Unapologetically authentic and highly prolific, RISK, born Kelly Graval, is as nonchalant about his Hollywood credentials as most people are about their grocery list. Even when pressed, name dropping just isn’t his thing—art is. Whether it’s a mural on a building for millions to see, on canvas in a gallery, on a late night bombing mission with Joe Perry of Aerosmith, painting a Rolls Royce for Sur le Mur, or one of the many pieces he creates daily that no one will ever lay eyes upon, RISK is the truest form of an artist. He knows his value and refuses to compromise his vision, and that is exactly why he has evolved from a teenage graffiti writer, into a contemporary artist respected worldwide.
RISK credits his understanding of color and contrast to his time at the USC School of Fine Arts. However, some things cannot be taught in a classroom—they can only be learned in real life, in real time. With a mix of classic rock, hip-hop and punk rock in his ears as he paints, RISK shuts out the world and creates his own. There is no doubt that the Los Angeles art scene would be vastly different, and far less colorful, were it not for RISK and the chances he has taken.
“It’s about time it became legal. It was silly that it was prosecuted to the extent that it was in the past, so I’m curious to see what happens. I think it’s cool, I’m 100 percent for it. There are people close to me who have tremendously benefited from it.”
You’re 30 years deep in the game now, how have you grown and evolved as an artist?
I guess I’ve evolved because I do all different forms of art now, not just graffiti. I like to evoke emotion with color. I don’t think that I have to do letters all the time anymore, so maybe that’s another way I’ve evolved. I think it’s my appreciation for all different forms of art.
Explain more about your use of color.
Yeah, I was in London painting for the Olympics with Ron English, Shepard Fairey and a couple other artists, and they were asking me about my graffiti background. They said, “You wrote RISK a million times, so what do you have to say?” I started thinking about it, and then I was driving down the freeway one day after doing an illegal piece, and I realized that people couldn’t read it driving by at 70 miles an hour, it just evoked emotional color. So, I set out to see if I could evoke the same emotion without letters or characters. That’s how it all started.
Will you explain the difference between a graffiti artist and a street artist? Many people believe them to be one in the same.
They’re cousins, you know, they’re related. I look at graffiti artists as the craftsmen, the old school guys who do it the hard way. I look at street artists as the new guys that work smarter, not harder, and do wheat paste and create stuff in the studio and then go and put it up, you know. That’s my interpretation.
Which one are you?
I am a graffiti artist. But I think that the stuff I’m doing right now, I’m neither. I’m a muralist.
How do you balance your formal schooling with your natural artistic instinct? Is one more important than the other?
You know, I have a lot of these things that I use in my paintings, and I never really realized it until I looked at them one day and was like, “Wow, I do all this stuff and I learned all this stuff in school.” I never set out to apply it; it just happened.
You were recently featured in the documentary Saving Banksy. How did that come about?
They came to me probably four or five years ago. Someone from Banksy’s camp hit me and asked if I could blast this guy [who was profiting from Banksy’s work], because he’s an asshole. So we were posting stuff about it, and years later they hit me up about this documentary. So when the guy who was trying to save the [Banksy] piece hit me, I was quite familiar with whole situation. So they interviewed me, and I did my part in the movie. It was cool.
You have an impressively long list of Hollywood credits. What’s it like to work in that world that is so corporate? Does it stymie your creative vision?
I was really lucky. All that stuff—Michael Jackson, Playboy, all that stuff—when I went in there, I would tell them that I was going to write RISK. It’s not gonna be cool if I just write Michael Jackson or Playboy. People want to see the real stuff. They were corporate jobs, but they let me do me. I was pretty lucky.
Street art is becoming increasingly mainstream. Is that a positive thing, or does it have a negative impact on the genre and its roots?
Obviously, when something goes mainstream, we lose some of the thrill and excitement. But also, the skill level is elevated to such an extent that it’s pretty cool because it’s survival of the fittest, and the competition is good because there’s so many people doing it. It’s a double edged sword.
What advice do you have for those who are just getting into graffiti art?
My advice is definitely don’t listen to anybody but yourself, and do what makes you happy. Do it full force, 100 percent. My whole family was against graffiti; they hated it. I had to run away to do it. I made up with my father on his death bed a couple years ago. But if I would have listened to them I would have never done it, you know. On my dad’s death bed, he finally said, “I guess you made something out of your life. You did good.” It was cool—but the point is, I didn’t listen to anyone. I knew what I wanted to do, and I set out to do it.
Is there one moment, or one certain piece that you’re most proud of?
There are things that stick out, yeah. Winning the World Championship of Graffiti. Slick and I won it in ’89 and that was cool because we were from Los Angeles, and that was the first time someone other than from New York won. I was on Proud To Be An American with President Obama and Buzz Aldrin a couple years ago on the fourth of July special, that was pretty cool that they picked a graffiti artist.
What are your views on cannabis?
It’s about time it became legal. It was silly that it was prosecuted to the extent that it was in the past, so I’m curious to see what happens. I think it’s cool, I’m 100 percent for it. There are people close to me who have tremendously benefited from it.
For those who still see graffiti art as vandalism, or just refuse to see its value, what is your message for them?
There’s always going to be someone who hates it. There are good apples and bad apples. You know, let’s face it . . . some graffiti artists do vandalism and some do art. But that’s just like anything else, you take the good with the bad. It’s here to stay now, so they have to deal with it.