When I first met Espi in 2009, I was at my lowest point professionally. I hadn’t published anything since Kung Fu High School and the money from its film sale was running out. Teaching colleagues told me I was done being a novelist. I’d had my shot. I’d failed. I needed to accept my lot. Perhaps teach at a community college.
And I might have, if a mutual friend hadn’t introduced me to Espi & I saw the spark of a like mind. Within minutes, we were talking about traveling to Japan, where to get the best burritos in Greater Los Angeles, & the surprising strength of Korean cinema.
Soon after, Espi introduced me to the rest of the crew—Evan, Chris, & Steve—and set me on a new path. Within a month, they asked me to be a part of the crew. I said yes immediately, even though none of us had any idea how introducing a writer into an art crew would work, or if it even would. It was an experiment, plain & simple. I suppose it still is, in many ways.
Before I could become a full member, though, I had to do an apprenticeship. It was a humbling thing scouting locations & carrying paint, or sitting around in the L.A. summer sun documenting projects while others painted. Mural work is a laborious process. Scale takes time. My job was to be an extra brain, an extra pair of eyes, and an extra pair of hands. I still am. Proudly.
I painted on my first UGLARworks piece some seven months after we had all agreed I’d join. We were working on the elephant & the fly piece for the Public Works Project when Chris handed me a brush and told me to do the logo. His outlines were already there for me—all I had to do was block it in with black. And I did.
Some weeks later, I was almost hit by a car. On the block of Washington Boulevard where we were painting, it has Blue Line train tracks going down its middle like a spine. I was standing just off of these late one night, steadying a projector with my left hand & holding a flashlight in my right. I used the light to indicate to drivers that they needed to slow down & avoid me. This worked for every car but one.
A driver, likely drunk, saw my light & sped toward it before swerving. I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. Lurching to my right, I made myself small just as Steve Martinez—who had been painting, but just happened to be checking the projector at that exact moment—snatched my collar & hauled me backward. The car’s side mirror clipped my solar plexus, taking my wind away with it, but nothing else.
After I’d recovered, all Steve said was, “I got you!”
That’s UGLAR, right there. I had a bruise for a month after that, but I was still here. Since then, people have often asked, “What does UGLAR mean to you?”
I say they saved my life—not just literally, but artistically. Without them, I would never have glimpsed not just the hidden spaces of Los Angeles, but the way its river, its streets, its textures, & its people combine to form something magical.
They are my key in the lock of the city.