Tuesday, December 2, 2014

MOS Chicago 2014: Interview with Bel

What follows is a transcript of my interview with Bel, a female writer from Chicago, whom I met at the opening party at what is now 15th Street Gallery. Insightful about the dynamics of opening graffiti up to a broader public being in tension with the pleasure of its underground practice, she offers her opinions on graffiti's present, and future. Thanks again to Bel for her words.

CB: We are at MOS Chicago 2014 over at the Crawford Wall and I am with Bel and we are going to talk about her art. So, could we start, if you could just give me a brief background about how you got involved with graffiti?
Bel: Well, when I was younger, my brother he had a dictionary that he used to write on, and it was just hand styles, it wasn't letters--well, letters, but not wildstyle or anything like that, just tags. And my dad used to get real mad at him, and was like 'Don't write like that! That's just gang-banger writing.' And, it just-- I was intrigued! I really liked the letters and was like "What's so wrong with writing in this way?" So then, the more interested I got, I started messing around with my own stuff, my own letters, and it just started growing from there, it started building more into...and I didn't really know what graffiti was. I hadn't really seen it, I wasn't around it or nothing like that, but I knew that I just was fascinated with letter structure and what you can do with it. So since then I started just sketching and drawing and I got introduced to the whole graffiti scene and it just blew me away, you know? I just wanted to be a part of that.
CB: How many years has it been since you started doing graffiti?
B: I want to say that its been like 13 years or so, but a lot of those years, my beginning years, were just on paper, because I wasn't around the graff scene and I didn't know many writers, so it was just a lot of sketching, or what not. And then I started painting more in 1999, that's when I started doing more spraypaint, or what not. Luckily I have been able to participate in MOS.
CB: I saw you piece, and it has, you know, like heavy letters, very solid, very Chicago, but I want to hear a little bit from you how you define your style and also what some of your influences are. 
B: My style?
CB: Or describe, since 'define,' may seem kind of limited.
B: Well, I don't know. I just, I feel like I am still trying to work on a style. I don't feel like I have a solid style yet. I feel like with every piece that I do I am just learning more and more on how, or what other levels I can reach. Or how else I can work this letter and create this other style that I am looking for. So I feel that I am still just learning. I am still trying to figure that out. But, influences, it is just Chi Town's graff, man. Everything that I have seen, riding the trains, just looking at the colors and seeing how so many other people can work a 'B' in so many other different ways and there is no wrong way, you know? So I want to put my way in that whole mix. So, it is Chi Town's graff, It has always been a huge influence.I love seeing it. I love seeing what people are doing, and the colors, it's awesome!
CB: So there arent that many female writers, and you probably get this question a lot, but can you talk about the experience of being a woman writer in Chicago? Has it been challenging in any way? I dont know.
B: For me its been a good experience. I've had a lot of support and what not. But there isn't a lot of female writers in Chicago. We do have a nice handful, but I would love to see way more. And actually, I have been seeing a lot more girls starting to get in. I love seeing that. But just being a girl in Chicago and getting up, you really have to put your work in, and by work its like, you know, fucking painting or busting tags, or whatever it is, getting up. You've got to do it. But I think that's whats going to define you whether you are a girl or not. That is going to show how much of a writer you are and that applies towards a girl. So even if its a girl, and she's not getting up-- it doesn't matter if you are a girl. Are you getting up? That's the whole definition of the graff scene.
CB: That really leads nicely into my next question. How do you define graffiti and what does it mean to you.
B: Its just, painting and getting up and its just a passion of mine. Its not even a hobby, its what I do. I can't even go on the train without carrying anything on me and busting a tag or a scribe. It really is. As cliche as I think it sounds, its a lifestyle, they say. But it really is. I can't go anywhere without having gear on me, and its like, that's because its in me. I love that shit. I can't not do it. And even when I'm out with other people, and they are just looking at me and I'm feeling guilty, you know? I can't not do it. Its what I do. I love it. It really is a lifestyle. You either like it, or you don't, you are either into it, or your not, but when you are into it its gotta be in you and you've gotta being doing it all the time, no matter what.
CB: So how many Meeting of Styles have you painted at?
B: Six, seven.
CB: Have you noticed any changes in the Meeting over the years that you have been participating?
B: Just the styles developing and meeting more and more new people: out of towners. Seeing the whole unity and how more people, and even more families are coming out more and appreciating that art form a lot more. Whereas before [it is seen as] graffiti, vandalism, but no, actually, now you see families bringing their kids, exposing them, asking questions, or saying "Where can I take my kid to learn how to do this?" Whereas before its like "You can't do that!" You know? And, I love it. I teach graff on the side after school and I love to see that there are still kids interested in doing that. I have just seen it develop in so many ways, its awesome. So, the artist development and the community learning to appreciate it a little more and taking advantage of it, you know?
CB: You've answered this a little bit, but I am going to ask as a more explicit question. What role do you think Meeting of Styles plays for the Chicago graffitic community?
B: Well, I don't know. I think, to me, its where, it creates this unity all at once. We are all out, painting. The same days. We are all here, supporting each other. And yeah, there is always beef, but, just having the atmosphere and creating that all together it is amazing, it is good, especially in Chicago, you don't have a lot of unity in Chicago. It's crazy, you know? So, its nice to see that everyone can come out, and paint, and produce these awesome productions and give props to one another, you know? Flowing those vibes, I think is amazing. Meeting of styles over here, it was real chill for me because I ended up paintong on the international side [wall of style at 30th and kedzie] um, so I wasn't really around all my homies, but it was still cool to be able to bond with them [international writers] that atmosphere itself was created because of MOS. Otherwise, that probably wouldn'tve happened, but, its nice, it brings everyone together in a way. Yeah.
CB: Do you think graffiti can fulfill a kind of social need, or help different communities beyond, you know, just graffiti writers? I guess another way to ask it is: Does graffiti's purpose exceed just the pleasure of doing it, just the pleasure of writing?
B: Yeah, um, well now I see a lot of communities are incorporating graffiti into everything. It has just grown so much from what it used to be. Before it was so not wanted, and now everybody wants it, you know? 
Bel, in progress, MOS Chicago 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce

CB: Does that concern you at all?
B: It does a little. Just because its not so, so...such a nice little private thing, you know? And that's what graff is. Its more secretive. You don't want to be out loud everywhere. That's my only thing about it, {MOS}, you are kind of taking it out and giving it to everybody! Like here, but then, I look at the sides where you are getting all this youth into it, and they are participating in these programs and they are wanting to learn and actually do more with it. Which I think, actually is amazing, and I am all for that, and if graff is the way to do that, why not do it, you know? And if it means they are gonna be here practicing an art form instead of busting out on a corner, that's, hey, I am all for that. But a little part of me is just like aahhh. I teach it on the side, but I don't give it all away! I teach them about color, letter structure, color theory, but I am not going to tell them "Go bust tags because the more you get up, the better you are!" you know? 
CB: That's really funny. That's awesome.
B: You know, right?  But you still want to keep it into your own little thing.
CB: Yeah I love the analogy of holding it close or opening it up.
B: Yeah, you just want to hold it, and that's what is kind of happening.
CB: I noticed more people not from the neighborhood, not from the graffiti world coming and checking it out
B: Yeah, yes. And, I love it, I think that's awesome. Because it is opening their eyes to a whole different art form that is really amazing. Can control is something that really can be pretty hard to achieve and for these guys to whip out these amazing pieces, like, it just requires so much skill. Because of the other side of graffiti people [general population] just turn away. But its nice to see that change.
CB: What do you see as graffiti's future.
B: I think that is just going to keep evolving into all sorts of forms, just because the way the world in general is going, its just going to take graff with it too. Its going to be crazier, pieces are just going to keep getting wilder, colors are just going to keep getting crazier. And they are always coming out with different colored tones too so that is just going to get more wild, I can only imagine. Its just going to be crazy, I think. And probably even with technology, I am sure that will play a part in it as well. Its going to be pretty crazy, man.
CB: But you sound pretty excited about it.
B: Well...I think its going to be crazy but I don't know if I am looking forward to that much. I still like the whole character, bonding, you and the wall, so, but I am excited to see more pieces evolve more and more. I always enjoy seeing that, whate everyone is taking it up to. So that's cool.
CB: How do you record your work?
B: As far as my graff goes, its just pictures, really. I am pretty bad at documenting my work, I really am. It is pretty much the internet and people that take pictures, or me myself taking pictures, but I need to get better at that because I need to start documenting a lot of my work.
CB:: How do you react when your work gets gone over?
B: I don't mind it. Its the cycle. Its what happens. So, your piece rocks, thats why you've gotta make sure its rocking. So, when its time to go over it then you'll see the next piece, and that will be a whole new session, so I don't mind it, its a part of what happens. You paint the wall, its eventually going to get painted over.
CB: Anything else you want to say that I haven't given you a chance to talk about?
B: Um, nah man, thank you.

CB: Thank you!

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