Archive for the ‘Artists’ Category

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.

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!

I first heard about Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop earlier this year, when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in February. I was really excited to watch it because I was sure it would provide a glimpse into the life and thought process of the incredible infamous and equally elusive British street artist Banksy, whose works have appeared everywhere from his native city of Bristol to the wall that divides Israel and Palestine. His repertoire does not just include stencils and spray but playful installations and elaborate hoaxes. In fact, in 2009, he gained additional notoriety by pirating the walls of a public Bristol museum, where he hung his own artworks and captions, as well as through his dolphin ride installation, which had been done in response to BP’s oil spill. Most recently, he has even been credited with directing the opening sequence of the October 11, 2010 episode of The Simpsons.

But this is not a post about Banksy, nor is this a film about Banksy. “What?” you may ask, incredulously, “but it’s A Banksy Film!” At first, I was a little disappointed too, but to be honest, viewers knew that this would be the case fairly early on, when a hooded Banksy with altered voice gave a brief introduction to the film. Think of this film more as a Banksy project, if that helps you wrap your head around the massive amounts of disappointment that I’m sure you’re feeling right now. But take solace in the fact, dear reader, that although Banksy and his own art appear only sporadically throughout the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop still serves as a wonderful introduction into the world of street art, and its message makes this film a prime example of a Banksy project.

So yes, although this film was not what I had originally expected, it was still incredibly enjoyable and informative. Aptly termed “the world’s first street art disaster movie,” it definitely provides a rather candid glimpse into the nocturnal adventures (both failed and successful) of a variety of street artists. Aside from Banksy, big names such as Space Invader, Monsieur Andre, Zeus, Shepard Fairey, Neckface, Sweet Toof, Ron English, Dotmasters, Swoon, Borf, Buffmonster and their works all made appearances in the film. And although it was a movie originally intended to be about street art and Banksy, it soon becomes quite clear how and why it developed into a documentary about the eccentric man behind the camera.

Meet Thierry Guetta, a French ex-pat living in Los Angeles, who ran a vintage clothing store and developed the rather peculiar obsession of filming absolutely anything and everything on his camera. While on holiday in France, he began filming the work of his cousin, street artist Space Invader and was soon drawn into the burgeoning street art scene. Upon returning to L.A., he continued seeking out the rising stars of the street art scene, a process that was aided greatly by his cousin, then by Shepard Fairey, who though reluctant at first, accepts Guetta as first a tagalong who happens to have a camcorder and then lookout on his nighttime wanderings. Guetta dives into his role with enthusiastic incompetence and films everything with a blundering sense of awe. His filming, finally having been given the direction and focus that it had previously lacked, leads Guetta to inadvertently take up the task of documenting this ephemeral genre of contemporary art.

Eventually, Guetta develops a desire to meet the infamous Banksy, an artist who he believes will complete his comprehesive record of street artists. Fate somehow brings Banksy to the West Coast, and Shepard Fairey introduces him to Guetta, who has developed the reputation of the man for out-of-town street artists to contact to get everything from supplies to information on the best walls to a nighttime ride. Soon Guetta is faithfully shadowing the elusive Banksy, even traveling with him to England to record his workshop and capture his projects.

Spoiler alert!! For those of you who want to find out for yourselves how this movie unfolds, and are only interested in the critical review and analysis, please skip ahead to the paragraph after the Life is Beautiful wall picture!

Meanwhile, inspired by the works of the artists around him, and eager to take part in what looked like a good time, it is revealed that Guetta has started experimenting with the mass dissemination of images via stickers and wheat-pasting under the psuedonym Mister Brainwash (MBW) and it comes to light that Thierry Guetta had been accumulating thousands of hours of footage with no real intention of editing it together to create a comprehensive documentary. Meanwhile, Banksy is preparing for his big debut show in L.A., Barely Legal. After this monumental US show, the commercial market for street art in contemporary art collections started to boom. It was at this time that Banksy decided that the time was right to show the world that street art was a messy business and that it had never been about the money. Faced with Banksy’s challenge to finally create a film, Thierry Guetta finally starts to edit his accumulated tapes.

