LEARN, YME, 30 Years of Writing.
Bench Masters: Cool. So 30 years of writing on things that don’t belong to you and the YME crew, 20th anniversary. 1999 to two thousand- what year is it? -'19?
Learn: I think so.
BM: Are we in the future yet?
Learn: Feels like it.
BM:: 30 years is a long time, man. How does it feel to be rocking stuff for 30 years? Do you feel old? Does it feel good?
Learn: Honestly, 30 years feels like a flash in the pan. It feels like it went by so fast. As far as when I first started writing in the late eighties, '89-'90, that feels like a long time ago. But '99 until now just went by so fast.
BM: Does time go by faster, or seem to go by faster, as you get older?
Learn: Yeah, it definitely does. Definitely weird. Kind of a cruel joke. Should be the opposite. Should slow down as you get older, but it doesn't.
BM: So for people that aren't aware, who are the founding members of YME? And how did that all go down?
Learn: Lack and I started painting in the summer of '99. I had the idea, after we had painted maybe a couple of times, that we were going to be consistently painting because we clicked so well. All we were really into was freights, but I didn't approach him with the idea for a crew until sometime that fall. I said, "Yeah, let's start this crew," and it was just me and him at first. Then Ich jumped on board. And then after Ich, I think it was Ser and Sept and Bern and Jurne and all throughout the 2000's we just kept putting everybody down that we kind of painted with already.
BM: Could you maybe talk a little bit about what the freight scene was like back then and how did you even get turned on to painting freights?
Learn: The freight scene back then felt really close-knit and it was kind of like we were doing something secret. Bombing the streets and stuff was pretty popular, but freights felt like this new thing. It wasn't that new then, but I feel like we were probably only the second generation of people to really start hitting it hard. It just felt like, once you got really into it, you realized that there were probably only like 50 or 100 people in the country that were doing it really consistently back then. So that felt like it was special, you know?
The reason I first started was that I moved from California my senior year in high school to a small town in Oregon. It didn't have any graff in the streets, but it had a freight yard and I started seeing writers from California that I knew (not knew personally but saw and knew of from magazines) in AWR, CBS, and stuff like that. And I was like, "Holy crap!" I started creeping into the yards there and just catching tags around '92-'93 (I didn't even attempt a piece on a freight until I moved to the East Coast in '96). But definitely by '93 I was tagging on them in Oregon and I got hooked automatically because I just felt so... I've always felt so calm around freights. People talk about going in a yard and it being hectic, and even if it was like that, I just always felt like it was this little slice of peacefulness. Inside a train yard. Around freights.
BM: So it's been more of a place for you to vent, express yourself, and clear your head more than anything else?
Learn: Yeah, I think more than the "graffiti style" and that type of scene thing, it's always been a place to release anxiety and angst and stuff like that for myself. Just to over-all release.
BM: Do you suffer from anxiety and shit?
Learn: Yeah. I was diagnosed with a panic and anxiety disorder in my late teens. I spent 4 or 5 years on SSDI, was hospitalized twice, was given all kinds of wrong medications at first because they thought I was schizophrenic (but I wasn't), and I almost died a couple of times from it. Got rushed to the hospital once, stopped breathing. Shit, from '92 to '97-'98, really. And then I started coming out of it and being able to leave the house (I couldn't really leave the house that much for a long time). Graffiti and freights pretty much saved my life. Gave me an outlet, and made me not so scared.
BM: So those brushes with death were medication allergies or reactions?
Learn: I had an allergic reaction to Haldol pretty bad, which is a really strong psychotropic they give people that have schizophrenia. And I definitely wasn't suffering from that, but back in the early '90s in small-town-Oregon the doctors there were pretty backwards. They thought because I was having such bad depersonalization from anxiety (because prolonged anxiety will give you that) that they thought I was schizophrenic so they put me on it. I was alone one day and I just started not breathing. Luckily, I was able to call the hospital and the ambulance came and gave me some Benadryl and I came to. So that was pretty fucked up. I was just out of it for about 2 years on all kinds of different medications, trying to figure out what was going on. So it was pretty scary.
BM: What was your childhood like? Do you think that anxiety was a genetic thing? Or did you have traumas as a kid?
