Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Trying to Whitewash a Subculture: The 5Pointz Fight

This is going to be polemical. To say so is somewhat paradoxical, because, as a space, 5Pointz was often not that. It was playful, whimsical, a mashup of different styles, texts, images, and references. Above all, it was a rare physical gathering place for graffiti artists and supporters of graffiti culture in a city where public space, public art, and public culture is increasingly privatized, sanitized, and individualized.

5Pointz, curated by Jonathan Cohen, otherwise known as Meres One, for over a decade, was a space that has been famous in and outside of graffiti culture across the world. Over the last two years Meres and the 5Pointz PR and education coordinator, Marie, and supporters, have fought an ongoing battle to maintain the space in the wake of the ever growing threat of gentrification.

This spring, plans developed on the part of the building owners, Wolkoff and his son, to transform the site into a high-rise condominium. Going from local zoning board, to planning committee, the Wolkoff's plans were greenlighted by the city even as they were vocally resisted by 5Pointz supporters.

Unfortunately, it seems like there is not yet a robust public vocabulary for which claim about the value of cultural life and emphatically public art can be intelligible against the calls to monetize and market city spaces. However, the contrast between 5Pointz being a PLACE versus it just being a SPACE, something Dr. Jessica Pabón signaled eloquently earlier this fall, has never been so clear as it appears in images of the building after being whitewashed in the dark of night.

It may seem a tad dramatic, but that a decision that implicates a collectivity, several communities, and the aesthetic commons should happen nocturnally reveals a great deal about the paucity of imagination that exists within dominant capitalist culture for accounting for places that hold meaning beyond exchange value. The whited out walls are not simply erased images, they are literal and metaphoric headstones for graffiti artists who have passed away and, for the most part, are not given general recognition in the annals of history.

One more space liquified, rendered smooth, and inaccessible, and relevant, to the few.

It is a sad day.

Two key things, I think, bear keeping in mind.

First, claims that graffiti's ephemerality justifies the destruction of the building writ large does not make much sense. Ephemerality is not the same as superfluity. Sure, pieces and burners may come and go but they constitute a visual palimpsest and an ongoing dialogue in physical spaces. The elimination of any space for public communication hollows out the fabric of possibility for such communciative action. Second, I can only hope that this spurs broader discussions about the vital need to create new vocabularies with which to ascribe value to urban spaces. Hopefully the arguments that have emerged in the course of the past few years have made visible to a broader public the importance of public art, and graffiti art in particular, such that more wall owners and communities will be open to providing space for the elaboration of graffiti art in New York. We need public discourses that account for the crucial role that public art plays as a vehicle for public affects: 5Pointz was a material space where love for a genre also culminated in love across differences.

My thoughts are with Meres, Marie, and all friends of 5Pointz today.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Tour Treize: Ephemeral Monumentality

This month is a busy one in the street art and graffiti world in Paris. Opus Délits, a group show featuring 40 street art headlines including Jef Aerosol, Miss Tic and Mosko; État des Lieux at Galerie du Jour Agnes B. featured Monsieur Qui, Ox, 36Recyclab, Sowat, Psychoze, PAL, Ludo, and Seth; and the Tour Treize project, a reclaimation of a 9-story residential building featuring over 80 street arts from around the world.

Tour Treize is a fascinating site: towering over the Quai de Muriac on Paris' Left Bank, it is a covered in neon orange paint and a large banner showing the Statue of Liberty (that it is  the statue of liberty, and not France's lady liberty, I deduce from the english comments handwritten within the banner, referencing locations like Stuyvetson, the Bronx, Staten Island, and so forth). The project is only open during the month of October, after which both the building and the online archive will be destroyed.

Early in 2013 a tower in the 13th arrondissement was slated to be destroyed. Given the history of street artists living in the building Gallery Itinerrance intervened, (spearheaded by Gallery Itinerrance director, Mehdi Ben Cheikh) and working secretly with the Mairie of the 13th, and the owner of the building ICF Habitat la Sabilière, a hundred street artists from across the globe were contacted to become involved in a project that was free to the public, open to the all, and entirely non commercial. Each artist was given their own space to transform from floor to ceiling. The resulting collaboration involved artists from 16 different nationalities. The resulting project is the largest street art exposition in the world, with over 4,500 square meters of art spanning 9 floors and 36 apartment units. The physical site is only open to the public from October 1st to October 31st.

The author of documentary and website, Thomas Lallier, remarked after his first visit: "After the first visit...I asked myself...why had I not noticed this little building before? Without a doubt it is because it is situated in an area that one, in general, would not [deliberately] pass by. It is not antique, nor particularly striking...Six months later this building has become a sort of attraction: passersby stop to take photos, and its visual attraction holds a sort of mystery...because of these artists, I have re-experienced my fascination with urban space, the sense of curiousity that takes hold of you when you stand in a strange hallway...this transmedia project...is detached from the constraints of continuity. A creative view is made visible, but in the fragile, reactive, and ephemeral character of art in situ..."

After Tour Treize closes its doors, the website will still be available, but only for 10 days. The organizers urge viewers "click by click, pixel by pixel, to save Tour Treize!"The rationale for even an ephemeral website is that "given the urgency and ephemerality of street art [as a movement] this is all that can [or should] be saved." A 52 minute documentary has also been created (starting in March 2013) recording the artistic work behind the exposition by Thomas Lallier.

