Tina Bartolome: On Becoming an Ex-Writer: A Personal Essay (Part 1)

[Editors’ Note: We will be featuring Tina Bartolome’s essay, “On Becoming an Ex-Writer,” in two parts. Below is part 1.]

I was eighteen when it happened. Until then, I wasn’t unlike many teenagers who had relied on journal writing as my main floatation device through the turbulent ocean of adolescence. I knew that writing had saved my life. But something shifted. Now I noticed words, their shape and syntax. Some, like Toni Morrison ordered them in a way to prove me wrong; English was a beautiful language, after all. She put the divine taste of storytelling in my mouth. Others, like Ernesto “Che” Guevara, rallied words to guide me along my quest to become a new woman, one that questioned everything I had ever been taught, from my sexual orientation to the merits of capitalism. I was ready to throw out anything that smelled like rubbish and to embrace ideas that would need defending. He had me following around the word revolution like a detective.

And then there was the way some people wrote them down. I became attracted to their curved bounce and their steepled rise. I let my gaze linger when I saw letters handwritten with a steady and consistent slant. I had always been an avid doodler and prided myself on neat penmanship, but this was the first time I had started connecting the visual aesthetic of words with their meaning as stemming from the same power source. I was falling in love, one word at a time.

In 1994 I also became a member of the San Francisco Chapter of the Universal Zulu Nation (UZN). This was an organization dedicated to the uplift and preservation of hip-hop culture’s four foundational pillars; DJing, MCing, breakdancing and graffiti. The organization was founded in the 1970s by Afrika Bambaataa, considered one of the South Bronx pioneers of hip hop music, and chapters had sprouted up all over the world. The founders of the S.F. Chapter had a specific agenda of using hip hop culture as a means to raise youth awareness and involvement around issues of social justice. It was working. One of the founders was my co-worker at a youth leadership program. Meetings were held every Tuesday evening at our office and the meeting room was always packed to capacity with a ten to one male to female ratio, some driving an hour just to attend.

I joined UZN because I was surrounded by hip-hop culture and it, more than anything else up to that point in my life was raising my political consciousness. When my high school teachers ignored the L.A. riots it was rapper KRS-ONE who broke down the history of relations between black people and the police to me in the album “Edutainment.” It was Queen Latifah, one of a handful of female MCs, and her song “U.N.I.T.Y.” who challenged me to eliminate the word “bitch” from my vocabulary and to not allow anyone to call me one without a confrontation. When I saw TWIST’s spray-painted tag on a parking lot wall alongside the quote “Governments can’t fall by themselves, they need your help,” I copied it down in my journal, hungry for accessible language that affirmed the newly forming radical ideas that burned inside of me. I came of age during the “Golden Era” of hip-hop right before the proliferation of “Gangsta” rap. The “Golden Era” embraced life, celebration, political militance and cultural pride. Culture was seen as part of the weapon in the struggle for human rights and liberation. I had been recruited to join the fight.

The police had been targeting hip hop parties in the past year, often breaking up peaceful and vibrant gatherings for no apparent reason, intimidating venue owners from holding any hip-hop related event in their spaces. The city was also in the midst of trying to pass a youth curfew, aggressively clearing the streets of homeless people while landlords evicted hundreds of low-income families from their rentals; these were all indicators that gentrification, a process that had been on the slow burn for over a decades was now on a rolling boil to reshape the city to suit the affluent, many of them flocking to the city to cash in on the gold rush of the “Dot Com” era that would turn to dust by 2002. My family had already faced an owner move-in eviction in 1989 and I braced myself for the next one, which indeed came in 2001.

