The HIDDEN History of Asian-American Graf Writers

A low-key subculture where Asian-Americans found a lane to create.

Normally I don’t get political, but the connection between street culture and society at large is inevitable, and you can’t help but discover that in many ways, history is closer than many of us think. In the wake of processing all the recent events affecting the Asian-American community, one thing that has lived rent-free in my head is Lei Takanashi’s Twitter thread about Jonathan See Lim, aka the writer TIE ONE.

A Filipino immigrant who was raised Buddhist, he was shot to death on March 18, 1998 by William Porter, a former war photographer who lived in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. This is where the circumstances of Lim’s death get dicey.

Takanashi notes that Porter claimed Lim went for his gun as he was threatened with it, telling the SF Gate: “I warned him that I had a firearm. I had no idea that this individual would play Jackie Chan and grab the gun.”

This statement contradicts personal statements from Lim’s family and friends about his non-confrontational, pacifistic nature. When the case went to court in December of 1998, Porter walked away a free man, exonerated of all charges of manslaughter and murder.

14 years later, Takanashi also shouted out this Juxtapoz piece by writer SABER AWR , in which he continues to detail how the circumstances of TIE ONE’s death at Porter’s hands just didn’t add up.

“There was no gun residue found on TIE's hands. A witness said they saw William Porter hitting TIE with the gun as he yelled ‘please don't shoot’ as he fled down the stairs William shot him in the back of the head,” writes SABER AWR. “The witnesses were local junkies so their testimony was not accepted. The only evidence left at the crime scene was TIE's bag of spray paint and his bike locked up on a pole right on the sidewalk.”

He then talks about how he’d make it his mission to remind Porter of what he’d done, and how sickened he was that Porter remained “celebrated as a San Francisco photographer.” Judging from recent Google reviews for William Porter Photography, it’s a mission that continues to this day.

Of course TIE ONE wasn’t the first nor only Asian-American graf writer. While the West Coast’s heavily Asian-American population naturally gave us more (including Barry McGee and David Choe), there are also plenty repping on the East Coast too.

IRAK is one of New York’s most prominent crews, a diverse bunch that includes Kunle Martins aka EARSNOT IRAK and the late Kent Ochjaroen, aka KENT IRAK. The ragtag group connected over a shared passion for writing and shoplifting fly gear (or “racking” as was the parlance, hence: “I rack” became “IRAK”).

The aforementioned Barry McGee came up in San Francisco writing as Twist before breaking into the fine art market. What makes his work especially interesting is the way he reinterprets and channels his half-Chinese heritage into some of his pieces, like the controversial character Ray Fong.

Released in 2006, the Barry McGee x HUF x adidas adicolor Lo Y1 “Ray Fong” mixed several of McGee’s self-aware motifs and signature art styles on a shoe that created controversy in the Asian-American community, namely because of its depiction of a buck-toothed, slanted-eyed Chinese man on the tongue. McGee’s “Ray Fong” character certainly emphasizes these stereotypes, but it also reclaims them in a way. McGee has also said it’s an exaggerated self portrait of his 8-year-old self.

And while David Choe is sort of an outlier in this article, it’s worth taking a look back at his windfall from drawing a bunch of dicks on the walls of Facebook’s first office at the behest of Napster founder Sean Parker, who is a fan of his work.

When asked to choose between $60,000 and shares in the company, Choe went with the latter even though he thought Facebook’s business model was absolute nonsense. Of course the gamble ended up paying off a little under a decade later, when Choe’s shares were valued around $200 million.