After reading my joint review of Stations of the Elevated and Style Wars, Tony, a longtime friend of mine, asked me a very good question (I bet you thought I forgot about it!). After assuring me that he understood my stance on graffiti and street art, and the importance of various artistic modes of expression, he asked where we should draw the line between self-expression and vandalism. This question actually made me pause, because I didn’t have a good answer that didn’t make me sound like an anarchist trying to overthrow the government or a complete hippie who believed that we should just do what makes us happy, man.

With illicit forms of self-expression, it’s hard to logically explain why I’m such a proponent when clearly it’s both illegal and will need to be removed at the taxpayer’s/owner’s expense. Especially now, as I am training to be a conservator (and taking a masonry conservation/architectural restoration course), I find it more and more difficult to justify my passion for an inherently illegal and aesthetically damaging mode of expression to my colleagues.

Growing up in New York City, I was exposed to both murals and graffiti. However, as a child, it never occurred to me that the artists who created these beautiful works had never gotten permission to paint on the walls that they covered. Even then, I abhorred toys and tags, thinking that they were childish attempts at self-glorification. When I first started this blog, I wanted to draw a line between street art and graffiti and stay as far away from the subject of graffiti as possible, instead sticking with the works resulting from the street art scene (hence the name of this blog), as these were the more “acceptable” and usually more “artistic” form of guerrilla art.

But, as I started researching the roots that street art had in graffiti, my understanding of graffiti’s history and culture evolved, and so did my acceptance. Not only did I come to accept and appreciate graffiti as a valid form of urban expression, I came to look for it in my own life and love its presence as well. The truth is that my dialectic has been based on a constantly evolving personal opinion about the importance and significance of how these guerilla acts of expression affect our urban visual landscape. Now, I want to differentiate between graffiti artists (those who create elaborate burners) and tagger/toys writers (who typically practice aerosol scrawl), even though I feel that their presence is still a significant mark upon the urban visual landscape (even if for the sheer reason of “brand name” recognition), I think that it is no more than a self-absorbed indulgence by disenfranchised or egotistical youth rather than artistic expression. So I suppose that tagging and sticker slapping is now where I draw the line in terms of urban guerilla modes of expression that I am not a proponent of.

So, even though my opinion is constantly evolving the more I learn and am exposed to, I think that ultimately taggers and sticker slappers must learn some form of restraint. Gone are the days of “more is better” and the irony of being a ubiquitous brand name is dated. Now, graffiti artists are experiencing the pressure of being just that: artists. But as we push for legality as a means of justification for illicit forms of self-expression, a different question is raised, which is that of legitimacy. Does taking the illicit out of an inherently illicit form of urban artistic expression affect the authenticity of the artwork?

Artists like Swoon, who work with inherently ephemeral materials face less controversy and public animosity specifically because the works they put up are made of ephemeral materials. As I have written previously, Swoon’s prints can most frequently be found in the forgotten corners of otherwise obvious public spaces. She does not consider what she is doing illegal, and instead pastes her prints up unabashedly, sometimes in the middle of the day, which allows passersby to interact with her as she is hanging them. In spite of this impermanent aspect of her work, is it classified under the same category as permanent defacement of property and is still considered as illegal as art made with more permanent materials, such as aerosol spray or markers. Even street artists who work with less ephemeral materials, face less scrutiny than graffiti artists, if simply because what they do oftentimes just seems more artistic. This degree of acceptance is less felt towards graffiti artists, even if what they put up are artistic burners (which do require a lot of skill). This could be because of the remaining anti-graffiti sentiment resulting from the late 1980s, when former NYC mayor Ed Koch argued the Broken Window Theory in order to promote stricter anti-graffiti laws.

When UK artist Hush was in New York City during his weekend debut exhibition “Found” at the Angel Orensanz Foundation back in November, I ran into him by way of crazy random happenstance as I was out and about searching for some of the other work he had put up on buildings around downtown Manhattan (seriously, it’s a good story, you should ask me about it sometime). Once introduced, we got to chatting for about half an hour about his experiences and the whirlwind time he was having in NYC while I desperately tried to repress my desire to hop around squealing like a fan-girl. When we started talking about the issue of authenticity and whether showing in a gallery would de-legitimize his work, Hush said, “people ask me that all the time. I don’t think that it needs to be criminal to be authentic. Sometimes I’ll feel naughty and pull out a pen and tag something up, but I rarely do anything illegal. I’m not a criminal. It’s not like I ruin property- I revitalize areas that are already ignored and wrecked.” And indeed, Hush had gotten permission from the three locations that he had put up his work up outside the gallery.

And his is a sentiment I can get behind. I think to justify an inherently illegal act, it is the first instinct of the connoisseur to frame these works and put them into a gallery or cut them from the wall and auction them to the highest bidder. Many argue that removing a form of expression so closely tied with the urban environment and putting it into a stark white setting undermines the legitimacy of the piece by destroying its context. However, like Hush, I do not believe that this is the case. In recent years, as graffiti has started to become recognized as a legitimate form of artistic expression, and as street art (as I mentioned before, the “third generation graffiti”) has coming into prominence, it is more common for artists to seek permission, take part in legal exhibitions, or show their work in galleries. Even public opinion has started to ease up somewhat in regards to this form of expression.

I have previously written about the revitalization of third spaces (areas clearly owned but otherwise unkempt), the rationale of making art available everywhere everyday to everyone, and the importance of reclaiming the urban landscape from the corporate machine. Permission is sometimes obtained for murals and more complex and artistic-looking graffiti. However, whether due to the aversion of the public to accept graffiti as an authentic means of artistic expression or to the aversion of grafiteros to find legal alternatives or the futility of attempting to separate urban art from the urban situation that it usually arises out of in the first place, permission is not usually granted or even asked for.

