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Going indoors

4 February, 2009

As the young Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude overlooked the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a tag was described in narration as being ‘a reply, a call to those who heard, like a dog’s bark understood across fences’. Set on the Heights Promenade in The Fortress of Solitude, a sentence from that chapter still lingers with me years after having read it: ‘Under oblivious eyes, the invisible autographed the world.’ It was through this monumental saga by Jonathan Lethem that I first began to understand street art and the multifaceted history that has brought it off streets and into galleries today. In a plot spanning generations in Brooklyn’s Gowanus projects between the 1970s and 90s, the Solitude‘s story was one painted by graffiti as representation of cultural identity, musical heritage and gentrification. Tags representing names were the artists’ signatures sprayed on the sides of  buildings and trains, to be displayed to the world en route to the next destination. A fine line running through the graffiti underground defined the segmented yet not entirely separate areas of self-expression, vandalism, and street culture that were so richly diversified by an impoverished creative youth and their livelihoods often stereotyped by gangs and crime. Yet since its very inception, the cryptic messages alluding to the characters bearing credit for colourful blurbs and stencilled imagery were just as much a mark of their own brands as it was their ideas.

The cover of the Faber edition of the Solitude pays homage to the tags within: ‘DOSE’ etched in black, sprawling in its myriad ways. Anyone from Gowanus would have known that it was the work of Mingus Rude. And Dylan Ebdus’ as well, although he himself had no ‘name’ of his own, and therein lay the metaphor of his personal conflict. Since before the time of Christ, the etches and inscriptions on surfaces (‘to scratch’ in Italian’s graffiare) served as signage to communicate messages for public consumption (initially believed to be that of prostitution). It’s interesting to think that even the current revival of graffiti in the Middle East, for example, can be drawn back to examples of proto-Arabic Safaitic in the Arabian peninsula region in prehistoric times. But ‘modern’ graffiti as we understand it today began to take its overt shape in the late 60s on the streets of cities such as London (‘Clapton is God‘), Philadelphia and New York. Implemented by music-lovers, activist ideologues and groups protective of their urban territories, New York City came to the fore as a graffiti centre in the 1970s, where the use of tags as ‘bombs’ was introduced onto the subway network, and the mirroring of a growing hip-hop music scene in both competitive quality and source of inspiration was undeniable. It’s this street sub-culture with its off-shoot terminology and music that’s conjured the names of Lethem’s characters (Bob Dylan and Charles Mingus) and the likes of Bomb the System.

Written by Adam Bhala Lougha, the award-nominated film features a group of New York graffiti artists and coincidentally enough, a fantastic score composed by alternative hip-hop artist El-P. But it took until halfway through the 1980s for street art to go indoors and formally enter the art world. The very foundation of the United Graffiti Artists in 1972 served the eventual purpose of drawing artists into a gallery environment that would spotlight their work with a respect often lacking in its habitual haunts of the urban built environment. Neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was the graffiti artist formerly known as ‘SAMO’ (Same Old Shit) whose work bore the ‘wildstyle’ combo of hip-hop and spray-paint. Graffiti artist John Fekner was said to have demonstrated the plight of New York’s deteriorating standards in urban living through ‘art interventions’ portraying many concerns towards the social and political welfare of the city’s inhabitants throughout the 80s. Fekner is well-known for these word installations underpinned by contemporary urban issues and stencilled on buildings throughout New York. And consequently, as city officials moved to drive forward ‘clean-up’ campaigns to rid the streets of what they viewed to be vandalism, graffiti became more commonplace in galleries overground.

It is this move that helped to continue the ‘culture jam’ of political and socio-economic subversion dominating as artists’ themes. While a debate raged on as to whether or not graffiti was ‘art’ in the first place, Basquiat and others like him exhibited in their own studios. A show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2006 has since paid tribute to such graffiti legends, and designer Marc Ecko has long been an advocate of graffiti as art. Increasingly popular in the commercial mainstream over the years, advertising has picked up on graffiti in tactical account planning to push product hype: IBM launched a campaign in 2001 which saw the spraying of sidewalks in San Francisco with tags such as ‘Peace, Love and Linux’. Last year, Youdoodoll founder Sarah Lu launched a ‘paint-off’ in association with Pepe Jeans, stencilling some colour onto Portobello Road’s façade. And of course who can forget Obey Giant’s Shepard Fairey (headline photo) and his iconic posters for Barack Obama? Widening acclaim for his cross-hatched propaganda and street art has landed him at the Irvine Contemporary with Regime Change Starts at Home, and Manifest Hope over at the DC Gallery. Fairey has also collaborated with Syd Garon and Paul Griswold on N.A.S.A.’s debut promo for the track ‘Money’ — once more seeing the meld of hip-hop, street art and bold political statement.

