Oil and Water: Trevelen Rabanal’s Intersection of Street-Culture and Jiu Jitsu

Fightland Blog

By Michael Hresko and Stefan Kocev

Words by Michael Hresko, Photos by Stefan Kocev

True mixed martial artists are obsessed with authenticity. The first UFC event was as much of a starting point in modern day martial arts as it was a ceremony of stripping away benign tradition, ineffective techniques, and the false prophets.

In a sense, UFC 1, the day the world was introduced to Royce Gracie and his unique form of grappling, was the end of what had taken his brothers several decades to accomplish—proving that for a martial art to be valid, it had to first be martial. Martial, for those point-sparring karate folks who might not understand, describes something that is fit for war. Only after it has proven itself as effective in practice can a discipline grow into an art—otherwise it’s just a tradition of dance.

Mixed martial arts, largely composed of its most martial forms of grappling and striking, had already gone through its illegal and dangerous years by the time Royce stepped into the Octagon, allowing what the Gracie’s were known so well for to transcend the streets and become an art form accessible to everyone. What used to only be shown behind closed doors was now on display to the world. What used to be martial endeavor was now a sport.

I may be romanticizing it a bit, but the same thing that’s happened in martial arts has happened in other forms of street-culture too. What used to only be accessible to diehards is now free for the casual fan to enjoy. In the age of the Internet, cool subcultures can’t hide forever, and certainly don’t have to fight as hard to emerge into the mainstream.

It was with that thought that I drove into East LA to visit Trevelen Rabanal, a renowned bike builder—who, in his pre-Internet life would have definitely not have agreed to hang out with me. Trevelen is considered an originator of street-culture, and has a strong presence in biker, “gangster”, and art scenes of the West Coast.

I first met Trevelen at a show at The Seventh Letter art gallery for his company Super Co. He told me he was serious about jiu jitsu, which peaked my interest, and he graciously accepted when I asked him to hang out several months later.

Trevelen’s tattoos are the best way to communicate his past. Within the artwork that covers most of his body, you will see a mix of gang, Hispanic, Hawaiian, and jiu jitsu imagery.  

“It all stems from my father,” Trevelen says as I walk down the alley and through the backdoor of his small shop. His father, Benji Rabanal, was one of the first surfboard shapers from the North Shore of Hawaii to move to California. Still early in his life, Trevelen moved from the old outlaw town of Hau’ula to San Diego, where he was introduced to Hispanic and custom-culture.

"I was watching them come down as a kid—I was always interested in motorcycles. And my neighbors all lowrided. In San Diego I joined the New Wave Oldies City Car Club. After I came out [to Los Angeles] I got into Lifestyle Car Club and it was all lowriding and bikes. That’s how I saw it all. Not only that but I have an uncle from northern California who was in a real notorious motorcycle… (pauses) club.

I was always cool with the bikes, they were always a part of my life. It was my luck—I can’t say all the stuff that has happened to me, the TV shows, that was all by luck. I just had this guy walk into my shop in downtown one day—he happened to be a producer on a show called Biker Build Off and asked me if I wanted to be on it. There are a lot of guys that were not put on, but to me, they build better bikes.”

It could have been luck, or it could have been a marker of custom-culture being taken from the dirty and calloused hands of its keepers and presented to the mainstream—in the same way mixed martial arts had been. Both subcultures were on the fringes of society (and the law) but were slowly becoming household names. We sat down in the middle of the shop and I ask him how he first came to know about Brazilian jiu jitsu.

“This was probably in 89 or 90. I was living in Venice at the time and I used to go down to the beach to the boardwalk.

There were three, sometimes five, Brazilians who would work out at Venice beach—before they built the new Muscle Beach and remodeled it. One of them was a shaper. His name was Coiote. We would always buy surfboards and stuff from him. He would stay at my dad’s house in Hawaii—my dad had a shaping room—so that’s how I knew Coiote.

I was hanging out with Paul Barkin and Mike Cassel. I don’t know if you remember it, but Mike Cassel used to own a company called Bronze Age. We were down at the boardwalk and Paul Barkin was bragging about how this Brazilian guy that Coiote [had been] working out with was the baddest dude on the planet.

At the time there was this guy Jackie Ross, who was a boxer at Brass Knuckles gym in Venice. Mike Cassel goes, ‘He can’t beat Jackie’ and Paul Barken was like, ‘Oh, yeah? This guy will beat Jackie.’

And we were like, ‘Nah, Jackie is the baddest dude around—in Venice. Who’s going to beat Jackie? The guy had sick skills, man.’ So they set up a fight.”