Once it is understood that legality is necessary to legitimize this body of work, the main concern becomes authenticity. After all, separating these pieces from the environments that spawned them and putting them into sterile environments that may destroy the intent of the work becomes a worry. However there is another alternative available for consideration. In fact, I think that a true solution for both these issues can come from grafiteros asking permission to practice their craft as well as through the generation of legal projects and creation of more legal spaces to work on.

Legal walls and spaces have been around for as long as graffiti has been in existence, though it is important to check if the location is curated and requires a submission for consideration or only open to locals. Two very interesting sites have worked to document the legal wall spaces around the world and the USA. I have seen and experienced a variety of spaces, from mutually understood spaces for street art, such as Wooster Street, closed wall spaces, such as the 106 Street Wall of Kings, institutions showcasing multiple artists’ works, such as 5 Pointz and ABC No Rio, institutions that offer outdoor space to one artist at a time, such as Deitch and Woodward Gallery, and institutions that have exhibited the works of street artists in interior spaces, such as 112 Greene Street and Angel Orensanz Gallery (to name only a few of each!), as well as the host of privately and public owned walls that have proudly exhibited murals and artists’ works. Additionally, organizations such as No Longer Empty work to revitalize third spaces with artwork and make art available to a wider public by connecting owners of derelict spaces with artists. Each type of space has its pros and cons, but I think that it is important to have these types of spaces for artists and writers to exhibit their work on.

So in the end, I suppose the best argument I can come up with is that since graffiti is here anyway, why not embrace it and push for legal spots rather than relegating it to the rooftops and alley, or worse, the starkness of an institutionalized space? No matter what, I remain a proponent for the legitimization of this urban form of artistic expression and will continue writing in my own attempt to legitimize this form of urban outsider art as a well-received and widely-recognized form of artistic expression. Therefore, I strongly urge artists and writers to keep expressing their creativity, but to ask owners for permission or seek legal projects. By moving this form of urban expression to the light of day, we can work to legitimize this beautiful art together.

Over the past few months I’ve been focusing more and more on graffiti and stickering, and perhaps as a result have been seeing less and less street art. In fact, I had almost forgotten that street art is not just a form of artistic expression in response to the urban environment, but an act capable of generating interaction with the environment. More than that, this interaction can work to actively engage the public with not only their environment but each other, creating a greater sense of belonging within the community.

One night about a month and a half ago, I went to a Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Festival on the lower West Side with my good friend Max and his friend Dan. At the end of the night, sill merry from the copious amounts of booze we had imbibed and the flavorful meat we had devoured, we started our trek back to the train station. On the way there, I became distracted by a shuttered newsstand that was plastered with stickers, and my friends paused so that I could stop to take a look at who had gotten up (of course there were a few stickers courtesy of BNE). I was about to continue on when I noticed a white poster with two black handprints next to the stand.

Living Exercises wheatpaste at first glance

At first glance I thought it was a political statement about the treatment of black suspects apprehended by the police (there were, after all, two black handprint shoulder-width apart placed against a wall). Stepping forward, I could see the instructions “place your hand here” printed over one hand and “have stranger place hand here” over the other. Then, underneath both hands were the words “remove hand when no longer strangers.” In the lower corner, Living Exercises was cited as the creator of this project.

Now, it’s been a while since I’ve seen such an innovative and fascinating campaign on the streets of NYC, and this particular piece took me completely by surprise. Not only was it a completely wonderful idea, but (and I don’t meant to sound pretentious, I just mean to say that I spend quite a bit of time researching for this blog and I’m subscribed to a number of them myself) I had never heard of it before! I begged Dan to take some pictures with his phone, and immediately set to investigate this campaign when he sent them along. I quickly found the site of international installation and performance artist Ryan V. Brennan.

According to Brennan’s site, this particular series intends to “initiate public social interaction.” And indeed, theoretically, if the instructions are followed by two relatively agreeable parties, a new connection can be made in an otherwise vast sea of nameless faces. In a city where it’s pretty common for people to pass by each other with barely a glance, Brennan has created a series of personal and social experiments in the form of both performance and street art.

And, joy of joys, this isn’t the only project created by Brennan in his attempt to promote friendship and community! In fact, he’s created a whole book of “activities to be done alone, with friends, family, or strangers” in “hopes of facilitating introspective, cathartic, and enlightening experiences.”

Living Exercises, the book

There are quite a few activities to be found in each handmade book. One of my favorites to do with strangers is “Hold Hands with a Stranger,” and yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like. The initiator asks to hold hand with a stranger for one block, but continues to ask at the end of every block until refused. Although it can come off a bit creepy, I believe that this is a random act of affection can go a long way in improving someone’s mood (or at least give the recipient an interesting story to share with their real friends). However, “Ten Minute Communal Solitude and Silence” is definitely my favorite activity (and not just because it reminds me of the Depeshe Mode song “Enjoy the Silence”). The activity requires two people who know each other to lie together in silence for 10 minutes, then to make a sandwich together, cut it down the middle, and eat one of the halves each. I’m definitely an extroverted person, one likely to fill up silences with silly chatter consisting of random stories and sarcastic banter. With tendencies like these, it’s quite easy to forget that a comfortable silence between friends can be just that.

Living Exercises is described as “an ongoing project consisting of a hand-made book of written performance instructions and DVD documentation of the performances. The exercises are personal and social experiments designed to broaden ones perspective on various aspects of life. The exercises range from the ritualistic and the introspective, to ways of reinterpreting rules of social situations.” However, the link to buy the book is broken, unfortunately. Please check back, I know that Brennan is working on fixing it!

So, dear readers, it seems like I was a bit late with this one, as this book had been published in 2009 and the prints went up around NYC in the summer of 2010, catching the eye of many a New Yorker. But, thankfully some of these wheatpaste prints have endured and are still around to be enjoyed. In retrospect, I wish I had participated in this wonderful activity with Max’s friend Dan, who I barely knew. Then again, it was extremely cold, and we did bond over booze and bacon earlier that day. But, if you ever run into this, I strongly urge you to have some fun with it! And, hey, you never know, you might just make a new random friend!

