Sunday, January 1, 2012

Changing Walls, Evolving City: 5Pointz

5Pointz on Long Island City, New York, is a globally recognized center for graffiti art. The several story warehouse boasts works by talented graffiti artists from all over the world, and visible from the 7 train, and across from PS1 it also is a testament to the complicated negotiations and movements that graffiti makes between street, sketch pads, museums, and galleries.

I've had the luck to be able to interview a couple dozen artists, in Mexico and in Chicago, from all over, and some of the questions I often ask are how they feel when their work gets gone over, if they are worried about graffiti's future in the wake of increasing commercialization and generalized style via the internet, and how they conceive of their style. The word "evolution" comes up numerous times: that the artist has to evolve their style, that graffiti is ephemeral and so it is merely evidence of a continually transforming city scape, that graffiti as a movement, and part of hip-hop culture has been evolving in terms of range, technique, and audience. Evolution then is a crucial element of an art which on some level is based on repetition of the basic tag name (in simple throw up form or in more complicated productions), a kind of repetition with a difference.

Given this keen awareness of graffiti's temporariness, in terms of style, mere existence, and total immersion in the tides of change, why is it important to have fixed places and spaces for graffiti to exist? How are we to understand graffiti's affiliation with evolution alongside calls for some kind of protection. Specifically, over the course of 2011 5Pointz has been at risk for demolition and replacement by condominium developments. In an interview with Meres One, curator of 5pointz (transcript below) I asked about why this building was under fire, and what the importance of it was. He explained that it is an "unofficial landmark", that it fosters international connections between artists, and that it is a free museum that allows people who might not otherwise have access to art education, or awareness about graffiti, to "witness it." Responding to my query about why the threat of demolition he responded that because 5pointz is "geographically close to Manhattan" it is valuable, and vulnerable to become changed from an industrial to a residential corridor. This comment is an important reminder that even though graffiti is an art that moves, changes, and adapts it depends on physical city spaces for its existence. The increasing closure of public space, the replacement of large brick canvases for artists with private dwellings for consumers is an ongoing issue in many cities across the world. Graffiti's ephemerality is testament to its ability to survive, but also evidence of the increasing fragility of the public written word in a world where currency is valued over communication, consumption over expression. What 5Pointz reminds us is that among evolution, radical change, we must hold some things relatively still, if only so that others can have the chance to gain the skills to get with the flow.

Many thanks to Meres One for meeting with me, as well as Dane-2 and Zimad for talking with me about NYC graffiti, and Sloke for talking to me about how important 5Pointz is. Go to for more information and links to documentaries and media about this important cultural space. Transcript of Meres interview follows.

Transcript Interview with Meres One 12/19/2011.

CB: So I was first hoping you could talk a little bit about how you got into graffiti?

M: I’ve been doing art all my life so there was just a time that it got introduced through a fellow artist when I saw his book of graffiti art. From that moment I was kind of curious as to what that was, and he explained to me, and upon looking through his book and noticing the tags and stuff in the street it became something that intrigued me.

CB: About how old were you?

M: That first instant was probably in early 6th grade, junior high school.

CB: How long have you been writing then?

M: About twenty years. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was sixteen, seventeen, and then I started getting into it.

CB: What made you get more serious about it?

M: I just liked being a vandal, rebellious in a sense, the general rush. Its kind of like, the thing with graffiti is that it allows kind of anybody to become famous. You could be a quiet geeky kid, or you could be that popular kid in high school that played football, sports, or a goth kid, whatever it is the artwork speaks for itself. It doesn’t really matter the makeup of the individual.

CB: Any one in particular influential for you?

M: I’d say starting out Subway Art was one of the first books I got my hands one, Spraycan Art, and Ghandi, Scheme, everyone in that book was an influence to me in Subway Art. At a young age, being sixteen/seventeen, when I got to a point which I thought was getting good and now looking back I was still a supertoy I got to a point where I looked at that book as obsolete and wound up tagging up the whole book and throwing it out, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I went and got another copy of it that I keep till this day. And I have a greater appreciation, even for [stuff] older than that, for [art] back in the seventies, upon reading and then studying it a little and then realizing that at that time there was no wild-style or 3-D pieces. It was basically a simple typography, with an outline around it. Kind of like the development of break dancing. I was watching last night the 2011 Redbull [PC1?] and its almost as if they defy gravity, compared to the first generation, you know.

