Up From the Underground

Alex "Pr!mo" Luster got himself a documentary from the street art life.

When he finally dragged himself out of bed late the next morning, the magic of the previous evening would seem like a dream to Alex "Pr!mo" Luster. It would only feel real when he picked up his smartphone — the device told him he had too many messages and e-mails of congratulations to count.

Stick 'Em Up!, his documentary about Houston's street poster artists, had turned the house at the River Oaks Theater not once but twice. Some 1,000 graffiti artists, punk rockers, underground hip-hoppers, bike messengers and the incognito poster themselves had come out to share the 32-year-old director's crowning triumph so far — his two-years-in-the-making, debut, long-form film. They watched Luster's footage of "wheat-paste" poster artists like Give Up, Cutthroat, Dual and Eyesore as they lurked in Houston's funkier 'hoods, slathering paste on call-boxes, walls and, occasionally, huge billboards, and covering those sticky surfaces with their own unfurled creations — Dual's old-fashioned clocks, Give Up's razor blades, Cutthroat's Mexican heroes and Eyesore's odd, wizened old men.

But the screenings weren't the sole preserve of this gritty underbelly of the art scene. It's a point of pride, and a mark of Luster's maturity, that the film also presents the law and order side. Also interviewed were former Houston Police Chief (and current city councilman) C.O. Bradford, City Councilwoman Sue Lovell and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia. They were all in the house, too, Garcia resplendently in full-dress, black-and-tan uniform, no less, bringing a chuckle to Lovell and Bradford.

Alex Luster and Stick 'Em Up! writer Tony Reyes flank Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell. City Councilman and former police chief C.O. Bradford, at right giving the thumbs-up.
Marco Torres
Alex Luster and Stick 'Em Up! writer Tony Reyes flank Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell. City Councilman and former police chief C.O. Bradford, at right giving the thumbs-up.
Bradford was apparently a bigger fan of the film than of the actual works of art themselves.
Stick 'Em Up!
Bradford was apparently a bigger fan of the film than of the actual works of art themselves.


Read More:
Blog post: An interactive map of Houston's best street art.
Blog post: Stick 'Em Up debuts at River Oaks Theatre
Blog post: Coolidge, Houston's answer to Banksy
Slideshow: Stick 'Em Up Premiere at River Oaks
Slideshow: Houston's Most Gorgeous Graffiti
Slideshow: Street Art for Tropical Storm Allison

In the hours leading up to the show, Luster and Stick 'Em Up! writer Tony Reyes stood under the marquee at the River Oaks — the same theater where Luster's dad had served as an usher more than 50 years ago — and shook hands with hundreds of well-wishers on the way in to all three of the viewings.

Wearing a baggy shirt over a frame grown ample over the last three years' editing, Luster, 32, black-haired and bearded, finally took his seat near the front as the first packed house filled all of the theater's seats and knocked back bottled beer and plastic cups of wine. As you might expect from the free flow of alcohol, this was a somewhat rowdy crowd, in spite of the presence of two of Houston's top cops, one present and the other former. Bottles clattered on the floor, and whoops greeted the arrival of showtime.

The audience, whose ethnic make-up seemed to roughly match Luster's half-Anglo, half-Hispanic mix, would see 90 minutes-plus of captivating local cinematography, probing interviews with people for and against street art and quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. The crowd would jeer the cornpone fulminations of KTRH radio host Michael Berry, another of the talking heads Luster drafted to present the anti-street art side. There is also a tear-jerking final act, and a special guest star in the form of Shepard Fairey, along with Banksy one of the two most famous street artists in the world. In Stick 'Em Up!, the artist behind the iconic Obama "Hope" image reminisces about a narrow escape from arrest while on a "bombing" mission (as the wheat-pasters call their nocturnal journeys) here in the Bayou City. Who knew?

GONZO247, the director of Aerosol Warfare Collective, helped produce Stick 'Em Up! and has the highest of hopes for the film. Via e-mail from Nigeria, where he was on a six-week art tour, he wrote, "I admire how Alex captured these often overlooked shadows of the city in a way that will now make people look and notice more than what's just on the surface of Houston. I believe that anyone from anywhere would be able to view this film and get an idea of what Houston is about."

What the film shows is a Houston far richer than the strip-malls-and-Interstate stereotype so many visitors (and plenty of residents, too) take back home with them.

And it proves that Alex Luster, the half-Mexican kid from both Westbury and Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon, was assuredly destined for far greater things than the newscasts, Spanglish variety shows and station promos he'd been filming and editing for 17 or 18 of his 32 years. (Yes, you've got that math right: Luster got started in the TV business when he was about 14 or 15.)

"You will probably see him win an Academy Award for short films one of these years," says Larry Parker, the former head of Fox-26's creative services department and a mid-career mentor to Luster. "Who knows?"

"There's a lot of people that have this idea of what they've accomplished and where they've gone. They drive their car, they go home to their family, they go home to their house, they look at their college degree, they look at their occupation, their job, their career, and they just hate themselves. They want to blow their fuckin' brains out, they want to fuck hookers all day every day, do coke, quit their jobs, burn their office buildings down. And I just want to spit in their face." — Give Up, from Stick 'Em Up!

The whole project began with what was supposed to have been a two- to three-minute film on the artist who has come to be known as Give Up, who was then exhibiting some of his work at Aerosol Warfare Collective, Houston's base for aboveground manifestations of underground street art.

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Tieuel Legacy
Tieuel Legacy

Very big piece. A lot of information, secretos y mas. Several funny parts also. He'll have to go back into the underground at some point. Hopefully I'll catch a cut of the film before he does. Tieuel Legacy! Motion