Living Exercises: "Remove hands when no longer strangers"

A few weeks ago, I had written about the importance of knowing the roots of the graffiti movement in reference to some early films from the 1980s which had documented the start of graffiti in NYC. Usually once I write something, I get it out of my system (at least for a little while). However, despite my efforts to lay off the subject of graffiti and return to street art, my mind has kept wandering back to the topic of early graffiti and its development.

For this, I blame the 7 train. For those of you who aren’t native NYCers, or have never ridden that particular line, the 7 is an elevated train that runs through northern Queens. Not only does it pass the legendary graffiti mecca 5 Pointz (a warehouse located in Long Island City), but as I ride the 7 train every day through Corona, I see a lot of old-school graffiti styles, ranging from scrawled tags to latex rolling to stylized pieces. Maybe this is why I can’t stop thinking about the development of graffiti, the appeal of tagging, issues relating to destruction of property, and the implications of anonymity in graffiti (the last of which I will discuss in a future article). However, despite what is still exhibited along the 7 line, graffiti has evolved immensely since it first swept NYC in 1970. It no longer solely constitutes the idea of simply getting ones’ name out there (often termed “hitting,” “bombing,” or “tagging”), but has come to represent an entire genre of urban expression.

Graffiti along the 7 Line in 2009

In the 1970s, the name that started it all was TAKI 183. Almost overnight, his simple scrawl produced imitators across the five boroughs and gave birth to the first generation of modern graffiti in New York City. While not the first writer in NYC, TAKI 183 quickly became all-city due to his job as a messenger, and by the end of his short career had successfully hit stations in all five boroughs. By 1971, the New York Times had picked up on this burgeoning phenomenon with the article “TAKI 183 Spawns Pen Pals,” which brought the now widespread urban phenomenon of graffiti to the attention of the mainstream in a largely nonjudgmental manner.

Only a few short years after TAKI 183 began bombing the train stations, competitive creativity soon saw the development of stylized writing, including new lettering and design elements. By the 1980s, large, colorful, and stylized pieces (called “wildstyle,” “burners,” and later, “abstract graffiti”) with multiple creative design elements, such as clouds, arrows, perspective, and 3D lettering, had emerged onto the scene. If TAKI 183’s tagging were to be considered the start of the modern graffiti phenomenon, this development of stylized graffiti could be termed the second generation of graffiti. However the change was not only in the aesthetic stylings of the work but the mindset of the writers, who were less concerned with just getting their names out there to the general public than they were with creating complicated and intricate designs to gain respect and become known specifically within the graffiti-writing community.

Despite the respite caused by the sweeping laws and heavy penalties set in place by former NYC Mayor Ed Koch in the late 80s, graffiti and street art returned full force by the late 90s. Currently, we are in what I consider the third generation of graffiti, aptly and commonly termed “street art.” This term usually includes more of (but isn’t limited to) wheatpasting and stenciling. Oftentimes the focus is more on spreading ironic, playful, or socio-political messages or to utilize previously neglected elements of the public landscape with artistic intent.

(Here, it is important that we don’t mistake generation for a strictly linear development, because many graffiti writers to this day practice both multiple generation graffiti styles, depending on personal preference and purposes. Rather, it important to understand that the term generation is used merely as a chronological and developmental marker to distinguish these radically different methods of urban expression.)

Like TAKI 183, BNE is known simply for his moniker. BNE, who used to write graffiti, considers ubiquitous tagging to be part of the effectiveness of global ad campaigns. He has said that his competition is not other graffiti artists or taggers, but “the Tommy Hilfigers, Starbucks, Pepsi.” To contend with the legacy of corporate logos, BNE had long ago stopped spraying and started using stickers to aid him in his own campaign. (For more on BNE, check out this interview article from the New York Times in 2009)

Not only has the ease of sticker-slapping helped BNE to quickly and effectively disseminate his name on the street, but the uniformity of the print on a sticker has helped BNE create an easily recognizable logo, which is the point of his campaign. Using the font of Helvetica Nueu Condensed, BNE’s stickers are often misinterpreted as official intrusions into the visual landscape. And indeed, the argument can be made that they are using otherwise unutilized spaces to create visual stimulation.

While my thinking tends to be that it is nothing more than juvenile egomania that compels taggers to write their names over ever available surface, the argument can also be made that the way these bombers have created their own logos and saturate the landscape is just another way to rebel against the consumer culture. These days, we are so bombarded with visual stimulation that our eyes tend to slide from one image to another, whether it’s corporate or guerrilla. At the end of the day, they’re all just logos competing for our attention. The only real difference being that taggers aren’t trying to sell you something. So, if that is the case, why does it matter whose logo we’re seeing if it’s all visual pollution in the end?

Taggers and sticker-slappers like BNE are bringing graffiti back to the roots that TAKI 183 had originally intended because the idea behind first generation style graffiti was to be everywhere, and to be instantly recognized by your moniker. Can actions such as tagging, rolling, and sticker-slapping be considered art? I would say definitively that no: these forms of getting up usually so not constitute art the same way that company logos don’t constitute as art. Most first-generation graffiti is about proliferation of the name more than it is about style. Now don’t get me wrong, I sympathize with owners and managers of private property who have to deal with the shenanigans of those who decide their name is important enough to go anywhere and everywhere, whether it’s wanted or not (but isn’t that what legal ad campaigns do as well?) and I am by no means an advocate of tagging. However, both tagging and stickering definitely constitute a significant part of our urban visual landscape, which makes it worthy of mention here.