CB: So why do you think its important to hold onto the old school stuff?

M: In order to go anywhere you have to know where you have been. I think its important to respect the history for its good and bad moments and incorporate your part of and your knowledge into the history of graffiti art itself too.

CB: I wanted to know if you could next talk a little about the history of 5Pointz and how you got involved.

M: It used to be Phun Phactory which –p-h-u-n- and then p-h-a-c-t-o-r-y- kind of similar run organization, didn’t have as much wall space because the landlord didn’t allow as much of the building [to be used] I also covered everything higher than a ladder up to the top using a cherry lift crane. The level of the art wasn’t as fine tuned as it is now and the gentleman who ran it wasn’t a graffiti artist. So to kind of be in the culture itself gives you a little know-how of it..

CB: So now its under threat to be destroyed—probably a shitty subject but can you talk about that?

M: I’ll say this. Long Island City, anything that is geographically close to Manhattan is subject for change its only a matter of time until Long Island City becomes changed from industrial to living quarters and his vision is to make it a condo and a …I really wont speak too much…I’ll say this: the importance of this building… it is an unofficial landmark, a world wide landmark for many people throughout the world. It has a rich history and it is also the only legal space for this kind of art where people can come at any given time and exercise their right to paint.

CB: So there are no other legal walls in the tristate area?

M: Not to the level …lets just say I go out and I go to different neighborhoods and I see different walls that I want to target and I say listen can I do your wall…I gotta get ahold of the landlord of the building and get permission from him and then its like, can you do whatever you want, but if you do it, it doesn’t mean that someone else can do it, and it becomes a kind of your wall, this is the only kind of community wall. So I mean, whats going on and with what he wants to do I am not concentrating on that, I am more so concentrating on…our ten year anniversary and we do have another year out of it. They just signed another year lease inside so we will be here at least till next winter, so my goal is just to continue to expand the program to educate people and make it more of a world wide impact so that at least if it was to go down for whatever reason more people could say that they have witnessed it.

CB: What kind of documentation do you do since the walls change?

M: I have photos of a lot, pretty much most of the stuff. We take some video, numerous documentaries done on it. I think that’s another thing I want to concentrate on this year a lot is getting a lot of videographers to do all different types of documentaries on 5Pointz, like the one that Aegis did but there is also another gentleman that did a narrative kind of storytelling documentary on 5pointz which is cool, not too long ago, and kind of encourage that more.

CB: What impact has 5pointz had on the community, not just artists but other folks that live around here?

M: Well it brings PS1 brings foreign tourists but so does 5pointz. A lot of people that come for PS1 will stay in the neighborhood to witness 5pointz. A lot of people that had no intention at all of even getting off anywhere over here that see it from the train out of curiousity end of getting off and wind up kind of wandering around to see what it is. Every person that comes to look at 5Pointz is a potential customer to the businesses around here: to the restaurants, and bars, and you know, galleries and stuff. So it helps the revenue of Long Island City. And if it were to grow even more that would improve even more.

CB: I saw in the documentary that you are doing work with kids that are into illegal stuff and trying to get them to do more legal stuff?

M: You know, my thing is this: I’m not, I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. I’m not telling a kid what to or not to do, I’m just saying a) it is harder than when I was younger. The charges are harder, the penalties are harder, there is an alternative now, its not an alternative I had. So the time that someone spends here they are not going out and defacing something, so whether they do it illegally or not, and still come here and do it, it lessens the time they are out writing on the streets. So I like every element of graffiti.

CB: So in that respect is just giving artists more options in terms of where they can write?

M: Mhhm.

CB: Have you noticed other effects writing at 5pointz has had on artists?

M: To have a place of this size and level it enables you to learn without taking classes. You just come, any given day you just watch an artist paint, you learn techniques, you make connections to artists from all over the world that you would most likely not meet. I mean, in all reality, how many chances are you going to get to meet a French graffiti artist or one from Spain, or Italy, it doesn’t happen, but over here its pretty much everyday that that could happen.

CB: What is the importance of meeting international artists?

