From the start, Buster worked hard to prove that he's a graffiti artist, not some little hoodlum with a sneer on his face, paint stains on his fingers, and a can under his jean jacket. Buster is the nom de plume, or perhaps more correctly, the nom de guerre of Jesse Ortiz, 22; he carries a business card and an album full of photos of his art work, including the abstract mural he painted for the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park and the logos he completed for a local Top 40 radio station. Still, he gets little respect from cops and security guards. Truth is, Buster will always value the walls of a building more for their size and texture, their ability to serve as blank slates for his imagination, than for anything that could possibly be inside them. Last December, a security guard tried to chase him away from what he and other graffiti artists refer to as the California Street walls, near the Santa Fe railroad tracks, just north of downtown San Diego. "I go, 'What do you want?'" Buster says he asked the guard. "He goes, 'What are you, some kind of punk? You think you're a badass trying to mess with me?'"

Actually, Buster had permission to paint at the site. He'd met late last summer with the manager of Cousins Warehouse, just east of the railroad tracks, and showed him his portfolio and asked if he could practice his art on the massive retaining wall behind the store parking lot. The manager gave his approval warily— and only to Buster. But soon a whole flock of young graffiti artists and hangers-on were gathering at the site, turning the wall behind Cousins, as well as the back wall of Southwest Safety and Supply, on the west side of the tracks, facing Cousins, into a riot of color and design. Some called it art. Others just called it trouble, big-time.

Eventually, almost every square inch of the two walls was covered with spray paint— an imprecise medium, to be sure, but one whose practitioners take great pride in the precise drawings they are able to create. It's all a matter of can control, they say. The walls drew curious onlookers and photographers, who cautiously stepped out of their cars to see the urban art work: simple cartoon characters, outlined in bold, dark lines; black-and-white portraits of singer/dancer Paula Abdul and of a female bodybuilder; the torso of a robot; big block letters filled with colors that fade into each other; a sinister creature clutching the strings of a marionette; examples of the often-illegible interconnecting letters once known as wildstyle; and other samples of the New York graffiti style that West Coast kids have been imitating for more than a decade.

And the graffiti was not confined to the two walls, each of which measures more than 250 feet long. It was scrawled over dumpsters, over two long-forgotten refrigerators lying on the ground and filled with empty spray cans (their nozzles removed to keep younger kids from spraying the leftover paint on the walls). A silhouette of a human figure was painted on the cracked concrete lot, where more graffiti spread like a rash in every direction. Spaghetti noodles of color stretched across an abandoned Plymouth, covering even its broken windows, its four flat tires.

Buster was the pioneering artist at the California Street walls, but that doesn't mean he's ever been king of the walls. That distinction was earned a few months ago by Sake (pronounced like the Japanese beverage). Sake is the nickname used by the leader of a graffiti art crew named No Suckers Allowed. The crew has another name too: 594— the California Penal Code section dealing with vandalism. Sake says he was first caught in the act of vandalism five or six years ago when he and a couple of friends were chased out of a school yard as they were spray-painting the outline for their piece (as in "masterpiece") onto a wall. To this day, Sake believes the man who chased them must have been a ghost because of his great speed and because the man was listening to a transistor radio tuned to what seemed to be a Padre game— at midnight. "You could just see his silhouette," says Sake. "It was really weird."

Sake is now 20. He wears three gold hoops in one ear; his curly hair is cropped short, except for the braided tail that rests on the back of his gold turtleneck. As of last fall, Sake confined most of his wall art to the California Street walls, the place where he earned the title of king by battling the former king, Quasar. Insiders know that a battle is a contest to determine which spray-paint artist can create the best piece. And they know that a tagger is a young wannabe artist who scrawls his name everywhere (on buses, electrical boxes, fences, storefronts) to get up, be recognized. They know a toy is an unskilled amateur— not really an artist at all— and that a sucker, the lowest of all earth crawlers, destroys artists' pieces or fraudulently claims others' pieces as his own work by signing his name to them. They know "who can rock the walls," as one artist describes it, and what it takes to be king.

In his battle against Quasar, Sake painted a giant jack-in-the-box. The Q on the front of the box left no doubt that the toy was Quasar. In the background, Sake painted a gray castle and in the foreground a handful of bright red, blue, and yellow children's play blocks. Quasar painted "San Diego King" in highly stylized, interconnecting letters for his battle piece. But he quickly conceded that Sake had won with his impressive mural.

Quasar, who spends 40 hours a week cooking meals at Children's Hospital and most of his free time spray-painting walls, always figured he'd have to relinquish his title someday. Quasar is 23, the self-described old man of local graffiti artists, and he says it's only natural that the work of older artists will continue to be superseded by that of younger ones at the walls, "if society doesn't kick us out of here."