I hope to write a longer form manuscript about this project, but for now, I will recount some elements of my visit, and a few of the many pieces that really pulled me.

The line for Tour Treize by 10:00am winds all the way around a city block. On average, it inches forward perhaps an eighth of a block every hour. If one is more than a block from the entrance, it is entirely likely that the way will be upwards of 7 hours, or even futile.

The gallery security put up signs to that effect:

Waiting, then, to see Tour Treize is the quantitative majority of one's experience. I tried three times to see the building. The first day I arrived a little before 1 pm, on a drizzly cold day, and took my place in line a block and a half from the entrance. After waiting an hour with no movement, I had to leave for an appointment. I returned again at 10:00am on the 22nd of October, and persevered for four hours. This time I began 2 and a half blocks from the entrance, in fact, diagonal from the entrance, which I could sadly watch through the gates around a courtyard. The line is an amorphous, smelly, vivacious entity. Filled with people from age 7 to 60 it pulsates and simmers, surges and dissapates. Veterans of Paris cultural events bring foldable chairs or stools, thermoses of coffee, and many friends so that turns can be taken for bathroom breaks and walks. On my second visit I was behind a cluster of art students who sat blissfully drawing and smoking before sneaking ahead into a part of the line closer to the entrance. A few hours in, the typical unspoken urban barriers for conversation erode as smiles and sighs of frustration are shared, sometimes people chat about their previous attempts to get in the exhibit, and finally, when the end is in sight, we utter cheers every time someone exits the building, counting heads.

The visit felt more like a kind of alternate universe, a suspended space of expectation and determination, where sore lower backs, knees, feet, and shoulders are ignored by dreaming of the art inside. Such fantasies are sparked by the more garrulous who, as they exit, say "It was just, wow!" and "Bon courage!" Arriving at 7:30 a.m. last Wednesday, armed with a book that I had put off reading for over a year, croissant, cake, lentils, and an apple, I took my place in line, literally running across the Pont de Bercy lit by dim streetlights and a fully moon. I began only three quarters of a block from the entrance. Of course, arriving at 7:30, I knew I was in for a wait, since the building did not open until 10:00, after the line contracted and places seemed relatively set, I, and everyone around me, took a seat on the ground. Someone who had done a head count announced "200 people in front of us!" I resigned myself to being kicked by the elder gentleman to my left who seemed to have no sense of spatial awareness, and entertained myself by occassionally looking to see the every-lengthening line. This period of waiting is peaceful. Without any movement, there is not attempt to "get one over" on other line-members by moving faster, or slipping ahead. Instead, my fellow line dwellers unpacked breakfasts, quietly listened to music, or sat with eyes closed. As the sky became lighter we rose to our feet and began the long work of intentional waiting. Six hours later, I had made it to the front. There was an air of intimacy that had been cultivated between myself and the four other people in my immediate vicinity. We smiled and cheered, and wished each other well, later sharing conspiratorial glances as we walked through the exhibit.

At 2:00 pm I stumbled into the dark building, and followed arrow marks painted onto the floor into a room that had a map of Syria on the floor, and paint cans covered in navy-green with little wings attached that appeared as a cluster of bombs over the map.

 After taking the cramped elevator to the 9th floor, where a guard told us "Try to keep to 10 minutes a floor" I tried to efficiently move through each room, taking photos, and taking in the overwhelming array of images.

"Street art" is a funny label that purports to be a genre. If anything, the work at Tour Treize illuminated the astonishing range and diversity of "street art," as such. From installation work, to light sculptures, to paper architecture, painted walls, photographs, and wooden sculpture, the rooms in the tower were complete transformed to create a total sensorial experience.
ReaOne. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Each floor, roughly, represented a country or region. I saw styles that I was relatively familiar with (3D styles, Mexican iconography, stencils, sketch-based paintings, and wheat pastings) to others that I had never encountered.

C215 is a relatively recent artist, but is world-renknowned. In the short film, Five More Minutes with C215 he recounts that his art is a way for him to have connections with a world that he doesn't easily emotionally cathect with. His aesthetic: stencils that are layered with a hand-drawn sketch style and rendered full of energy and movement through the use of flourescent and brightly colored lines. His work can be found all over Paris, often appearing on public electricity boxes, mailboxes, and signs.
C215, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

This piece by Stinkfish, from Mexico, offers a portrait of Zapata where windows in the building become Zapata's eyes, filling the room with filtered light through the figure's gaze.
Stinkfish. Mexico. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Dan23's work from France with vibrant, photorealist images, offers a good paradigmatic case for a prevalent difference between American and European graffiti styles. Whereas the former is still focused on lettering and the name, the latter traffics more heavily in the figurative and representational.
Dan23, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.

