by Matthew J
Who is Opia?
Opia is my art-alias, nickname, moniker, the name I “write” in graffiti terms. I received this name about 15 years ago. I was a teenager then and had befriended lots of people with whom I had many things in common, graffiti art being one of them. I recall chatting with someone about my initiative to start writing, but I didn’t have a name to go by. After trading ideas on names, I finally settled on “Opia,” which was the preferred (shortened) version of the full word: utopia. I preferred this because it was a four letter word, therefore, quick and easy to paint. Beside all this, I did take a liking to its meaning, the ethereal quality of the word brought out a longing for the real thing in me.
This was a time in my life in which I had entered into a stream of intrigue over graffiti. It captured my eyes and by being inclined to art, it challenged my competency to do it. Everywhere I’d look, there it would be; and because my friends then were interested or into it themselves, I had a creative environment to practice my ability.
Fifteen years later, I still represent this name. I’ve entertained thoughts of changing what I write for quite some time, because the truth of it all is, it isn’t all that pretty! I dealt with deep-seated guilt and searing shame. I wanted to escape the reputation that I had caused to fall upon myself. This name became a banner of identity and the life I’ve lived, all negative. Nevertheless, it is a part of my timeline and genuine history. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new, I am a new creation in Christ (ref: 2 Cor. 5:17). It is a part of my testimony.
Little did I realize as a youth that this abbreviated alias, Opia, became an ideal place I longed for; a little bit of Heaven, a place of peace, sanctuary, rest — Eden, itself. Not until I opened my heart to Jesus, did I find the strength to finally stop running away from myself and face the truth.
How did you first get involved with graffiti? What drew you to this particular medium rather than say “classical sketching” or gallery style painting?
I had the real-deal in front of me. Exposure to art and graffiti was the norm when growing up in the South Bay Area of Los Angeles. I admired the talent, techniques, and skills of the few murals within the community and I can think back to being about five years old telling myself, “I want to paint something like that!” I’d stand outside of the storefront murals and would twist my neck all the way around to take in the image. The sheer size of the space compared to my little frame was impressive.
It then progressed to rubbernecking as I rode in cars, to glimpse the latest burner, throw-ups, or tags. I’d also look for landmarks, long-time running spots and markings. By doing this, I learned which areas were doused in graff. There were the hot spots which stood temporarily, but received one of two reactions: a round of applause or a fist in the air. There was also the older stuff, especially around the tracks, that I quickly learned to treat as an ancient hieroglyph. Along with what I picked up by observation, I started sketching what I thought was “like” the graffiti I saw. I’d hang out with friends at school, after school, and on the weekends where there was lots of skating, looking at graff mags, drawing in sketchbooks, listening to music, talking about what we liked and such. I was surrounded by many gifted artists and their inspiration rubbed off on me. Their creativity further propelled me into my artistic ventures.
I admire many other forms of mediums and expertise. I actually dabble in a few, but I’m no expert. I believe what drew me to this particular medium was my circumstances (location, personal influences, and sub-cultures) along with my interest for the unusual form of art captivated me. I was an at-risk youth and was balancing on the scales of life. I eventually became heavy on the side of taking risks as a way of seeking attention at whatever cost. My graffiti became about recognition, the more I was “up,” the more I became validated by others. The more vandalism I caused, the more my suppressed anger was released. The more improved in style, technique and skill I became, the more pride ate away at my humility. I had no balance and the choices I was making at that time (drinking, drugs, etc.), wasn’t directing me to use that talent in productive ways. I was on self-destruct mode, spiraling down, full speed ahead and taking down my creativity with it.
Does your faith ever cause problems with your choice in artistic expression; meaning does the fact that graffiti is seen as a crime does that conflict with your beliefs?
People have different perceptions about graffiti as an art form. I paint graffiti-style murals with owner consent, all legal. I’ve received criticism from some because there is a stigma to graffiti, and I can see where they come from. I respect that. However, my intention is not to paint for self and what I write, but for something fruitful. I realize that I have a certain ability to get a message across, and as a Christian, I have to use my talents wisely. As long as I can stay true to that, my conscience is clear.
I find it encouraging when the positive reactions far outweigh the negative critiques. I believe the content of the work speaks life to people and it sparks hope. Some may receive it openly, and some will reject it totally – both the mural and/or the Message.
It’s important to stay ambitious and keep oneself focused. I would like to know what keeps you focused on improvement. Motivational speaker Eric Thomas talks about the importance of having a why (as in a reason why people stay committed to a particular task). What is your why, and how do you keep yourself focused on self-improvement?
I focus on Jesus. It may sound cliché to some, but unashamedly, this is my faith and my faith is in Him. As the blind man once said, “I was blind but now I see!” My aim is not on self-improvement, but rather on becoming more like Him; a transformation. It’s like metamorphosis, like how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. It’s a beautiful thing.
