Up From the Underground
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.
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.
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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.
At the time, Luster was officing there, editing the side projects he couldn't get to while working at Fox TV. (Over the years, Luster has been all over the TV dial, in both Spanish and English formats. He is no longer with Fox, but is now at a station he won't disclose.) The interview went long. Really long, so much so that Luster had far too much footage for a mere short promo.
Luster had long been acquainted with Give Up's work. What Inner Looper hadn't seen all those stark images of razor blades and that blunt two-word message? "I didn't know if it was positive or negative or what," Luster says. "I assumed it was negative because of the razor blade and the way it was typed out — that typewriter font, very basic, very black-and-white, very contrast-y. To be honest, I didn't see it as art. I saw it as a message. I just saw it was odd. It just intrigued me that he worked so hard to get that message everywhere."
Give Up liked Luster from the get-go, and the two forged a bond that endured through many hours of filming. "Everything always seemed easy," Give Up writes via e-mail. "I knew from the first time I met up with him that he really knew what he was doing as a filmmaker, but also that he understood the kind of complex nature of what would be involved in doing a film like this."
On the day they were introduced, Luster had an epiphany. He stood and watched as Give Up toiled laboriously on an installation, which entailed the artist scattering dirty leaves (and some other stuff) all over the floor. "Somebody came out of there and was saying, 'Man, I think there's glass in there,' and I was like, 'Well, it is Give Up's show, you know?'" Luster chuckles.
Luster says that Give Up then painstakingly filled in all four walls of the 400-square-foot space with a forest he carefully drew, twig by twig, limb by limb, trunk by trunk, with a Sharpie. "It was super-detailed. And when I walked in and got introduced to him, he was just standing there with a Sharpie and he'd finish one and just go on to the next one. It was a lot of fuckin' work."
And it would all be gone when the installation's run would finish, just as so much of Give Up and the other wheat-pasters' work is destroyed in weeks or days or even hours by property owners or city remediation teams. It's the most ephemeral of art forms for this most ephemeral of cities.
Luster saw in their works echoes of his own labors as a TV cameraman. Even though he had done more than just news — he had directed two local Spanish-language variety shows, SuperNaco and Volumen, and done numerous station promos over the years — he believed that all the work he had done up until then had been consumed in the moment and then cast into oblivion like yesterday's newspapers.
"I would work so hard to make a 30-minute special," he says. "Maybe I would work three months on it, but you only get to see it for 30 minutes and maybe you were talking on the phone. Were you even paying attention? Were you even entertained, or were you staring at it blankly like most people?"
The scraggly-bearded Give Up's acid wit and menacing appearance (neck tattoos, dirty jeans, a Charles Manson T-shirt) and the fact that his message was at diametric odds with everything this rat-race, striving city purported to be all about, fascinated Luster endlessly. Give Up inspired Luster to do just the opposite.
With an assist from Aerosol Warfare, Luster started talking to the other artists around town. For some, winning over this secretive tribe could have proven difficult, possibly even insurmountable, but the artists quickly saw in Luster a kindred spirit, albeit one who worked in a different medium.
"Having someone with you on some of these endeavors can make it easy to become best friends," writes the artist known as Dual via e-mail. (Most of the artists we interviewed would only communicate with the Houston Press via e-mail; all of their faces are blurred in the documentary.) "So working with Alex was awesome, he was always game to any spot I came across. It would sometimes happen that he was calling me to go out and I would not be able to. I enjoyed every minute with him, made the missions a lot more enjoyable."
"The thing about Alex is he's really good at what he does," says Coolidge, a stencil artist whose work makes a brief cameo in the film. "People contact me pretty regularly and ask if they can come out with me and take pictures. I'm not into that, really, but I looked at the stuff [Alex] had done, and you know, it's really good."
After a couple of years shooting, during which he racked up more than 55 hours of raw footage, Luster called in his old buddy and former Fox-26 co-worker Tony Reyes, also an actor and screenwriter, to help mold the raw material into a classic three-act narrative format.