Faces, however, could also be haunting. David Walker's pieces uses black, white, and greyscale large format portraits and contrasts them with colorful objects, creating a melodramatic and moving rendering of human expression.
David Walker, UK. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Mario Belem's lettering work also resonated with the aesthetic Steve Espo uses in his Love Letter project.
Mario Belem, Portugal. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Pantonio's flying/running rabbits were one of my favorite elements of the project. They also ran across the exterior of the tower, and so seeing them inside created a kind of visual connective tissue between inside and outside. The dynamic and fluid motion was mesmerizing, and seemed appropriate given the scene of destruction (floor boards torn up) around the creatures.
Pantonio, Portugal. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
A destruction-aesthetic figured in many of the apartments. Appliances filled with waste, paint cans, or foam, and floors entirely removed or reduced to dust, the pieces implied immanent elimination. Katre's room, which was covered with photographic images of architecture, lines extending from the images across the ceiling, and a breakfast table surrounded by rubble with a radio, glass, and plate, refers to life interrupted, cut in the middle, and the shock of architectural disruption.
Katre, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.
I was thrilled to see work from Tunisian and Iranian artists, regions I have little knowledge of as venues for street art. Dabro's work was unique and haunting. His pieces create atmospheric environments where his figures, barely distinguished from their background, emerge as ghostly whispers from the walls.
Dabro, Tunisia. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Inti Castro, from Chile, further draws on tropes of memory, forgetting, and violence. The entrance to the main room has the words "Memorias" in legible typset print. Entering the colorful inner room one sees a wall violently punctured, but the paint designs are not disrupted. Embedded in the hole in the wall is a photograph of a little girl. Memorias could point, here, to the loss of a loved one and the memoria as a kind of shrine, or ones own memory. But the jagged doorway and uneven floor creates a sense of unease, a memory not fully worked through, nor appropriately remembered.

Inti Castro, Chile. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
In this piece by Loiola, from Brazil, we are confronted with feminine figures, intimate, and anxious. One figure notes "Don't leave me in peace/alone." Elements of the apartment (curtains, doors, a radiator, bathtub) are used as environments for the various figures that occupy the space, reminding the viewer on the everyday lives quietly, or not so quietly, lived in this building.
Loiola, Brazil. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce.

There are a number of literary references in the building, with carefully curated bookshelves featuring texts by Francois Mitterand (perhaps a gesture to the BnF Mitterand down the street), and also a piece by Speto in a kitchen where the door screamed: "Nietzsche lived in this room!" Perhaps also another reference to the role the building played as a home for artists, or an ironic reference to the lack of celebrity afforded to the space before the Tour Treize project.
Speto, Brazil. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
A kitchen is taken over by aggressive, careening, and bicycling figures. A man eats an automobile, while another sips out of a gas pipe that juts out of the wall, and below, a chef has a filleted car on a platter. Mobility, consumption, and frenetic motion collide in a room which was the site for routine consumption.
Hopnn, Italy. Photo credit: caitlin bruce
The final exhibition is of wall paintings and objects painted in white in a room lit only by flourescent lights. Ordinary objects (grocery carts, a mannequin, chairs, a television) glow eerily, discarded and lonely. The artists, Lek and Sowat, highlight the ultimate destruction that the building will be subject to, the frenetic splashes of glowing paint further disorienting a likely already-tired and sensorially-overloaded viewer before they are thrust back into the light of day, where all one can do is sit quietly for a moment, and try to return to a less aesthetically saturated ordinary.
Lek and Sowat, France. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Institutional Ambivalence: American Social Realists in the 1920s and 1930s and Contemporary Graffiti

This morning, while editing the introduction to the dissertation and trying to thicken the dialogue in my notes about how the 1932-1934 Diego Rivera controversy at Rockefeller Center has been critically discussed, I came upon Raymie E. McKerrow's 1983 piece, "Visions of society in discourse and art: The failed rhetoric of social realism." The piece effectively conveys some of the complexity and paradoxical optimism in artist communities during the Great Depression. In the wake of a collapsed, or, seriously weakened artistic patronage system, the Federal Government took on a much larger commissioning role and artists began to self-organize.

The Artists' Congress was one such organization, which produced the short-lived radical publication "Art Front." McKerrow observes:

The rhetoric of the Artists' Congress, ultimately, cannot be separated from the art of
social realism as innovative presentation. Unlike socialist realism, which hewed closely to a
party line, the art that has been labeled social realism spoke less to a specific ideology than to
a general reaction against police brutality, poverty, and other social ills of the period. Philip
Evergood, for example, saw in the Depression an opportunity for artists to free themselves
from the confines of "patronage art" and produce art for the people. Along with others,
including those in governmental authority, saw the chance to bring art and the people closer
together—to make art a part of the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Evergood's Artist in
Society (1937) depicts the transition from wealthy connoisseurs poring over paintings they
dimly understand to art produced for the people, and reflecting their oppressed conditions
(Peeler, 1987). Where the "American Scene" painters (Grant Wood's masterpiece, Amer/can
Gothic is an example) were "celebratory" in their depiction of subjects and scenes, those
earning the sobriquet social realism tended to believe that "critical dissent had more
validity" (Peeler, 1987, p. 208). Although their discourse railed against the establishment,
their art tended to depict the downtrodden, the oppressed worker, the poverty-stricken "as
sad, drab, and spiritually depressed individuals, rather than as heroic workers bursting with
the kind of vitality capable of building a new society" (Baigell, 1974, p. 59).
While they took as their subjects depictions of "labor unrest, police brutality, lynching"
and the threat of fascism, they tempered their fiery criticism by adhering to Government
standards as necessary to win commissions. In part, the commissions allowed them to
continue with more radical projects on the side. (233)

The situation that McKerrow describes is compelling. In the wake of seriously weakened capitalist institutions, social realist work aesthetically contended with such failed promises. Moving away from a patronage system of artistic production, artists engaged with the idea of the "masses" and the "people" as a legitimate aesthetic object, but also, as audience.