For those of you who haven’t heard (because your connection to the outside world has ceased due to the weather), we’ve experienced a number of substantial snowstorms here in New York City following the Christmas weekend and into the new year. Scratch that, our “substantial snowstorms” have actually been the first blizzards we’d been hit with in more than a decade. So how fitting was it that I had just presented my mom with a long hand-crocheted burgundy scarf for Christmas. Now, this scarf has had a long and interesting life following me across state lines over the past few years (even if it had been sitting untouched in my craft bag for the majority of this duration). See, I had learned to crochet from my friend and Hall Director Jenny a few years back when I was a Resident Assistant back in college. Once I got the hang of it, I went out to JoAnn’s Fabrics to pick up some nice yarn to make a scarf for my mom. I had decided to crochet the scarf lengthwise rather than the more conventional way of widthwise, so with seemingly little progress having been made about five rows in, and no end in sight, the project was relegated to my craft bag, not even half completed. It was not to be seen again until just a few months ago, when my best friend Christine took up her crochet needle again and inspired me to do the same.

This is me buying my first batch of yarn back in 2007. Go on, I figure you deserve a laugh for reading this :P

Textile production has long been associated with women and knitting and crocheting has long been associated with elderly ladies looking for a craft with which to occupy their time. I. Hate. This. Stereotype. Apparently, so do a lot of contemporary textile artists. Over the past few decades, textile art has been becoming more of a presence in the contemporary art scene, with focus shifting from function to the conceptual. I was first exposed to conceptual textile art during my internship with the Museum of Art and Design in 2007, during which an exhibition called Lace and Subversive Knitting was on display. It was then, as I listened to the curator explaining the purpose of the exhibition, that I learned that contemporary artists had appropriated the craft to create designs based on form rather than function. This new, unexpected type of art served as an act of subversion towards gender and age stereotypes regarding textile production and moved textiles out of the “crafts” category.

Wartime Knitting Circle DIY exhibit by Gschwandtner for Museum of Arts and Design 2007

It was probably around that time that I first started being exposed to the concept of yarn bombing, but I wouldn’t really know what I was seeing until years later (aka last year), when I started researching the various ways that artists affect our urban visual landscape. In about 2004, a new type of bombing had emerged on the city streets. This movement has almost as many names as there are groups dedicated to it. Whether you call it knit bombing, guerrilla knitting, yarn storming, urban knitting, or yarn bombing, there is little doubt that this colorful alternative to street art is as unique as those who practice it.

Les Fontaines Wallace, Paris after the Night of Street Art May 2009

Yarn bombing is a movement that is still not incredibly widely-known, and is not especially widely-practiced when compared to other methods that artists affect the urban visual landscape, such as sticker-slapping, wheat pasting, stenciling, or just spraying with the aerosol can. It is practiced with some sporadic enthusiasm in a few major cities in Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand with yarn bombers bringing the craft with them to new cities as they travel. As any of us who have ever crocheted, knitted, or cross-stitched can attest to, these are time-consuming projects. Often pieces are relegated to our craft bags, unfinished and forgotten. Even though the motion is repetitive, it takes time and some degree of skill to complete each piece, which could explain why this craft hasn’t taken off the same way aerosol art has.

Massive knit tree outside of the Cleveland City Hall 2008

Recently, yarn bombing has made it back onto my radar via Olek, a Polish-born yarn artist who wrapped Wall Street’s infamous Charging Bull with a crocheted body cover in the tail-end of December. This tribute celebrated the proud tradition of guerrilla art, as well as sculptor Arturo di Modica, who had placed the bull there in Christmas of 1989 as a symbol of the strength and power of the American people following the stock market crash that year. Olek has also done a series of crocheted bicycles around the city, which I’m sure you’ve passed by at some point or another.

NYC Wall Street's Charging Bull Covered by Olek in 2010

Many of those who participate in yarn bombing are fascinated with the juxtaposition of a traditionally feminine media in a predominately male graffiti scene. Magda Sayeg, founder of the group Knitta Please, is fascinated with the juxtaposition of this woven material placed within an urban environment as one that questions the assumptions of a traditional craft while adding a previously unused material to the world of street art. Not only has this subversive use of yarn added color to the urban visual landscape, but it has inspired a new generation of knitters who no longer view function as the sole purpose for knitting. Yarn bombing has challenged audiences to reevaluate gender and age stereotypes, as well as given us a bit of a laugh while asking us to reconsider the age-old question of what can be considered art. Not only that, but it’s a great way to recycle and use those unfinished and forgotten pieces in your craft bag!

Baltimore DIY agrees that yarn bombing is the best way to recycle knitting projects (2009)

The phrasing and the act of yarn bombing have proved unsettling to some graffiti writers, who don’t consider this unconventional method a legitimate movement in street art. But why not? After all, even wheatpasting, though it first met a degree of adversity and resistance from traditional aerosol writers, has become widely accepted in the realm of urban guerilla artfare. Perhaps they are unsettled by the encroachment into their own environment by a group of outsiders who themselves are not accepting of the roots of street art. What do I mean? Well, urban knitters haven’t been trying to find and establish their place in street art so much as they’ve been trying to make a statement. By haughtily pointing out that what they’re doing is more than “crude symbols” they themselves are not only perpetuating the misconception of graffiti, but also antagonizing graffiti writers and artists by minimalizing their craft. And when the desired effect is the same: to leave their mark and add some color, why squabble over the medium?

Bomb the world either way with these yarn covered spray cans!

...Or spray yarn (Knit the City, 2009)

Anyway, the targets of yarn bombers are more often statues, gates, handles, trees, and poles rather than the walls, rooftops, and billboards favored by aerosol writers and wheatpasters. However, what graffiti and knitting have in common is that they’re both considered forms of outsider art. Traditionally recognized as a craft, knitting has struggled to take its place in the realm of contemporary art over the past few decades. Similarly, graffiti is traditionally considered a gang activity, or a form of destruction. It is only within the past decade that it has become more widely accepted as an expressive form of art. While I am uncertain as to whether or not yarn bombing has the capacity to develop into a complex, expressive, and widespread form of street art, I do love that it’s a hacking the environment, often with the intent to create humor, add color, and bring elements of the environment to the attention of passersby.