Reyes took what in Luster's hands had been merely a topic and turned it into a story. "He took it to that next level, made it sing," says Luster. "If it was just me, it would just be a bunch of profiles of artists where they say, 'My name is so-and-so and blah-blah-blah,' and then I would have the anti-street art people come on and say, 'My name is so-and-so, and I don't like it.'"
As the final product started coming into focus, Luster started showing rough cuts to experts. One such screening took place at a documentary filmmaking conference in San Antonio. The expert told Luster that while he loved what he saw, Luster needed to make it more national. "I don't care about Houston," the man said. "Nobody gives a shit about Houston. You need to be talking to people in New York and L.A. and Chicago."
"That's already been done," Luster replied. "That's not my own personal story. I would never get the time I got with Houston people as I would get those people."
Still, Luster went away wondering if this advice had been on the mark. He consulted with Reyes. "Do we go that way?" he asked. He even started budgeting out plane tickets, and sent a few e-mails via GONZO247 to contacts in the street scenes coast to coast. And then one day he brought the whole idea to a screeching halt.
"I just didn't care. This is about Houston and I don't really care. If it does well here and it doesn't do anything anywhere else, screw it, I don't care."
Luster's bicultural childhood prepared him well for a career spent working both sides of the language divide. He was raised in both Westbury and Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon, his mother's once-small, now-bustling northern Mexican hometown. Most holidays and summers, Luster's parents would send the soon-to-be-director across the river.
"There was no daycare, it was just freedom," Luster recalls. "My blind grandmother was looking after two kids — and we were like badasses, plus we were like kings because we were from out of town, from the rich land, little kings of Sabinas. That forced me to learn Spanish. There's just no way to get by there without knowing Spanish."
Back in Houston, Luster attended HISD schools on the Southwest side. TV and movies saved his life, he says. Literally kept him alive. One day he got off a Metro bus on his way home from Johnston Middle School and was walking down a busy street near his house. Just as he was walking past a car wash, a car screeched around the corner and slammed on the brakes right in front of him. From seeing many a cop show and gangster flick, Luster knew just what to do. He kissed the concrete just as the car's occupants opened fire on the car wash. "I could feel one of the bullets go right past my head, like fwwwissshh," he says.
The earliest seeds of his future career were planted around the same time, Luster's father Ron says. When Alex was 11 or 12, the elder Luster found a screenplay hidden in the bedroom his oddly restless son was constantly rearranging. "It was pretty good for a kid," Ron Luster remembers. "It was sad and dark, but it was also interesting and fairly well-written." Around the same time, Luster shot some claymation films with a camera borrowed from some family friends. "Looking back you could tell, but we didn't know it would go this far then," Ron remembers.
Meanwhile, things weren't going all that well in school. Alex remembers feeling unchallenged and says he was falling in with a bad crowd. Ron says his son was an indifferent student. He was sent to an alternative high school. And right around that time, he and his mother both signed on as interns at Noticiero 48, a Spanish-language news station owned by Telemundo and broadcast on Channel 48. Within months, he'd risen from unpaid intern to paid chief news editor.
"I didn't have a driver's license, but they put me out there anyway," he laughs.
Former Channel 13 reporter Carlos Aguilar was an early mentor. Just let go from KTRK, Aguilar was starting over at Channel 48, despite not having much in the way of Spanish-language skills. "It was his name that got him hired," Luster says of the San Antonio native. "He would give these reports in this really horrible Spanish."
Aguilar taught the teenager how to drive a stick, read a key map and how to navigate Houston, and stressed the importance of the Inner Loop. "He said, 'Most of your news stories are gonna be in the Inner Loop.' I asked why and he told me it was easier for a TV station to get [those stories], and also the ones in Southwest Houston. Most of the stations didn't want to waste the gas or time to cover things outside the loop," Luster remembers. "And he taught me how not to get lost without reading a map or pulling over to get your bearings — to just head for the buildings. He said to learn downtown and then everything else I could figure out from there. That's another reason I've come to love the Inner Loop — the buildings signified home and safety."