The SF Chapter of UZN not only held a positive and consistent space for young people of color in the midst of so much targeted change, it was part of the organizing force that rallied youth and adult allies to defeat the youth curfew proposition as it dared to continue throwing positive hip hop events despite police crackdowns. All the MCs in the group recorded songs to put on a compilation against the youth curfew. I helped design the tape cover and craft the language that explained the proposition. I then spent hours at the S.F. State library using the tape dubbing machines to make copies to pass out for free to youth on the streets as a form of “edutainment” (to borrow KRS-ONE’s word) on the issue. The tape doubled as outreach for youth to attend a march against the curfew the day before the Board of Supervisors would vote. As I marched down Market Street with hundreds of other youth, raising our fists in the air chanting in time with drummers playing on the flatbed truck, I was unaware that this would be one of the few victories I would experience over the next ten years in repeated efforts to defeat repressive legislation. I was simply in awe of what our creativity and resourcefulness could accomplish.

Hip-hop culture was born out of this kind of innovation. I had a deep respect for its origins that sprung out of the imagination of poor Black and Puerto Rican youth growing up in the South Bronx. They could not afford musical instruments so they put two turntables together and created a third sound by mixing two records together. They tapped into public electric outlets to power their sound systems throwing rooftop and block parties for the neighborhood youth. The MCs at these parties, charged with moving the crowd, began to go beyond the basic party chants to elaborate lyrics that flowed over the dj’s music. The music brought forth an energetic style of dance, breakdancing, whose roots could be traced back to African and Brazilian dance forms. The less social and performance-oriented youth were no less hungry to be noticed. Some of them began to write on walls and subway trains, their bright bubble letters declaring their own rights to the city despite their lack of power to control their material circumstances. They called themselves writers, though the rest of the world viewed them as vandals.

These new forms were not always legal, yet they offered an alternative to violence. Instead of solving conflict through physical violence, youth were challenged to battle each other through the art forms. More than twenty years had passed since these founding days and now hip-hop was becoming mainstream and commercialized by corporate interests who saw its market worth as a culture to be consumed not practiced. Still, the original intention of the culture was not lost on everyone, least of all the SF Chapter of UZN. This is how, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, whenever someone asked me, “Are you a writer?” the answer was, “Yes, I write.”

The first time I ever met a writer it was 1984, the summer before I entered the fifth grade. Japanese Mike we called him because there was another Mike, Black and Japanese, who also hung out with the same group of friends. These were the high school drop-outs who draped their lanky bodies over the play structure in my elementary schoolyard. One day, I followed Japanese Mike as he disappeared into the yard’s alleyway after most of the kids had been called home for dinner. He uncapped a fat black marker and its strong chemical scent hit my nostrils. The smell pleased me. I stood behind him as he wrote on the white painted wall.

R-E-D-R-U-M. The letters were capitalized and blocky, the black ink thick and opaque. He told me nonchalantly that his tag was murder spelled backwards. I nodded. “Why do you do it?” I asked him as I snapped my bubble gum.

“It’s like a game. It’s fun. It’s a game with the cops.” His reason was lost on my ten-year old mind. I shrugged and he let me hold the big fat marker in my hand. “What do you want your tag to be?” he asked. I couldn’t think of a word I wanted to write on the wall with that marker, so I continued to watch Japanese Mike do his thing. His question lingered inside me, patiently waiting to be answered.

When I decided I wanted to write on walls ten years later, I didn’t tell anyone about it for several months. It was like a crush I wasn’t ready to do anything about just yet. I watched from afar. I paid more attention to the streets I had taken for granted, now slowing down my eyes to scan for graffiti. Tag stickers slapped on post office boxes, grease pen tags on metal railings, black mop tops on white tiled tunnels, two color throw-ups on rooftops, spray paint on the sides of buses, etchings on the glass of bus windows, silver ink tags on no parking signs, wild style pieces in downtown parking lots and on and on and on. I started noticing who was all-city and who was getting crossed out. Who used drips in their letters on purpose and who dripped because they were amateurs. Advertisements became muted and quiet as the streets laid out their illustrious roll call of signatures.

