RETNA is a renowned contemporary graffiti street artist currently based in Los Angeles, California. Today, his art is instantly recognizable by his use of a graphic and geometric script. His practice highlights the merge of visual linguistics with urban symbolism. RETNA creates public murals, paintings on canvas, and even sculptural work.
Marquis Lewis, the artist’s legal name, was born and raised in Los Angeles. With the constant moving between several schools in the Los Angeles area as a child, he became involved in the graffiti culture. By the time he was in high school, he was already leading one of the largest graffiti art collectives in the city. By the early 1990s, his career as a street and graffiti artist had begun. In 1996, he derived the moniker RETNA from the lyrics of a Wu-Tang Clan song.
Throughout his career, RETNA has developed and constructed his unique lexicon and visual language stemming from various text and letters. Some of his textual influences include Blackletter, Arabic, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, East Asian alphabets, Hebrew calligraphy, and Native American typographies. More specifically, he uses Old English as a foundation and strips letters to their core. Furthermore, illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance painting imagery, and contemporary text-based art influence his textual styling.
Each block of text reflects RETNA’s system of combined hieroglyphs, calligraphy, and illuminated script. Through his distinctive language and style, he strives to communicate personal messages and poetry that are not easily decipherable by the viewer. Instead, he masks his messages in ciphers. The actual words and meanings of his artworks are never immediately revealed, and no accurate translations exist.
Aside from being heavily inspired by old cultures and their writing systems, his work is also reminiscent of traditional street-based graffiti writing. Some of his inspirations include American graffiti artists Saber and David Choe. However, RETNA’s language is visually softer in appearance when compared to other forms of street graffiti. The artist imbues elegant swoops to his ink-like letters to create poetic statements, messages that convey intellectual contemplation and restraint.
Embracing his mixed cultural background, RETNA highlights his interest in combining multiple cultures through his work. Furthermore, his visual vocabulary embraces the history of various civilizations and cross-cultural commonalities as it reflects the harsh reality of urbanism. Though his script style alludes to the calligraphy styling of multiple cultures, his compositions are in English and Spanish. However, RETNA has stated that the words he uses do not belong to a specific language. His text is universal and eclectic, which allows for the detailing to be identifiable by a multitude of cultures.
RETNA’s work has exhibited in galleries and other venues throughout the world in places such as Los Angeles, Miami, Milan, London, New York, and Hong Kong. He has also collaborated on advertising campaigns with brands such as VistaJet, Louis Vuitton, and Nike. Notably, his work appeared in the cover of Justin Bieber’s 2015 album Purpose.