Ratha Sok just couldn't stop tagging. Growing up in the projects of Westwood, he found his young voice in a spray can. Graffiti was the only art he knew. And eventually, he got caught. Ratha spent two months in Juvie, and that's where things started, slowly, to turn around.
"I told myself I was going to quit," says Ratha quietly, though it turned out to be easier said than done. "After that, my parents didn't want me anymore, so they throw you in a foster home and take you away from your family and your community.
"It changed my whole mind around. I didn't know what I'd do -- nobody believed me, and I was still doing graffiti in the night. I was always hungry. I would do my friend's names just for something to eat." Yet, through it all, Ratha thought there must be a way to hitch that street-wise entrepreneurial spirit (he says he even remembers dealing Hot Wheels cars in the third grade) to a dream. A kindly judge took note, and gave him a second chance to show that the graffiti he loved was artform and to create a positive outlet for himself and others, beginning with his return to classes at West High School. "I went back to high school and started a mural club. Five students joined right away, but a couple of weeks later they left because they thought it was a trap for taggers. I was still determined and motivated to make it happen, so I decided to create a sketch and mural and see where it went from there." With permission from his principal, who even provided him with materials, Ratha spent a Saturday creating a mural on his own. "The following Monday I went back to school, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. And it was not tagging. It was the school mascot and logo done with spray paint. The students who left came back, and then more came in; eventually, we produced five successful murals inside the school." After school ended, Ratha took that spirit a step further. With a talented mural club buddy, Bimmer Torres, he formed 2Kool, a small-business plan that channels the power of graffiti art by combining custom hat and t-shirt designs, and youth graffiti-art workshops with a positive twist, in 2008. Now a business student at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Ratha put together a 2Kool team that collectively keeps an online store, hosts product release parties and generally tries to show that fine art can, in fact, come out of a spray can.
We took a few minutes to chat with Ratha Sok about life and 2Kool. Here's what he had to say.
Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why? Ratha Sok: "For me, it would be Van Gogh, because his story is so inspiring. It was hard for people to accept him, just like it's hard for them to to accept us, because of our artform.
WW: Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why? RS: Everybody is interesting to me, actually. When I go on the light rail, I'm always inspired by interesting people every single day. They have so many different takes on life, and it's interesting to hear their points of view. I like to talk to bums. I don't like to have a closed mind.
WW: What's one art trend you want to see die this year? RS: Nothing. I love everything. I like seeing new things coming up, even if it doesn't work out.
WW: What's your day job? RS: I'm a full-time student enrolled at Metro, minoring in entrepreneurship and majoring in business. And I'm full-time with 2Kool.
WW: A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it? RS: Invest in the urban arts and continue with 2Kool. Give back to community development.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
WW: What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts? RS: Give more funds to urban arts!
Throughout the year, we'll be turning the spotlight on 100 superstars in Denver's rich artistic community. Watch for the next installment on Show and Tell -- and go to the 100 Colorado Creatives archive to catch up.
Who rocks YOUR world locally? Do you have a suggestion for a Colorado Creative? Leave it in the comments section below.