Federally commissioned projects, however, sought to temper the radicality of public works. The people were to be represented as a harmonious proposition, part of a flourishing "American Scene." Craftily, some artists would follow conventional guidelines in federally commissioned work, pocketing their stipends, and then spending them to produce more radical work. A similar practice takes place in León, where, as part of the City of Murals program, graffiti artists will apply for municipal support and then use the same paint to produce illegal (or illegal style) throw ups. Working in the grey areas of institutional sponsorship, graffiti artists produce styles that diverge from an iconic approach to national identity, playing with abstract lettering and fantastical imagery in the place of figurative renditions of famous historic figures. The social effectiveness of such work becomes more fuzzy, tethered neither to institutional fidelity nor complete autonomy. An analogous phenomena were the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Sponsored graffiti battles in Chicago in the 1990s where the CTA, a major force in graffiti eradication, would host (and provide paint and cash prizes) for graffiti murals.

I highlight the above strange state-artist alliances to push towards thinking against artist and institutions in monolithic terms, instead, suggesting that we stay attentive to the strange spaces of alliance, lull, and play that happen among official and unofficial publics.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Mosaicist's Polemic

He is called the Mosaic Man, and he has been installing mosaics on the bottom of street lamps in New York City's East Village for the past 28 years. Walking with my sister who was just talking about him last Sunday, we suddenly saw a small crowd surrounding a long-haired elderly man with a cane entirely covered in pieces of tile and glass, his dog, relaxing on the cool sidewalk, a cart, with a wheel covered in mosaics, an assistant, a student named Jessie accepting tile donations, and a folded sign, worn and yellow, urgent text scrawled across.

"That's him!" Sam exclaimed.

I approached cautiously: I have done a lot of interviews but I am still painfully shy and an introvert, and I prefer to observe interactions than to ask half-assed questions when I am unfamiliar with an artist's work. The Mosaic Man was dialoging with a woman with that special fuschia-red box color, she recording him on a small camera.

"I've put in 28 years of good life!" He exclaimed, "And it will take $128,000 for us to refinish and complete two miles of mosaics on every lamp post. [I] Could have done ten miles, if I had the money!" Pointing to the glue that his assistant applied liberally to pieces of tile he noted that the city has put up netting and glue on some of the lamps, but that glue is of inferior quality. "We want something that can last 100 years." Shaking his head he continued "Its very likely we won't be able to finish. We get a dime here, a nickel there...[now] I'm like a fundraiser...it's bullshit! I should just be doing art." He paused, "I had to take some time off last year to make money, but, [I wanted] to feel legitimate, I need to do work in the street. Not like jerks like Picasso, or Keith Haring, those guys are jerks!"

He winked at a passer by "This is my rant. I do that."

The Mosaic Man's polemic is a common form of address in New York. His wink revealed a sanguine awareness of the ways in which a rant is often delivered and received in public-- the rant often comes from a socially marginalized character, so although it is loud in form, it is quiet or nonexistent in its impact. However, in this short moment, he had an audience, and rant had an impact (although small) registered in the donations, dog pets, gathered crowd, and puzzled onlookers.

What enabled his rant to achieve some traction? Was it the dog? His art? The fact that in the East Village because historically it has been (though hardly anymore) an avant garde neighborhood, there is still an affective landscape that admits and even valorizes such forms of address?

Jessie explained to me that the city gives them permission to do their work but not funding, so it is not truly a commissioned process, so they hope to raise enough funding on their own so that they can complete the two mile walk.

The Mosaic Man's project is an important one because it is one of those modest forms of cultivating texture and a sense of durability in an urban scene where so much is smooth and fungible. The rough and uneven tiles index places and past scenes, literal fragments of diverse stories. The Mosaic Man's mission is not just a means for refurbishing tiles, but recuperating spaces for encounter in one of New York's historic neighborhoods, small monuments to the surrounding community.

To help them out go to: http://mosaicmannyc.com/

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Interview with Rahmaan Statik: Aerosol Supremacy

Statik Interview: Aerosol Supremacy, April 19, 2013, Howard Street Art Gallery

Statik's new show, Aerosol Supremacy opened April 19th at Howard Street Art Gallery. Statik was gracious enough to let me do an on the scene interview about his show, his artistic philosophy, and his hopes for the future.

C: Can you first tell me a little about how this show came about, and what you were thinking on as you put it together?

S: What I was thinking on? The title of the show is called “Aerosol Supremacy.” The reason why it is called “Aerosol Supremacy” is that I have done many a show in the city of Chicago which actually mixed in my spray painting pieces with my oil painting pieces. And the perception that I would get from people was that my spray painting pieces were not authentic art, or were not art enough, were just graffiti, so I wanted to pay homage to doing a show of just all spray paint and graffiti influenced pieces because within the city of Chicago audience it kind of gets downplayed. But everywhere else, on an international art circuit, it has more recognition as an actual art form which Chicago’s perception of it is very conservative perception of art. So I wanted to do something that paid homage to graffiti art being an alternative art, and to the actual Chicago gallery scene. So therefore Howard Street Gallery, they are selling spray paint out here, for one, with the theme of it being a spraypaint related show and solely sticking with  that. Each piece in here focuses on a lot of different aspects of our philosophy on life and reality. Some pieces pay homage to indigenous culture, religion, some pieces are pop art and pop culture, other pieces are just for pure practice of aerosol art and can control.

C: Which pieces demonstrate just pure practice? Pure aerosol art?