Learn: Yeah. A lot of trauma. I was raised in a pretty dysfunctional household. My real father (my biological father) took off when I was seven. I haven't seen him since. And my mom was a functioning alcoholic. She was very loving, very caring, but wasn't really there that much and had problems with her substance abuse and she tried her best but it was hard. And then I had different stepdads come in that helped raised me and have done a lot of good and I love them. I still love them to this day. But one was a drug dealer and I saw a lot of shit that kids shouldn't see. My mother raised me in a hippie commune that had a lot of love and support, but also a lot of sex, drugs and rock and roll, too. Not something to really raise kids around. I know that now, having my own kids. It didn't seem odd back then in the '80s, but now I'm like, "Holy shit, I can't believe I was raised in that!" I talked to my wife about it and she's like, "Wow, how did you even exist? I was like, "I don't know." It was a lot of change. A lot of moving around, a lot of... My stepdad would get on drugs and like hit us once in a while. There was a lot of stuff like that.
BM: It was also a very different time back then, you know?
Learn: Yeah. Especially California in the late '70s to mid '80s.
BM: Do you think that graffiti came into your life because of the atmosphere you were in as a kid? I guess what I'm asking is do you think your environment led you toward this?
Learn: For me, I started seeing it around Santa Cruz (that's the town I grew up in, in California) and I was immediately drawn to it, or something, but I don't know why really.
And then I started tagging in my high school bathrooms and stuff around '88-'89. My stepdad (I called him "Dad", he was my sister's biological father) saw me tag on stuff and he brought home Subway Art one day in '88. He actually grew up in New York City and so did my mom. My stepdad knew Taki 183 so he brought the book home and was like, "Oh, I know this guy. I remember when he and Demetrius were writing on stuff." I just was immediately obsessed with it, and just studied it. And, that was my Bible for so many years.
BM: Were you writing Learn back then? Or were you're just experimenting...
Learn: No, the first word I messed with was Heights. H-E-I-G-H- the whole thing, after where my mom and dad grew up in Washington Heights in the inner city. So I wrote that.
But I definitely think it cured my anxiety that I had starting as a kid. It was the repetition of writing that just really soothed me. And it still does to this day. It's just the same thing over and over again. That's what I kind of love about graffiti. Life is so constantly changing all the time and you never know what's going to happen. It seems like that's always there, you know? Just pick a word and just write it. And just... It's that constant, you know?
BM: Why "Learn"? How did you settle on "Learn"?
Learn: In '91 or '92 I was 14, maybe 15, in therapy with a therapist who had me pick a word that would calm me down. So for some reason I picked "learn", because I always liked to read and learn about things. And that was it. It just stuck. I just didn't think about writing it as a word until probably '93 or '94. I started writing that as the word, left to right. I had messed with a bunch of different things. I think I wrote Panic for a while, Heights, I messed with all kinds of words.
BM: That's a lot of letters compared to most writers who choose three or four letter words. It seems that you always picked words with a lot of letters. Did you ever try to write something shorter?
Learn: No. I think for me, picking a word that meant something to me was really important. Also, I liked the letters. It couldn't just be like, "Oh, I like those letters, I'm going to write it because it's just got three letters".
BM: Going back to YME and the crew, how did you meet Lack and what was that time period like? Did you guys hit it off right off the bat?
Learn: There was some weird graffiti jam in Congress Square called Urban Arts Day. You probably remember it.
Learn: He was there and somebody told me, "That's Lack". And I was like, "Oh, shit!", because I had seen him on the freights and stuff. I just went up and started talking to him and he was chill. He skateboarded like we did. He was kind of more like a metal dude and I was more like hip hop. I still listened to metal stuff, but... So that was kind of different. He was into horror movies and metal and I was kind of into hip hop and sports and stuff, but we just clicked. I mean he was just a nice guy. I was... I thought I was a nice guy. And we both only wanted to do freights. So we were like, "Let's do this". And then, I think, a week after we exchanged phone numbers at that Congress Square jam, we were out painting a freight together.
BM: Nice! Take graffiti out of the equation. Would you be friends with Lack if you guys both weren't writers?
Learn: Yeah, for sure. For sure. I mean, he's just a quality person. A good human being. I have a lot of friends that don't write graffiti, you know?
Actually, a lot of my friends write graffiti...
BM: Haha, like, "Let me recount that".
Learn: Yeah, now that I think about it, most of my friends write! But usually they're all good people too, you know? Everybody says, "Graffiti writers are the scum bags." I'm like, "I don't know man. I've met a lot of good people that are graffiti writers".
BM: So in the early 2000's, what was life like for the YME crew?
Learn: Like, nonstop checking the spots, painting freights.
I was on SSDI. Lack worked. Everybody else was younger.
I was one of the oldest people in the crew pretty much, and I wasn't working, so we'd get up every day. Check the spots. Go bench. Go driving to the day spots, because you could paint in the day back then. Or go paint at night pretty much almost every single night. Then, on the weekends try to kind of date. We always had this thing of going in the yard in the day on Sunday, or go drive somewhere farther away Sunday and paint. But that was every single day and every holiday, too. I don't think I spent Thanksgiving or Christmas with my family for four or five years, because I knew that the yards would be dead that day. So I always went in. From '99 to 2004, that's all I did. I kept a record and I did 1,000 from '99 to '04 or '05. So that shows how much fucking time we wasted.