I watched from near, too. A bunch of my good friends did graffiti and I was familiar with some of the scene already. M, one of my homegirls from high school who was also in UZN, was becoming well-known and respected amongst the male-dominated art form as ASIA. Her tag was prominent throughout the city from night after night of going out on bombing missions to get up. She could easily hold her own with a male bombing partner and had no problems hopping fences, climbing fire escapes or getting dirty and she had a sarcastic, abrasive personality to match. M was also a bit of a shoplifter, bordering on cleptomaniac. She took trips out to chain hardware stores out in the suburbs and stole her spray paint. Lots of it. She would walk out of those stores with cans in her backpack, down her pants and along the sleeves of her jackets. She was fearless. If I was going to start writing with anyone it was going to be with her.

When I finally told M that I wanted to go out bombing with her she responded by getting me my first sketch book. On the front page she wrote in gold metallic pen,

…If you’re going to hit with me you know you have to hit with me not just tag along (no pun intended). Oh yes, you will be corrupted! As for what you write, you gotta figure that out yourself hon! Much l-word, M

M would continue to take me under her wing just as the writers who introduced her to the form had done for her. There were dozens of trade secrets, some that could only be learned through trial and error, others passed down through older writers after they felt you had paid enough dues. But only you could choose what you wanted to write. I began my search for the perfect word. This word had to be a marriage of meaning, practicality and aesthetic. Letters like S and A were more favorable because they were quick in execution. M suggested no more than four letters. And then of course, there was simply how the word looked. This could vary greatly depending on the lettering style. But above all, to me, was the word’s meaning. If I was going to be writing a word over and over upon the thousands of surfaces belonging to the city I was born and raised, it needed to mean something.

I searched. My favorite books, song lyrics, take-out menus, phone books, magazines, the dictionary. I imagined this word as a mantra I was committing myself to. A chant to repeat over and over again. I thought of all the different struggles facing my various communities and the word I would want to offer should their gaze land on my tag in the midst of hard times. My own words on the page had helped me cope with an ongoing depression that I later came to understand as stemming from a hunger to see my mixed race identity reflected somewhere in the media of my surroundings. My Swiss mother and Filipino father had come to the United States from their respective countries in the late sixties as young adults, met in the Bay Area and then divorced five years after I was born. My mother struggled to raise my brother and me as a single mom while my dad moved to the suburbs and climbed the corporate ladder only to hit a glass ceiling. I never learned either of their native tongues. The city’s reputation as a multi-cultural rainbow paradise was largely absent in the public schools I attended, where students generally stuck to their own ethnic groups and regularly harassed anyone who was rumored to be queer. My parents did not know to prepare me to deal with peers who would accuse me of lying when I explained my ethnic background or my Asian-American friends who thought my light skin made me a white girl. When I looked to my education for guidance, high school history books had reduced the Philippines to one misleading sentence about how America had saved the uncivilized archipelago from Spanish rule as part of the Treaty of Paris, omitting the Philippine-American War and fierce native resistance to U.S. colonization. I tried hard to get in where I could fit in and take up as little space as possible. There were times I walked around my school and streets imagining that I was literally invisible to people. As I began to develop a political consciousness particularly through my job at the youth leadership program, I saw that my experience was not isolated or random, but part of much larger systems and histories of colonization and resistance. I hunted for a word that might somehow speak to all of these elements.

What word could mark the change in me? What word could help me get to the other side? It was too much pressure for one word. Each one I came up with felt cliché or was already taken. M laughed at me, telling me I was getting too deep. I probably was. Then one day, I saw it. I was walking by a hospital’s ambulance entrance and my eyes latched on to a word on the white and red sign above it. EMERGENCY. My eyes took the word apart in my mind. I saw the word EMERGE rise out of emergency. It spoke like my deepest prayer for my communities, that we could rise above the crisis of poverty, the violence and the self-hate that shaped our lives. That a state of emergency held in it the ability to rise above it. It was like I had never really seen the word before at all. EMERGE. That was it. That was the word I wanted to write on the wall.

