Born Kelly Graval, RISK pioneered in exhibiting street and graffiti art in a gallery setting. RISK’s work is particularly unique thanks to his background in fine art, allowing him to create a style of vivid graphic imagery, complemented with crisp lettering.
Over the course of his nearly 30-year career, RISK has become one of the most influential artists of the graffiti art movement, having belonged to a number of street art crews, most notably West Coast Artists (WCA) and the Seventh Letter. He is thought to be one of the first taggers to paint a freight train, as well as highly influential in the painting of highly elevated surfaces such as billboards, overpasses, and rooftops.
Born in Louisiana in 1967, Kelly Graval’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was a child, and he quickly took a keen interest in art. His burgeoning love of graffiti manifested itself when he began his studies at L.A.’s University High School, where he started tagging any available wall he could find. Originally going by “Surf”, owing to his love of hitting the waves, Graval renamed himself RISK to avoid being too easily identified, taking inspiration while hanging out with a friend. “[While] racking my brain for the perfect name, I saw the board game ‘Risk,’ and it hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Despite his interest in graffiti art, RISK pursued more formal creative studies with a scholarship to the Pasadena Art Institute before completing a degree in fine art at the University of Southern California. At around this time in 1985, he formed his first graffiti, the now-legendary West Coast Artists (WCA), in collaboration with RIVAL. The WCA undertook themed tours of their local area, tagging as they went — so “Hitting Metal” targeted any sprayable metal objects, while “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” saw the crew exclusively tagging vehicles.
RISK’s speciality was “going for the heavens” — climbing to the most dangerous locations he could find to make his mark. He also took his work to the East Coast, with many theorizing that he was one of the only L.A. taggers to make their mark on New York’s subway cars before the city’s transit authority prohibited the practice.
By treating public spaces as his canvas, his work was easily spotted, leading to a significant boost in recognition. This led to commissions to create work for magazines and film, from 1989’s Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure to music videos for the likes of Michael Jackson and Red Hot Chili Peppers. However, unlike many of his peers, RISK insisted on only tagging his own name for these projects, which he believes helped him to “maintain [his] integrity” in these “high-visibility, high-profile, commercial gigs”.
RISK’s initial forays into Hollywood coincided with his decision to shift the focus of his work to a more gallery-ready setting, trading billboards for blank canvases. The artist chose to found his own indoor street art space, The Third Rail, in partnership with fellow graffiti artists DANTE and SLICK, mounting several public shows and later branching out into a clothing line.
It didn’t take long until he was being approached by formal gallery spaces to exhibit his work, and he gave up the illegal approach in the early nineties to pursue the more legitimate route. RISK feels conflicted over the wider turn away from illegal street graffiti, particularly in the era of social media. “You can post it immediately, from around the world, and see a ton of crazy art.” he told LA Magazine. “The only thing we are losing is a heritage…it’s mostly important for kids to know the history.”
RISK’s first solo show took place in 2008 at Santa Monica’s Track 16 gallery. Marking his twenty-sixth year as an artist, the show was named Twenty-six, also serving as a tribute to his preference for lettering-based graffiti. Beyond exhibiting his work in galleries across the world, RISK has also opened Buckshot, his own gallery space in Santa Monica, where he showcases his work alongside other luminaries of the graffiti scene. These include Taz, with whom he collaborated on Bomb Boy, and Estevan Oriol, who worked with RISK on LA Son Of A Bitch.
When it comes to outdoor work, however, RISK’s murals are all officially sanctioned, and his most famous recent such work broke the record for the largest mural in Canada. Spanning 74,000 square feet, and requiring 860 gallons of paint, the work covers a dilapidated health center in the Ontario city of Sudbury.