Interview: Jared Freedman
Photo: Willie Toledo

For those of you unfamiliar with Kelly Graval, I’ll give you a hint: if you’ve ever driven the 405, 10, 101, 605, 91, walked down Sunset Blvd, Hollywood Blvd, Fairfax, or just about any other corner of the city, you’ve seen his work. No, he doesn’t do construction or sanitation. He’s the graffiti artist widely known as RISK.

But to simply call RISK a graffiti artist is an understatement. He is the forefather of graffiti who earned his bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from the University of Southern California. He has shown in LA, New York, Tokyo, Barcelona, and South Korea. An entrepreneur, RISK launched the first graffiti-influenced clothing line, Third Rail. He has collaborated with real heavy-hitters including Keith Haring, Barry McGee, and the entire Seventh Letter crew. He’s a found- ing member of WCA (West Coast Artists) and MSK, and it was my pleasure to sit down with him.

So what do I call you? RISK? Kelly? Godfather [laughs]?

I guess it depends on who you ask, but you can call me whichever.

Cool, so let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started in graf?

I had just moved to LA from New Orleans. I was sitting in class—I think it was the last period of the day—drawing on my notebook, when this kid leaned over my shoulder and asked me what I wrote. I had no idea what he was talk- ing about, but he kept asking me. After he explained what he meant, I thought, I draw waves a lot, and the ocean surf. I’ll write “SURF.” About a month later I broke into the school and covered the entire hallway in big waves and “SURF” everywhere. I guess you could say that was my start.

How did “RISK” come about?

I had gotten busted for steal- ing paint and the cops had brought me into school in handcuffs. They had already suspected me of being SURF. I was able to play it off by say- ing, “I wish I was SURF. I only draw in my sketchbook.” So later that night I was at a friend’s house thinking, This SURF thing is too hot. When I saw the board game Risk on top of his closet, I thought, “RISK,” that’s pretty cool. Not as cool as “SURF,” but it’ll do.

As a kid growing up, I remember seeing “RISK” everywhere. What were you setting out to accomplish? When you’re the first to really do something, how do you know what to do?

You know, I guess you don’t. I was just one of those kids who pretty much kept to himself…preferred sliding in under the radar. But graffiti really just excited me. It got my blood pumping and I loved transforming things normally plain and industrial and giving them a new life. The city basically became my sketchbook.

But to better answer your question— not really. I was doing what it was that expressed me, unconscious of what or how it would affect or influence others in the years to come. But I definitely thrived off of notoriety. Whether my art received positive or negative feedback, it left me wanting to create more.

You’ve influenced a whole generation of guys. Does anyone today inspire you?

That list is long. I look at what ABEL does and my jaw drops. The guy is so talented his figures come to life. REVOK’s dedication is inspiring. The guy is non-stop. His work ethic is what gets me out at night. RIME, the guy’s use of color and depth is unparalleled, and EWOK’s technique is flawless. His aesthetic is unreal. There are others, too. There’s always something that grabs me and drives me to improve. Shit, even my daughter Charley. I find some of her drawings around here… you’ll flip.

What can we expect next from RISK?

I just finished a collaboration with Osiris. We’re doing an edition of six shoes, the first to drop this summer. I have some limited-edition prints and t-shirts coming out with The Wild Ones (Famous Stars and Straps) and I’m doing a skate deck with Tribal. I’m in the works on a book with Roger Gastman (Swindle magazine) who’s been trying to organize the last 30 years or so of my life. He’s tracked down pictures I never even knew existed. It was a daunting task, but

it’s been really exciting to see it come together. I also am working on a new series, “Beautifully Destroyed.” It’s a wash of colors I’ve been toying with and incorporating in my work. The idea is to revive and breathe new life into objects in need of it.

We have all heard stories about you. If half are true…I’ll just leave it at that. How about these days? Where can one find RISK?

Honestly, if I’m not out painting or in my studio, I’m usually at home with my family. We have three girls: Bailey, Charley, and Storm. When I prayed to live in a house surrounded by women, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I can’t complain.