M: you know you share…every place has different values and different styles. Its good to see what is out there in the world and to kind of network and build and expand your horizons so that it is not just like the five boroughs is your whole world. You have an opportunity if you go to France – like when I went to Germany I didn’t pay for a hotel, I stayed at a graffiti artist’s house that I met here. And you know I was invited to another even in another part of Germany where another graffiti artist I had met here was and that’s…its good to kind of look outside of ….I know some people that don’t even leave the neighborhoods, their whole friggen lives. Its like, you go to a different city and they are like whoah that is like going to France. These cats stay in Brooklyn or they stay in Queens..i grew up in Flushing and there are kids that never leave the neighborhood.

CB: What do you think 5Pointz does for the global graffiti movement?

M: 5Pointz enables people to kind of come see it and witness it and get their own opinion without being kind of brainwashed by the media, and by the police, and by the politicians that automatically give it a negative kind of stigma. Its really a beautiful art form, whether you like it or not, whether its done illegally or not, on your property, its still art. And rather than wipe it away, and pretend it doesn’t exist, 5Pointz allows people to come and witness and then they can leave not like it still, and they can leave and say “hey you know what I kind of liked some of this this is really cool, it is a lot deeper than I thought it was.” And its giving people options, options that otherwise I don’t think they’d have. Its helping legitimize the art form.

CB: One reason I’m asking is that some writers I’ve talked to have fears about the future of graffiti, whether its commercialization, or because of the internet styles becoming more general…

M: Here’s the thing. Everything is evolving. Break dancing started out, cats were doing it on linoleum, not even linoleum- on a cardboard box in a park. Now they are doing it at Redbull arenas with you know hundreds of people watching and the prize money is god knows what. And they are getting sponsors, and they are travelling…everything evolves in life so basically you either can embrace the change or get left behind because graffiti is evolving and its becoming a gallery sensation, and its becoming commercial and it means that every individual graffiti artist has to take their route, kind of [decide] what is fitting for your self. For me as an artist I’d rather do graffiti art and do canvases and do commercial work, stuff that I enjoy, than be a friggen robot going 9 to 5 working in a cubicle for the man and not really being able to enjoy life the way I want to enjoy it. So maybe it doesn’t fit in what some person’s breakdown of what graffiti is, but you know what, graffiti doesn’t really have a solid definition. Its to the individual that is doing it. Some people have tons of money and can afford to go out and get arrested and pay for lawyers and some people did do a lot of trains back in the day, and they killed it, and now they have city jobs and they even drive the train, or they are a court officer, or they are a union worker and they don’t want to lose their pension. Does that mean that they are not as, that they shouldn’t be as respected because they did what they did at the time that they did it and now its because its not fitting for them in their life that they are no longer graffiti artists, that they are a sell out? Its like, I tell these little kids that try to approach me, you know, how old are you? Sixteen, seventeen maybe twenty one? I’m thirty-eight years old and if you even make it to thirty years old and you are still doing graffiti, then you can maybe complain to me because your complaint isn’t even valid to me [now].

CB: How do you personally define graffiti?

M: Its expression. Its using all different types of canvases. Its taking and leaving a statement. Its an adrenaline rush. Its doing it without permission, its doing it with permission. Its getting a message across and ultimately its art.

CB: One reason why people don’t like or react negatively to graffiti is because of it being illegible in terms of the text—do you think graffiti should be more legible?

M: Ah, you know its to each your own. I don’t do- when I do a Wildstyle I’m not doing it—people that could read the art form kind of decipher your style after x amount of tries of seeing your stuff, you kind of have a blueprint to your stuff, but ultimately when I do a Wildstyle it is more for my own pleasure than to say oh I want everyone to read my stuff, I mean, some people do big bold things to be read, some people just do their names, some people do political graffiti only, some people don’t do their name and they just do political messages, ultimately human kind in general—if they don’t understand something they tend to not like it. They are scared of the unknown. So rather than embrace it in some form, whether you like it for the colors or what it may be…my father is a pure example. When I was younger and doing graffiti I’d work on a black book piece for like a night and I’d say “hey look at what I did” to my mother and she’d be like “oh cool” and my dad would be like “this is shit this is crap look at this garbage”. And now because I am making a living out of it and he sees me on the TV he is like “that’s my son” so it has changed. I think it was a mix of him seeing it as a dead-end art form

As well as not understanding it, that he wasn’t even willing to give it a chance. Now that he sees how famous I’m getting of of it, and the jobs, and the amount of money that I am capable of making, that he is proud and accepting. And he still doesn’t understand what the hell it says, but at least he understands money.