S: I’m going to say that long piece in the middle, the portraits are more aerosol art, even the pop art pieces are celebrating pure aerosol art, meaning, how small can you actually paint, and how technical can you actually [be with using] a spray can. I’m kind of a can control zealot if you will. I am a fan of doing pieces that are all done with spray paint and actually showing that more of it actually being its own art medium and art form and that should actually be recognized. It is recognized everywhere else in the world. And Chicago being  world class city it is kind of downplayed here. So as an artist I want to take the personal initiative to kind of set that record straight. Yeah.

C: Did you see a lot of gallery folks coming here, or is it more on the radar of folks who are already involved in the graff scene?

S: Yeah, underground. Its underground, and I knew that was going to be the case as the artist that I am. I sell pieces to me peers and people that follow graffiti art, and follow street art, I am a part of that movement, and I didn’t make my start in any galleries, I made my start on the street and doing art on the street, so I would kind of like to go back to that. That and my next show is going to be the opposite of this, its going to be all oil paintings, I’m kind of testing the waters to see what happens and what response I get back from doing separate venues and exhibitions and separating the mediums and bodies of work. What we see now is that this is the underground show, and the oil paint show may be the more popular, mainstream show where I actually have to wear a suit and shave up for it, right. This one, kind of not the case. And art work here is priced totally different[ly]. The whole angle is that I respect people who acknowledge the work that I do on the street because that is where I got my start, and this is me kind of bringing that street art flavor into the gallery.

C: I’m going to ask you a couple of questions about style. So I’ve been watching your style for 7 years; its super photo realism, it seems like it is playing off of a lot of the Italian masters, but you’ve also been traveling a lot in the last decade or so. In what ways do you think your work is influenced by travel? And have you had any other influences over the last 10 years?

S: My work has been tremendously influenced by my travels. Because I specifically travel to meet other artists that I follow and that I look up to. And the point of going to these different places I’ve seen a new standard, or a standard that is not as prevalent in the city of Chicago. I met artists that made me step my game up, if you will, made me be a bit more ambitious about improving my work and making better work. And that happened when I went to San Diego, New York City, Atlanta, Georgia. And in every city that I’ve been in, city for city, I’ve met different cliques of artists. I’ve seen and met and worked with some of their top artists and seen the difference in individuals’ work ethics and seen the parallels that the results of a good work ethic will get you as an artist.  And it all comes down to hard work and a good work ethic to produce good pieces, and there is no half stepping with that. Lets just say that the artists that I met in san Diego and California introduced me to painting small. To doing spray paint pieces small and the actual artistry of aerosol art. I’ve seen that a lot in California and in the artists that I painted with in California, and I totally respect them for that. In New York it was almost the same team but more aggressive graffiti art, given that that is where graffiti started at-

C: So a bombing style?

S: Yeah, bombing, and the technical part of that. So I feed off of both perspectives mixed in with a high art standard of painting. I understand the graffiti standard, and I understand the overall standard of art, and at this point I am working out the overall standard of art meaning that I respect what a lot of other graffiti artists do, and I am quite influenced by that, but I understand the thing that makes their art good is that they are influenced by other art [that is] not [only] graffiti. Which is the difference. And most people call that ‘biting,’ but I call it influence, the art world’s influence, and the art world it is more of influence is the term, rather than bitin’, I am influenced by a little bit of everyone’s work right there, good and bad, but the bottom line is that  that traveling, I’m planning on doing more traveling, way more.

C: Where do you want to go?

S: Europe. I’ve traveled in California, everywhere but Los Angeles…between Europe and LA. I’ve done a lot of work on the East Coast, in the Bronx

C: Yeah you were just about to go to the Bronx last time I talked to you

S: Yeah, I was just about to make that mission out there. But those missions changed [me] and gave [me] a lot of perspective about how and why I am actually producing this type of work and the realistic standards to produce it off of. At least for my peers I would like to influence them with what I’ve seen, which is a higher standard of painting with a spray can. The actual Chicago traditional standard. There is a global standard that people paint with. And the more I travel the more I see how deep that global standard goes, and I learn more new stuff about the actual art form. I’m not going to sit up here and say I am a master- well, I am a master of can control- but I am not going to say I am the best. There are a lot of good artists out there that I look up to, and its actually good to have other people to look up to. It shows that the game is that big.  Your genre is that big, especially if the genre doesn’t stop at me. If it did stop at me its really small. As far as other outside influences, yeah, I want to try to get to Europe though, within a year, and try and get some painting done.

C: So what’s your favorite piece in the show?

S: Probably the spray paint cap piece or the Graffro piece, yeah.

C: What about them do you like?

S: Well the spray cap piece there is a lot of history behind that it’s the past 15 years of caps I’ve been collecting from walls that I have been doing. And that piece sat for almost a year with just the women on it but I didn’t know what to do with the background. And I thought it would be a funny juxtaposition to pair up the used caps with the image of the pile of women. So its more about the juxtaposition than more of anything.

C: What about the graffro piece?

S: Its been an ongoing series

C: Yeah ther is one at the silver room

S: Yeah, at the silver room, I’ve been painting that concept for the last three or four years I was influenced by the Film Noir posters and the movie Hair and the afro and the text in it- so the concept came from that I though it would be funny to mix in actual graffiti letters up in the piece. To kind of do a modern day spinoff on that concept.

C: What role for you do the women play in your pieces? You often have these beautiful, usually black women with really awesome hair.

