go over it,” Machin said. “But if you’re going to go over someone, cover their whole piece.”

Although to many outsiders it may look the same, there is a hierarchy to graffiti within the culture.

“Tags are the scribbly things,” Machin said. “Throwies go over tags — throwies are simple letters that you can draw that are filled in — and pieces go over throwies.”

Even though these rules may seem like common sense, Machin maintains that young graffiti writers need to be taught them.

A Dangerous Calling

Machin is not trying to stop kids from practicing graffiti. Rather, he wants to provide a safe place — away from gangs and the eyes of authority figures — for these kids to hone their art.

Graffiti artists risk felony charges and even death in the practice of their art. Machin told a story about an up-and-coming 18-year-old graffiti artist, Tie, who was shot and killed in the late 90s by someone who thought he was a burglar. Unfortunately, this story is all too common in the graffiti world.

Not only do graffiti artists face danger in the form of overzealous homeowners, but they also face the risk of accidentally running into a gang’s territory.

This is what Machin’s goal is with the Machine Community Arts Studio. He wants to provide young graffiti artists with a safe place to unleash their creativity.

Cleaning Up the Streets

Machin also runs another side project called the C.U.T.S. Crew — short for Clean Up the Streets. Run like a traditional graffiti crew, the C.U.T.S. Crew focuses on doing free community-based, graffiti-style artwork and cleanup projects. Through his contacts in the community, which extend to mainstream foundations like the San Pedro Art Association, Machin attempts to locate edifices that have, as he calls it, “a graffiti problem” — walls around the community that people notice are constantly getting tagged.

Machin said that the C.U.T.S. Crew is all about bridging the gaps within the community — between business owners and graffiti artists, as well as between the older guys and the young up-and-comers within the graffiti culture. But Machin admitted that these gaps are often difficult to cross, especially in regards to getting the youth to hear his message of responsibility.

A Lasting Impression

Machin’s long-term goal is to open an outside venue or cutty spot — a large, often abandoned building or group of buildings with diverse surface textures: trash cans, corrugated metal fences and brick walls.

“People have been writing on walls for tens of thousands of years,” Machin said. “The oldest art that we know of is a cave painting. There’s something in our species that makes us want to do this.”

For now, Machin uses his commercial arts ventures to fund the C.U.T.S. Crew and the Machine Community Arts Studio, a place where all artists are welcome to show their work as long as they put in the effort. The result is an eclectic mixture of a variety of methods and mediums: everything from incredibly detailed etched mirrors to minimalist paintings of birds on telephone wires to sculpted mash-ups of partially reclaimed materials. Machin’s studio is a place to get your work seen, something incredibly important for new and emerging artists.

A Safe Place

Although Machin doesn’t see himself as doing anything special, it is important to realize that he is giving these young artists, specifically graffiti writers, a place to express themselves in a society that does not necessarily value self-expression, especially in the wake of the Trump administration’s proposed art cuts. In many ways, our society criminalizes youth artistic expression, outlining what is and is not socially acceptable, what is or is not art, often through a racialized lens.

Perhaps Machin has forgotten what it is like to grow up young in California, in America, that feeling that you never really belong which defines teen angst. In that sense, giving them a place where their culture is accepted — a venue free from the constant surveillance of adult authority figures, where their art is encouraged — is perhaps the biggest gift Machin can hope to give the young graffiti writers of San Pedro.

The Machine Community Arts Studio features hip-hop events every First Thursday, as well as DJs and other live performances. If you are interested in having your work shown or helping with the C.U.T.S. Crew, call (424) 224-5372. The studio is open to the public seven days a week, on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on weekends from 4 to 8 p.m.