Los Angeles faced numerous incidents of civil unrest in the 1980s and 1990s, triggered by heightened racial and socio-economic tensions compounded by police brutality, racial profiling, and gang violence. Amidst this vortex of volatility, the Belmont Tunnel, a forsaken Toluca yard in downtown LA, arose as an epicentre for the city’s burgeoning graffiti culture. This fabled locale hosted graf battles and boasted a treasure trove of graffiti art, spawning a generation of visionaries who would etch their mark on the city’s graffiti history and profoundly influence the distinctive style of LA Graffiti writing.
Alex Kizu, or DEFER, as he is more widely known, emerged from this crucible of urban creativity. Hailing from the Boyle Heights neighbourhood in Los Angeles, Kizu honed his craft on the very streets that cradled the genesis of this movement as a first-generation pioneering member of the LA graffiti scene founding respected crews such as K2S, STN & KGB.
My ultimate goal in creating my works is to reach a “flow state” or a sublime state of being – where the brush and paint flow effortlessly.
Alex “DEFER” Kizu
DEFER‘s work expresses the raw essence of his roots, embracing the unadulterated ambience of Graffiti and his formative years in the urban terrain of Los Angeles. Through a term he calls “Spiritual Language,” DEFER channels this deep bond between his artistic self and the urban milieu, forging a form of gestural abstraction that transcends mere technique as he melds with his brush and flows across his chosen surface.
DEFER‘s approach facilitates the dismantling of traditional letterform structures. Giving rise to dynamic paintings that echo the spirit of Graffiti whilst embracing the refinement of calligraphy infused with hidden messages that weave an intricate tapestry of depth and intrigue that straddles the fine line between street art and the domain of fine art.
This distinctive dialect has enabled him to synergise with brands like Jordan, Beats by Dre, and the NBA’s LA Lakers, going on to gracing the walls of institutions like the Getty Museum, LA Louvre, and MOCA, as well as participating in multiple “Beyond the Streets” exhibits. We caught up with the Graffiti legend to learn more about his practice and his first UK exhibition ‘Spiritual Language‘, at London’s Woodbury House.
DEFER! How are you doing? Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Can you please introduce yourself to those who do not know you?
DEFER: I’m doing good; thank you for having me. My name is Defer, and I am a visual artist that resides and works in Los Angeles.
You’ve been a pivotal figure in LA’s graffiti scene since the mid-1980s and a founding member of collectives K2S, STN, and KGB. Can we explore your journey and unveil the essence during the formative days of LA’s dynamic graffiti landscape?
DEFER: The early to mid-1980s was an era of the beginnings of some of the more distinctive styles of graffiti that came out of Los Angeles. It was inspired by some of the graffiti that was coming out of the east coast but was at the same time inspired by the traditional “neighborhood hand styles” that were indigenous to LA. Thus creating an interesting hybrid style, that defined LA from the rest of the world. At that time, in Los Angeles, it was a dangerous time, with high rates of violence and social unrest. We, LA graffiti writers, were in the thick of it.
Building on that, I’d like to ask about the evolution of the LA Graffiti scene over the years. From your perspective, what significant transformations have occurred since its inception, and can you identify a pivotal moment that catalysed change in the scene?
DEFER: The evolution of the LA graffiti scene, in my opinion, was both tragic and triumphant. There were some dark periods in LA historically that affected the first wave of LA writers. The writers who survived those turbulent times and pushed the artwork, and preserved – really defined the LA style in the early 90s and beyond. It was a time of massive evolution of style in the city – that really solidified Los Angeles on the map.
Your work is deeply rooted in your cultural ties to graffiti and the urban environment, manifesting a sophisticated visual language that blurs the boundaries between street art and fine art through intricate, stunning letter-form compositions. Could we explore the stages of your creative process, from conceptualization to the realization of a finished piece?
DEFER: I would say the stages of my creative process are very unorthodox in the sense that it always changes with each individual painting. My style in essence, is a visual study of language – the use of letter forms and wordplay and ultimately, the obliteration of the structured letter form which I term “Spiritual Language“. I create complex letter forms to pay homage to the traditional wild styles of graffiti yet at the same time integrate some of the bold calligraphic styles that have become globally renowned. My ultimate goal in creating my works is to reach a “flow state” or a sublime state of being – where the brush and paint flow effortlessly.
Your artistic practice extends beyond the canvas and gallery space, encompassing public murals. Can we discuss your approach to creating public art and how it differs from your approach to the canvas?
DEFER: Yes, painting in the studio and painting in the public space are related but vastly different in scope. Studio painting can be very isolated and quiet and whereas painting a huge mural can be quite the spectacle in the public. In painting a mural, there is a lot more physicality and freedom of range of movement. It’s a challenge tackling a wall, but I get an adrenaline rush.
There are a lot more issues working on a large scale – using scaffolding, lifts, and ladders; it’s just a lot more to deal with. You also have to be aware of your surroundings and such when working out in public.
Your coming exhibition entitled ‘Spiritual Language’ at London’s Woodbury House is your first UK solo exhibition and showcases a new body of works. Can you tell us how the exhibition came about and provide a glimpse into the sensory journey awaiting visitors?
DEFER: The entire crew at Woodbury House put this show on in dynamic fashion. Working as a cohesive machine in coordinating all the various moving parts from curating, documenting, creating a short film, transporting works internationally, and so many different intricacies, too many to name, has been a blessing. This exhibition will showcase a diverse range of paintings highlighting the various letter forms and styles with both monochromatic works and different colour ways.
The studio serves as a sanctuary for artistic expression. Can you share three indispensable items that you need in your creative space?
DEFER: Three indispensable items I need in my creative space are;
Art supplies, of course, and lots of them.
Music / Podcasts for motivation and knowledge
My loyal dog Buddy for company.
Can we reflect on the early work and your work of today? Are there any similarities, and can you describe the distance you feel you’ve travelled from then until now?
DEFER: My work from the past and what it is today has evolved by leaps and bounds. Being that I am considered part of the first wave of writers in Los Angeles, from humble stylistic beginnings – there has been so much progression since the days of old.
What’s next for DEFER?
DEFER: I will continue to create new works and take on more ambitious projects. We have some big plans for what we are going to achieve next and are working away in the background. We hope to share this publicly soon!
Lastly, what does art mean to you?
DEFER: Art means to me the ultimate human expression…