S: Like a muse. I am married, have a mom, sister, it has a lot to do with the ongoing relationship I have with the women in my life, which is all positive for the most part. That’s why you don’t see me doing any thing degrading towards women, if any thing its more empowerment if you will. And its more of a softer edge to my work, besides me coming through with pieces criticizing the government, anarchy and so forth.

C: How many anarchy/government criticism pieces would you identify here?

S: That one [pointing at oscar the grouch/v for vendetta piece], the one above it,  what else do we have…that one with the mushrooms is actually about drugs called A Mushroom Cult,

C:Whats the story?

S: I’ve been reading studies about how people actually experience that, and it changes their personality for the rest of their life but for the better. It makes indivudals do more objective thinking in their life, and plus, I like how ancient shamans would actually use mushrooms to fortell the future and give insight to a lot of things. So its more of a side trip I was going off on that one. The two pieces down there are called Life Styles of the Poor and Dangerous, Part 1 and 2 right there. Its more about—the bottom one is the characters within a graffiti writer /anarchist lifestyle: you have the anonymous mask the von bode character, its like the graffiti character, oscar the grouch is actually the weed man, its actually a pot reference, belive it or not, and the pig is actually a cop.
The one above it, almost the same thing but we have the fighter Kent Kimball Trice [spelling?], McGruff the crime dog, Megatron, Petey o Beron [spelling?] and Marilyn Monroe: so its like internet culture, good guy versus bad guy aesthetic but stuff that is very popular right now but underground popular.

C: Its interesting that you talked about shamanism because I read this article about the Underbelly project that took place in new york, you know, took over the tunnels, and some guy described graffiti writers as being the shamaans of the underworld.

S: Essentially it is. Especially if you see art with an open mind, you can see it as a persn’s name, or you could feel it as the expression of colors and forms. Most common people respect the color and form, and lets just say that the city needs that considering that most public space is privatized and bombarded with privately ownded images meant to promote and sell bad products. Whereas graffiti is more like grass roots marketing, marketing done by one person with no budget. But you have a brand and you are your brand. As opposed to pepsi. Its mostly an international corporation and you have tens of thousands of people under the one brand. Between a multinational corporation versus one guy, in his bedroom, with a bunch of markers. That is a big difference right there.
C: Is that how you resolve the tension between having to make a living and brand yourself to survive, with the idealistic?

S: Correct. That’s how I came to terms with even still painting. I just had to understand that I don’t have a marketing crew or a street team so I’ve gotta do it myself. I gotta come through and paint my way out it, paint to prove my point.

C: Is there anything else you want to say about the show that you want people to know?

S: This show is meant to set the standard for aerosol art in Chicago. And let the world know that the city of Chicago has a standard for can control. I am Rahmaan Statik, and I am actually the artist that is trying to pioneer that and bring the Chicago standard of can control to the forefront and let the world know that there are good artists in the city. That and I would like to influence other artists, other graffiti writers, painters, to do more art and paint. Less talking, more art. Less criticizing, more art. I would hope to influence people to do more art whether they would like to compete against me, just to do something to liberate their minds. Either way, that’s good to me. I would rather see people doing art than buying cheap products from shopping malls and stuff like that. Doing art for yourself, it’ll save your life, keep you out of trouble, and help you make better, more objective decisions, thinking of the world around you. It helps you observe the world around you with a much freer mind from an artistic point of view. You view the world  trying to find the beauty in it first, rather than everything that is wrong with it. Through an artistic objective standpoint. [For example], you as a journalist, you can’t come through and make arguments you are doing interviews from an objective standpoint, and then maybe you add your point of view onto it. My whole thing is, yeah, I’m influenced by seeing people make art, and long term I hope to make renaissance in Chicago, in the city, in the Midwest, and abroad. At this point the world needs a renaissance of art to compete with the consumerism. We need a renaissance in art that combats the oversaturation of consumerism. That brings people back into buying original, hand made products versus buying stuff made off of the assembly line. That is the difference. So it goes deeper than something being made in America. It goes back to something being made in your kitchen, or made in your own back yard. Or your own bedroom. That’s the bigger difference. So the [goal] of the show is to set the standard for can control and let the city of Chicago know that spray can art is real art and its to be taken serious[ly].

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sandia y Melón: An Interview

The following is the transcript of an interview with Sandia Roja and Melón before their show opening at Howard Street Gallery. The show will be up for a month so check it out as soon as you can, it is really fantastic. Thanks to the artists for being so generous with their time, and candid with their commentary.

Melón y Sandia March 16, 2013

M: She is Sandia and we have known each other  and been good friends for a while and we thought it was kind of funny, you know, Sandia and Melon, Melon and Watermelon, you know? So at first when we met she was “are you melón? They call me Sandia” and I was like, “that’s weird.” So, that is how we met. Her artist name is Sandia Roja, so we decided to do a show together eventually and now, three or four years or something, now we are doing a show.

CB: How did you get access to this space?

M: Through Tony…I know him from the graffiti scene. Howard Street Gallery does a lot of graffiti venues and me being a graffiti artist he contacted me and said “Hey we want to do a show with you.” It was just going to be me, but I just did a show recently with Fonzo and Amuse, the one before was at Galerie F and the one after that was at Modest Skate shop in Forest Park, and I felt like it was too much, so I asked if there was another artist…and then I said “I think I might have someone…and she said ‘yeah.’” So here we are.