BM: Can you estimate how many cans?
Learn: I don't know, dude.
BM: That's a good question though. You could probably figure that out.
Learn: A lot of fucking cans. A lot of dollar cans, because you know we'd get the 99 cent Mardens' shit. Being on disability back then, I don't know if I would have painted without Mardens, honestly. Not as much for sure, you know?
BM: Like, "Grocery shop? Or paint a piece?" You have to determine how to balance the budget.
Learn: Well, by '99 I already had two theft cases against me. So I wasn't trying to steal any more, because I already went to jail for stealing shoes twice.
BM: Shoes? Really needed those shoes, I guess.
Learn: I was really into it, yeah. You remember this. You had to have a new skateboard every month. And a new pair of shoes every month. It's true, that's the way it was.
But by then it was really all about freights, man. Waking up, checking spots, benching, and painting. I mean, it was pretty exhausting now that I think about it. But it was really fun, too.
I mean, I'm sure people still do that to this day, too, but then it was awesome because we felt like we were the only ones doing it. When we went to the spot at night we could take any panel we wanted. That's kind of hard for me nowadays when I go to paint still once in a while and to have to worry, "What am I going to go over?" It's hard to deal with. It kinda bums me out. It's cool seeing a lot of people paint, and people are into it, but it's kind of frustrating too to see how saturated it is.
BM: Yeah, I hear you on that one. So it's the 20th anniversary of the crew. Is there anything special planned for this year? Or any jams that you guys are doing or what?
Learn: Yeah. August 22nd and 23rd. We have a crew art show and a party at Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland, Maine that Friday. And Saturday we're going to do a wall jam in the same spot. We've got a wall there. It's going to be hanging out, crew and friends of crew, celebrating 20 years of doing the shit. Still alive. Been blessed. I can't wait for that. We're all psyched on that. More info to come on that for sure.
BM: Cool. Is there anything we should talk about that we haven't?
Learn: I mean, anything that you want to talk about I'm down, you know. I don't know.
BM: I'm trying to think. Give me a minute to think. I don't want it to be like a standard interview, you know. I definitely want...
Learn: I think you asked me the questions that weren't really standard.
I think it's really cool when you get into a writer's background and the reason they want to write graffiti. And family upbringing and stuff. I think it's really cool. Because I think that's interesting. I always like to read about that when I read about writers.
BM: Right. Yeah, me too. You talk about food and stuff on your Instagram account. Can you talk about when you started becoming more conscious of what you were consuming and what led you to that?
Learn: Great question. So in 2000, I had a cat that I really loved and I wasn't anywhere near a healthy eater at all. I was pretty overweight, actually, because of the medications I was on. And I lost this cat and I was devastated. I had just started hanging out with The Solo Artist that same year and he had been throwing stuff at me, because he was already a vegetarian/vegan. He was kind of hinting at things once in a while and a lot of things made sense to me. And then, after I lost that cat and I was crying for days about it, it just clicked, like, "How would I eat another animal? And I loved this animal so much. What's the difference between this animal, or this cat and a cow, a chicken, a pig, a fish, anything?" So that was November 2000, and I just stopped cold turkey. I think the last thing I ate was a chicken patty from Save-A-Lot (this ghetto supermarket I shopped at all the time where I pretty much existed of spaghetti and meat and donuts and that's all I ate, because I was pretty poor), and that was it. And I immediately noticed a little bit of a difference in my mood as far as not being depressed, not having as much anxiety. I just went veg. I didn't stop eating cheese and stuff for a year or so. But after that, when I cut out the dairy, that's when my body started changing, I lost weight, and started feeling better.
And then in 2001 I just said, "I'm going to get off SSDI." I woke up and I got a job and I worked at that job for five years, and then I went to college and got an associate's degree. I really attribute a lot of that to changing my lifestyle habit when comes to food and food as medicine. The compassion that I was putting out there to the planet was coming back to me. And it was giving me compassion, not hurting and harming other creatures that deserve to live on this planet just like we do.
And I thank The Solo Artist forever for that; for opening my eyes. To this day, I try to spread the word as much as I can without being preachy and kind of like "the eating police" and I never get on anybody for what they eat. I just like to put it out there and show people that I'm just a regular working class guy and I grew up pretty hard and I was pretty poor as a young man in my twenties. And I changed my life, got off medication, and stopped having panic anxiety attacks. And I think a huge reason for that was changing my diet and eating more healthy.