Six months later, Guetta flies to London to show Banksy his almost-complete film, Life Remote Control. Banksy is absolutely flabbergasted and slightly terrified with the result, saying that the film was like someone with ADHD had gotten a hold of a remote control and was flipping through TV channels for 90 minutes. Keeping the tapes in an attempt to create a more complete and accurate documentary which would better portray the importance of street art as captured by Thierry Guetta, Banksy gives Guetta an assignment designed to distract: go home to L.A., create some art, and put on a show.

Thierry Guetta throws himself into this project, fully adopting the MBW persona, and invests in a production line of artists and assistants, working to churn out prints of altered pop culture icons in a thoroughly Warhol-esque manner (but with none of the Warhol irony). Eager to please Banksy, MBW excitedly prepares for his huge gallery debut, appropriating a huge studio for installations, prints, and other assorted projects. Meanwhile a change is occurring in this central character: the blundering but otherwise endearing Thierry Guetta slowly transforms into an art world douchbag. Constantly on his cell phone, he becomes concerned mostly with hype, and attempts to become the biggest and hottest commodity in L.A. He sells pieces ahead of the show with arbitrary price tags, most of which are dependent on the object’s size, and often in the tens of thousands of dollars. Hours before the show he transforms into a control freak who is concerned with only interviews and handshakes. But despite the massive amounts of disorganization and procrastination, manages to pull off a critical success of a show that is attended by thousands of people. After the exhibition, he appears arrogant and self-satisfied, pleased to have finally established his place among the legendary street artists he had been filming for the past decade. Meanwhile, Banksy and Shepard Fairey show a certain amount of disdain for the pointlessness of MBW’s art, and seem uncertain as to what to make of the public sensationalism surrounding MBW.

Directed and produced by a notorious and mysterious trickster, this film has been widely called nothing more than an elaborate hoax, and has even been classified as a “prankumentary” by New York Times film critic Jeanette Catsoulis. I personally disagree with her assessment because it’s absolutely possible for someone to fall into a career over the course of a year and a half and create massive amounts of art when they’ve hired a production line of assistants. Some have even speculated that MBW was created for the purpose of the documentary. But the question as to whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is a case of life following art or art following life is irrelevant, because it’s the introduction and message that’s important.

The first act of Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about street art, as seen through the exuberant eyes of Thierry Guetta, and the second act of this film becomes a documentary about Guetta as MBW. MBW becomes the perfect juxtaposition for street artists like Shepard Fairey, who has spent years finding his style, and Banksy, who is very thoughtful with his projects. While most artists spend their time developing their technique, finding their style, and thinking about the meaning of their works, MBW found his style quite quickly and almost accidentally, and uses repetition and gigantism without too much thought. Interviews taken during MBW’s debut exhibition show viewers praising the work as revolutionary, and assigning value to objects that clearly have none.

So perhaps this film isn’t so much a documentary, but more of an exposé. More than that, this film highlights the relationship between the world of street art and the world of contemporary/pop art in its second act. With a note of irony that only street artist can provide, this film raises questions regarding issues such as the monetary valuation of artwork, the commercialization of street art, and the appropriation of images. Perhaps most interestingly, Exit Through the Gift Shop underscores the pretentiousness of the contemporary art scene. So yes, this film makes you think. And, more than that, it successfully does what it was meant to do: provide the viewer with a glimpse into the chaotic world of street art and give them a good time while doing it.

Exit Through the Gift Shop will be digitally available for both rent and purchase on iTunes and Video on Demand channels beginning November 23, 2010 and available on DVD (with awesome extras, like a version of Life Remote Control) on December 14, 2010. I definitely suggest watching this film with some friends, not just because it raises a lot of quite interesting questions and topics that you’ll most likely want someone to talk to, but because it’s just that good of a ride. And the best part is that you don’t need to be a street art buff to love this movie. For all my analysis, it’s simply a great introduction into the world of street art, and just a lot of fun to watch.

For those of you who want more background on the film, here’s a wonderful interview with the producer and editor of Exit Through the Gift Shop with Movie City News about the documentary that never really existed. And, here‘s an interesting interview with Shepard Fairey about the film as well.