London Telephone Booth by Deadly Knitshade (Knit the City)

For some more information on the latest in yarn bombing news and events, visit Yarn Bombing, based in Vancouver, or Knit the City, based in London. These are only two of the many groups out there, but I felt they were worthy of a mention because both’ve also just released really nifty books that provide patterns and suggestions to get into the art of yarn bombing, as well as a sampling of projects undertaken by the organizations. All in all, I think that yarn bombing is a fun and legal way to affect our urban visual landscape, so if you know how to knit or crochet, why not make some gloves for that George Washington sculpture in Union Square, or some leg warmers for his horse? Why not cover that turnstyle at the subway station? Go out and have some fun with it!

Even a cop helps stitch up a tree in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 2010

Trainyard still from Style Wars

Like most people, I had always thought that Style Wars, a documentary film about the hip-hop culture of the early 1980s, first aired on PBS in 1983, was the first to deal with the graffiti scene in New York City. But, also like most people, I hadn’t heard about the movie Stations of the Elevated, released in 1981. Stations of the Elevated is a independent film produced, directed, edited, and photographed by Manfred (Manny) Kirchheimer. Presented by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1981, it’s set to the music of legendary New York-based experimental jazz musician Charles Mingus and the sounds of urbana (such as the shrill screech of the trains, horns blaring in traffic, police car sirens wailing, and the indistinguishable sound of crowds) lend itself to the authenticity of the work.

Elevated bombed train stopped still from Stations of the Elevated

This was perhaps one of the first cohesive attempts to document the phenomenon of graffitied trains in New York City and present it as a cultural phenomenon rather than an act of vandalism. Because there is no commentary, it tries to create a narrative about the urban environment using the elements of the urban visual landscape as brief respites from the monotony of everyday city life. Footage of painted trains rolling along the elevated lines are interspersed with shots of Technicolor billboards and stern brick facades inherent in the corporate landscape, as well as the decaying urban neighborhoods and ghettos that spawned the youngsters who partook in the movement. Stations of the Elevated attempts to give its viewers the experience of living and moving through New York City by relating sights and sounds that are common to its urban setting. The images, experiences, and juxtapositions that tend to stay with viewers at the end of the film are the same that those that would remain at the end of the day walking about town.

Heaven is Life train still from Stations of the Elevated

Earth is Hell train still from Stations of the Elevated

Because it was never widely released, Stations of the Elevated is incredibly difficult to get a hold of, especially in its entirety. Despite my extensive combing of the internet, I’ve only been able to download a 27 minute version of it, and if you do as well, I strongly advise that you DO NOT watch it because it’s a total hack job (as in, it features very abrupt cutaways) and a pain to get through because of it. Rather, watch it streaming in five parts starting here. Although I tend to abhor watching streaming movies, especially in parts, Stations of the Elevated is definitely one worth seeing, especially if you want to experience New York City in the early 1980s.

Crime train still from Stations of the Elevated

Style Wars was a documentary film co-produced and directed by Tony Silver, and co-produced by Henry Chalfant, who provided the background research as well as photo-documentation throughout the movie. It’s almost as if Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant wanted to expand on the idea of Stations of the Elevated. In actuality, Chalfant had been taking pictures for three years and had probably not known about its development. Rather than presenting assumptions and drawing conclusions about the spawning of a new expressive art out of urban decay, Silver and Chalfant worked to present graffiti as the controversial form of expression that it is, providing viewpoints from all sides, including then New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Head of MTA Richard Ravitch, various MTA personnel, parents, random citizens, conventional artists, art collectors, as well as the graffiti writers and graffiti artists themselves.

Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch looking at graffiti proof still from Style Wars

Style Wars works to introduce its audience to the entire blossoming hip-hop culture of the early 1980s, not only graffiti. If graffiti was chosen means of written communication, then rap was a new means of verbal communication, and break dancing served as the new means of body language. Style Wars moves seamlessly between these the branches of the hip hop movement, and documents them as a new method of communication developed by the youth population to communicate with each other.

Convening at the writer's bench still from Style Wars

Much like Stations of the Elevated, Style Wars opens in a train yard under the cover of darkness (much like graffiti). Poetically, an elevated train passes under a lone street lamp, first at a distance, then closer, illuminating some indistinguishable markings on the side. However, instead of jazz, Style Wars opens the movie with a Wagner orchestral composition which had been made popular by the movie Excalibur, released only a few years before. This choice is a rather poignant one (that may not be appreciated as much by the film’s younger audience), as the composition was one that could be associated with glorified action and adventure. And admittedly, glory and adventure were the two objects of the graffiti game in the 1980s. Then, in the full light of day, tagged-up trains burst forth into the full and the music cuts to hip hop.

Streetlight spotlight on bombed train still from Style Wars

There is no doubt that Style Wars is a well-made film. It is both informative and appealing, both graphically and audibly. It is also exciting, following graffiti writers into underground tunnels and into train yards. The film follows and features interviews and works from graffiti writers and artists such as Iz the Wiz, Seen, Zephyr, Skeme, Mare, Case, Doze, Mean Dez, Duster, Dondi, Min, Case, among others, and perhaps most controversial, Cap (a toy tag bomber). Additionally, Style Wars comments on the importance of knowing the roots of graffiti writing (Taki 183) and predicts the future of the movement and its appeal to the art world. Not only does the film explain the incredibly diametrically opposed philosophies of the government and the graffiti artists and writers, but also the difference of opinions between those who consider themselves graffiti artist and those who write/bomb/tag. This dynamic documentary draws the viewer into the tensions that exist between the differing viewpoints exhibited in the films, creating a plot worthy of any feature length film.

Going into the tunnels still from Style Wars

Dondi painting a train in the yards still from Style Wars

Perhaps among the most poignant of questions the viewer might have once they’ve watched these two awesomely engrossing films is “why did it take so long for the next graffiti/street art documentary to be produced?” Over the next 20 years maybe only half a dozen mainstream feature-length films based loosely on graffiti writers or crews have been made, and it wasn’t until 2005 that appreciation for graffiti and the documentation of the movement was renewed in full force. In fact, in 2005, no less than six graffiti documentaries were released, including Infamy, NEXT: A Primer on Urban Painting, Piece by Piece, Rash: Scratch it and it Spreads, Friendly Fire, and the Stolkholm Subway Stories.