I was raised in the hippie community. We always ate- it wasn't vegan or vegetarian- but very, you know, macrobiotic. And I kind of knew in the back of my head, but once I got out on my own when I was 17 or 18 and I was still on medication, I started pigging out on fast food and McDonald's and stuff because I didn't have any money. And it was kind of like, "Oh, I can eat whatever I want now".
BM: It's interesting how it feeds into itself. Like you're poor so you eat shitty, and you eat shitty so you stay poor. It's almost like designed without sounding like a conspiracy.
Learn: Oh, man. Big time. I mean the four biggest industries in the world, the military and war, food and medicine, pharmaceutical and medicine, they work hand in hand to keep people sick longer. They don't really want cures. They want people to be medicated and stay alive longer so they can make more profit or they go out of business. So it makes sense. If the answer was simply eating more spinach, raspberries, strawberries, beans, and whole grains, and less processed food, meat and dairy, then they'd be out of business. But that is the answer. And if people knew that your immune system was designed to heal everything, including the worst diseases out there, then they would be out of business.
But it is designed for that. What you have to do is you have to feed your immune system for it to work. If you fill it full of crap, it won't work. If you fill it full of living food, it will work. And it will work for you.
BM: A lot of people talk about their changeover, or introduction into becoming a vegetarian or vegan. But the nuts and bolts of it, how the fuck did you do it? Did you introduce certain foods first? How do you step into something like that?
Learn: I think the best thing to do for anybody, at first, is just try to grab some of those meat alternative things that they have out nowadays. Back when I first started it was only like Boca Burgers and Gardenburgers and that's what I ate.
Nowadays there's a plethora: Beyond Meat, Impossible Burgers, Field Roast, Tofurkey, etc. So substitute. Instead of having a hamburger that night have a Beyond Burger. Instead of having chicken breasts, have a Boca Chik'n Patty.
I think that's the best thing to do at first. That stuff's not that healthy for you, but it's a lot better than the saturated fat and cholesterol-filled animal protein and all the other stuff.
That's the way to start. Just trying to eat some of those meat alternatives at first. And then that will kind of gradually get you into it. Get off the meat and then try different dairy-free milk, like almond milk, soy milk, rice milk. You realize how much they taste just as good and have just as much calcium, just as much vitamin D, and just as much everything. So you don't need to drink the fluids of another animal that's meant for their baby, not you. No other species drinks the milk of another species. Except humans, it's weird.
BM: Yeah. It is weird. So, on the health tip, with paint fumes being so harmful to the body and to the brain, what do you do to protect yourself? And have you always done that?
Learn: No. Not at all. I've been bad at it. That's why I think it's really important for writers to be healthy. Especially with the crazy lifestyle we live. A lot of staying up late. Not sleeping. A lot of paint fumes. A lot of, sometimes, alcohol abuse and stuff we tend to have. That's what my Instagram is all about is I want writers to just to make sure you're putting the right things in your body. Because you're only making it worse if you're going to put shitty food and processed food in your body.
BM: Right. And then aerosol on top of that.
Learn: Yeah. So I definitely always wear a mask now. I wish I did when I was painting heavily, heavily because now I don't get out that much. But I still get out once in a while.
I would tell all kids to do that. We didn't know as much back then as we do now about it. So, cross my fingers and hope I'm OK. That's why I think it's really important that writers really take care of their body in other ways. I mean, athletes who are always beating up their bodies, they're making sure they're watching what they put in their body all the time, too.
BM: You are what you eat, right?
Learn: That's the thing. Yes, it's true.
BM: It's true.
Learn: But let's take that medicine, you know? One of the oldest sayings in the book.
BM: So, I guess we'll wrap it up with the last question: "So, what's in the future? What's the next 40 years look like for YME?"
Learn: Oh my god. I hope just all being friends and getting out there once in a while, but more importantly just staying healthy and being positive. And remember where we came from, but also teaching kids that are into freights the right way to do it and that you're respecting the rails and the culture. I think that's really important. Respecting the unwritten rules of freights with the numbers, not leaving trash (I know everybody knows that, and it's been said and said again). I think as it gets more saturated and there's more and more kids writing, that stuff gets kind of lost. I really see a lot of people going over the numbers and stuff nowadays. I know you can't really deny it now because there's so much stuff on freights, but I still think that stuff's important. And I don't want to ever preach to anybody about it, but I think it's good to have people out there that are still saying that stuff and respecting the monikers. I just hope that as we get older, we stay together and remain friends and just appreciate what we've done and what we've still got to do, which is get out there once in a while even if it's just catching a streak. Just being around freights, because they're beautiful. With or without graffiti, trains are awesome.