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Liam Da Leo:'Phantom of Salinas' Written by Becky Bach For The Salinas Californian Nov. 15, 2013 7:58 PM |

A tattoo of a watch freezes time on graffiti artist Liam Da Leo’s left wrist. But other than his tattoos, and predilections for coffee and cigarettes, much else has been fleeting, fluid for the 30-year-old Salinas native who grew up moving with the seasons, up and down the Central Valley. When Deborah Silguero, curator of exhibitions at the National Steinbeck Center, asked this summer to exhibit his work, Da Leo had only a few digital photos to demonstrate his talent. “Whatever I don’t sell, I give away,” Da Leo said on a recent afternoon as he sat outside the CherryBean Coffeehouse & Roastery on Main Street, a favorite haunt where he’s well known to many. “I don’t want to ever reuse paintings.” His early work was transient, quickly painted over by city crews or a rival graffiti artist — he couldn’t get too attached. So he painted on items he could possess at least for a while. Four months and 73 paintings later, his show “RTS: Respect through Sacrifice” fills the museum’s agricultural gallery. It opened Nov. 1 and runs through Jan. 8. Splashes of purple, turquoise, and fiery red: Streaks of color cross road signs and stickers interspersed with John Steinbeck quotes — “My imagination will get me a passport to hell one day” — “East of Eden” meets east Salinas. “I paint really fast. Graffiti has a sense of urgency, I’m hard-wired for that,” Da Leo said. Tag the train quickly; it might move. Stay ready to run. Da Leo is known as the “Phantom of Salinas,” Silguero said. Buried in the secretive graffiti subculture, Da Leo was known by his work, she said. But now, he’s ready to settle down. “This is where I’m from. I want to make something that will last,” Da Leo said. He’s using the Steinbeck Center show to illustrate his new mission. Da Leo has covered the gallery walls with graffiti: illicit and out-of-bounds. He hung his art — legitimate, portable works on top. “Art is separate from graffiti,” Da Leo said. Da Leo’s name changes too. Da Leo is his “art” name, his new name. His real name is too linked with his past, the secretive graffiti subculture. It’s too personal, it’s his family, Da Leo said. His family is his mother, his jefita, who worked bunching onions to support her only son. The Steinbeck show is for her, Da Leo said. His father was incarcerated, and then died of a drug overdose. Page 1 of 2

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“This is to show her there was a purpose for all that I have done, right and wrong,” Da Leo wrote in a placard displayed in the gallery. It worked. His mom attended the show opening Nov. 1: “She told me she’s super proud of me,” Da Leo said. His family is also his crew, called RTS, a group of 13 close friends who bonded over spray cans in Salinas. Not good at school or sports, and with no money for food or new clothes, Da Leo said, he, too, nearly joined his cousins in gangs. RTS originally stood for “Rack to Survive” or “Racking, Thieving, Stealing,” Da Leo said, explaining that “rack” means to steal. “I felt like I had to steal to survive,” Da Leo said. Sick of rice and potatoes, he stole food, sometimes clothes. “I couldn’t ask my mom; she’s doing as well as she can.” Graffiti was an escape, both from the harsh reality of poverty and the temptation to join a gang, Da Leo said. “[Graffiti] made me feel like I was actually doing something, that I was here — I’m here and I’m alive,” Da Leo said. With support from his RTS crew, Da Leo graduated from Mount Toro Continuation High School and studied graphic design at the now-defunct Brooks College in southern California. Now RTS has other meanings: “racking” has become “respect.” At the show opening, Da Leo’s work won the approval of several of the Bay Area’s graffiti elders, Silguero said. “There wasn’t much said … it was a silent thumbs-up between all of them,” she said. And he’s earning the respect of the Salinas community through his work teaching at CHISPA community centers. Da Leo said he’s striving to establish a permanent arts studio for youth in east Salinas. He’s also looking forward to his next exhibition, which could be held in Monterey. “I’m just hoping we can move him forward, and he takes off from here,” Silguero said. “RTS: Respect Through Sacrifice” runs through Jan. 8 at the National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas.

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