Writers admiring handywork still from Style Wars

However, it is no coincidence that over a generation had to pass before the retrospective importance of the roots of the graffiti movement, now global, could be realized. Even after numerous government counter-measures attempted to stifle the creative expression of the first generation of graffiti writers out of Northeast America, the movement nevertheless spread throughout America and the rest of the world. Since the 2000s, a new generation of graffiti artists and street artists, inspired by the urban visual landscape of the 1980s (especially that of NYC), have taken up the mantle and are continuing the self-expressive tradition of graffiti in the urban setting, and the importance of the movement is being recognized by the main stream contemporary art world. In fact, Kirchheimer returned to broach the subject of New York City graffiti in his 2007 documentary Spraymasters, which featured Lee Quiñones, Zephyr, Lady Pink, and Futura, who reflect on their own youthful adventures, their development, this new generation of writers and artists, as well as the world-wide interest in the graffiti and street art movement.

Seen just a kid growing up still from Style Wars

An interview with Stations of the Elevated’s Manny Kirchheimmer can be found here and an interview with Style Wars’ Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant can be found here as well as in the extra features of Style Wars. Check out my featured films page for more documentaries and films about graffiti and street art.

Police in bombed train still from Style Wars

One of my most memorable experiences with public art was a mural, a regular fixture on my bus route throughout my middle school years. It depicted a pleasant rural spring scene with plenty of cherry blossom trees on two sides of a deli shop on the corner of busy intersection in Bayside, Queens. Passing by a few years later, a different mural depicting a slightly abstracted Asianic nighttime landscape had been painted on the wall. Now, nearly a decade after I first passed the shop, the only reminder of the murals are visible on two adjacent wall facing the parking lot and is partially obscured by dumpsters. Side by side, one slightly more outcropped than the other, one wall projects the nighttime landscape and the other depicts the spring landscape. Although these two scenes might seem strangely juxtaposed, because I’ve witnessed both incarnations of the wall space, these side-by-side designs make sense to me. The larger main wall on which the murals had been painted has been covered with an ugly thick coat of brick-red paint. Some areas have been torn out, as if someone was looking for some reminder of the murals underneath. Even today, whenever I pass by the wall that had twice been so beautifully covered, I wince at the mass of brick-red paint, and suppress an urge to jump off the bus and tear off the paint. Instead, I ride on by and fondly remember how I enjoyed looking at the serene cherry blossom landscape on my way to school in the morning.

I mean this anecdote to highlight how, like public art, street art is not only an ephemeral process, but one that affects us more deeply than we can immediately understand. I had once read a comment on a BBC article that because of the presence of street art on his block, one person didn’t “feel lonely” walking down the dark streets of Brooklyn. You know, I had never really thought of it consciously before, but before a space is inhabited, we tend to tune it out. Then, someone comes along and sees this blank space as the perfect canvas on which of life can be created. Suddenly, an otherwise dilapidated space becomes a significant marker in the visual landscape.

Street art, by its very nature, changes the landscape so drastically that the wall on which it resides becomes something of a landmark. If you’ve ever passed by a piece everyday, whether it’s a sticker, a cool piece of graffiti, or a mural, and suddenly it disappears, you’ll notice that when it’s gone, and you’ll actually miss it a bit. Once we’ve been exposed to street art, we become acutely aware of the visual landscape and the changes to it around us. And when we lack this level of creative visual stimulation, we’ll start to think about the emptiness around us and miss it a bit.

However, aside from affecting our understanding of the visual landscape, another equally important aspect of street art is its transient nature. As with all life, but especially with street art, the piece will progress through its natural life cycle and eventually fade out of existence. Like the cycle of life, the street art cycle of being put up (birth), being weathered (aging), and being covered (death) is an intrinsic part of its being, and arguably, the very thing that gives it value. Street art is a unique type of living art that provokes a response, whether it’s for someone to tag over it, tear it down, or wash it out. If it were to remain sedentary, then I would argue that it hasn’t done its job, as it would the just be incorporated into the visual landscape rather than making us reevaluate our surroundings.

Street artists more than anyone understand this process of letting their creations go into the will of the world. However, I must admit that as an aficionado, an academic, and a conservator, it’s much harder for me to simply let go of such things. Have you ever wondered about the history of a wall? What’s under the paint? How far does it go? How long a piece lasted? Whether it was taken out by time, another tagger, or the authorities?

Graffiti Archaeology is an online project devoted to the study of graffiti-covered walls as they’ve change over time. The photos were taken of particularly graffiti-prone walls in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and other cities, over the course of a decade from about 1998 to 2008 by several different photographers and artists. Using stitching programs, computer programmer (and in a sense, curator) Cassidy Curtis uses time-lapse collages to create a truly interactive approach to experiencing the life of the spaces that serve as reusable canvasses themselves. Having studied archaeology at university, I wouldn’t exactly call it that, but I would say that it’s definitely interesting, and is one of the most unique projects I’ve seen formally and cohesively documenting and visually recounting the ephemeral nature of street art over any span of time with consistent locations. The only drawback is that the pictures are sporadically taken, with as few as five or as many as 61 layers available per wall with the intermittant time between pictures being as little as a few days or as long as a few years apart.

As someone who’s been trained in conservation, and has worked in the fields of archival preservation, registration, and conservation, it’s been ingrained into every fiber of my being for a number of years to always take pictures of the collections that I work with and the alterations that I make when I conserve a work. Not only is photodocumentation an important resource to track artists, styles, and the life of the piece itself, but it is also the important first step in the legitimization of street art. However, for photodocumentation to be an effective tool in street art, it must be standardized in both practice and archiving.