I first encountered Swoon peering out at me from a black doorway near the corner of Chambers Street and West Broadway during my senior year of high school (2005) on the way to my afterschool job. It was a print of a thin man who sort of stared out at the street from the corner of his eyes; a man who looked as if he were simultaneously emerging from and receding into the doorway. Amid the pedestrian traffic, I stopped and stepped closer. Even more impressive, I was delighted to discover, was the intricate level of detail in the print: a Chinese imperial roofed building had been integrated into his shoulder, and opened up further down into a street scene with dozens of people where his torso and legs should have been. The detail was stunning and the piece poignantly echoed the Chinatown community less than a mile away. Every day for about a week, I would cast admiring glances in its direction, stopping to look more closely if I had a few minutes to spare. Part of me hoped that other pedestrians would see me stopped and take a few moments themselves to look at this work of art (but aside from a few rather suspicious sideways glances, that never happened).

The paste-up became more and more ragged until one day, some thoughtless tagger scrawled a red mark across the man’s face and chest, completely blocking the intricate details that I had fallen in love with. I was almost relieved when, two days later, natural conditions left it in tatters and barely recognizable as the work it once was. After four years, I still couldn’t stop thinking about that man in the doorway. And so, during my senior year of university four years later (2009), for my Folk and Outsider Art History Seminar, I decided to finally figure out who the mysterious figure in the doorway was, and that I would do my research paper on his equally mysterious creator.

Google led me to Swoon, an artist who had moved to New York City for art school, and had become inspired by the rich street art scene. Her objection to the sedentary, institutionalized, and archival nature of academic art fueled her decision to create art using non-archival materials within a context that not only promoted the decay of the piece but allowed it to interact with its environment and reflect its community. Since 1999, Swoon has been a prolific street artist, and her wheatpaste newspaper prints and intricate paper cutouts could be found in various corners of New York City, as well as in Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Cuba, London, Berlin, and a number of other European cities. Swoon has worked with various artist groups and collectives including Toy Shop, Glowlab, Black Label, Change Agent, the Madagascar Institute, the Barnstormers, Justseeds, and is a founding member of Miss Rockaway Armada.

In the summer of 2005, Swoon was granted her first solo exhibition at Deitch Projects, where she installed her collection of wheatpaste prints and cutouts and transformed the façade of the building into a sprawling cityscape. Since then, she has shown internationally, both inside the institution and out on the street, and has become widely recognized as one of the foremost female influences in the international street art scene. More recently, her 2008 exhibition of paper cutouts called “Portrait of Sylvia Elena” in alternative Chelsea exhibition area Honey Space memorialized one of the first victims in the widespread killings of young women in Juárez, Mexico. Aside from her prints and cutouts, she has taken part in several homemade flotilla projects, including “Swimming Cities of Serenissima” in 2007 down the Mississippi; “Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea” in 2008 down the Hudson River and up the East River from Troy to Deitch Studios (at which she had an accompanying installation); and “the Clutchess of Cuckoo” in 2009 from Slovenia (in boats made of New York City garbage) to crash the Vienna Biennale. But most recently, Swoon has returned to her roots in street art by posting up her wheatpaste cutouts on the streets of northern Philadelphia for Philagrafika 2010, a printmaking festival.

Her recent publication Swoon (released May 2010 with an accompanying exhibition at Urban Art Projects in Brooklyn), which documents her prints as a street artist, finally revealed her real name to the world (it’s Caledonia “Callie” Dance Curry). Additionally, several of her pieces have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City. But throughout her success, her mission remains to make her art available to the public and to create a community in which its occupants are in constant dialogue with one another, or at least taking an active interest in their public spaces.

Although she has partaken in numerous projects since her arrival on the street art scene, it is her life-sized wheatpaste newspaper prints and intricate cutouts that initially gained the attention of the art world. Swoon’s prints can most frequently be found in the forgotten corners of otherwise obvious public spaces. Despite this, she picks her spots carefully, exploring neglected space and walls with interesting textures. Her backdrops include abandoned buildings, rundown warehouses, and broken-looking walls. Because she is interested in the history and texture of the wall, this feature is not hidden, but rather enhanced by the thin newsprint paper. Also, with her cutouts, the figures are intricately cut to reveal the wall that they rest on. This opens up a dialogue between the artwork and the wall, as it works to reveal the wall’s material and history (previous tags and works).

