Archive for the ‘Graffiti’ Category

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.

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.

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!

I’ve been riding the NYC subway lines for nearly a decade now and must admit that sometimes, when I’m waiting for a train, I look into the darkness of the tunnel and have an urge to jump down and follow the tracks towards the blue light and wherever they lead me. I actually thought that this must be a pretty common feeling, given the propensity of graffiti on the walls between stations, but when I revealed this desire to some friends a few weeks ago, they gave me a long, hard look and quite clearly told me that this feeling, was in fact, not normal. I think I need new friends. Well, don’t get me wrong, I love them, but sometimes I do wish that they were more adventurous. Especially when stories like that of the Underbelly Project breaks and it was revealed that yes, there are no shortage of people who are willing to hop down into the tracks and wander into the darkness in order to explore the bowels of the NYC underground and leave behind hidden treats for subsequent adventurous spirits.

And what a treat it was for street art followers on Halloween, when the most comprehensive street art exhibition ever put together was unveiled by a freelance journalist by the name of Jasper Rees in the New York Times and in the National (it was also in the Sunday Times London, but you need a subscription to read that article). Since then, the word on the lips of every street art junkie has been “Underbelly.” Except this exhibition was actually a trick: the art wasn’t on the street, and almost no one will ever be able see it. Aptly named “the Underbelly Project” because it’s part of the hidden underground of NYC, the Underbelly Project has taken graffiti and street art back to its non-commercial roots, echoing the prolific period of NYC subway art of the 1970s and 1980s.

It wasn’t hard to figure out which abandoned station the Underbelly Project resides in (as I always say, with a bit of fingerwork, you can figure out anything with the help of the Internet). Since the exhibition was made public, urban spelunkers and subway lore fanatics have pinpointed the site to be that of the Broadway/South 4th Street Station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The history of the station is also a fascinating one (read more here): back in 1929 and 1939, when NYC was working to build up its subway system, Broadway/South 4th Station was to be a major transfer and connection point for the IND Second System. However, work began before the city even knew if funding for the remainder of the line would ever materialize. When World War II and the subsequent onset of the automobile age put a grinding halt to subway expansion, the project was halted and the 6 track station remained incomplete. Therefore, the South 4th Street Station is not an abandoned subway station (as it had never been functional) so much as it is a forsaken dream. However, it was at this shell station that two NYC street artists, PAC and Workhorse, realized a different dream: to showcase the work of a collection of street artists (both graffiti artists and fine artists) together in a non-commercialized exhibition space.

For the past 18 months in a series of about 75 visits, Workhorse and PAC have been escorting a total of 103 artists into the station to leave their creative marks on the walls. The rules were simple: only one trip per artist, which meant that they had about four solid hours to paint and had to walk into the site with all the equipment that they would need to finish their work. What I personally find most fascinating about this project is the representative cross-section of street artists. An estimate by the organizers pegs about 10% of the artists as female (which seems fairly representative in my opinion). Additionally, there are a good mix of both established and new artists, and quite a few international artists as well. Most interestingly, graffiti artists and fine artists have works exhibited side by side without the disconnect and friction that is sometimes seen above ground. Works by graffiti artists such as Demer and Asylum are next to works by fine artists such as Swoon and Ron English.

The roster of artists drawn to the project by the organizers is very impressive (although we must remember that these are friends, or referrals, so please don’t think of this as a “Best of Street Art” list, but rather those who were both in the know and able/available to work in NYC). From various sources, we can identify the works of Boxi, Ethos, London Police, SheOne, Remi Rough, Stormie Mills, Damon Ginandes, Lucy MacLauchlan, Swoon, Logan Hicks, Aiko, Faile, Ron English, Flying Fortress, Imminent Disaster, Dan Witz, Elbow Toe, Ripo, Peru Ana Ana Peru, Michael De Feo, WK Interact, Roa, Specter, Demer, Momo, Posterchild, Saber, Trusto Corp, Sinboy, Cash4, Rone Nick Walker, Revok, Ceaze, Know Hope, L’Atlas, M-City, Mark Jenkins, Meggs, Kid Acne, Lister, Jeff Soto, Smith/Sane, Gaia, Noh J Coley, Jim Darling, Thundercut, Daryll Peirce, Surge, Spazmat, Ema, Joe Lurato, Guilerme, JMR, Asylum, Gould, Indigo, Jeff Stark, Bigfoot, Kid Zoom, Strafe, to name a few (no particular order).