Websites like Flikr have allowed street art and graffiti aficionados to post their pictures and find others who have taken pictures of the same place or artist via tags. Don’t get me wrong, a good piece is good to look at no matter what, and a picture is definitely worth a thousand words, but sometimes it’s important to know who did what, where, and when. Unfortunately, unlabelled or mislabeled pictures, or pictures without dates or locations are nearly as useless as never having documented the place at all. Also, a lack of consolidation on the internet makes piecing together the entire story of a wall or the development of an artist nearly impossible. Especially when I spend hours researching spaces and artists, it can seem that everyone has a piece of the story and it’s up to whoever’s interested enough to figure it out by themselves.

Now I’m not the type of person to carry around a camera. This isn’t only because my camera is a total brick (at 7 years old, it only has a shameful 3.2 MP, which is less than a lot of cell phone cameras boast these days), but probably stems from my extreme dislike of appearing touristy. However, I am regretting more and more that I never have a camera handy with me even as I go about my business in New York City. Small things will pop out at me and I’ll wish that I had a camera to photograph it and post it somewhere it can all be seen and appreciated. Then I’ll go back, but it will already be gone or some thoughtless toy tagger will have ruined it forever. And then years later, when relating an anecdotal story like the one above, I won’t have a picture to go along with it. Well let that be a lesson to me. And you.

This holiday season I know you’ve probably been inundated with appeals of various sorts. Mine is simple: let’s record street art and legitimize it as a form of expression together by taking as many pictures as we can and taking the time to label and date those pictures that we do take (with as precise a location as possible, the date the picture was taken, and if you post the picture online, with the name of the artist/tagger/crew or any words you can decipher from the piece). And I will start my holiday appeal with a New Years’ resolution for myself to be the change I wish to see and start photodocumenting with more determination. So, if you ever see a girl with one of the largest digital cameras you’ve ever seen stopping to take a picture of something random, well, that would be me. Say hi, will you?

Wishing you a happy New Year! See you in 2011!

About this time last year, I sat down and made a list of all the art sites that I had always heard about but had never visited in the Lower East Side in downtown NYC. I had mentioned it to my friend Ryan, who graciously agreed to accompany me and take pictures. And so, I, armed with my pen and notebook, and he, armed with his camera bag, set out one chilly morning to go on a quest to see and capture as much street art as we possibly could during the few hours of daylight that were available to us. We wandered on foot through much of Chelsea, SoHo, and down Wooster Street, making stops at a number of small contemporary art galleries and alternative exhibition spaces (including Deitch Projects, Woodward Gallery, and 112 Greene Street), stopping to take pictures of any interesting stickers, tags, and murals that caught our attention along the way. The Os Gêmeos mural on the corner of Houston and Bowery was one of our last stops, and by the time we reached it, we were tired, cold, and possibly hungry. However, even the act of walking towards it was a revitalizing one.

When I first returned to NYC after graduating university, one of the first pieces that I was excited to see was the Deitch wall on Houston and Bowery, which at that time was painted with a fantastic mural by Os Gêmeos. Os Gêmeos (Portuguese for “the Twins”) is a Brazilian duo consisting of identical twin brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo (b. 1974). On the streets, they’ve created giant figures several stories tall, drawn life-sized characters engaged in everyday activities such as hugging each other or writing graff, and have spun detailed narratives populated with their characters inside sprawling muralscapes. In the gallery, they create everything from paintings to sound-system installations to giant interactive sculptures. Together, they have helped to define the visual landscape of São Paolo and their unique visual language has become internationally synonymous with Brazilian street art.

Back in 2009, I had seen the pictures of the wall that they had recently completed, but nothing could prepare me for seeing it up close. Those of you who’ve been to the Deitch wall on the corner of Houston and Bowery will know that there’s nothing too much to see in that general area. A sea of grey concrete, some fences, and drab and dilapidated buildings are really all that line the wide street. After seeing it from afar, so starkly juxtaposing its bland surroundings, the sheer act of walking towards it was like walking towards an oasis of color and movement. We must have spent nearly half an hour at the wall, me taking notes and Ryan snapping dozens of pictures. Perhaps it was the girl laying on the back of a whale with a serene smile on her face as she slowly dissolved into bubbles and drifted up into the atmosphere. Perhaps it was the boy laughing as he playfully leaned over the edge of the waterfall, holding onto a fish for support. Perhaps it was the figure with the outstretched arms who served as the mast of the boat perched atop the N Train (and looked like he was travelling down the tracks to give you, the viewer, a great big hug). Or, perhaps it was how they all came together to seamlessly populate the wall, but after quietly contemplating each character and each scene of the mural both individually and as a cohesive unit (with a slightly bemused smile on my face, I’m sure), I knew that I wanted to learn all I could about the creators of this extraordinarily vibrant landscape.

What all Os Gêmeos works have in common is that even from a distance their work is very distinguishable as Os Gêmeos creations. Much like mural they completed on Bowery and Houston back in 2009, their work tends to be both colorful and fantastical, and is inhabited by thick yellow people with matchstick-thin limbs and angular, expressive eyes that are set widely apart. Each piece they do holds some sort of commentary on love, hope, poverty, or political dissent. Their murals are so detailed and filled with movement that they will almost make you dizzy. But there is no doubt that you won’t want to look away for regret of missing something. Still, you could look at one for hours and still only pick up a fraction of the details and a fraction of the narrative that the Pandolfo brothers have illustrated for you to see.

Originally the Pandolfo brothers were break dancers who were greatly influenced by the New York City hip hop culture of the 1970s (which hit Brazil in the mid-1980s). Although they had been using latex and rollers to tag their names, by 1988, they had made the leap into street art. As they started to mature as street artists they drew upon their experiences as well as local styles such as Brazilian folk art and pixação (a cryptic straight-letter style of building writing unique to São Paolo that is associated with heavy metal and the disenfranchised lower class). However, the Pandolfo twins had began developing their visual language together in shared sketchbooks as children as early as the age of 4, creating and capturing a brightly colored world shared in their dreams that they call “Tritrez.”

