Archive for the ‘Personal Anecdotes’ 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.

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"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive knit tree outside of the Cleveland City Hall 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London Telephone Booth by Deadly Knitshade (Knit the City)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

Dear reader, I have a terrible confession to make: I have been putting off writing this post for as long as this blog has been in existence. I had first discovered Deitch in 2008, while researching street artist Swoon for a seminar class at University, and promptly fell in love with their whimsical website and unique mission. Soon after returning to New York City in June 2009, I went to visit their exhibition spaces and was instantly impressed with everything about Deitch. Imagine my intense sadness when I heard the announcement in January 2010: Jeffrey Deitch, founder and proprietor of Deitch Projects, would be closing up shop in June 2010 to become director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. It couldn’t be! It wasn’t fair! I had just returned to New York City and I was eager to revel in urban art and Deitch Projects was to be one of the mythical gateways that would allow me to better glimpse SoHo’s legendary contemporary art scene.

It was only with terrible longing that came the realization that I really couldn’t put this post off any longer, especially since Deitch’s last associated project had just recently ended. And so, a few days ago, I finally sat down to write this post. After my hiatus, it seems only appropriate that I open with both a tearful goodbye and a thoughtful reminiscence. I apologize in advance for the lengthiness of this post (and the lack of pictures in it), but there was no way, in good conscious, that I could minimize the importance of Deitch Projects. Therefore, dear reader, this post will be my testament and farewell letter to Deitch.

June 1, 2010 marked the end of an era. Mr. Deitch closed the doors of his remaining private galleries, and on October 3, 2010, the last event associated with Deitch Projects came to an end. Having once boasted three primary exhibition spaces on Wooster Street, on Grand Street, and in Long Island City (by 2010, this number had dropped to two shortly before Deitch Projects had closed, as the Grand Street location had closed earlier than the other locations), a wall space on the corner of Houston and Bowery Streets, as well as numerous other temporary installation sites around the city, Deitch Projects, for the past 13 years, has been synonymous with SoHo’s contemporary art scene. For over a decade, Deitch has been associated with the names of prominent contemporary performance and urban artists such as Yoko Ono, Vanessa Beecroft, Barry McGee (aka Twist), Jeff Koons, Dash Snow, Swoon, and most recently, Keith Haring, Os Gêmeos, and Shepard Fairey (these last three actually had magnificent projects exhibited with Deitch just this past year, and believe me, dear reader, I am sorry that I didn’t tell you to go see them as they were happening).

As is to be expected, Mr. Jeffrey Deitch is himself quite the character. Aside from his trademark designer spectacles, he had starred in the 2006 reality TV show Artstar (which, having lacked the personal drama and eliminations that characterize reality TV show competitions, would have been more appropriately billed as a Deitch Project art documentary/infomercial in 8 parts), and is well-known for his eccentricity and enthusiasm for hosting the most fabulously flashy and chaotic events.

The term “revolutionary” tends to be thrown around a lot in the art world (mostly in reference to artists, so I feel a little less guilty about using the word in this context), so trust me, I thought long and hard before deciding to use that word in my writings. However, Jeffery Deitch’s vision for Deitch Projects could indeed be characterized as such. Let me spin you a story: once upon a time in the 1960s and 70s in happenin’ New York City, art was being appropriated by a radical bunch of artists who regarded art as a vibrant expression and reflection of life itself. These artists were seeking non-traditional media with which to represent their radical modern ideas. They were looking to change the very meaning of the word and were inviting everyone to discover the true meaning of art with them. Artists did what they wanted, dammit. Meanwhile, art was springing up in unexpected places and was getting attention from everybody. Throughout the 80s, art became widely celebrated as a spectacle that was no longer confined to museums and as a constantly evolving force that both affected and actively engaged its viewers.

Sometime in between then and now, alternative exhibition spaces and workshops that reflected the lively nature of the art began dwindling in numbers (since NEA funding dried up in the 90s and rent throughout the city began drastically increasing), and the wild art scene matured into a relatively tame fixture in New York City, giving birth to the hundreds of private galleries which now inhabit the Lower East Side in the process. Although they provided a departure from traditional spaces, such as larger museums, the atmospheres offered by these institutions were very much the same (albeit commercialized). The galleries no longer gave the artist total control. In galleries, no matter how contemporary the art, they have invariably come to be entombed in their bland prison cells…I mean, positioned carefully in spotless exhibition spaces that boast pictures in frames and objects on pedestals…which is of course, where they belong.

