Gabriel Garay On His Life as a Chicano, Muslim Convert, Former Incarceree and “Calligraffiti” Artist
By Maya Kashima
Gabriel Garay (also known as Gabril Garai) is an Oakland-based artist, a Chicano and Muslim convert who brings the influence of both cultures into his works. His website describes his style as “a mixture of urban/abstract expressionism and sometimes Islamic calligraphy.” He calls this style “calligraffiti.” Once a street artist, today he paints with acrylics on canvas and has shown his work across the country and internationally.
Give me the rundown on your background — the first bit of your artist bio.
I’m Chicano. My grandfather came to America as a bracero, a guest worker. I grew up in the Central Valley, which I call the “industrial farm ghetto” of America — you know, these neglected communities. See, when the Mexicans came in, there was a “white flight.” Where I’m from, Tulare County, has the highest percentage of Hispanics in the country, I believe, per capita. It’s pretty much like you’re in Mexico. I started doing graffiti young, and then I became nationally known within the graffiti scene, and then I became Muslim and I ventured off into stuff like what I’m doing now.
What got you into graffiti?
When I was younger, the hip-hop movement was spreading across my neighborhood. We had movies like “Beat Street,” PBS documentaries like “Style Wars.” I just saw the graffiti and then started to attempt it, went out and started tagging. My first time tagging was just my neighborhood name. Then I started to develop my skill, and some older, more established graffiti artists saw my potential and just kind of took me under their wing. They grew me. And then [I] just developed [my] own style.
Was it mostly you on your own?
Yeah. There were other kids that were doing graffiti, but then they got dragged into gang culture. It just came and swept. I held onto the graffiti as a way to distance myself, and I got a pass from people in my neighborhood. I grew up with all these kids that ended up becoming gang members, and they were like, “Oh, he’s the graffiti guy.”
Were you religious growing up?
I wasn’t. Some of my family was Protestant, and my grandma’s Catholic, but I went to church mainly for the snacks. Then, in my teenage years, I started to search for something deeper. [And] when you grow up as a Hispanic, if you’re searching for God, you go to the church. I became born-again [Christian] and was reading the Bible, just trying to make sense of it all.
How did you manage to go from born-again Christian to Muslim?
After 9/11, there was a spotlight on Islam. I was like, “What’s going on, what is this?” I already knew some things about Islam, but some of them were huge misconceptions. I wanted to find out more. There was a Muslim who worked at my mall, and I asked him what his religion was about, ‘cause it was all over the news. So he explained the difference between real Muslims and terrorists. But I wanted to know what Muslims believe. What is the belief system? What do they say about Jesus? My main thing with Christianity was Jesus, and the place of Jesus. And that was something the Quran answered for me. It didn’t negate the Bible — like, you have to believe in the Bible, you have to believe in Moses to be Muslim. I converted when I was about 18. It was self-study, reading the Quran, but I also think Islam has always been a part of my life in some way.
Growing up, I liked listening to rap music. And rap has a huge Islamic influence that people don’t know. Because of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s presence within the African-American community, it comes out in the music. I was picking up terms and words I didn’t know. For example, I listened to a group called the Goodie Mob growing up. The Goodie Mob is like, Cee-Lo, OutKast — Southern music. On their album they had a song called “Inshallah,” which means “God willing” [in Arabic]. And in the song, one of the members recited Al-Fatihah, the opening chapter of the Quran, but in English. Wu-Tang Clan and West Coast rappers like Ras Kass had Islamic influences in their music, too. And then you find out that certain rappers are actually Muslim, like Ice Cube. So the seeds were always planted.
And then, years later, you ended up converting.
Yeah. But even when I converted, I wasn’t the Muslim I am now. I had an amateur understanding of religion and couldn’t fully commit to the ideals. There was a conflict within myself. Because when you become a Muslim, you have to live a certain lifestyle. It took some time for me to get in accordance. But the belief was there. That’s the first step — belief.
It’s clear that you’re in a much different place now, both with your religion and your art. Did your art evolve alongside your faith?