Sake, though, resents any suggestion that graffiti art is just for kids. "Aerosol art is like a disease," he says. "Once you start, you can't stop. I'll be doing this art form probably till the day I die." Expecting him to quit at the threshold of adulthood is "like telling Gauguin to stop [painting] when he's 40. That's bull."

Last summer, shortly after Buster started painting the wall behind Cousins, store manager Ken Bond was approached by police who asked if the store wished to press charges against the spray-paint vandal or vandals at work there. "We gave the authorization to a Mister Ortiz to do nice murals," Bond told police. But he was alarmed at the growing number of youths who had joined Buster since last summer. "I don't like the direction it's going," said Bond ominously. "At this point, I'm not seeing what I would consider art or something that would enhance a wall."

And a few days after Bond made those comments, and as Sake and Quasar and about a half-dozen other guys stood around, casually surveying the Southwest Safety and Supply wall, a well-dressed man emerged from Cousins. The man called across the railroad tracks to the artists, asking if Jesse Ortiz was present. No, he was told; he asked them to have Ortiz contact him and left. "Well, there goes the wall," said one of the youths. "Doesn't look good," warned Sake. They worried out loud whether the manager meant to take the Cousins wall away from them. After all, police had visited the site the previous weekend, after one kid threw a cap from a spray can at a passing train. "I don't think he'll take it away," said one bear of a kid, "'cause he knows what the consequences will be." The artists and their entourage of taggers and assorted other followers knew they had a good deal going here, and they did not wish to lose these two walls they'd taken by storm.

Graffiti art has long been associated with trains; in New York, early writers filled subway trains and tunnels with their art. Buster talks fondly of the time several years ago when Crayone, a well-known L.A. graffiti artist, came to San Diego. Together they painted the boxcars of freight trains that passed through town, hiding under the stopped trains when watchmen emerged, swinging lamps. The California Street walls held romance, at least for these youths, a romance enhanced by the Amtraks and freights that regularly pass between the two walls.

Buster, a loner who eschews membership in a graffiti crew, would have been content to keep the Cousins wall to himself, though that proved impossible. Buster says he tries to not even let other artists' styles influence his work, though some of the other young artists talk behind his back and claim that he bites (steals) some of his ideas for murals and lettering styles from others.

Fred Brousse, owner of Southwest Safety and Supply, was also alarmed by the graffiti art that appeared about three months ago on the back of his building— without his permission. When he confronted the youths at the time, he warned them he'd call police and hire a security guard if he discovered tagging anywhere on his building but the back wall.

So Buster stenciled "No Tagging Please" onto the sides of Brousse's building. He didn't have enough paint to cover over the tags that already blemished the sides of the building, so in some cases, he sprayed the warning right over the tags. Brousse was impressed by Buster's efforts and by some of the art work. "For the time being, I'm turning the other cheek," he said at the time. "They're not into destroying property. They're looking for a place to express themselves, really. They're out there with respirators [protective masks] on and the whole business," Brousse said, affably. "It's very interesting to me; they'll come in and paint something, and you'll figure it's gonna stay there. Strangely enough, someone comes in and paints right over it."

But the graffiti artists understand that transience is the flip side of the spontaneity inherent in much of their art. Buster explains: "It's part of the wall life. When I paint on that wall, I know I'm gonna be gone over sometime. If they can do better than me, if they can do a better piece, then go ahead and go over me. As long as it's good."

In late February, one of the murals on Cousins' wall depicted the span of a freeway bridge; its pillars were 3-D letters spelling out "Buster," painted with grays and blues to look like cracking cement. Street lamps painted into the piece shed a plum glow, and a full moon completed the scene. Buster has a photo of the piece, but the bridge mural itself was history less than two weeks later.

Members of Wall Power Crew painted over it with a large "WPC"— a throw-up— a simple one-color design inside a dark outline. WPC didn't even bother to finish the throw-up. The destruction of his elaborate work stung Buster. "When I'm gone over the way they did it, that hurts me. They just did a little one-color piece. I thought they were going to do a top-to-bottom, side-to-side piece. They up. It makes them look bad."

Why'd they do it? Them guys, they heard you were coming, so they went over me," Buster said. "They did it out of jealousy because I had some stuff up."

"It's not fair for that guy Buster's stuff to stay here forever," retorted 15-year-old Dyze of WPC. "He ain't great. He bites most of his stuff."

But even Sake was critical of WPC's deed. "That's just a throw-up," he sniffed. "It looks trashy."