“I remember when we all went down there. We went down to… I think it was Pico and Sawtelle, and we drove down this little driveway.

I used to get stuff painted from the guy in the back. His name was Willie. He’s called Willie Whirl the Pearl.  And Willie used to do a lot of paint jobs for us but there was this little sliding door [in between the two places].

So we were all in there—there was maybe 15 of us, 20 of us, to watch this fight. We had to take off our shoes, and we sat on the mat.

It was probably about a twenty-second fight. This Brazilian dude came out, and just had on what looked like white pajamas, no shirt. And he just destroyed Jackie within seconds.

It turned out that it was Rickson Gracie.

That was the first time I saw jiu jitsu. Ever. We were just in awe. I just remember loading Jackie up and loading up his ego, too. After that it was… just don’t mess with the Brazilians.”

What Trevelen witnessed was what was called a “challenge match,” and Rickson and his older brothers Relson and Rorion had been doing it for years. Rickson made a point to find out who the toughest guys of the streets were, find them, and fight them. It’s a far cry from the professional sport that MMA is today, but not many really realize how prolific and world-changing those early challenge matches really were. Before social media, and the business deal that created a platform for it (the UFC), this semi-controlled street fighting was the only way to get in peoples face and prove its authenticity.

“It was something. Who would ever think? Nobody ever thought that a street fight would go to the ground. I think the longest I’ve seen a street fight last was two or three minutes at the most. Maybe four if you’re lucky. Someone is gassing out, and someone is throwing haymakers, unless it’s two seasoned veterans. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen someone go over 5 minutes stand up just fucking each other up.

But you saw the effectiveness of [jiu jitsu] and it was art—something that you couldn’t replicate if you didn’t know it.

I saw Rickson do that arm bar on Jackie, and I would stay up late thinking, ‘How the fuck did he do that?’ Then, as you get involved in it, you get to know the little details, you know how to pinch the arm, how to have the hand, all the little things that contribute to getting to that little point for the guy to say uncle.

Jiu jitsu was like superpowers before people are aware of it, especially back then. People didn’t know what was happening.

Jiu jitsu will end you. It stops fights suddenly and subtly. I’ve sparred with guys from Mexico and, man, you can throw the kitchen sink at them. In boxing, if you have the heart you are going to survive. I know guys that you can beat the living shit out of and they will still come at you. This is how it is. They may have the whole toughness thing down, but it’s beyond that to me in jiu jitsu. It’s something totally different.”

“It was funny too because [after the fight, Rickson] invited everybody. ‘You guys want to learn this? Come down, I’ll teach it.’ It was real… you just would never see that, especially from the streets. Coming from the streets there would always be a grudge—like, ‘Ha, I’m going to catch you later’—but he was like, ‘No, come on, we are going to teach you.’ And they were like, ‘Ok, cool.’ It never set anything off.

When I saw Rickson years later at his academy on Wilshire I introduced myself and I go, ‘Hey can I tell you a story?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, but is it a good story or a bad story?’

It’s a good story so I just told him and he started laughing.

He’s like, ‘Man, I thought you guys were going to jump us,’ because there were so many of us from Venice that went. ‘I thought guys were going to come for us but I was ready! I thought you were going to come for us and it was going to be a Battle Royale!’

And, you know, at the time I was still partying. [We all showed up wearing] Pendleton’s and beanies. That image hadn’t transformed into an everyday look yet. It was still hardcore.

Imagine everyone showing up in cars in flannels and Dickies and Chuck Tailors and tattoos. This is in the early 90s… 89 or 90… I can’t remember the exact year but he must have been like, ‘What are all these tattooed dudes doing, coming out and flicking cigarettes on the ground with this limp walk?’”

“When I saw jiu jitsu for the first time, it was incredible. But still, it wasn’t convincing enough to me because I came from an environment where, you know, it was grab whatever you can and whatever happens, happens.

I was boxing at the time and I didn’t know the beauty behind it. I was still young, I was still partying, and I had just gotten out of prison. It was more like, ‘That’s cool, but how about a big ol’ Bone-crusher?’ That dude wouldn’t have lasted. You know what I’m saying?

When I saw [Rickson beating Jackie] I was just thinking, ‘Grab a knife! Get a bat! He’s winning!’ That was the mentality.

[After watching the challenge match] I continued to see it at LA Boxing. A guy named Wander Braga had a jiu jitsu academy there, and I had been doing boxing for over 20 years.

Years later, my first jiu jitsu experience was with Jared Freedman. Jared was hanging out with a buddy of mine, RISK (Kelly Graval). It just so happens we started to talk about a UFC fight. I didn’t know that Jared trained jiu jitsu, and I said, “Yeah! See how he took that armbar? It reminds me of this one time…’ I told them the story, and Jared just started laughing.