California has a layered graffiti community. How do you see the culture in California? What do you like best about the scene?
I see graffiti in California as multi-faceted because of the artist’s preferences. You have preferences in locations, numerous combinations of “ups” (tags, throwies, and/or pieces, etc.), colors (monotone or wild), type of surfaces, and the list goes on. I’ve seen interest in it come and go, and come again. Through the decades I’ve lived so far, I see it as an appetite that cannot be satiated.
What I like best is creative process, from start to finish. It reminds me much of my life, how I’m a work in progress. I also like ingenuity, some can think up really amazing stuff, like structure and flow, color combos, techniques, and others.
You’re associated with two crews- I.S.I. Collective and GG Crew. I want to take time to look at both crews, so first we’ll start with I.S.I: What does I.S.I. represent? What is its history? What is your mission statement?
I.S.I. Collective started in 2008; it stands for “Iron Sharpens Iron” which is derived from Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.” It is a fellowship of accountable and creative souls who use the arts to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. It was started in Northern California by “Fasm” to hold Christians that spray painted (which consisted a majority of Gospel Graffiti crew members worldwide) accountable to Biblical standards and encouraged those involved to seek and give wise counsel, which in the long-run, is a blessing. In 2010-2011, the crew leadership was passed on to Wes77 and its main root is in Los Angeles. There are 7 members and all have unique talents to contribute to the mission: Cawst, Fre(e) of Sin, Joey Digitals, Skrybe52, Vox, Wes77, and myself.
Now, let’s talk about the other crew you’re associated with, the GG Crew. When was it established? What is its mission? Where’s it based?
GG Crew (Gospel and Graffiti) began as a crew in 1996 by Sno & Fasm. It is a group of worldwide members that share the call and desire to use legal graffiti art as a tool to seek and share the message of salvation. We live to yield our lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to reflect Him, and to share His love with the world; on and off a wall.
We have members in the United States, Canada, Europe, and South Africa. It’s a culturally diverse group with God and graffiti in common, it’s a beautiful thing! The crew has undergone changes throughout the years and just recently, the crew leadership role has been passed on to Camer1. There’s some activity in the works for our crew to step into another level; ideas are popping up, members are engaged in conversation, and there’s a sense of organic development going on. We’re just going with the God flow.
Just as your crew grows and develops, I imagine the individuals do, as well. Who would you say has had the biggest/most positive impact on your life? And what does that person’s mentorship mean to you?
From a personal and an artistic standpoint, two people have had the biggest and most positive impact in my life; surprisingly, both have entered my life not too long ago. That being said, both are dearly cherished and I’m grateful for their life, in mine.
A personal mentor of mine is an older woman that I met in church when I moved to a smaller mountain community about a year and a half ago. Her name is Helen and she is very kind and a sincere person. She has become a “Titus 2” woman in my life, in which she models her faith in action, extends wise counsel, encourages, and builds me up. She embraces me for who I am and appreciates my many traits. Like many, I had a rocky childhood; and due to mental illness, I grew up with a present, yet, “absent” mother. My mother was responsive, able to care for herself, my family, and I; she taught us what is moral (don’t lie, don’t curse, cover yourself up), and the basic life-skills (how to cook, clean, read, etc.), but nevertheless, was detached emotionally and didn’t engage in relationship building. Growing up, my older sister, my aunties, neighbor women, and my friend’s mothers would become “mother-types,” and I’d look up to them for teaching, guidance, and direction. I was very observant and copied many behaviors. When Helen took me under her wings, I learned so much within that short period of time than I EVER had in my entire life! She’s taught me about womanhood, the privilege of training up a heritage, and much more. I’ve experienced a major development in my late 20’s, but hey, better late than never right? It’s only that much sweeter.
Artistically, I consider my husband Wes as a mentor. He selflessly pours into me and provides me with encouragement, support, and inspiration. Our conversations about art projects and such are very interesting because he introduces me to new ideas, works of art, and literally draws water from my well. He’s a visionary type and perceives many things from a different perspective as I, so he’s helped me to think outside-the-box. I see how much he’s grown also, he’s balanced out his desire to paint with more of an art appreciation outlook; now, there’s moderation. I welcome his constructive examination of my work because I admire his palate, and he’s graceful about it as well. The both of us come from an illegal graffiti background, so he totally gets where I come from and how that specific painting skill exists long after I’ve stopped committing vandalism. To me, my husband and artistic mentor is an ally in my becoming fruitful.
Now I would like to give you the opportunity act as a mentor to some writer who may be reading this article. What advice, if any, would you give to an aspiring writer who is struggling to catch their rhythm, artistically?
Check the intentionality. If one struggles in catching their rhythm by trying to please others, that one will struggle indefinitely. Now, if one struggles simply because, I wouldn’t call it a struggle, but rather a stepping stone. It’s part of the program. Artistic struggle is a growing pain; it can be a lesson learned, wisdom and understanding gained, and fewer mistakes to be made.