When Rees asked Workhorse why he and PAC have spent over a year curating an exhibition that nearly no one will ever see, Workhorse recited their statement of purpose: “In the beginning, street art was something you did because you didn’t fit in anywhere else. But for the last few years urban art was getting ridiculous. You could go out with some cute little character that you drew, or some quirky saying, and put it up everywhere for a few months, then do a gallery show and cash in on the sudden interest in urban art. It really was that easy for a while. Banksy pieces that were selling for $600 one year were suddenly selling for $100,000 a few years later. It was commercialism at its worst. The Underbelly was our way of feeling like we were an island again. We finally had a space in the world that collectors couldn’t contaminate. A space that couldn’t be bought.”

While I understand that this is a completely valid train of thought, I disagree with its sentiment. Look, I understand the desire to be naughty and self-indulgent and to go against the establishment. But street art isn’t just the newest hot commodity that’s been appropriated by every Sharpie-welding, sticker-slapping, stencil-making egomanic who wants to make a buck: it’s a great mode of expression and still attracts and inspires a certain type of recklessness. And yes, while a part of me despises the commercialism of the art game, we’ve got to realize that all this attention isn’t necessarily a bad thing: in fact, it’s legitimizing a form of art that should have been recognized as such decades ago. And I think that street art and graffiti deserves that kind of attention, and deserves to be recognized as an important urban cultural movement and genre in art history textbooks.

So in that sense, I completely agree with the lads at Graffoto (as in, don’t blame us for wanting to legitamize and expose your secret lifestyle). But I do respect and admire the fact that Underbelly has brought the risk back into art, and at least they’ve admitted that their interest was in creating art for the sheer sake of creating art, and that they just wanted to get a bunch of people together and do something a bit reckless that harkened back to the golden days of subway art. I’m glad they’ve gone to the press to let the world know about it, too. It might sound a little self-serving to the untrained ear, but the implications are much larger: art can exist everywhere, and artists are still having fun creating it. And with the shift of this type of art into the gallery-space, where trained curators will recontextualize it all and trained conservators will be concerned with its archival preservation, I think that this project was very important in that it it will serve to function as a last great guerrilla hurrah.

But of course, there are those of us who will still want to search out street art, or hidden architecture, or an urban adventure. To those of you who are tempted to search out this particular underground adventure, I would highly advise against it, as it’s both dangerous and illegal. Since news of the project broke, it has been revealed that much of the art has already been tagged up by a few disgruntled locals, and a few dozen people have been arrested in their attempt to climb down into the tracks in search of the artwork. The MTA, as is expected, don’t seem too pleased about the revelation of the Underbelly Project, and have taken a few measures of their own to prevent exploration, including stationing plainclothes cops on the platform. Though they have reiterated that such wanderings are deemed illegal as trespassing, they have simultaneously assured the public that they won’t be taking any measures to actively remove any artwork. (Though, as a conservator-in-training, I feel this point is moot and am forced to shake my head at PAC’s hopeful assessment that the pieces of the Underbelly Project will last three or four decades. In the end, it’s no more permanent than the art that many of these artists have created above ground.) Therefore, this unfinished station will retain these artworks as a poignant reminder that street art is ephemeral, and that no matter how hard we look, we’re bound to miss some of it.

Instead, keep your eyes and browser on the Underbelly Project website, which promises completion soon and will likely feature a comprehensive list of contributing artists, more photos, statements, and hopefully time-lapse video. Until then, the New York Times article has provided this video for your enjoyment. Also, please note that most photos in this post (except for the wide angle of the station, that was from the New York Times) were taken from Luna Park’s site. Definitely worth a visit, as she has managed to capture a significant portion of an unbelievable body of work.

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!