While his classmates were dreaming of getting the best cars and snazziest clothes, Luster was consumed with lust for, of all things, a loft-style apartment downtown. "I was set that I was gonna live in downtown, and there was not crap going on there," he says. (Remember, this is around 1996, 1997. Redevelopment was rudimentary at that time, to put it kindly.) "My parents were just like, 'What is wrong with you?' But I was just set — I had to get a place downtown and I think the only places were Hogg Palace and the Dakota Lofts." Luster's parents took him on a real estate-hunting trip, and Luster learned then that his $5 an hour job couldn't get him where he wanted to be. "But I was gonna get it. I didn't want to go too crazy — just a simple bachelor pad. An open warehouse-type space. You remember the movie Big? I wanted some place where I could rearrange things all the time."
Soon Luster was a familiar sight behind the scenes in Houston's TV media landscape. Competitors from the other TV stations started seeing the kid they called "Little Alex" everywhere — a fresh-faced teen lugging a huge heavy camera on his then-scrawny shoulder. Ron Luster loved that his son had direction, real purpose in life.
"It turned him around," he says. "He was kinda floating before that." Ron says Alex was able to balance work and school fairly well. "Work was probably more important than school but he managed to get through," he says.
Alex found it a mixed blessing. He enjoyed his job, but he couldn't afford that loft yet. And juggling 30-50 hours a week at work around high school is no easy task, either physically or socially. He felt caught between two worlds. "My school friends were like, 'We're gonna go party, and this guy's going to work,' and at work, I was the kid," he remembers.
When senior year came around, the elder Luster tried to no avail to interest his son in college. "I got a degree and I really wanted him to go to college, but he didn't want to," he says. "I don't know, he seems to be doin' fine without it. I think college would have delayed a lot of things. He might not have thrown himself into this as quickly and as passionately as he has. I wish I had been as directed and had as much of an idea of what I wanted to do as he did."
Once he was of legal age to work, Luster jumped around the TV dial some, from Channel 48 across the language divide to Channel 13 and then on to Fox-26, where he remained for several years. It was there that Larry Parker, then the director of creative services, took note of his young underling's talents. He says that Luster's abilities transcended the primitive tools then at his disposal in the news department, and that his edits were often more creative than those of his elders.
"There's an old adage from Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines' old CEO: 'Hire for attitude, train for skill,'" Parker recalls. "He always had the fire in the belly, and I had great reports from the people in news." Parker adds that Luster often excelled in brainstorming sessions and was a technical whiz. He then drafted Luster into his creative services department, where Luster worked on in-house ads and promos for the station.
Luster also turned his creative energies toward more ambitious projects. In 1998, working under an alias unbeknownst to his bosses at Fox, Luster and creative partner (and cousin) Vladimir Castellanos created Volumen, a Spanish-language hipster variety show that aired on KAZH Azteca America 57. By 2006, Volumen had run its course, so Luster and Castellanos created the much more music-oriented show SuperNaco, which spawned two short-lived music festivals in its wake.
It was while making those shows that Luster would pick up "Pr!mo," the name by which he is most often known in Houston's streets. Castellanos hosted the shows and would often call Luster "primo" on the air. Today, others in the video-editing field speak of "the Pr!mo cut." "It's real quick and in your face," says Tony Reyes.
The name, and other aliases, also provided cover for his freelancing gigs. Six years later there would be an awkward moment at the Lone Star Emmys when one "Alejandro Morales," another of Luster's alter egos, took home a statuette; seated with his still-oblivious Fox bosses, Luster dared not take the stage to pick up his award. Because he had also been nominated, and lost, in another category under his real name for a Fox project, he had to stifle his elation while being consoled by friends for allegedly getting shut out.