They were kind of simultaneous. As I started to get known in graffiti, that’s when I was starting to become Muslim, too. But I didn’t really become practicing until I was taken from society for a while. I got dragged into the criminal justice system, spent some time in prison, really did some self-development. I did most of my studies there. I studied Islamic art, looked at the calligraphy, and so that’s where I started to mesh the two. After five years, I’d worked my way down to minimum security. They had arts and crafts there, and I used to paint. That was where I first did the calligraphy and graffiti mix.
Were you around many other Muslims in prison?
Yes, and actually one of the fastest growing Muslim communities is people incarcerated. Of people converting to Islam, a high percentage are people in prison. Because it gives you structure, you know? The community in prison was mainly other converts.
What did being a practicing Muslim look like while you were there?
You’re able to pray and hold your services, but there is some favoritism, especially in the private prisons. A lot of people don’t know that there are a lot of fundamental Christians that have interests in private prisons. [Our] private prison corporation, Corrections Corporation of America [now known as CoreCivic], had this faith program that you could only be in if you were Christian. It was called a “faith pod,” and if you signed up, you would have to go to church on Sunday. If you were any other faith, you would still have to go to [Christian] church on Sunday. Islam wasn’t allowed. We knew that it was against the law, you know, but to actually fight something like that, guards are gonna make you a target.
What did your life look like when you got out of prison?
You’ve mentioned that your current style of art mostly developed after you were released. When I came out, I was having trouble finding work and started to pursue art. I figured, “Okay, I can’t be doing graffiti,” you know, with the harsh laws if you get caught spray-painting. Some of my graffiti friends, they gave me all of these devices, my friend showed me Instagram and all of these new apps, so I started putting my art on there and started to develop a fanbase.
Was Instagram even a thing before?
Nah, Facebook. No, no, no, it was Myspace!
Yeah, I was [in prison] from 2005 to 2012.
How did you manage to build a following on Instagram? That’s something a lot of artists struggle with.
I instantly got one just from the graffiti community. People who knew me from the graffiti scene were already following [my work], and then as I started to do the Arabic stuff, I picked up a more Muslim-based following.
How did you come up with this – the “calligraffiti?” It’s very unique.
When I started learning about Arabic calligraphy as I was studying Islam, one thing I learned is that Arabic calligraphers will play with the structure of the Arabic alphabet, elongating letters and things like that. And then I just looked at what graffiti artists were doing in America with the English alphabet, and it was kind of similar, you know – keeping the structure, but creating new looks [for] letters. Now I’m doing Chicano typography and Quranic verses. I’m doing them transliterated [from Arabic] and in a “placa,” which is a certain [graffiti] style of writing that’s common in Mexican-American communities. It’s a merging of identities, you know, just trying to create something beautiful.
What are some themes you try to incorporate in your work?
I have the Chicano writing, and then I have the Arabic — different phrases. I like to do the Arabic phrases because it’s a form of remembrance, so when someone sees it, reads it, remembers God, we believe there’s a reward in that, so you share in the reward of people for remembering God. It works in your favor for God, it’s like an act of worship, in a sense. I call it visual dhikr. “Dhikr” is remembrance of God.
What has the reception to your work been like?
It’s been positive. People love it. It’s unique, you know? But, given my background, I think younger [Muslim-Americans] can identify with it more than the older Muslim [immigrant] community, because it’s kind of an American thing.
Your art has brought you many places, including an art show here at Berkeley City College. What else have you done?
It got me a free trip to Malaysia. I did a graffiti tour in Malaysia as a cultural ambassador for the United States [through the U.S. Embassy Small Grants Program for Malaysia]. It was all through social media — this Malaysian artist started following me, then he created the event and got funding for it, and I got a free trip. I brought my wife and daughter out there and we traveled around Malaysia. I’ve also spoken at University of California, Los Angeles on identity. Their Muslim Student Association has brought me out there twice. Then I also do events with GAMA [Gathering All Muslim Artists, a traveling art collective]. And I still do graffiti wherever they let me. I’ve done businesses, some commissioned youth centers for a couple mosques. So hopefully it all keeps growing, you know?
Where do you see all of this going in the future?
Only God knows.
At the top: Gabriel Garay live-paints a transliterated verse from the Quran at an art show held in conjunction with BCC’s Muslim Student Association and GAMA (Gathering All Muslim Artists). Photo Credit: Maya Kashima