When she first began creating her block print posters, Swoon was heavily influenced by Gordon Matta-Clark, an American artist best known for his temporary site-specific works, specifically his “building cuts,” a series of for which he removed various sections of floors, ceilings, and walls in abandoned buildings in the 1970s. Because these buildings were slated for demolition, only a limited number of people would be able to see it. Similarly, Swoon’s wheatstarch newspaper prints can only survive for a relatively brief period, as they are exposed to the elements. Swoon understands that because of the fragility of her materials and the exposure to weather conditions, the pieces will soon disappear completely from the wall space.

The classification of Swoon’s art by its materials (newspaper and wheatstarch paste) are of particular importance because they stress the temporary quality of the work. 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, inviting a performance aspect to her piece. In spite of this impermanent aspect of her work, is it classified under the same category as permanent defacement of property.

But for the brief time that the print does remain, Swoon wants them to become part of the space they inhabit, and to interact with its community in “a human way.” And so, these life-size prints of people work to reclaim the visual landscape and to create dialogue and interest in the community through their presence. Additionally, because the works are based on snapshots of everyday city life, they create a dialogue between the viewer and the happenings of the city around them. For example, one piece with the man sitting on the box is based on a time that Swoon saw a man ticketed for the illegal use of a milk crate, which he was sitting on in the middle of the street. Swoon thought this was ridiculous, because people should be able to use the streets as public spaces. This, she feels, is equivalent to encouraging the people to not use the streets as public spaces. With this in mind, she immediately went to work pasting up men on milkcrates around the city.

It has been argued that community has been a casualty of the contemporary urban lifestyle. In urban settings, most people live without any sense of rootedness or belonging. Therefore, many cities seem not to be communities at all, but mere agglomerations of transient strangers. As with prison populations, those of us who live in cities have perfected the art of minding our own business, being disinterested, not making a fuss, and not maintaining eye contact for long. This disassociation is reflected in our lack of use and care of our public spaces.

Street art works to defy this mentality that we’ve created for ourselves. It challenges us to take back our space and become active participants in the public realm. It challenges us to stop and stare. Swoon has long been one of my favorite street artists because she uses her paper people to revitalize the communities that they inhabit. Through her artistic vision and expression, Swoon attempts to create a dialogue among community members about urban living, space, life, and meaning. Through the dynamic materiality of her life-sized subjects, she creates a dialogue between herself and her audience, and between her audience and her works. In this way, Swoon transforms disassociated and ignored public spaces into places and increases interaction with aspects of the urban landscape which would otherwise go unnoticed. By adding a temporary character to places we otherwise might have overlooked, she simultaneously reminds us to not take our surroundings for granted and that we have the right to enjoy our public spaces.

I haven’t provided many links to particular sites because Swoon’s been pretty widely written about. There are tons of photologs, articles, and interviews out there, so if you’re interested, get Googling!

In 1985, a well-known graffiti artist known as Robbo colorfully tagged the underside of a bridge running over Regent’s Canal in Camden, North London. One of the first pieces to go up in London (and certainly the longest standing piece in London), Robbo’s piece has become known as something of a landmark piece for graffiti art enthusiasts and taggers alike. Many graffiti artists and taggers are considered lucky if their piece endures for more than a few months. However, for the past 24 years, aside from some toy graffiti and over-tagging, Robbo’s name has remained largely untouched.

Just this past December, change affected not only the scene along the Canal, but this towering testament to King Robbo’s legacy as Bristol-based street artist Banksy returned to London to continue his street art projects. Among them are his rats (a commentary of how the artist is the lowest form of being), a witty phrase evoking political commentary, a boy fishing, and a city worker.

It is the latter of these four project has generated the most amount of controversy lately. This is because Banksy has actually grayed-out a significant portion of Robbo’s locally familiar tag, leaving only strips of it to act as wall paper. The city worker, rather than removing the piece, is pasting it up using tools that traditionally refer to wheatpasters and in fact carrying additional wheatpaste rolls under his arm.