CB: What does your tag name, Meres One, what does it mean?

M: It doesn’t mean anything. I started out first tagging public school I just first started doodling on paper I was Kid Ace, which was horrible, and then I switched over to Heck, H-E-C-K, and then after that I realized relatively quickly that those were a hard group of letters to kind of play with, H, Cs and Ks don’t really work too well. So I was kind of sifting through the alphabet and jumbling letters around, I picked M, E and R, and upon jumbling those around Mere had the nicest swing to it, and eventually I added S to the end. And that’s pretty much what I stick to.

CB: What do you think the social function of graffiti is? In terms of how does it impact society, how can it help communities?

M: Its helps. Look at 9/11. When 9/11 happened countless graffiti crews, everyone was impacted by 9/11 who lived in New York. Everyone in the world was impacted by 9/11. But if you lived in New York especially I guess the best way you could describe it is that somebody broke into your house and kind of violated your safety and your happiness and everything, and at a time when some people were mad and they ran off to join the services, and that was their thing, some people ran down to the Trade Center to help, some people like myself were like “yo I have to create something to voice my opinion.” And the first wall we did was kind of more aggressive, it was a proud American wall, we did a huge American flag with the twin towers coming out of it and it was more like an “F-You this is our country” type wall, like my process of healing when on, I had another opportunity to do a wall which was a more emotional kind of wall. That was a timeline of the chain of events that led to that, and it not only helped me vent but enabled a young lady who lost her boyfriend in 9/11 to kind of have some kind of closure and those things, that incident, allowed us to express ourselves. People that normally don’t like graffiti, don’t want it in their neighborhood were kind of open to 9/11 walls, and there were 9/11 walls that went up everywhere, in neighborhoods that I would not expect to see a 9/11 wall in . So tragedy brought about goodness in that sense, and it was cool. Lady Pink, she does a lot of political stuff, she is very strong and voices her opinion and art is like the best way to really get that across, more so than text, so is probably a big part of the reason why they don’t like graffiti, it’s the right to voice your opinion without having to pay for it. Without having to be silenced, you know?

CB: How do you decide who gets to write on a wall, and can they write whatever they want?

M: We let everybody paint and depending on the level of ability of the artist things will last longer. You could be a great graffiti artist, come and then not cover what you went over and you wont last long. You could be a great graffiti artist, come and not decide to do a full effort and just do a piece, and you could just last accordingly. You could be a great graffiti artist and do a production and it could last up to a year. You could be a not so great graffiti artist and put in the A-plus effort and put in like two weeks on a wall and that’ll stay for a year. It goes on depending on how much traffic we get, how good it is…

CB: So how do you make those decisions about how good something is, how do you make that quality assessment?

M: Of what lasts? I try to be as fair as possible. I’m not partial to ne styles or another. I get stuff here that is kind of fluffy and South Park-ish, and some stuff that is more like aggressive, some stuff that is political, and all in all I try to have a variety. There is stencil art, there is street art, there is wheat past…there is a little of everything.

CB: Do you think there is any relationship between graffiti and for example the Mexican mural movement in the 20s?

M: I mean there is a connection in terms of that you are telling a story, it’s the artist telling a story whether you are telling it with letters and images, or you are telling it with just images, we are story tellers, we are here to give and receive feedback.

CB: In an ideal world would be have multiple legal walls or is it important to have a central point?

M: There should be one in every borough, why not? But the thing that is hard is finding the people that can run it. With no salary, it really lessens that incredibly, because I know a lot of good people that could probably run 5Pointz but aren’t as stupid as me to be here ten years salary free, but you know, you have to be involved, I’d say it helps to be somewhat good, but you also have to be not so involved such that you get involved in personal politics, and not be too aggressive but not a pushover either.

CB: Is there anything else you want to say?

M: Just check out our website, We have the official 5pointz page, check that out, and that’s it.

CB: Thanks a lot.

M: Cool, cool.