All that remained of the bridge mural was the dedication Buster had included: "To Julia, my aerosol heart, from your father, 1990."

Julia, Buster's two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, figures prominently in other wall art. Late one afternoon, Buster climbed into his primer-gray '66 VW bug to take a look at an illegal wall he's painted, illegal since he never gained permission to paint on it. Julia's photo, enclosed in a red plastic heart, is attached to the dash. The VW rides low to the ground, and Buster drove very slowly over the railroad tracks, car metal scraping track metal every inch of the way. Heading toward Old Town, following the line of the railroad tracks, Buster says he knows of two San Diego girls who are writers, as graffiti artists call themselves. One goes by the name of Pastel, he says, adding, "She's pretty good. She could take out some of the toys. L.A.'s got some good girls [graffiti artists]. I want to see some good girls getting up."

Buster stopped the car where the railroad tracks meet the juncture of freeways 5 and 8. The name Julia is painted in big chrome-blue letters on a six-foot-high retaining wall behind a motel. There's also a big red heart with the words "Happy Valentine's Day Julia." Twice while painting that wall, Buster recalls, police drove up, in a San Diego squad car and a state police car. Neither officer approached him or spoke, but both watched him intently.

Buster was standing a few feet from his Old Town wall, talking. A wool beret, stiff with a coat of black paint, rested atop his head. He wore a jean jacket; on the back, he had air-brushed a lifelike portrait of LaToya Jackson. On one sleeve is painted "CAP," the tag for the originator of throw-ups. His jeans were splattered with paint, and he wore one gold hoop earring.

Buster said his dad once worked as a sign painter and drew Disney characters in his spare time. But his dad now lives in a convalescent home; ten years ago he collapsed in the backyard while gardening. A stroke left him paralyzed on the right side. Buster and his mom tried to care for his dad at home for a few months, but the work proved too hard for the two of them. Buster once filled his dad's room at the convalescent home with his own paintings, but all of them, he said, were later stolen.

Buster and his mom live in the same modest Linda Vista home where the family's always lived. The two interests that dominate Buster's life are evident in his room. His own canvases cover the walls, including an African-mask-like self-portrait, the face half yellow, half black and linked by full, red lips. A drawing table and coffee cans full of colored markers are in one corner. A Fisher-Price stove set, a doll in a stroller, and other toys take up most of one wall. Photos of Julia all around. Julia spends three days a week with Buster and the rest of the time with her mom, Buster's former girlfriend, who lives down the street from him.

Out back there's a rusting Chevy and a shed where Buster keeps the protective masks he wears while painting walls, as well as his paints, a sport jacket that looks as if it could stand up alone, it's so stiff with bright smears of acrylic paint. A chalkboard hangs inside the shed. "When writers come over, I don't want them tagging up my buildings," says Buster.

Behind a cluster of auto shops a few blocks from his home, Buster has painted what graffiti artists call a permission wall. A prehistoric bird appears ready to dive from a tower at the edge of a cliff that's dripping with vines. A prince riding a huge white rat is poised to rescue a damsel held in the clutches of a genie who's materialized from a gold lamp. There's a green Medusa crawling with snakes, words reading, "Why have a dream if you can't live your dream? Only you can make it happen." Also "San Diego" in orange-and-brown, interconnecting graffiti letters, bisected by a character with Mr. Spock's ears. But someone has scrawled "LVC" over the word "Diego," and the garage door next to Buster's art work is littered with Linda Vista Crips' scrawls. "They just trashed it," complained Buster, who vows to paint over the gang graffiti.

There's plenty of chest-thumping, survival-of-the-fittest, boys-who-would-be-king rivalry among local graffiti writers. But if there's one thing they all agree on, it's that society has wrongly pegged them as gang members and equated their elaborate designs with the careless scrawls of gangsters staking out turf.

"So many people stereotype us because of our medium,"' complains Daze, one of Sake's crew members. "Man, I'm so against gangs and drugs and stuff." (Both Sake and Daze are members of the Guardian Angels.) "It makes me so upset to have someone claim they're a graffiti artist and they're in gangs," Daze continues. Sake openly ridicules the names gangsters choose for themselves. "To be called Goofy or Lazy...sounds like people from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," he says. "Writers— they have real cool names, like Dash. They're harder." He prefers the nicknames like Buster, Daze, Dyze, Quasar, Nex, Kers (as in "curse"), Zodak, Romeo, Clash, Crush, Vapor, Scae, Fire, Lost, and Penguin, and the names of the others who frequented the California Street walls.