While some have said that this might be Banksy’s way of paying homage to the Robbo piece, from a territorial perspective, this modification comes as a rather biting slap in the face to Robbo- not only because Banksy has painted his own piece over the original, but because he has turned Robbo’s piece into a wheatpaste, a form of street art that is in general very much disliked by aerosol artists. Perhaps it’s in response to the actual slap in the face that Banksy received from Robbo, made public this past year in the book London Handstyles. In it, Robbo described a “tense encounter” between the two. Recalling how he was introduced to Banksy, Robbo claimed: “He asked what I wrote and I told him. He cockily replied ‘never heard of you’ so I slapped him and said, ‘you may not of heard of me but you will never forget me.’”

While internationally renowned street artist Banksy is busy premiering his new film at the Sundance Film Festival, graffiti legend Robbo came out of retirement on Christmas to again defend himself against the slight dealt to him by Banksy in London at the tail end of 2009. (Here it is important to remember that most street artists have teams, so what is going on may not directly deal with a single person.) Not only has Robbo eradicated the last traces of the original Robbo tag (including the rolled up paper under the worker’s arm), but he has written King Robbo (king being the term used to describe a graffiti legend, or one who has earned a considerable amount of street credit) so that it seems as if Banksy’s city worker is painting the tag rather than pasting it up.

A few days later, and the boy fishing along the Canal was altered as well. Rather than pulling out the slimy words “Banksy” from the Canal (originally meant to imply that Banksy was garbage in the way that his rat project implies that artists are vermin), a white sign now hangs from the fishing pole reading “Street Cred,” implying that this is what Banksy has lost by confronting Robbo.

Not since the days of Picasso and Matisse has the art world been so shaken by such a bitter rivalry. It was even said that Picasso hung “Portrait of Marguerite” in a room and threw (fake, thankfully) darts at it with his friends. Similarly, this most recent artistic exchange has caused many in Team Robbo and Team Banksy to take up arms against the other by taking to both online forums and the streets to battle it out. While many graffiti aficionados have lined up in either the Banksy camp or the Robbo camp (mostly arguing art and purpose vs. respect and territory), many are questioning whether the recent modifications are in fact the result of deep seated conflict or if they are simply the product of witty banter. (Some even suggest that this might be a publicity stunt, what with the recent publication of London Handstyles and Banksy’s venture to the Sundance Film Festival to release his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”)

Despite the story presented in London Handstyles, it’s rather hard to say. After all, despite Picasso and Matisse’s bitter rivalry, they spurred each other to new levels of creativity through their competition. Robbo didn’t respond by simply wiping out the Banksy piece and retagging the wall. Rather, Robbo (much like Banksy did for him), left a portion of the original piece by Banksy up while modifying the overall work to his liking (having the artistic “last word,” as you will). From the perspective of this street art academic/critic, Banksy did something that was not only natural in the world of street art and graffiti, but a big favor to Robbo by transforming the piece.

If you Google Robbo, Robbo tags, or Robbo graffiti, you will be hard pressed to find something either on the web or in images section that mention him solely, or provide an image of his tag other than the Regent’s Canal piece. Because Banksy is such an internationally-known name, it can be argued that he has brought Robbo to a more main-stream audience, and therefore inducted this piece (and, indeed, Robbo himself) into the international graffiti and street art scene.

If something becomes a permanent fixture in the landscape, it runs the risk of being taken for granted, and therefore leaves its viewers unaffected and unimpressed. While I recognize that the lifespan of this tag might be impressive to graffiti artists and taggers, once something becomes an accepted part of the landscape, it becomes fair game to street artists. This is because the true definition of street art is to challenge the way we think about our visual landscape through intrisically ephemeral and thought-provoking pieces. By revitalizing this relic, Banksy has forever immortalized it by giving it a new life and a new meaning. Because Banksy breeched the taboo of territory, he made it one of the current hot topics in the graffiti and street art world. Finally, by responding as he did to Banksy, Robbo crossed from the realm of graffiti artist and tagger into the world of street art. In this sense, Banksy has invigorated the environment of Regent’s Canal by changing the dynamic by initiating this creative dialogue and competitive exchange.

Many, including myself, will be tracking Banksy’s movements following the Film Festival and eagerly await to see what (if anything) happens when Banksy returns to London from Park City.

So NECKFACE is a pretty popular guy. How embarrassing that I had no idea who he was until I started this blog. In retrospect, he’s actually probably the first tagger I ever consciously encountered.

