“The most erotic place I know is between my ears,” says Oakland graffiti artist Refa1, fixating on one of the ensemble pieces featured in Sabrosa, his erotic photography exhibit, now showing through December 31 at Good Vibrations in Berkeley. In one of the pieces, hanging behind a rack of vibrators and how-to sex books, two photographs and two rat traps are set against a plain panel. The bottom section, “The Test,” shows a pair of breasts with a sort of medallion squished between them — a gold mask with a bemused countenance — all positioned over a set trap. The top part, “Access Code,” shows a set of thighs in fishnet stockings — open just enough that you can see what’s between them — over a sprung trap. Refa says he likes the idea that there’s only a thin sheet of material between the viewer and the woman’s vagina, because eroticism is all about temptation — the suggestion of what could be.
Most people know Refa1 as the legendary East Bay graffiti artist who helped form the West Coast Untouchables crew during the ’80s, and spray-painted his dizzying, aerosol murals on freight cars, the sides of buildings, or any blank surface he could find. Unlike most graffiti you see today, where the influence of marketing credos and Internet graphics is all too obvious, Refa’s work has always had a political or social subtext. Nobody would ever guess that he used the female body as a medium, too. “I got into this work as a hobby,” he explains, “because I wanted to make art that expressed the process of my own sexuality.” Initially he wanted to paint only nudes, so he asked a few friends to pose. Yet once Refa started exploring the potential of the human form — either as a graffiti letter, a texture, or a landscape — he realized that the women were art in themselves, “So I just went with the flow,” he says.
It’s all about composition: Every woman in Sabrosa has something hot and sexy about her, though it’s not always her genitalia, nor what’s visible on the surface. Thus, Refa often foregrounds objects we don’t habitually associate with sex: a pink Converse sneaker in Bubble Gumz, feet wrapped around a beer bottle in Arrogant Bastard, a finger with a big, gaudy engagement ring in The Mrs. Showing that sexuality is not only what you’ve got, but what you do with it, the artist opens us up to fetishes we never thought of before. Refa’s favorite work, a mixed-media piece called Hella, is a vintage air conditioner with a rubber nipple stuck to the front, and three different prints in the vents: a Sheer stockings label, the words “Brown Sugar,” and a photograph of a big, beautiful booty. “It’s an interactive piece — when you pull the nipple, it makes a nice ‘boing,'” he says.
Often sassy, sometimes gritty, Refa’s photography represents the hip-hop-ization of erotic art. Part of his method is cut-and-paste, appropriating pantyhose logos, Japanese Ultraman cartoons, and the nutrition panels of hominy grits boxes, then rearranging them to tell a new story. The other part is to represent a distinctively East Bay flavor of sexuality, in which a Latina B-girl in sneakers is rendered as desirable as two black lesbian lovers or a white woman with pierced nipples. He says that one of his more tomboyish models came to the Oaklandish studio with the caveat that “she’s not that into garters or hosiery.” When she started undressing, she had little boys’ briefs on. “Stop right there, that’s hot!” he said, and shot the picture.
Good Vibrations is at 2504 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. GoodVibes.com or 510-841-8987.