CB: {to sandia} So I am doing an interview for Sixty Inches from Center, are you familiar with them at all? They cover alternative art, street art, graffiti…so somehow I became facebook friends with Melon, and I like his work, and so I wanted to cover this opening. And so we are talking a little bit about how the show came together, I’d really like it if you could talk a bit about the piece you are most excited about…how it came into being.

S: Whew! The piece that I am most excited about…it is not here! {laughs} I forgot it at home. I am a teacher so we were doing visualization as a reading strategy at school. So I had to do a assignment of a guy, a little guy, closing his eyes with a bubble, a thinking bubble. And we were drunk, at night, and I started drawing it, and I was like, “This doesn’t look like anything kid like!” and it turned out to be a huge, long, colorful merman, and it said “Melón y Sandia” on the tail, really colorful, really cool.

M: Yeah, we collaborated on that.

CB: Have someone bring it at the last minute…like do a big excited drum roll.

S: Haha yeah, “And its here!” A drunken collaboration.

CB: Tell me a little about your style: where it came from, what influences you.

M: My style, hm. I think I have a graffiti, Chicago style. And my style pretty much evolved from that. And I think that me living out in Hawaii for about six years, I developed not only a style from taking the style I had from here to Chicago, and taking it to Hawaii and developing it into my own style and technique. I had a few friends that I was inspired by in Hawaii. We should show each other things, and it evolved to [the style I have] now. A lot of people say they don’t know, that they can’t tell where I am from from [looking at] my style. If you go to Hawaii, I would do a lot of triple auras and really thick outlines, and people were like. “Hey, why are you doing so many outlines?” …and I think working in the gallery, developing a [fine art] style really pushed my style to new heights…working between different worlds…

CB: How would you define graffiti versus gallery work?

M: Its tough. You have people that hate graffiti, but they like the styles…for me I like doing gallery work [too]…but with my graffiti…its almost like being selfish with my graffiti, I like to do my graffiti for me, and that’s pretty much it..that’s why my gallery work is different…but you can sell the style…

CB: We are talking about style, development of style. How would you describe yours?

S: I think Melón inspired me. I grew up with paint. My family, they are all painters, people going about their regular lives and also doing art. But it was a hobby. Then during University..I had a piece up called “Beautiful moment/woman (?)” and then I had an exhibition at Rainbow, and I was like, “You know what, I could…I could do this…” and then Melón came along and he inspired me with his cartoonish comics and that’s it. My style…I don’t know if I have a style. I like really up front solid lines. I love black and white. He inspired me to get away from doing black and white to doing color. And I went back to doing wood cuts, and I hadn’t done a wood cut in a while. I am excited about that piece! A skeleton in turquoise above Melón…

CB: The style to me, reminds me a lot of the engravings in Mexico, the pre-revolutionary stuff…

S: Yeah, that inspired me a lot. In my hometown, in Mexico, there is a really famous printer, Jose Guadelupe Posada, and that’s where the style of the skeletons came from. Maybe that’s my style!

M: Yeah, could be.

CB: So are you [to melon] from Chicago?

M: Grew up here, born and raise. And when I was 21, 22, I went into the service that’s how I ended up in Hawaii…

CB: Where did the name, “Melón” come from?

M: Oh, Melón is a name from a long time ago. I am Puerto Rican and Guatemalan and when I was a kid I couldn’t really say “Guatemalan” [instead] I would say “Watermelon” So some people thought that it was funny. So when my brother started doing graffiti, back in the late 80s, as soon as he started doing it, I fell in love with it.

CB: How old were you?

M: Oh man, I must have been 11 or 12 when I started. When I was 13 that’s when I got my name Melón. I had so many different names, and I kept bouncing around and was like “I don’t like it, I don’t like it.” Finally my brother was like, “Just write Melón!” Back then it was Melon. And I was like, oh yeah, Melon, exactly. It’s the shit! It just stayed with me.

CB: Where did “Sandia” come from?

S: When I was little they would make fun of me, saying, “Sandy, Sandia, Sandy.” Sandia is “watermelon” in Spanish and I would say “I’m not sandia! I’m not sandia!” and I just learned to embrace it, and I am Sandia. I guess. Its pretty cool that we are doing a show together because you know of the London Bridge song?

CB: London Bridge is Falling Down?

S: Yeah. There is a kinesthetic thing to it-movement- you hold hands…

M: And they have the same thing in Mexico!

CB: Can I take a picture of you guys doing that? {making the bridge with hands} Is that alright?

S: So the people, they go around in a like a chacha line, holding the shoulders instead of the waist and sing a song, “Melón y sandia…” and at the end it falls down, and whoever is in the middle has to choose a side, is it melon or is it sandia…

M: So the bridge is like, she is Sandia and I am Melón, and its like “Será Melón sera Sandia…”

CB: So like the same but different?

M: Yeah.

S: We had an idea of making it kind of political, are you Mexican or American, which side are you gonna pick? Because there is always that culture clash, am I Mexican? The [sense that] I am too American for the Mexicans and too Mexican for the Americans, but, we didn’t have time, so we just decided to have fun with it.

M: I think what it was is that with our work schedules, we both work full time jobs and trying to put that together…it was a lot of sleepless nights. Literally, just sleeping an hour or two and then going straight to work. 

CB: How long does it take to make one of your wood carvings?

S: I did the skeleton in one night. I ended up with cuts all over my hands. The next day my kids [at school] were like “You have boo-boos!” Yes I have lots of bo boos. But it was worth it. If I focus I am fast.