Over the summer after my sophomore year of high school (2003), I interned with the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Conservation. One day, while looking through some photographs that one of my supervisors had taken, I pulled out a picture of a blue wall with an ad in the shape of a shuttlecock for the first annual Badassminton tournament in Greenpoint and the words NECKFACE painted in large letters on the wall right over it. I was so amused by the tournament title and the tagger’s name that my supervisor gave me a double to keep.

The following year, while walking with my then-boyfriend on the Upper West Side, I noticed the tag NECKFACE written across the sidewalk in front of a store. Remembering the photograph, I immediately told him about Badassminton. About two years later walking through the Bowery, I saw NECKFACE scrawled along the second story portion of a wall and laughed. My friend asked me why I was laughing and I told him that since I had gotten a picture from my supervisor two years ago, I had been noticing this tag everywhere throughout the city.

I promptly forgot about NECKFACE until about a few weeks ago, when I decided to research him for a post that I was planning to write on tagging. However, I learned that he is more than a tagger, and is actually an artist and designer. Intrigued, I then rooted around my room for the photo, which I was sure I kept in some sort of box of memorabilia from my high school years. ‘Lo and behold, I found it. And I also found out that NECKFACE has been keeping himself quite busy over the years. (Lesson? Keep your eyes open, my friends, and always Google things that intrigue you, even in a passing sort of way!)

To some, it seems as though the tagger/artist/skater has fallen off the map and is spoken of as a one-minute wonder in the spectrum of street artists. However, his show in early 2008, “Death Becomes You” at the Don’t Come Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, his show in late 2008, Cannibal Carnival, in Los Angeles (which I heard did not admit those under 17 because of NECKFACE’s use of violent and otherwise unsettling imagery), his legal wall project “I’m Creepin’ While You’re Sleeping” in early 2009 (also in Los Angeles), and his “Devil’s Disciple” installation in Miami just a few months ago have proven the opposite. In fact, when he’s not creating art, he’s busy serving as the Art Director for Baker Skateboards and other skating/sneaker brands (and was even voted as “Best Anonymous Sex Symbol” in 2004 by the Village Voice for it).

After years of illicit tagging and sticker-slapping (he’s had some really funny ones like “NECKFACE ate my baby,” “God owes me money – NECKFACE,” or “Heath Ledger just texted me – NECKFACE”), many question NECKFACE’s place outside of the world of tagging. Calling him everything from a childish artist (after all, he dropped out of the School of Visual Arts and many consider his art too simple to be called such), to a sellout (for becoming a commercial designer as well as for doing legal art shows of an illegal nature). It is without a doubt that NECKFACE is dedicated to the art of creation, but can we call what he does street art?

My answer is a resounding “yes.” Sure, his iconic hairy arms, bat heads, and demons with razor sharp teeth might not seem like much, but his style is to evoke all the creepy things that go bump in the night and the sarcasm in all the things that are supposed to send those little creatures after us (or so our mothers say in our heads everytime that we laugh when terrible things happen). When we think about what street art does, which is to engage the audience, as well as to transform spaces into places, you cannot deny that NECKFACE does just that. A comment that I read recently on one site mentioned that NECKFACE’s mark was so prominent in DUMBO (it’s still there, above Pedro’s on Jay Street), that a man and his friends had taken to referring to Pedro’s as on “the corner of Neckface and Jay.”

Drawing on what appear to be a death metal influence, he looks to make the public get anything from downright angry to a full-bellied laugh from the wittiness that he creates by challenging our perceptions of appropriate behavior and social and religious taboos. “I like seeing the reaction I get when I make a violent image,” Neck Face noted. “I like seeing people laugh at my violent pieces, then they look around and wonder if it’s wrong to laugh at it.”

Everything about him makes me think of a quote I had once read by Pablo Picasso: “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain so once they grow up.” From his simply and prolific depictions of monsters, victims, to his witty phrases written in an unpretentious scrawl, NECKFACE has been fortunate enough to have retained this devilishly playful creativity of childhood without the adult filter, which is definitely good for street art.

If you would like to see more NECKFACE art, visit this photolog site of NECKFACE’s escapades!