Harvard researcher James Riley’s indelible past

Life | Work is a series focused on the personal side of Harvard research and teaching.

James W. Riley has been confronted with questions of identity and alienation since he was a teenage graffiti artist navigating 1990s Los Angeles.

“I’ve always had this notion of going places and being in spaces that maybe subtly said, ‘You don’t belong here,’” said Riley, now an economic sociologist at Harvard Business School.

His parents were an interracial couple who fell in love in the 1960s, when mixed marriages faced scorn and sometimes worse in many parts of the U.S. Even so, he said, they always believed in the promise and potential of the American dream and the core principles — equality, freedom, and democracy — that define it.

“My parents instilled in me, ‘You’re free and you can be what you want to be … and never let anyone tell you any different,’” he said. “That really helped me bring what ended up being an ethos from my home and hip-hop and graffiti into the spaces and places I pursued. It’s really the ethos that I’ve carried with me from when I was 13 to right now.”

Janice Joan Dingfelder Riley, a white Midwesterner raised on a dairy farm, and Roy Whitcomb Riley, a Black Southerner, settled in Los Angeles shortly before their son’s birth, in 1981, after traveling the world for 18 years. They lived in Mid City, whose economic and racial diversity and central location provided easy access to a wide range of experiences and institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, MOCA, and Barnsdale Art Park.

“You were exposed to the best of everything the city had to offer, for better or worse,” Riley said.

James Riley in front of a wall of graffiti in L.A. in 1997.

James Riley at age 16 in Los Angeles. Tags from his graffiti crew — KOG (Killer of Giants — “we were Davids against the odds,” said Riley) and LTS (Last to Survive) are visible on the wall.

Image courtesy of James W. Riley

A fan of Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac, Outkast, Nas, and other trailblazers of 1990s rap, Riley was naturally drawn to graffiti because of its significance in hip-hop culture and for how it helped him find his voice.

“Being neurodivergent and having learning differences, creative outlets like drawing were always a way for me to express myself when finding the words was more difficult,” he said.

Graffiti was also a form of escape. In the 1980s and ’90s, gang violence and drugs were rampant in Los Angeles. For young people seeking a different path, graffiti crews offered an identity that was of the streets but not confined by them.

“There was an element of safety — of protection and a pass — because, ‘Now we can account for who you are, what you’re about, and how you plug into this ecosystem we have happening,’” Riley said. “It let you fit in without having to give your life over to a neighborhood.”

Even rival artists admired Riley’s crew for pushing limits creatively and for pulling off technically difficult, sometimes dangerous, installations around the city. Their elaborate, thin-stroked graffiti incorporated German-, Gothic-, and Old English-style lettering, and was influenced by the Czech graphic artist and painter Alphonse Mucha, recalled Jason Williams, whose tagging name is REVOK.

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