Ricky Bell has gotten into the mindset of graffiti artists to discover why these thieves of the night desecrate freeway overpasses and freight trains.
"Their common answer is the thought of not being caught," he said. "It's a cat-and-mouse game."
Bell has, patiently, won over graffiti artists. And so he's traveled the West Coast these past 10 years, filming their painted work while winning their trust. Now he's planning to do a documentary on their stealth-like art existence.
"They love what they're doing, and they know what they're doing," he said. "But a lot of them are nervous."
And with good reason. Try painting, or tagging, while hanging over a freeway with no safety net, when a highway patrolman could drive by any second.
They live dangerously, these graffiti Picassos.
"Their age range is 15 to 30," Bell said. "A lot of them go to prestigious universities and colleges. They're all different ethnic groups. They have attitudes and like to fight. And a lot of them come from wealthy parents."
If it takes a character to know a character, Bell is just the man to do the documentary.
His current Oakland residence is a couch. He relies on "Couch Surfing," a website that gets him a sofa for free to sleep on, normally for two weeks. Then it's time to move on to the next couch.
With Bell, you're not sure where he's been, and you can't be certain where he's going. He's good
But, first, he's not the 1976 USC All-America tailback by the same name. That Ricky Bell, later a National Football League star, died in 1984 at 29 from a rare heart disease.
This Ricky Bell has an advertising background, ran a movie theater, worked on political campaigns, organized "Rappers for Peace," been a security guard, got hooked on drugs, lived in alleys, and did some jail time.
He swears that he's off the drugs.
"I don't work, so I had to sleep on the streets while working on my project," he said. "I got into a fight in Oregon and someone stole my camera equipment and all my graffiti art. I had to start all over. It's been tough."
A single man, he has a 20ish son in Los Angeles he hasn't seen in a long time.
Bell began his documentary in 2001, focusing initially on hip-hop music and rappers. Then his fascination turned to graffiti artists. Only they were reluctant to talk to him believing that he would blow their cover.
He made progress in Eugene, Ore., when two graffiti Dalis -- "Froggy" and "Frustrate" -- welcomed him into their felonious fraternity. They showed him how they pulled off their artwork before, in most cases, making clean getaways.
"The first time I ever saw a moving art gallery was when Froggy showed me a passing (freight) train," said Bell. "Froggy jumped up and down with excitement because every car was painted. I could see his passion for his art."
Bell later won over East Bay graffiti artists, including those defacing taggers.
"Some of them are very gifted, some are struggling," he said. "They have no (painting) outlets, so they make their own outlets."
"Graffiti has its dangers, like falling from an overpass or falling off a ladder," Bell said. "One tagger fell off a water tower and almost became paralyzed. One kid slipped and was killed by a train."
And another graffiti Cezanne got five years in the slammer for repeated offenses.
Bell hopes to finish his documentary this year. But lacking in funds -- he drives a 1993 van -- he's banking on donations to get him through his project.
Bell can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I'd love for my documentary," he envisioned, "to be nominated for an Oscar."
Dave Newhouse's columns appear Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually on the Local page. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone 510-208-6466 or e-mail email@example.com.