EMERGE was six letters, two letters past the general length for tags. I was stubborn, though, and attached to my word. Sure enough, when I went out bombing with M one foggy night I ran into problems. M breezed down the block, each ASIA tag taking just seconds for her to hit up with no more than four strokes of the can. I took my spray can and attempted to tag EMERGE on a pole, going around the pole’s circumference instead of writing it vertically up and down so that one could only read the word by walking around the pole. I still had a lot to learn about how to best make use of surfaces. Even if I had written it vertically, it would take almost ten seconds, too long to keep up with any bombing partner with a four letter tag. By M’s suggestion, I did what writers often did with words that were too long. I removed some letters, shortening it to EMRG. I was more than happy with the compromise. The letters felt strong and solid together like brass knuckles. I began to spend hours and hours sketching and envisioning all the different ways to write it down.

Now I had to figure out how I was going to go bombing at night without letting my mom know. I was still living at home. My mom and I had a decent relationship and she wasn’t strict by any means, but our communication was strained. I was rarely ever home. I constantly “forgot” to call and tell her where I was. Running an infant day care in our home and working twelve hour days my mom had little involvement in my life outside of the house while I was growing up. Since graduating high school I had begun to resent her efforts to keep track of me. I also fought regularly with my older brother who had recently become a born-again Christian. Between him preaching his beliefs in hopes of converting us and my own new radical politics that I was still learning to articulate, there was not much room for genuine peace and quiet. I was terrified of the potential rejection and disgust that would register on their faces if I revealed my growing attraction to women. I knew I needed to move out soon, but until I could save enough money I had to find a way to explore these new parts of myself without my family knowing. My life became compartmentalized. I did not know what it would look like for me to walk around as one whole and integrated person. So I began to lie.

It helped my situation that I was pretty much a straight A student. Good grades equaled good girl. My mom already knew M, who lived just around the corner from me, so I could easily say I was at her house. A typical evening went something like this:

I went over to M’s at around eleven p.m. to “watch a movie.” Her dad would be turning in for the evening. M and I either picked a neighborhood to go bombing, usually following a bus route, or had a specific wall, tunnel, rooftop, billboard in mind that we had scoped earlier to hit up with more elaborate pieces. For those special missions, we often had another writer join us. My favorite third person was our high school friend SCRYPT, a gentle-natured guy with a soft, deep voice who was at least six foot two. SCRYPT was an outdoorsy type and loved to climb things. His height and strength came in handy in helping us reach high places. Most times we would leave M’s house and hang out somewhere that was open late like a donut shop or another friend’s house sketching. We had made the mistake once or twice of staying at her house watching TV on her bed only to fall asleep for the rest of the night. At one or two a.m. we would head out in her ’69 olive green Buick Skylark with AM-only radio (her dad was a used car dealer) to park. I’d double-check my bombing bag, a black nylon shoulder bag with several inside pockets that fit up to three cans of spray paint, several markers of various sizes and extra tips. I made sure the cans in my windbreaker didn’t make too much noise.

If we were just hitting streets there was a rule of not hitting up at the same time so one of us could watch out for cops or heroes, pedestrians who might call the cops or chase after us themselves. Sometimes if the streets were empty we would ignore this rule. We never hit up on people’s houses or apartments. Poles, post office boxes, bus stops, electric boxes, metal roll-downs, parking lot walls, tree fences, anything public were fair game. We never went over someone else’s tag or wrote too closely to it unless we intended to battle them. Those were fighting words. I was fonder of hitting up with juicy fat black markers and mop tops than spray paint. Mop tops are shoe polish bottles emptied of polish and filled with a mix of paint and thinner, resulting in glossy, rounded letters with pretty drips. Once I learned how to hold the marker in my hand, tilting the rectangular felt tip at a particular angle, I became much happier with the shape of my letters. Spray paint was much harder to control. As I fumbled in the beginning with trying to make my letters legible with spray paint and keep my index finger from freezing up, I gained a whole new admiration for writers who had mastered the volatile medium.