Oftentimes, an aspiring artist gets caught up in fears; such as, fears of being inferior in comparison to others, or, of discouragement (among others). This can be a torment, hindering a productive and creative flow. I myself can feel trepidation, so I find comfort in 2 Timothy 1:7 from the Scriptures. I am reminded of having a sound mind, and that an ounce of truth ousts the negativity and dispels the doubts.
Who are some of the writers, in your area, whom you feel people should be checking out? Who do you think is producing some serious artwork?
To be honest, I don’t stay up to date with writers and their work much anymore. I was at one point in my life; I’d drive around and take pictures and would know who “got up” on such spot and when, and this and that got buffed, and this person is on beast-mode and that crew is getting capped everywhere, etc. You can tell a lot of what’s going on by what you see. The interest in staying up to date phased out of my life as I started my venture back in recommitment to my faith and beliefs. I grew weary of focusing my attention on that, it profited me nothing.
To be able to give you an honest opinion, I’d have to dedicate some time to research and visit a few showings and galleries to consider someone to be producing some serious artwork. When I do have the time to spare, I’ll catch an occasional posted article or Twitter link on current art events and its’ producers; however, the articles I’ve read lately have not been artists from the Southern California area. I’m sure that there is, but at this very moment in time, I am just not aware of it.
Earlier we talked about the reason why you write; now I want to know how you are able to maintain your motivation as a writer? How do you stay motivated creatively?
Externally, I am surrounded by people who themselves motivate me by their encouragement and/or feedback of appreciation; my husband, my family, my church, my crews, my friends, passing by onlookers at wall productions or events, or notice via social networks. I make do with the skills that I have, and hopeful of increasing my current expertise to a higher level.
Internally, I do what I do as a gesture of gratefulness for this beautiful privilege of producing art; I am a creative soul, created by the Creator of all. I find that by acknowledging whatever creativity I have, I realized the weight of it; then suddenly, it’s not just a mere few talents, but many more! Taking inventory helps keep interest and action aflame. The longer my list, the more spurred I become to “do something” with it.
What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment to date – graff related?
Thus far, it has been traveling and painting. Never in my wildest dreams did I fathom that the very thing that has caused me much strife (graffiti vandalism), would be redeemed, and be a catalyst for journeying, especially to distant places. Just last year, my first time (ever) in an airplane was to Holland, and it was about a 13-hour flight, following with visits to Belgium, England, and Hawaii.
For those that are interested in learning more about you, as well as your work, where can they find you online?
I’m a part of 2 crews (I.S.I Collective & GG Crew) and you can find some of my work on their websites: www.isicollective.com and www.ggcrew.org. I have a personal blog at www.opiaone.wordpress.com and you can follow me on Twitter:@OpiaOne
I want to discuss legacy, because I feel it’s important that we all leave an impression – making the world a better place. When all’s said and done, and you’re no longer writing, what legacy do you hope to have left behind? How would you like “Opia” to be remembered?
That’s a good question! I would like to have “Opia” remembered as having more than just one positive impact, but to sum it all up; it would have to be as an overcomer. One would have to question, “An overcomer of what?” Well, to glory in the latter would have required trekking a humbling road.
By the skin of my teeth, I have escaped many wrecking situations in my past. To name a few, I’ve been in some serious life-or-death situations where I could have died of swallowing pills at 14, been left paralyzed or dead from evading gun shots, or of have been involved in horrible car wrecks while DUI. The Lord had mercy on me! I came to my senses and turned away from a path of destruction to a way of life.
I want to plant seeds that will keep the perpetuation of faith, hope, and love alive, long after I am gone from this place. I hope that many can learn from my life, as I learned from Jesus. Matthew 11:29 comes to mind and better explains it this way, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Before we wrap up, I just want to thank you for taking time out of your day to share your story with us. I appreciate your honesty and your sincerity, and I am sure the readers do, as well. *salute*. Here we go, final question: Is there anybody out there that you would like to shout-out or acknowledge?
I’d like to start off by thanking God for His saving grace and this opportunity to share a bit of my story, and to you Matthew J., for being open to it. I’d like to acknowledge my amazing and beloved husband, my loving family, and sweet friends; from my past, present, and of the future. I would not be where I am now, if it were not for those in my past who helped shape and mold me (both good & bad). For those that share life with me in the present: let’s find the joy in life and take it day-by-day! For those that await to enter my life in the near future: I hope to become a blessing. To my fellow creative souls in I.S.I. Collective, GG Crew, and other crews: Matthew 6:33. Hello to the Body of Christ worldwide and to my local body- remain strong in the LORD and in the power of His Might. My sincere apologies to those that I’ve brought hurt; I pray that you can find it in your hearts to someday forgive me. To all, God bless you!