M: Yeah she is. I am slow.

S: He is very detail oriented, and sometimes I am like “Melón, move! Move! Move it!”

CB: There is something interesting in that yours [melon’s pieces] are so exacting and yours [sandia’s] have a sort of kinesthetic energy in the wood carving…

M: I think there is something really interesting to see how we were gonna make this look good. But I think we did a good job. I think one of my favorite pieces is one where we collaborated, we call it “City Bird” and it is a bird with a city inside of it and smoke coming out.

S: It was just a piece of wood, and I just found it on the street. I had taken a picture of a bird one day, and I thought, “Oh, this is a nice bird!” and I just drew the silhouette and it stayed on top of a dresser for a year or two. Then Melón came over one day and said “Oh we should do something with it,” and I said, “you can do whatever you want with it.” And he started painting it and I thought then we came together and I would say, “We could do this! Pshewwm Pshewwm Pshewwm!” And that we painted together. And that is a very cool piece.

M: Her words were “Let me interfere here,”

S: “Can I, Sandia-ize this?”

CB: What is your favorite piece form the show? [to Melon]

M: I think the one that I just put together, which is…

S: The Matador.

M: No, the Virgin Mary, or I don’t even know if it is the Virgin Mary or Guadelupe. I was looking at it, and it has the style of Guadelupe, but its got the sacred heart of Mary. And I was like “Wait, that doesn’t go together? Or should it?”

S: She is a virgin, period.

M: Yeah, she is a virgin, but I am fascinated with the Virgin Mary for some reason. I just think she is an interesting woman.

CB: In what way?

M: Well, one, she is a virgin. But also she is a powerful woman. People, she is an icon, and a lot of people look up to her. I don’t know anything about her, and I don’t know if I will ever be super religious but something about her is captivating…

CB: So I was just looking at the one, the woman in blue with the tiger, with no face…so what is the deal with [your pieces] not having faces?

M: Well, wow, at first it started with me trying to figure out how draw when you are a kid. You know how they teach you to do the face.

CB: Yeah, to do the proportions…

M: Yeah, the proportions. I felt like I was drawing and putting a face, and my ex wife asked me “Oh, who is that?” and I was like “no one in general.” And it dawned on me that if you put a face on a character automatically

S: It becomes somebody.

M: It becomes somebody. You are automatically categorizing somebody, that individual. I felt in that sense like not putting a face so that it could be anybody. And you also figure out…society bases a lot of beauty on a woman based on her looks, and I think that my fearless use of colors kind of adds to that beauty and I don’t need a to show that this woman is beautiful. Just look around her, and everything around her is beautiful. Some might call it soft, I call it being in touch with my feminine side I guess. But yeah. So and then after  a while it became my signature, and a lot of people recognize my work just based on that face.

S: I went to a street festival once, and a bunch of art stands, and I am just walking around, and was like “Wait a second, is that Melón?” because there was a painting with a character without a face and a cross and everything, and I called him immediately: “Hey, do you have a piece here?” and he said “No. I’ll be there in five!” Because it is trademarked right?

M: I did trademark a few of those drawings with the same exact face, now I am trying to get it more patented…

S: It wasn’t him, but the lady actually told him that she knew him and his work.

M: Yeah she said she knew and liked my work.

CB: That’s really interesting.

M: Yeah, I think it is always cool when you see somebody that does something similar to what you do. Similar but to me…some people might [have] the graffiti mentality and be like “that’s biter shit!” but you know, to me it is like, everything has been done or used in some way shape or form. So I think it is just influencing.  I think there is a saying that goes something like “Some great artists copy and better artists steal…” I don’t have it word for word but I think it is true. There are things that I say that I realized I can do it in my style and it develops…and every time you do a piece you see how it develops in the process and how is it going to turn out, and ask yourself how you will develop it. And you learn. So every time I do a piece I want it to be so that I learn from it.  I don’t want it just so that I paint it right away. I think learning from your pieces is always big, and my pieces are based on more emotion than any time of political…I think I use a lot of emotion, not only from myself but what I see that other people go through…that’s why I use a lot of hearts…

S: I think I am influenced a lot by immigration. I came to this country when I was 14. So I came here and I came with a visa but overstayed and was illegal, now I am legal…I thought “this is so unfair!“ So my pieces started showing that. [Also] domestic violence, Mexican American immigration, the celebration of death…in this country [death] is creepy, but it’s not. So I wanted to turn it around and show people that death is not sad, it should be celebrated….maybe that is just how I was raised. I had a kid, on Thursday, when we came to the carpet on Thursday to read a book, and he just started crying. Everyone is waiting for the book. And I ask “why are you crying” because he responded that--- it just dawned on him, they are six years old--- that “ I am really sad because I just foud out that we are all going to die. I am going to grow old , and , take pills and then die” and so that had an impact on me and I thought “I am glad I am doing this.” Even if he is not going to be here. It is the …showing people, “don’t be afraid…its ok…live a good life…and this is what you are going to look like.”

CB: Anything else that you all want to talk about?

S: The medium. I like that he uses a lot of acrylic and the coating the transparent coating. I like trying all kinds; I have drawings, I have wood cuts, I have acrylics, I have an oil painting….charcoal with markers and pencil…I like trying out different stuff…sculpture, there is a little tiny sculpture.

CB: How long does the show run?

M: A month or so.

CB: Cool, I will try to get this out before. Thank you.