The current exhibition of subversion artist Brad Downey over at StolenSpace‘s Dray Walk Gallery in East London is another fine example of street art being contained within the confines of a gallery setting. Titled An Honest Thief and running until 8th February as his first solo show in the capitol, Downey presents visual challenges to urban archetypes through the mangling of street signs and riddling of traffic markers (photo above). His concoctions of ‘found art’ in the urban spaces of Atlanta, New York, London and Berlin are founded upon his being a member of a family within which his upbringing inextricably bound him to the US Marine Corps’ itinerant lifestyle. As such, Downey’s understanding of varied systems of regulation endemic to geopolitical landscapes is one of the reasons why he is so fine-tuned in producing provocative displays of de-regulation in the public setting. Currently a lecturer on ‘unsanctioned public artwork’ (himself a graduate of the Slade School and Pratt Institute), his understanding of urban art within a framework of social context is translated into his assembled pieces. By removing the facets of mundane objects succumbed to the status quo, he re-interprets them only to then put them back in — infusing re-instalment with a new-found sense of meaning still relevant to their initial metropolitan situations set out by political city officials and ‘official’ urban planners.

Another exhibit I’ve visited (although almost exactly a year ago to date) was an Urban Angel retrospective in East London. The primary grassroots urban art dealer comprised of a small group of private collectors and affiliated artists diversified in the creative styles of stencilling, urban sculpture and contemporary street art is set firmly amongst my favourite of creative London rosters today. With the work of street artist PURE EVIL‘s Charley Edwards and his vampire bunnies featuring last year with pieces such as the pink-sprayed ‘FUCK ART LETS DANCE’ and infamous ‘LIVE EAST DIE YOUNG’, the space presented many more examples of graffiti artistry. Edwards, influenced by San Francisco’s skateboard culture and graffiti artist Twist, launched a spray-campaign in London to examine what he states as being the question of the ‘big picture’: ‘What does evil look like?’ The  positive reception it received is certainly far from surprising: February 2008 saw the industry puritan Bonhams‘ first auction dedicated to urban art, further anchoring the style in commercial mainstream. Having newly opened its permanent Art Lounge space on Redchurch Street this past December, the show titled XXI is previewing tomorrow by invitation and will run throughout the month with original features from artists such as Copyright, Derek Albeck, Dotmasters, Inkie, Know Hope and Zeus (of the distressed Chanel graffiti given mention here a while back).

And bidding us return back to New York is yet another specimen of London graffiti via the world-trekking Banksy. Obviously not needing any more formal introduction, Banksy exhibitions taking place since 2000 and his recent selling of works at auctions for unprecedented sums in the urban art world is news buzzing regularly through today’s media circuit. He is, of course, one of the most recognizable icons in the graffiti street art movement; and with a reputation that precedes him, he’s acquired fame despite his adamantly maintaining pseudonymity. In October last year, Banksy’s comical ‘Village Petstore and Charcoal Grill‘ sprang up in New York’s West Village (see video below), taking his incredibly intelligent style of satire to even higher levels. The tongue-in-cheek guerilla installation, as filmed by the talented filmmaker Seth Brau, pokes fun at everything from consumer culture and fast-food, to surveillance society and its own self-deprecation. The animatronics involved so greatly departs from anything else seen on street art’s urban horizon that it nearly inadvertently demonstrates the great diversity and potential in street art as an artform in its having done so.

And so it is in the midst of all such irony that it appears the artworld’s institutionalized industry of traditional, ‘un-street’ setting most famously adorns the greatest visual impacts of artists whose autographs are no longer invisible — and whose audience is not so oblivious after all… Filmed and edited by Seth Brau. Music title ‘Barefootin” by Daniel Holter and Kyle White of the Burst Collective. Courtesy of Burst Labs and Extreme Music (Sony/ATV).

Sarah Badr © MMIX

See also: Street value (pieces at random)

Warhol v Banksy (pieces at random)

My playground (pieces at random)

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