Stick 'Em Up! closes with a tearjerker of a tale. An upper-middle-class woman of a certain age — the last sort of person you would think would respond viscerally to any street art, especially that of the nihilistic Give Up — relates how her interpretation of a Give Up razor blade image helped give her the strength to fight through a series of mind-bogglingly arduous medical procedures related to lupus and arthritis. She is shot where she saw the image; it had been festooned on a tumbledown crack shack just across I-59 from Minute Maid Park in what used to be Old Chinatown but is now called EaDo.
Today, the poster is long-gone. So is the house it once adorned. Luster says he drove by the other day and for a time, couldn't even tell where it used to be.
And now Give Up is gone too. Give Up gave up on Houston and headed to Austin.
With the capital's film scene burgeoning, could Luster be far behind? Don't bet on it. He admits to being a little intimidated by the Austin film scene, in which he would be just another in what is now a school of hungry little fish.
But it's more than that. He's less scared of Austin than he is in love with Houston. Friends of his have moved to the capital and regretted it almost immediately, he says. "I know this one guy who moved there six months ago and he's like, 'Dude, I miss Houston. I miss the smells, I miss the streets, everything about it.'"
Luster believes he would feel the same way. "When you go to Austin it's all just Austin. There's college kid Austin, old hippie Austin, cool music Austin, all just Austin. But Houston has that mixture."
His whole extended family is putting down roots in Eastwood, the live oak-shaded, old bungalow-dotted heart of the old East End. His mom, brother and other family all live very close by, and his wife Esther's grandparents live right behind them. They've pulled down the back fence and adjoined yards. "How hard would it have been for us to do that in a city like New York, or even Austin?" Luster wonders.
Luster says he loves imperfection, and that's a good thing, for the East End is a rough diamond of a neighborhood even by messy Houston standards. "One of my neighbors parks in his yard," he says. "The cops are at the house across the street regularly. I live catercorner to the worst Kroger in town. The floors are sticky, and there's only one lane open at all times."
On some days, it was all enough to make Luster and Esther think long and hard about moving out to the cul-de-sacs, some place like Katy, the better to give their two young kids room to roam. But just as he refused to give in to the documentary expert's advice to make Stick 'Em Up! about places other than Houston, he also plugged his ears to the siren call of the suburbs.
"Finally I was like, 'Screw that, I don't care. I like Eastwood,'" he says. They would miss the mom-and-pop businesses too much, places like original Ninfa's, Spanglish arts Mecca Bohemeo's, Thai dining institution Kanomwan, and Pete's Barbecue. Two light rail lines are headed his way; in a few years, he would be able to take the train downtown. Luster would also keenly feel the absence of certain magical days when the wind hits the East End just right and he can smell coffee roasting at the big Maximus plant, a yeasty aroma from the old Mrs. Baird's bakery and a warm caramel smell from the panadería across the street.
He's finally got that Big-style downtown loft he's dreamed of since he was a skinny kid struggling to hoist a news camera, albeit not as his home. Instead, it's his new Shoot.Edit.Sleep Productions studio in the Warehouse District around the corner from Last Concert Cafe, just a mile or two from his house. There the works of his favorite street artists gaze down on him as he edits his projects amid his constantly rearranged furniture and equipment.
He's not worried about shopping Stick 'Em Up! to festivals this year — he tells all who ask that he is still concentrating on coming up with the very best final cut he can muster. (That's why he stresses that the show at the River Oaks had been a screening and not a premiere.)
Stick 'Em Up! is his bid to plug this city's ever-larger memory hole. And Luster says he is ready to take a stand in the only hometown he knows or wants to know.
In the Q-and-A session that followed the first screening, Luster was asked what the street artists in cities like New York, Los Angeles, London and Berlin thought of Houston's street art. It's a fair question — those cities are generally regarded as the world's best street art towns.
Luster thought a good long while and came up with the briefest of answers.
"I don't know," he said at last. "I am from here."
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