And the writers always try to restrict their battles to the walls. Recently, there was a standoff at the railroad tracks between Daze and another member of No Suckers Allowed and the Underworld Kings. One guy claimed he could paint a piece far superior to the other guy's. Then one guy was accusing the other of making fun of the way he talks. Soon, one side was challenging the other to a fight. "Daze goes, 'No man, I don't fight,'" says Buster. "He goes, 'I just "piece."'" Daze's version of events is similar. "If you wanna go against me," he told his opponents of the moment, "we'll just paint.... I wish everything could be settled that way."

"We had to break it up," says Buster, who says he warned the others, "If you guys fight, everyone thinks that when it's time to battle, that's what it's going to lead to, fighting. They all agreed and said, 'You're right, you're right.'"

Romeo, given his tag by his brother Picasso, is leader of the Underworld Kings. Like a lot of kids who are part of the hip-hop culture of rap music and graffiti, a culture that in past years included break dancing, Romeo wears his hair short on the sides and top and long in back. Anyone who has taken the trolley out of downtown has probably seen a mural painted by Romeo and a friend last year on a small grocery at 12th Avenue and Market Street. Interconnecting letters filled with swirls of color and outlined in a shade called true blue, spelling out "San Diego." A palm tree, a boy character, skyscrapers, the words "No Toys."

On a quick tour, Romeo and two of his friends point out two graffiti walls: the Euclid Avenue trolley station, completed by Quasar and some buddies in '86 with a commission from the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, whose directors wisely figured permission walls would earn respect of youths who might otherwise deface the station with unsightly graffiti; and an unsupervised, free-for-all graffiti wall called "the pit," just east of the trolley station. The pit is nearly a block long and, in sharp contrast to the organized series of murals at the trolley station, is full of spontaneous throw-ups, slogans, and characters. "This one's 4 all U punks who sell out your own crew! Suckers! Sayin' peace to my real homies," reads one that lists Case, Sok, Shok, Terock, and Spy, presumably as the homies.

"Personally, I think Romeo's better 'n Sake," confides Lost, whose teeth are swaddled in braces, as they leave the pit. "It's just that Romeo has trouble sometimes getting paint. But he's more creative."

In front of Romeo's home in Logan Heights, there's a retaining wall filled end-to-end with blue-and-pink letters spelling "Memories," complete with painted-on starbursts of reflected light. Romeo dedicated the piece to an 18-year-old girl who had lived on his block and who died in a car crash last December.

Romeo, 16, a student who buses to Point Loma High to avoid the gangsters in his own neighborhood, is asked the inevitable "Whatdyawannabewhenyougrowup?"

"I want to work in real estate," he says. Not art, not graphics. Real estate. "This is just my hobby, and I want to take it to the limit." But, says Romeo, "I just don't want to live how I live now. I want to live different."

In contrast, Buster definitely wants to make it in the art world (after he becomes king locally, that is; he thinks Sake and Quasar should battle again and that he should take on the winner). Next to his genie-and-white-rat piece, Buster painted his true name, Jesse Ortiz, his home phone number, and two others where messages can be left for him. One number will reach the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. Centro director Victor Ochoa notes that very few graffiti artists will ever make a living at their art, but Ochoa holds workshops for the kids, urges them to wear masks to avoid the toxic fumes from spray paint. And he's got the connections Buster needs; Ochoa has helped the younger artist land several art commissions. Buster also has made a friend of graffiti guru James Prigoff, co-author of Spray Can Art, and regularly sends the Sacramento author and photographer photos of his own pieces. "I really feel strong about my art, and I don't want to let it go," Buster says. "I'm looking at my future. Should I stick to what I want to do, or should I go out and get a job?" Buster doesn't have a high school diploma. He was kicked out his senior year because he skipped school too much. And he doesn't know if it's worth his while to go back for the diploma.

While at his house, he takes his beret off for the first time, and it's suddenly clear why he wears the hat so often. Vestiges of a mohawk, growing out. Ah, adulthood, paths chosen, haircuts abandoned. "I can't walk into Target and get my film developed with a mohawk!" he says, incredulous that anyone should even ask why he hides his skull.

Buster worries there aren't enough serious graffiti artists in town. "You got a lot of people in these crews that say they're graffiti artists. They get their name tagged right along with yours. All they are is just taggers, someone that just hangs with a crew.... I don't like to waste my paint on tagging."

Zodak, the 15-year-old artist who painted the monster with the marionette at the California Street walls, was out tagging along G Street with some friends earlier this month and was busted at about 11:30 p.m. for violating curfew. But the cops didn't take away the kids' markers. Zodak's artwork, including an impressive sketchbook, full of muscled bodies and a wide range of lettering styles, seems to show the makings of a graffiti king.

