Los Angeles-based graffiti artist Retna used to get arrested for spray-painting buses, trains and other commercial property.
Now, he gets paid to do this.
VistaJet, Swiss operator of 31 private aircraft, commissioned Retna to paint the tail of its largest corporate jet, the Bombardier Global Express XRS, this spring.
“It’s a $60 million canvas, so we decided to start with just this one,” said Nina Flohr, head of branding and communications at VistaJet.
Together with Bombardier Business Aircraft, VistaJet is also sponsoring a traveling exhibition of Retna’s paintings, “The Hallelujah World Tour,” with a $4 million budget.
First stop: A 13,000-square-foot warehouse in New York displaying 35 large canvases and one sprawling sculpture of the artist’s name.
Hung cheek-by-jowl around the perimeter, the works bristle with mysterious symbols, resembling a cross between Asian calligraphy and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Retna’s imaginary alphabet has roots in Old English, gang graffiti, Arabic and Hebrew.
“Even though I don’t understand them, I’m really intrigued by them,” said Retna, 31, who speaks English and Spanish. “I just really love writing.”
Retna, who grew up in downtown Los Angeles, got into graffiti as a 9-year-old Catholic-school student.
“I’d see graffiti on a freeway going to school,” he said. “I couldn’t think of anything else. I just wanted to draw, draw and draw.”
Over the years, he tagged freeways, public parks and bridges. Along the way, he got arrested for vandalism, he said.
His mother, who moved to the U.S. from El Salvador and had to work two jobs (including a night shift as a parking-lot attendant) to put Retna through a private school, was furious.
“She was worried that something would happen to me,” said Retna. “I put her through a lot of pain.”
He said his pieces include Spanish curses his mother hurled at him as well as names of dead friends.
Retna completed the largest piece -- an 8-by-20-foot canvas filled with five rows of squat black and red runes -- in a single day this week.
“That speed comes from working on the street,” he said, as he walked around the freezing warehouse while a production crew was busy arranging his paintings and adjusting the lights. “I am talking about hanging on a bridge. We’d have to finish in 45 minutes before the cops got there.”
Decoding these enigmatic messages could take a lot more time. You’d need a guide to explain how a sparse composition of silver symbols -- vertical lines, zigzags and curved shapes -- translates into “stoned to death.” And that’s the simplest piece in the show.
The exhibition’s producers, Andy Valmorbida and Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, are still working on the tour’s next destinations.
“We want to show it in the Middle East,” said Valmorbida. “Egypt would have been a good idea a month ago. Not so much now.”
Prices for the paintings range from $25,000 to $180,000. The show runs through Feb. 21 at 560 Washington St.
(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)