I asked why he was laughing, and he said, ‘because I train with Rickson Gracie.’

After that Jared would invite me to his garage, when him Henry [Akins] and Kron used to all live together. My first introduction as a white belt was with Henry Atkins. Rickson was already back in Brazil when I started training. He would show up now and then, but he wasn’t teaching classes—that was Henry and Kron.

I finally got to roll with Rickson at the new academy, when he invited me down.”

“These stories… they don’t exist anymore. How do you create a story like Rickson Gracie beating up Jackie Ross? You can’t. Now-a-days you can see it on YouTube. Then everyone knows the story, but is never actually interacting with somebody aside from media, as human beings should. It doesn’t exist anymore.

[When I was growing up] you could access subcultures but it would have to happen organically as an extension of your life, or it had to be introduced to you by somebody. It’s almost like neighborhoods. You had an older dude that introduced you to the neighborhood.

When I was younger, you would have to partake in it. You sought out your peer group and if it they accepted you, it was cool. In the surf community, if you were surfing at the time, and you wanted to hang out on the North Shore, you better get in with the locals. If you were skating in Venice, you better get in with guys that were locally skating in Venice. Same thing with jiu jitsu at the time—you sought out what your passion was or whatever you wanted to be.

If you were thrown out of that group and they didn’t want you there, don’t ever come back because you were either going to take a beating or they were going to clown you. Was it multicultural back then? No, it wasn’t because we didn’t have social media. We couldn’t fuse things together because we didn’t know they existed. I didn’t know a guy like Rickson Gracie existed, I just knew Brazil was in South America—that’s all I knew about Brazil. I could point it out on the map, that’s all I knew. I knew where the North Shore was, and where everyone lived, because I had been there.

This generation can take surfing, and skating, and motorcycles, and fuse them all together because of social media. The new generation can tie a skateboard to your sissy-bar and be a pro skater and wear Vans and go skate at a pool and take your chopper with you. Well, when I was growing up, the dudes that I knew who rode Choppers would run over your skateboard. Or they would bust it over your head. They were outlaws, they were tough guys.

Or vice-versa. You know lowriders, all the guys that are lowriding now are buying bikes. That didn’t really [used to] run parallel. It was like water and oil. Now, there are no boundaries, Because of social media, whatever you want to do or think you can do possible. And it can build your credibility overnight. I’ve seen it.“

"What makes me unique is that I don’t advertise. I don’t have a sign in front of my shop. I don’t have biz cards. I have a shitty ass website and an Instagram I post stuff up on. I just do it because this is what I know.

I never sold out. I had a chance to do stuff. You know, José Cuervo hit me up about six years ago, ‘Hey man we want to do a bike? We want to do some advertising. We want you to hold a bottle and do some shooting.’ I said, “Nah, that’s cool. I don’t drink so thanks but no thanks.’ I could have even needed the money at the time, Fuck, I could of used the money. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I’m sober, why would I do that? Why would I endorse something I’m not into? It doesn’t even make sense. I know people who did it when they were sober—not saying that is anything bad just saying that that is my preference, that is my choice. There’s other companies that hit me up. Just recently this company called Leafly hit me up. They are just a big advocate of Marijuana. Well cool, I don’t smoke weed so I can’t build you a bike. Once again, I probably could have used the money. But, you know what? I’m cool.

I’ve told A-listers to fuck off just because they are dicks.  I got into a big fuck you match with Tupac one time—I was doing a lowrider for him. […] We got into a real bad one. But that’s what makes me unique because I don’t need to kiss someone’s ass to feel like I’m worthy or I need that business. I’ll go home fine at night if you don’t buy my bike I don’t give a shit.

You think about it, and you go back to it, and it's like… that would never exist back then because someone would call you on it. Now, if you call someone on it, you’re a dick, you’re an asshole. ‘Why are you embarrassing, what are you doing?!’ Because you have to! You have to call people on it. Whether you are being a dick or not, like, ‘Hey man, you fucking for real with this shit?’ I got people coming to me like, ‘Yeah so-and-so and this-and-that, my uncle’s brother’s gardener is an Angel and here’s a picture of him,’ as he shows me on his iPod. What the fuck does that mean? I don’t care. Do you know him personally? I don’t even want to talk about a Hells Angel or a Mongol, I mean unless you know him personally and you can tell me where he lives, his phone number, and what his daughter or wife’s name is. Man, I don’t want to hear who you or what you saw on Instagram—it doesn’t impress me. What impresses me is the people that have actual stories, to actually add to the culture and make this culture possible. The older guys and the actual events that took place, whatever it may be, gives it meaning. It gives it life. It gives it a heartbeat."