Tagging is what younger writers do to get up, to be noticed. "That's how you establish yourself," says Daze, 20, who attends Southwestern College full-time and takes care of kids part-time in a latchkey child-care program. But tagging is done less and less with age, partly because most kids are savvy enough to know that once they're 18, any new criminal convictions become part of the public record. One writer, who still tags occasionally, especially when he's angry about something, says, "Really, vandalism is no great crime. You could tag your name a thousand times, and when you're caught, you're caught for only that one tag. If they try and make you pay for all [past vandalism acts], they can't do that, because that's the way the law is."

Two years ago, Sake says, he dropped out of high school after getting in trouble for a graffiti spree that caused extensive damage to San Diego sanitation trucks. Sake claims, with a straight face, that he went along with his friends to the city yard but didn't do any tagging. When the spree made the TV news, Sake says, "Teachers were like looking at me all screwed up. I just

dropped out 'cause I couldn't take the people there. They'd look at me like 'you scum' 'cause I do aerosol art— I don't like to use [the term] graffiti art."

After he dropped out, Sake says he spent his time tagging everywhere his paint and markers found a flat surface. "That's all I did. I didn't work. I racked [stole] my paint."

But lately he's been making payments to his mom for the shiny black '82 Mazda she bought for him. He works 40 hours a week as a "maintenance artist," he laughs, tending the grounds of a church in Casa de Oro. When a writer tagged the church building, says Sake, "I told him not to do it anymore, because I work there. I was like, 'Damn, now I gotta clean it up.'"

Sake plans to get his high school diploma. He wants to be a cop, like his older sister, a San Diego police officer. "She's real tough and stuff. People respect her."

As a cop, he'd have to bust young graffiti artists, no? "That's true, but it's a job.... That's what's sad about this art form. To get good, you have to do it illegally. I didn't have a place like this [the California Street walls]. I had to go out and risk getting caught every night."

Buster didn't do it. Sake didn't do it. Neither, apparently, did any of the regular artists who worked the California Street walls. It wouldn't have made sense for any of them to do it; they all knew the price they'd pay. Fred Brousse, the owner of Southwest Safety and Supply, had said he was turning the other cheek, allowing the artists to paint the rear wall of his building. Well, in early March some vandals spray-painted that cheek. The vandals tagged all around that building. They also sloppily scrawled names like "FTL" (Fuck The Law), "Arnell," and "Filipino Prides" all over three of Cousins' trucks and, according to Cousins' manager, jump-started one of the trucks and rammed it into a wall. They also smeared graffiti on several nearby businesses the same night. Their handiwork caused several thousands of dollars in damage and brought the curtain down on the California Street walls.

"I have changed 180 degrees," said Fred Brousse, angrily. Owners of half a dozen businesses in the area got together and planned their counterattack, and they have more paint than the vandals. The graffiti-busters painted a two-foot-wide, light-yellow swath the full length of both the Cousins wall and the back of the Southwest Safety and Supply building. "No more!" they painted below the swath on Southwest's building. A few days later, the graffiti art work was completely obliterated with a fresh coat of paint.

The businesses pooled resources and hired security guard to keep any graffiti — art or anything less— off the walls. "I'm out to stop 'em," swore Brousse. "If I have to arrest them I'll arrest them. If I have to prosecute them, I'll prosecute them."

Buster, accompanied by Julia, went to talk with Brousse, promising he'd clean up all the tagging damage if they'd let him continue to paint. All to no avail. "Unfortunately, everyone has to be penalized because of the bad guys," fumes Brousse. "It just had to come to a screeching halt."

Sake and Daze face other problems in addition to the loss of their much-loved walls. They were among six Guardian Angels arrested March 15 at Ninth and F, downtown, in an incident in which police say the Angels overstepped their bounds. The Angels confronted two men they suspected of narcotics activity. The two men, in turn, accused the youths of handcuffing them and generally roughing them up and placed the Angels under citizens' arrest.

"I got more hurt than they did," says Sake of the two men he says were smoking crack when the Angels appeared.

With the sounds of Yo! MTV Raps drifting over the phone line, Sake says that he doesn't personally know the youths who vandalized the Cousins and Southwest properties. But, he says, "They're just taggers. They're lower than taggers. They were really stupid. They didn't know what we could lose. That was the only legal wall we had in San Diego County. Everyone's all, 'Where we gonna go?'"

And Buster, he still has his Old Town wall to paint on and is actively searching for more wall space elsewhere. He too belittles the vandals by labeling them as taggers and says, "They don't understand what the art's all about."

-- Jackie McGrath