Deitch however, was no such white box. Deitch Projects realized that the best art came from unrestricted artists, and this made it a good time for everyone in the process. The physical gallery spaces comprised simply of a single white room, true, but it wasn’t just what was in the exhibition space that made Deitch Projects a pillar in the SoHo contemporary art world. The room was merely an anchor, a base of operation, for the numerous projects sponsored by Deitch. In the past, Deitch Projects has collaborated with musicians to create shows (such as Björk, Scissor Sisters, and Fischerspooner), sponsored extravagant annual art parades (seriously, Google some pictures), and affected the aesthetics of the neighborhood by inviting artists to utilize their façade and an otherwise broken-down wall less than a mile away.

Understandably, Deitch Projects attracted the attention not just of the art-lovers of high society and established contemporary artists, but simultaneously engaged a more radical and diverse audience and group of artists. The focus at Deitch was not only on the artwork(s) that inhabited the gallery space and the artist(s) who created it, but in actively rejoicing in the very idea of art through performances and events. By involving those working on the outskirts of mainstream contemporary art scene, Deitch Projects stepped out of the gallery and added a new dimension to the contemporary art scene. Also, by not limiting itself to its gallery space, Deitch Projects had invited a whole new audience to share the experience of art.

So the question remains as to who will champion the contemporary art scene in New York City now that Deitch is gone. Sure, Mr. Deitch has made sure that the artists whom he has represented have found alternative representation, and sure, anyone who has spent more than five minutes wandering around the Lower East Side will realize that there is no shortage of contemporary art galleries to continue propagating the well established and newcomers to the contemporary art scene alike. But as art critic and Paper Magazine senior editor Carlo McCormick has said, Mr. Deitch “understands how a T-shirt can be a signifier, or how being a skateboarder gives you a particular view of the world, or what it means to be a graffiti artist, and…[that] studio practice that isn’t just a shitty, watered-down version of what you do on the street.” And that, my friend, is the keen eye that the SoHo contemporary art scene is now without.

Unfortunately, some don’t appreciate the importance of Deitch’s work in New York City. Critic Bruce Hackney (who was previously the managing director of the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Chelsea and now runs his own management company for artists) has accused Mr. Deitch of simply creating a brand name for himself and his gallery. And that brand says “young, hip, trendy, cool: lots of chaos and irreverence.” Apparently, Mr. Hackney believes that radicalism in contemporary art is no longer necessary or relevant. But what you seem to be focusing on, Mr. Hackney, is the style of the creators without the context of their culture. What you seem to be forgetting, Mr. Hackney, is that art isn’t limited to the gallery, and that it is precisely for the reason that art can come from anywhere (even the L train, as much as it pains me to admit) and can affect everyone.

Mary Boone (of Mary Boone Gallery, est. 1977 on Fifth Avenue) has stated that she doesn’t believe downtown’s art scene will change much, despite the departing of this legendary figure. But I think Stephan Stoyanov (of Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in SoHo) understands it best: “It’s going to leave a void. He took a lot of risks over the years- I can’t say that for a lot of our colleagues in Chelsea. For the last several years, if you went to Chelsea, it’s always just painting, painting, painting. Jeffrey was never afraid.” And it’s true, because no matter how you spin it, through his unique collaborations and sponsorships, Mr. Deitch had spent over a decade striving to bring outsider art to the mainstream of the contemporary art scene, and to bring a new audience into the art world. Mr. Deitch was, in essence, redefining contemporary art the way the radical artists of the 60s had done. Through his chaotic events, Jeffrey Deitch was breathing a new life into the New York City art scene. And there is a distinct flavor that will be lost once the remnants of Mr. Deitch’s galleries stop functioning for good.

However, despite what I’ve made it sound like, Mary Boone was right after all: Deitch hasn’t died, he’s just moved on. The artists of New York City will continue to create art and the contemporary art scene will continue to evolve without his patronage. I know that Mr. Deitch will bring his unique energy and revolutionary vision with him to the Museum of Contemporary Art and to Los Angeles, and we wish him nothing but the best of luck there. It’s just that it must be said: Mr. Deitch, New York City will never be the same without you.

Please note, quotes were taken from The Observer article “Dear Jeffrey Deitch: Thanks for Never Being Boring!” from January 12, 2010.

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!