"I know a piece of metal is stronger than me, but it frustrated me. I used to pick shit up and throw it across the room because I would get so pissed off at it. I don’t do that anymore. It’s like, ‘This has better technique than me today, let me figure it out’ (laughs).

It’s not just motorcycles, and it’s not just metal. I don’t want problems anymore. When someone used to challenge me I was like, ‘Cool, I’m going to dump on this motherfucker. There is no problem. This dude is done.’ That was my mentality. I was running wild. There were no breaks. I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with myself sometimes. And it was reckless and stupid.

In a gambling sense, there’s you as a gambler, and there’s the house. The way I look at it, I owed the house. And you live with that guilt. How do you get rid of it? Well, you be kind to people and you be gentle to people. Let me help people, you know? It kind of brings you down to reality because you are way up here thinking that you can run through walls. Eventually you hit that one brick wall and that’s what happens. You either wind up dead, or you are doing a life sentence. It’s not fun. I don’t believe I was put here for that.

It’s changed me from who I was because I grew up in areas that were known for violence (pauses). All over the world it’s violent, not just here. I could go to Santa Monica and could probably find some violence if I wanted to. It’s everywhere. So to pinpoint somewhere on the map and say that’s the most violent place is bullshit. You can find the equivalent somewhere else in the world. But when you’re young and growing up, you do things you probably shouldn’t be doing."

"I did the incarceration thing. I’ve been close to death a few times… can’t say that I saw a dark tunnel… but I decided to change at the end. It was a lengthy process.

Throughout the changing, I ran into better people. Who were not just the everyday dudes in the neighborhood that had sucked me into a place where I wasn’t going anywhere. I learned other peoples stories—just cause they didn’t have tattoos, or a story that wasn’t compelling, we can relate.

I went through an addictive part of my life, and I got rid of that—well, I never got rid of it, it will live with me until the day I die, but I mean it’s on a day-to-day basis. Meeting people I can relate to in that sense that weren’t from my neighborhood, weren’t from this element, was even better.

Like the Santa Monica stairs, you start from the bottom one and keep on going. You went up a flight and its like, 'Wow it’s getting better, it's getting better, I’m going to get to the top,’ kind of thing. I feel like I’m at the top now. Financially, I’m not at the top. Materialistically? Far from the top. But spiritually, I’m the best person I’ve ever been because I incorporated what I have learned from jiu jitsu."

MMA was born in a street fight, but grew up to be a professional sport. In truth, it’s an uncomfortable, sometimes unfortunate past. Most of the really gnarly stories about the Gracie’s have yet to be told, and like in this interview with Trevelen, will have to be omitted, if only to protect what is now a positive movement, not a raw subculture.

Such is the way of the martial artist: Turning something that is destructive into something positive. It may never feel as punk as it did back then, but the crossing over of MMA has enabled everyone to focus less on the martial part and way more on the art. Without forgetting the utility and transformative power of the Rickson Gracie-style challenge match, of course. Besides, it’s the duality of those two things that make it so beautiful.

The interview reaches a natural end, and Trevelen and I decide to visit a mutual friend, the owner of jiu jitsu brand Shoyoroll, at his warehouse in Los Alamidos. We say our goodbyes to his small staff and walk back out into the alley behind the shop to leave.

“[A few years ago] we had a non-profit, a C-number. We were the only guys that actually brought in rival, rival fucking neighborhoods and had ‘em duke it out in the fucking gym.

And it would humble them. We would get Father Greg Boyle (from Homeboy Industries) to set it up. Call father Greg, ‘Hey Father Greg, there’s this big rivalry going on with this neighborhood and that neighborhood.’ ‘Alright let me figure it out.’ He would call them up, get them down there, and they would duke it out. ‘Put these on, let’s see.’ And it was the funniest shit. Without a gun or a knife, those dudes were in bad shape. I mean, they were throwing haymakers and at about the fifth or sixth swing they would be gasping for air.

It settled it in a sense that there would have been a higher level of violence. And it did stop a lot of violence. It stopped a lot of things…

My story is good to a point. OK cool, I lived that life. Am I proud of it? No. Do I wish it upon anybody? No. But if I can educate people what not to do, that next generation of kids, and [tell them to] put that pistol away, I don’t think it’s going to get you anywhere, I’ve paid back the house just a little bit.”

Find out more about Super Co. here and follow them on Instagram


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