Mike Machin fosters community and creativity with the spray can

American graffiti with a mission.

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  • Written by
    Gail Phinney
  • Photographed by
    Monica Orozco

Artist and activist Mike Machin has an unconventional approach to cleaning up the streets and engaging at-risk youth in his San Pedro community: graffiti art. Often derided as a form of vandalism and gang violence, Mike sees beyond those stigmas to some tangible benefits.

“I’m not very good at reaching out to a kid that looks like he needs some help,” he shares, “but I can provide a place that they can come to. I have ideas for facilitating opportunities for people to enjoy art, create art, and there is a different type of satisfaction when you see people enjoying the things you are putting out there.”

Raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Ventura County, Mike became immersed in graffiti art and culture at a pivotal time in the emerging L.A. street scene. He joined the prominent Los Angeles graffiti crew MSK (Mad Society Kings) in 1993—using the tag BUS16—and quickly gained recognition.

“I realized the difference between me, as a young person, and my parents was so huge, but with hip-hop culture and graffiti culture it created a smaller generational gap.”

So when founder and legendary graffiti writer Eklips decided to form his crew into the commercially successful Seventh Letter, Mike was selected as the eighth member. Now he uses his notoriety to help aspiring young graffiti artists.

“I realized the difference between me, as a young person, and my parents was so huge, but with hip-hop culture and graffiti culture it created a smaller generational gap,” Mike says. “They are still saying all the same shit that we said, and they are still doing all the same shit that we were doing. That’s when I realized that I was a person who did graffiti and went on to support myself in my own business in the arts. It made me realize how lucky I am to be able to do that. I have an opportunity to possibly reach some people if I am a notable graffiti artist. When I meet young people and I tell them who I am, they know I am legit.”

Mike’s decision to establish himself in the San Pedro community was the result of both altruistic desires and practical needs. A 2002 graduate of CalArts, he was running his graphic design company, Machine Studio, from his house in Los Feliz but wanted to do something community-based. At the same time he developed his line of American-made spray paint, called Street Paint, and needed a place to house and sell it.

“I was looking around, and a buddy sent me an LA Weekly article on the First Thursday events and the art scene here. I thought it sounded cool. It seemed like the small-town vibe of San Pedro would fit and I could have more of a presence.”

His nonprofit entity, Community Art Machine (on 6th Street in San Pedro), accomplishes his mission to improve communities with art and hard work though two distinctive projects: Machine Community Art Studio and exhibition space, and C.U.T.S (Cleaning Up the Streets) Crew—specializing in murals and neighborhood beautification in underserved areas.

Machin’s ultimate desire is to establish a permanent graffiti yard. He believes that the more options people have to do it legally and safely, the less it is going to end up on the street.

His latest project, the Mobile Graffiti Yard in partnership with the Palos Verdes Art Center, resulted from difficulties in convincing property owners to allow that to happen. Not only could a mobile system provide walls for people to paint on, it would be a way to prove the graffiti art concept.

“We can document it and show how we just celebrate the arts and hip-hop culture and how it’s a unifying type of thing where there’s all different demographics of people coming together and everybody’s vibing and making art,” he explains. “It’s also creating other opportunities to bridge the gap between street culture and mainstream culture. There’s value in being a middleman between those two worlds, which I’m still trying to figure out. There has to be.”