Culture | June 17, 2022 6:06 am

The Mastermind Behind Secret Walls’ One-on-One Graffiti Battles

"It isn't about winning or losing," says Terry Guy, "that's just part of the theater"

A person shooting fire into the air at a one-on-one graffiti battle as part of a Secret Walls event
Step 1: Look up Secret Walls dates. Step 2: Add the next one to your calendar.
Courtesy of Secret Walls

Tucked behind a coffee shop on a quiet street on the southern edge of Koreatown, a fierce battle is taking place —between artists.

Though Alibi Coffee looks like just another hip West Adams gathering place, its adjoining parking lot is decked out with vivid black and white murals, which should tip off the casual viewer that something bigger is going on within the nondescript warehouse next door. Every once in a while, that parking lot gets packed out with a vibrant crowd, local food vendors and sometimes even special guests like the roving Hoopbus, all in celebration of the two visual creators dueling inside. 

This is what Secret Walls is all about. That night, it was a clash between The Obanoth (aka Hannah Webb) and Katbing (aka Katherine Bingley), with the latter taking home the victory. With a resurgence in the popularity of street art, the potential for visual artists to blow up social media like Instagram and TikTok, and a growing interest in community-building, Secret Walls events bring all three forces together into a neat package. There’s music, food trucks and live mural painting, but the the driving force that turns out the crowd is the battle, where two illustrators face off, each trying to create a more compelling work of art on a blank white wall in front of a crowd in an hour and a half. For the artists themselves, the events foster a sense of celebration and pride, as many of them often work in isolation in studios.

Secret Walls has deep roots in the world of hip-hop, as graffiti is one of the art form’s five pillars, but also comic books. The brainchild of Terry Guy, the organization originally took its name from the Marvel series Secret Wars. But as the concept grew — spawning worldwide events, a marketing agency and a global fanbase — its graffiti roots remained solid, and “walls” replaced “wars,” focusing less on the competitive aspect and more on the communal canvas. 

Contemporary graffiti spread fast and far, making its way from New York City in the 1960s and ’70s to London and taking hold as street art became a massive part of the British capital’s visual identity. “I’m originally from the Isle of Wight, which is a super small Victorian beach island,” Guy told InsideHook during a recent interview at the company’s headquarters. “Super sleepy, no graffiti, no street art. Most people say you’re ‘stuck on the rock.’ My ticket to get off the island was University of West London, where I studied digital animation and design.” 

“One day I went to a b-boy battle event in South London,” he continued. “I was into hip-hop, but I saw this energy in the room during the dance battle — and there was graffiti on the wall. I must’ve been 19 at the time, but it just changed everything.” 

Guy soon connected with London graffiti artists, starting a rudimentary version of what is now Secret Walls. “We called this thing Monorex, which was the collective of creatives that we’d assembled,” he said. “We basically took over a London club, put on a DJ and had some live canvas painting with no rules around it — and it kind of just blew up. It was in Camden, near where Amy Winehouse was living, but the whole area was super creative and people supported this new thing.”

As the Monorex party gathered steam in London, Guy realized he’d concocted something special and continued to finesse the concept. An avid soccer fan, the 90 minutes on the clock was a familiar starting point. Another hard and fast rule was the black-and-white palette. Stripping color away helped establish what would become the company’s aesthetic. 

A ceiling covered in balloons over a crowd of people at a Secret Walls event where two artists face of in painting black and white murals
Could you handle the pressure? Secret Walls is looking for artists, too.
Courtesy of Secret Walls

Within about a year, brands like Reebok and entrepreneurs like Marc Ecko came calling, and Guy’s graffiti showdown began to make real money as entertainment at brand events. Dubbed a “battle of paint and pixel,” artists raced against the clock to get their vision on the wall, with the added pressure of a live crowd cheering them on. Those first few branded events helped Guy and his crew realize they could pay artists, entertain fans and make a living, so the concept stuck. Sixteen years later, they’re still going strong. After spending time in New York and then in Miami, where the outdoor mural culture has created destinations like Wynwood Walls, Guy chose Los Angeles as Secret Walls’ permanent home.

“We wanted a bit of sunshine in our lives, and also more creativity,” Guy said. “We ended up in L.A. as a trial, stayed a few weeks at The Line Hotel, and I started to discover neighborhoods and pretty much just fell in love with the city.” 

Now firmly entrenched within L.A.’s Harvard Heights and the West Adams district, Secret Walls channels both an intensely competitive vibe and a deep sense of community, one welcoming to artists and art lovers alike, and one set to grow over the coming months. After a few years of isolation — during which Guy and his crew built out VR activations, hosted Instagram Live battles and curated other digital programming — Secret Walls is going on tour this summer.

The “Support Your Local Artist” tour will cover North America with battles in over 35 cities across the U.S. and Canada, kicking off August 13 in Tempe, Arizona, before hitting two California dates and then onto the rest of the country.

“Especially with the upcoming tour, it’s built around supporting local artists,” Guy said. “It isn’t really about winning or losing, that’s just part of the theater of it all. Really, it’s just about getting people out and having a good time — inspiring good people and trying to build up the next artist.”