Their works simultaneously evoke the world of their dreams and the favelas (ghetto) in which they were raised. In this sense, both pixação and Os Gêmeos draw upon the same political and social discontent felt by much of the population in São Paolo. However, Os Gêmeos also strive to represent their culture, the beauty of Brazil, and the positive aspects of Brazilian family life, and through their vibrant images, hope to add color to and enhance everyday life. This makes their world and the characters who inhabit it just as complex and exciting to follow as those found in any well-written story. Familial love, national pride, and the desire to precipitate change are represented with equal importance as political unrest and extreme poverty throughout each of their works. Perhaps this is why, almost unanimously, viewers are attracted to their work.

Their method of painting is just as unique as the world they’ve created. They are adamant about painting only during the day in extremely public areas. When they paint a mural, the Pandolfo twins plan the visual story before they start drawing on the wall. Each twin starts at one end and they continue to paint until they meet in the middle. It is a very intuitive process between the brothers because no talking is involved.

Although Os Gêmeos continue to paint in São Paolo to this day (both sanctioned and unsanctioned works), since their first show in the United States in San Francisco’s The Luggage Store in 2003, they have been extremely busy with legitimate work outside of Brazil as well. Os Gêmeos have painted frequently in NYC, including a large mural in 2005 in Coney Island. They’ve participated in several collaborations with Deitch Projects in NYC, including a show in 2005, the Armory Show in 2006, a show in 2008, and the aforementioned mural in 2009 (which remained up for a year). This past summer, they returned to NYC to paint one of their iconic figures onto the side of P.S. 11 in downtown Chelsea in collaboration with Futura2000 (an internationally acclaimed street artist who got his start bombing subway cars in NYC in the 1970s and pioneered abstract street art). Most recently, Os Gêmeos returned to Maimi Beach to take part in Art Basel (a Deitch-sponsored project in which they also participated in 2005).

They’ve been huge on the West Coast, in Cuba, and in Europe as well. Over the past few years, they’ve painted in Portugal, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, and the UK (including the Kelburn Castle in Glasgow in 2007). In 2008, Os Gêmeos was invited to create a mural for Tate Modern Gallery in London as part of a larger exhibition of street art on the façade of their building. Hailed as the first major display of street art at a public museum in London, it led to a significant re-evaluation of their work by their native city of São Paolo.

Two years prior to the exhibition, Mayor Gilberto Kassab of São Paulo introduced the “Cidade Limpa” (Clean City) law aimed at eliminating all forms of what he calls “visual pollution.” This official clean-up campaign led to many sanctioned images being lost or irreparably damaged. Because there were no official objective guidelines given other than to paint over anything “irregular,” much of the works are judged subjectively. Following the exhibition in 2008, a 680 meter long mural painted by Os Gêmeos, Nunca, and Nina Pandolfo (Otavio’s wife) on retaining walls along the 23 de Maio expressway was half-obliterated with gray paint (despite having been officially sanctioned public art).

This effort by São Paulo is a cross between New York City’s graffiti reform of the 80s and 90s and the efforts Grey Ghost, an anti-graffiti vigilante in New Orleans (LA) who white-washed many great pieces of street art out of existence between 1997 and 2008. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch’s vigorous subscription to the broken window theory promoted an aggressive anti-graffiti campaign in New York in the early eighties, resulting in a strenuous zero tolerance policy ever since. In 1995 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York set up the Anti-Graffiti Task Force, a multi-agency initiative to combat graffiti vandalism in New York City. In terms of the introduction of this legislation, São Paulo is echoing the political reform that took place across the U.S. a decade earlier. However, because of the subjective nature of these laws, the real parallel can be drawn between the Cidade Limpa laws and the work of New Orleans-based vigilante Grey Ghost and his non-profit organization Operation: Clean Sweep.

The Grey Ghost, also known as Fred Radtke, has been painting over street art in New Orleans under the cover of darkness with gray paint since 1997. Known by the signature grey smear of paint his rollers left in the stead of tags and art alike, his works had long been the cause of contentious debate within the New Orleans community. But, that is another story for another day. You see, in 2008, tensions with the street-art loving community in New Orleans peaked when the Grey Ghost painted over a newly-completed mural on Burgundy and Press Streets. Much like the mural along the 23 de Maio expressway, the mural on Burgundy and Press Streets shared many of the characteristics with graffiti. However, there was one important distinction: the artists had gotten permission to paint it.

Since its inception, graffiti and murals have been misunderstood and underappreciated forms of art. Within the past few years, it has slowly begun to gain appreciation from institutions world-wide. Deitch and the Tate Modern are some of the many renowned institutions that have legitimized not only the work of Os Gêmeos, but other street artists as well. This appreciation has started to affect the way street art is viewed by not only the general populace, but the government (and although there is still a firm divide between those who whole-heartedly support street and those who lump it in with mindless tagging, there is a raised awareness). In São Paulo, this newfound recognition abroad of Os Gêmeos’ work stimulated a public discussion of what constituted art, and the creation of a registry of sanctioned street art in São Paulo was established by the city for preservation.

Although Os Gêmeos have said multiple times that they take things day by day, I, for one, cannot wait to see what the future holds for these immensely talented grafiteiros. You, too, can keep tabs on them via their website (which although in Portuguese has enough pictures so that visitors of any language can appreciate it). Definitely keep your eyes out for what seems to be their next project: a full-length animation (the teaser was released in September)!

For more insight into Os Gêmeos, here are two great interviews from 2000 and 2003 which have been translated into English and here’s a recent one from STYLEFILE, a graffiti magazine. If you want to read more about the mural on Bowery and Houston, Roberta Smith of the New York Times did a great review wrote a wonderfully detailed description in her review. However, a picture says a thousand words, so again, I would like to extend a very special thanks to my friend, Ryan, who braved the cold with his massive bag of camera equipment to take such beautiful pictures of the Os Gêmeos mural in the Bowery on our epic street art adventure last year. Pictures other than the Bowery were taken from various places around the internet. There is no shortage of Os Gêmeos pictures, so just Google images if you want to see more!