Depending on the night, if streets were hot with cops, busy with people or empty and cloaked with fog (the best conditions), we would go out for three to four hours before calling it quits. Sometimes nights were energetic, filled with crazy late night conversations and we managed to empty two cans of paint or run out of ink. We had strange encounters like the time we were circled by a pack of growling raccoons while waiting for the bus near the park so we had to jump on the roof of a nearby car. When I was bold enough to hit up a wall right in front of a bus stop with a handful of tired waiters watching me it became performance art. Sometimes we strategically ended the night near a twenty-four hour donut shop and were lucky enough to eat a freshly made old-fashioned chocolate glazed donut, our reward for a hard night’s work. Other nights going out bombing really did feel like work, stuffing envelopes or some other mundane repetitive job. M was in a bad mood and I hated each tag I hit up. Men walking home drunk from the bars closing leered at us, despite our baggy jeans and oversized jackets. I was exhausted from too little sleep, too much homework and another activist meeting to attend. And I still had to deal with going home.

Sometimes it was three in the morning on a Wednesday and I forgot my keys so I had to ring the doorbell and wake up my mom and brother. I would see my mother’s silhouette through the front gate as she approached the buzzer to let me in. “Don’t you have school tomorrow?” She stood groggy by the door, crossing her arms over her nightgown, her brown eyes small from sleep. “You need to get better about your keys.”

“Sorry. I fell asleep at M’s house after the movie. Go back to sleep.” I brushed past her carefully with my backpack, hands in my black windbreaker jacket pockets. I went into my room and closed the door behind me. I took off my backpack and laid back on the bed, no longer self-conscious that each move I made triggered the clinking sound of hollowed metal on metal. I kicked off my sneakers one by one and let out an exhausted sigh. Then slowly, I sat up and reached into the front kangaroo pocket of my windbreaker. I pulled out my black Sakura SG 7 extra broad marker and a can of flat black paper-label Spray Brite spray paint. I reached into my backpack and pulled out two more cans of paint, plucked the skinny nozzle tips from each can and bent over to feel for the Adidas shoebox underneath my bed. My toolbox. I took out a small can of WD-40 and put one of the skinny tips on its neck, spraying a short burst of WD-40 through its nozzle. If I let the paint inside the tip dry I would not be able to reuse it later. I did this with each tip and then placed them inside one of the many plastic 35mm film canisters I stored inside the shoebox. I opened the window to air the room. I had inhaled enough fumes for the evening.

After I finished washing up I went back to my room and crawled into bed. My back and my right index finger ached. We had covered a lot of ground. I couldn’t wait to ride the bus line we had followed and get a window seat so I could see myself up everywhere. After a few months of this, my mom had caught on. She had discovered my shoebox and cans of paint beneath my bed. “I want this stuff out of the house or else you need to move out,” she said. I didn’t bother trying to argue. I just carried my supplies over to my friend Henry’s house a few blocks away.

Tina Bartolome is a San Francisco native and daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and Switzerland. She just received an MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University and her work is included in the anthology Walang Hiya: Literature Taking Risks Toward Liberatory Practice (2010). Over the past ten years, she has written for the page, stage and screen with Bay Area organizations such as as the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, Bindlestiff Studio, KulArts, Intersection for the Arts, Kearny Street Workshop and Kreatibo. Her solidarity with people’s struggles for self-determination has taken her to the Philippines, Cuba and Guåhan (Guam) with a steady commitment to return to working class neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland and facilitate radical spaces for young people to develop leadership and artistic voice for making social change. She is equal parts dialectic materialist, astrologist, pedestrian and dancehall queen. Visit her blog at tinabartolome.wordpress.com.

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4 Thoughts on “Tina Bartolome: On Becoming an Ex-Writer: A Personal Essay (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: On Becoming an Ex-Writer: A Personal Essay (part 1) | GIVE AND TAKE

  2. yay!hotstepper!!such a great writer you are=)get that novel done…=)

  3. hapalovely on May 19, 2011 at 7:37 pm said:

    Frisco throw-back! Thanks for your words and your storytelling. I’m on pins and needles for the next… Love. <3

  4. heather on May 24, 2011 at 9:10 pm said:

    wowzers…memories!! ima go read the next chapter now #late


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