Ryan Weston Shook, better kn...
Ryan Weston Shook, most commonly known as Saber, is an American graffiti artist and has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the best and most respected artists in his field”. He’s now known as an international graffiti legend, holding the world record for the largest graffiti piece.
Saber’s most famous work is arguably the mural he created along the bank of the L.A. River in 1997, a 250x55ft work which took 35 nights and 97 gallons of paint to complete. It has influenced a generation of street artists and graphic designers, propelling him into the world of social media and art geared towards social reform.
Born in 1976 to an artistic family in Glendale, Los Angeles, Saber tagged his first bench at the age of 10, but was so scared that he wiped it off. At 13, his cousins took him to the Belmont Tunnel in the Westlake area, which was littered with a striking variety of graffiti styles. This was where true inspiration struck the budding artist, who went on to dabble in formal education at the San Francisco Art Institute. However, Saber swiftly decided that it was an expensive waste of time, and left to immerse himself in the world of street art in a hands-on capacity. The strategy was clearly a success.
Despite a focus on street art, Saber regularly explores other artistic avenues in order to keep himself interested in his work, including canvas pieces such as 2018’s Back from the Dark Void. The graffiti artist is also known for his surreal landscapes, which are inspired by the deep facets of his psyche, and has crafted metal and wood sculptures of abstract letterforms. He has also worked in design for companies such as Harley Davison and Levi’s, on film sets, creating Peppers World in 2010, and was commissioned by Hyundai and Scion to airbrush their cars.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Saber began creating and tagging a variety of stickers for sale on his website, each embellished with different materials such as ink drip or sharpie. Seeing as he was unable to be outside creating street art, Saber’s COVID-19 project maintained the connection between his art and the public by his ability to send out the stickers in the world.
While Saber’s work was first exhibited in the 1990s in what he has described as “a terrible t-shirt store”, it has since been displayed in prestigious galleries around the world. His work was showcased prominently in 2011’s Art in the Streets exhibition at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and his visibility furthered in a 2017 solo exhibition Decoding The City Of Angels in Bangkok. Saber’s work resides in several important private collections, and routinely sells for upwards of $20,000.
Saber’s political involvement is two fold, existing both in the street art that he creates and the more mundane realms of bureaucracy. In 2009, 12 years after painting his mural by the L.A. river, the City of Los Angeles embarked on a campaign against graffiti, including spending $837,000 on painting over Saber’s work. Such a feat had a deep impact on the street artist, and from then on, he championed efforts to reform the city’s policies around murals.
Currently, uncommissioned murals are banned outright in Los Angeles, even if painted on private property, with the consent of the owner. Speaking to L.A. councilmen in regards to an open report presented on mural creation, Saber told them that he didn’t like the idea of needing community approval for artwork on private buildings, due to its subjectivity. Moreover, he believes that the ban on murals doesn’t reflect the city’s diverse artistic culture, and stifles the attempt of young creatives and street artists who are just starting out.
Instead, Saber wants to change the process for building owners who wish to have an artist paint their walls, ensuring as little bureaucracy as possible, so that nothing stands in the way of their property being adorned with street art. Rather than rest on his laurels, Saber decided to further immerse himself in his cause, starting a petition against the current mural moratorium which has over 6,000 signatures, and counting. In 2011, after the implementation of a new law censoring public murals and cuts to the arts, Saber pushed back against the system yet again, commissioning light aircraft slogans across LA and New York.
In 2010, Saber embellished an American flag with spray paint and graffiti, filming the process of the work’s creation. Treated as a performance piece, the video was quickly circulated across America’s press, and the artist was thrown into many arduous discussions with news anchors on Fox and MSNBC defending his work. More concerning still, Saber’s artwork was plastered over the front pages of white supremacist websites, and gained the attention of hard right activists across America, who wished to see him dead.
However, Saber’s intentions weren’t to insult or disrespect anyone, and were honest by nature. The street artist simply wished to convey the flag as a living entity which reflected him, as an American, trying to manage his lifelong epilepsy without healthcare. Furthering the political fallout, Saber went on to tell the media that it was out of his reach to deal with his condition without any healthcare, and rallied against the government’s prioritizing profit over empathy.
Saber created something of a sequel, Another Man’s Treasure, by developing a flag in homage to the British National Health Service. Despite the street artist’s flag works being uncompromising, gritty expressions of outrage, Saber’s overarching goal is not to be politically provocative, but instead to create meaningful works of art.
Ryan Weston Shook, better kn...