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Graffiti artist puts tagging behind him

LOS ANGELES ― For years Cristian Gheorghiu craved the thrill of the chase. Spray-paint can in hand, he lived on the edge, always a step ahead of the law.

His canvas was L.A.’s lampposts, brick walls and concrete riverbeds where he scrawled ragged images and his own nickname, “Smear” ― probably thousands of times.

The graffiti made him a subculture sensation. But just as the East Hollywood graffiti artist’s career was taking off, his past has threatened to overtake him.

First came jail and a whopping fine. Now, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is seeking a one-of-a-kind court injunction to bar Gheorghiu from profiting from art bearing his telltale “tag.”

Smear “is the beast over there, and I’m over here,” said Gheorghiu, 34. “I’m not going to turn my back on it,” but “you got to evolve.”

Born in Bucharest, Romania, he grew up in the ‘80s in a then-rough East Hollywood. He drifted into gang life as a teenager, he said. By his early 20s, graffiti had become his obsession.

He held various jobs: stocking bottles at a bar, working in a retail clothing shop and a video store. But this was a backdrop to his shadowy after-dark existence. Sometimes he traveled with tagging groups.

He hopped gates and hunted for forgotten access ladders. He dodged guard dogs and crunched across gravel roofs, always searching for that blank surface that, in his words, “screamed to be hit.”
Cristian Gheorghiu in his East Hollywood garage studio (Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Cristian Gheorghiu in his East Hollywood garage studio (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

There were moments of chest-pounding fear. But he also found peace, perched on some high outcropping, smoking a Parliament cigarette, gazing down at the city lights as treetops swayed in the breeze.

“It is a Peter Pan existence. ... There is nothing like it in the world,” he said. “It is better than sex. It is better than drugs. It is just you and the city and your thoughts. ... I don’t know if it is some primitive instinct or what. It just feels right.”

By his late 20s, he had begun to make his first mixed-media pieces on canvas. He was living and painting in a court apartment off Normandie Avenue in East Hollywood. His paintings were unique renderings of human forms with vivid colors and rough, emotional strokes.

His work was noticed by artsy folks in Silver Lake and downtown Los Angeles. In 2006, he made his professional debut when an art show in San Francisco included his work. A gallery in Long Beach followed suit. After that, his canvases were exhibited in L.A., Ventura, Philadelphia, Berlin and Bucharest.

Despite the accolades, Gheorghiu’s late-night obsession was taking a toll. A series of tagging-related misdemeanor arrests beginning in 1999 cost him his day job as a special-education aide at an elementary school. He trained as a pharmacy technician, but his criminal record made it hard to find that kind of work. He manned the front desk at a 24-hour porn show and worked as a movie extra.

In 2007, Gheorghiu’s problems came to a head with his first adult felony arrest. Responding to “Smear” graffiti on buses, L.A. County sheriff’s deputies raided his home. A graffiti vandalism conviction resulted in a 40-month suspended prison sentence, three years’ probation and about $28,000 in restitution for scrawling on buses.

He says he stopped vandalizing property after his conviction. Today, he insists, his only artwork is created in a studio.

In 2010, the city attorney sued him and nine others. The suit seeks at least $1 million in penalties and a civil injunction that would forbid many activities.

For Gheorghiu, the lawsuit has triggered a kind of artistic identity crisis. Police raids have left him so rattled that he has seen a therapist to deal with the anxiety. He admits to some self-loathing and paranoia.

But he also knows that being an outlaw is part of his artistic appeal, and that his audience may not follow him if he is no longer the shadowy Smear.

Silver Lake collector Art Santillan, 36, would never have heard of him if not for his outlaw graffiti. “He is well-known on the street,” Santillan said. “I used to see his stuff everywhere.”

Santillan liked seeing “Smear” scrawled around town, and later bought 10 of his pieces: “His artwork is a smack in the face,” he said.

By Richard Winton

(Los Angeles Times)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)