In his woodstove-heated Sebastopol studio, overlooking his grandparents' old backyard where he used to hunt Easter eggs as a child, Ricky Watts remembers the first time he got arrested.
"I was 15," he says, "and it was a citizen's arrest. A guy was walking his dog and saw us painting under a bridge, and he called the police. And the police were so quick to move on us that we had nowhere to go."
Watts had some explaining to do to his parents, and went to court, but fortunately, it would also be his last arrest. "I was always very lucky," Watts says carefully, "for the amount of illegal graffiti that I did over the span of 10 to 12 years."
The image of a wide-eyed kid who just wanted to paint being thrown in a police car could serve as a blueprint for the dichotomy between innocence and maturity that fuels Watts' new pieces in "Destination Unknown," a collection of new paintings at Boomerang Gallery inside Heebe Jeebe in Petaluma, opening Feb. 2. In the pieces, children play obliviously in front of a train wreck; hot-air balloons soar over coastal ghettos; smoke and rubble from the 1906 earthquake give way to a colorful street scene, and more.
Now 32, Watts no longer goes out on all-night sojourns with a backpack full of supplies like he used to—though one wall of his studio is still entirely covered with spray paint cans—and instead has graduated to creating detailed works over the course of several months rather than minutes. He's regularly commissioned to paint murals, signs, storefronts and even cars, but it's his intricate paintings, blending the realistic and the phantasmagorical, that consume most of his passion.
That passion has paid off. Taking a cue from his Symphony of Perception, a large re-imagining of Brazilian favelas that sold for $8,000 last year, Watts' new works in "Destination Unknown" combine floating orbs and strange animals with an incredibly disciplined attention to architecture. A painted illustration of the Fox Theater in Oakland is particularly intricate, with impossibly minuscule lines making up the stained glass, the stonework and the lettering on the marquee.
"Usually, about halfway through every drawing," Watts laughs, "I think to myself, 'What the hell am I doing?' Because it gets so detailed, I get so overwhelmed."
Watts, the grandson of a sign painter and woodworker, was raised in Petaluma, where he drew comics for himself in elementary school. When he was 13, he discovered graffiti. "I [found] a graffiti magazine, and that's when I saw the real artistic, colorful murals that people were doing," he says. "That's what blew my mind. I thought, 'I'm not really good at this vandalism part.' You know? I would feel guilty about doing it. But I thought how cool it would be to create these big, colorful murals with spray paint."
Soon, Watts teamed up with his friend Jared Powell, with whom he still works and collaborates, and the two became late-night spray-paint partners. "And we had no idea what we were doing," he explains of those teen years. "It was all very trial-and-error. It's very different now. There are these websites that will literally teach you how to build up a complex piece of graffiti; it shows you the step-by-step process. And we were doing it completely backwards."
A breakthrough came when Watts was 16 and Tom Gaffey let him paint a mural inside the Phoenix Theater, legally and on his own time. "It really helped build that foundation of learning different techniques," Watts says. Those techniques eventually led Watts to a long-running abstract stage in his art—lots of swirling patterns that laterally resemble oceanic eels or muscle tissue.
But a recent series of 10 line illustrations based on the 19th-century architecture of Petaluma—which, unlike Santa Rosa, was unaffected by the 1969 earthquakes—opened him back up to the fine-tip pen. "I'm very drawn to the history of Petaluma, and that could be something I get from my mom, who's kind of a Petaluma historian," Watts notes. The series included the McNear building, the Masonic building and its iconic clock tower, and a street scene looking east on Washington Street, including Volpi's, the Petaluma Hotel and the California Theater. In one, a large chicken stomps along Petaluma Boulevard, destroying the town that over time has lost its title as the chicken capital of America.
It's uncommon for graffiti artists to morph into renowned names in the fine art world, though there is a growing number of examples. Barry McGee, the San Francisco legend once known as Twist, has substantial pieces in the SFMOMA's permanent collection and last year put together a massive retrospective for the Berkeley Museum of Art. His current style—most widely known by small faces painted on glass bottles—is starkly different from his late-1980s tags and murals.
Stephen Powers, a Philadelphia graffiti artist known as ESPO, began expanding the typography of tagging, left graffiti in 2000 and is now commissioned to paint large murals worldwide. His series A Love Letter for You covers aged buildings throughout Philadelphia with phrases like "Miss You Too Often Not To Love You" and "Your Everafter Is All I'm After" painted in vintage billboard style.
Watts' most high-profile job came last year at the Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park, which chose his Bone Shaker to use on the gigantic scrim banner of one of the stages. It wasn't a lark; a dry-erase board in the studio shows a full slate of upcoming work, and between art and graphic design, Watts is paying the bills.
Watts plans to move back to Petaluma this year, and in another sort of coming home, has been asked by the Petaluma Arts Center to paint the south wall of the Phoenix Theater—a massive, 50-by-40-foot urban canvas.
"It's always been a dream of mine to paint that wall," he says, cracking a sly smile of his former graffiti-artist self. "It'll easily be the largest wall I've ever painted."