Graffiti is now a recognized contemporary art form, thanks in large part to the popularity of hip-hop and urban youth culture. Famous artists like Banksy enjoy worldwide acclaim today, but the forefathers of graffiti art remember a time when street art was less glamorous and more of a deeply personal, creative, and cultural endeavor. For Charles “Chaz” Bojórquez, godfather of cholo writing, this is the case.
You may not know his name, but his iconic work can be found everywhere from the streets of his hometown, Los Angeles, to galleries around the world—not to mention tattooed on thousands of men.
The Mexican-American artist grew up in Los Angeles in the ’50s and ’60s. There, he was introduced to the longstanding tradition of cholo writing, particularly in East Los Angeles, where latino gangs would tag buildings in their neighborhoods to claim their territory.
This statement of ownership, as well as the highly stylized font, inspired Bojórquez to begin tagging. Unlike the bright cartoon-style murals of the East Coast graffiti, cholo writing features stark black-and-white lettering that pays homage to traditional typefaces. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 2011:
The typeface is Old English, some people call it Gothic. It goes back to the first printing press, the Gutenberg, where the Germans used it to represent the government. It’s a prestigious typeface used in birth certificates, the Declaration of Independence and newspaper logos like the L.A. Times. That’s why in the ’40s gang members used it to define their neighborhoods — they’d make a “roll call” or list of names to mark their territory.
A skilled calligrapher, Bojórquez pursued training at Chouinard art school (now Cal Arts) after high school, where he received traditional art education and studied Asian calligraphy under Master Yun Chung Chiang. With these influences, he created his own unique style of cholo writing, which he began to tag on the streets throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
His work is a variation on the classic Gothic, an homage to traditional writing, but with sharp lines and accents. Unlike more conventional graffiti artists, Bojórquez prefers brush and paint over spray paint. (He tried spray paint early on, but it didn’t give him the control he wanted.) This allows him to make those precise lines, which are the hallmark of his unique style.
While his signature font has evolved over time, he did some of his most iconic work in his early career. In 1969 he created his “Señor Suerte” tag, a skull wearing a fedora, which he tagged all over the streets. The image was quickly adopted by local gangs and has since become a coded symbol of sorts, tattooed on members.
Gangs picked it up as a warrior shield, something to protect them if they got shot.
Since those early days, Bojórquez’ has created work in the streets and professional galleries, designed for brands like Converse, studied graphics in over 35 countries, and helped to elevate the status of graffiti art as a legitimate artform. Now, his name is synonymous with cholo style graffiti, so much so that three of his works have been acquired by the Smithsonian.
Now age 67, Bojórquez continues to work and considers himself one of the oldest living graffiti artists. As an artist in a young man’s game, he has no trouble maintaining relevancy (only some trouble with his eyesight). To learn more about Bojórquez’ work, watch this video from ACCLAIM magazine, where he talks about everything from how he crafted his style to how he got his tag name.
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