“For the Greater Good.”

The phrase looms large on a wall in the California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks (CMATO). The words were chosen by Kelly “RISK” Graval, the artist whose works are on display through Sept. 4. The phrase is inscribed above a painting entitled, “Buddha and the Monarchs,” in which the Buddha sits serenely, awash in brilliant color and surrounded by butterflies. Look more closely and you will see that above the Buddha’s head is a ring of skulls. Also in the painting is an excerpt from Psalm 23, representing a confluence of traditions and beliefs. The keen observer who reads the quotation will see that it has been altered:

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for I am the meanest son of a bitch in the valley.” 

The mischievous twist on the passage from the Old Testament captures the defiant spirit of the artist who began “writing” his name on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s when he was a teenager, bumping up against law enforcement more than once. RISK became one of the most legendary graffiti artists in the world, making his mark on city buses, freeways, trains, walls and buildings.

The whole time he was using public spaces as his canvas, RISK knew his work was temporary. As he said in an interview with the PBS Newshour in 2016, he would create something and it “was gone the next day.” He also recalled how his name would appear as a blur to the passing motorist going 70 miles per hour on the freeway, but the color of his work always made an impact. “What stayed with you was the color,” he said. With this in mind, RISK was determined to grow and evolve as an artist, all the while remaining a “colorful artist, an emotional artist.” This is evidenced in the work on display at CMATO, which is a feast of color and energy.

“Some people say that graffiti doesn’t belong in a gallery because it’s not supposed to have boundaries,” RISK states. “But there are no boundaries in a gallery.”

And, indeed, art does transcend physical space, ideas, emotions, even the possibility of making a lasting impact — and challenges boundaries, whether it’s displayed on museum walls or “under heaven,” as freeway overpasses are called.

Today, RISK is in a different space than he was when he was “writing” on public spaces.

“Graffiti is not really where I am,” he says, and the work at CMATO attests to the fact. His enigmatic signature is on full view, but so are familiar icons, cleverly tweaked, as well as dramatic images, gorgeous color and loving nods to his daughter. (In one piece, the Wall Street Bull also stands as Ferdinand, one of his daughter’s favorite storybook characters.) RISK’s work is masterful, with a strong point of view and unbounded spirit.

“The exhibit started out as a retrospective but shifted to be more about where I’m going. Where I am right now,” he explains. Much of the work was created in 2019, including neon and multimedia pieces made from found objects, such as old spray paint cans, license plates, road signs and metal bits and pieces.  

He refers to the ubiquitous materials as “metal tissue,” because “it’s part of my DNA, like the old paint cans that I’ve saved.” 

The use of license plates is more than utilitarian. “I love license plates . . . It goes back to the early ’80s when we’d say ‘style for miles’ or ‘license to ill.’ ” Referencing the term used to describe a graffiti artist’s name, or tag, he adds that, “A license plate is a tag for a car. They’re different colors and from different places. And humans, we look different and we’re from different places.”  

Senior curator Lynn Farrand adds that license plates are a “common denominator of all the people coming and going. They level the playing field.” They show that we’re all basically the same, even if we look different. 

Not as colorful but just as impactful is a work that takes center stage in one of the galleries. It is a steely gray shark made completely of found metal objects. Entitled “Face Your Fears,” it’s a nod to RISK’s experience as a surfer. Stretching across the floor, the sculpture evokes the movement and power of the predator and is comprised of pieces of hardware and even a couple of deconstructed handguns welded together. 

The dichotomy of the shark and the colorful Buddha hint at the complexity of RISK’s work. For every serene image there is an element of defiance. For every bold stroke there is brilliant color. For every dark line there is bright light. For every menacing predator there are butterflies.   

At the entrance of the museum is a painting that states with pride: “Thousand Oaks Most Infamous Artist.” It’s a tag (excuse the pun) that RISK wears with pride. It’s also a reminder that art is not meant to be safe or stagnant, even if it’s hanging steady on the wall of a museum. It is a living, breathing thing, meant to make us feel and think — for ourselves. 

This is something that CMATO brilliantly brings to the fore in everything it does, including a dedication to including a participatory element in every exhibit. This time, there is a small room where visitors (including, as documented on Instagram, Britney Spears) are welcome to tag with a marker. Names and images fill the walls, the floor and — in true graffiti artist style — go across the boundaries of the room. It’s easy to think that RISK would be proud.

“Art is the biggest conduit for communication,” RISK says. That’s true whether you’re a famous artist or a kid gleefully writing on a wall in a museum. We all have something to say. 

RISK through Sept. 4 at CMATO, The Oaks, 350 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. Associated programming includes a mandala mindfulness workshop, found object art class and lecture on neon art. For full schedule, tickets and more information, call 805-405-5240 or visit cmato.org.