Archive for January, 2010

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.

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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!

Contemporary society is greatly affected by our interaction with everyday visual culture; this is to say, the things that we see everywhere everyday. The movie Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture. It takes a look at the proliferation of Helvetica, one of the most used typefaces in the world, as a part of “a larger conversation about the way typefaces affect our lives.” The film also works to “explore urban spaces and the type that inhabits them,” and intersperses these visual examples with interviews with renowned designers, who discuss Helvetica, the creative process of their work, as well as the aesthetic choices behind their works. This allows the viewer to see very clearly the rift between modernist and postmodernist designers, with the latter expressing and explaining their criticisms of the famous typeface.

This film makes the claim that the first problem that arises with a higher demand for more impressive space within the clutter of the visual landscape is a company’s desire to appeal to more people than its competition. In the 1950s, there was a demand for a more rational, legible, and “modern” typeface, which would simultaneously appeal to everyone and have “all the right connotations” (that is to say, none at all). The creators of the typeface believed that it was the social responsibility of designers to create order by use of a grid system and uniform spacing (as the spaces between the letters are as significant, or more significant, than the letters themselves). Modernist designers believe that Helvetica is the solution to all problems; that is, it works as the universal logo. This is because they believe that a font should be like a crystal goblet: the font itself should not communicate anything and a reader should not be aware of the typeface, except in its efficiency in communication.

However, postmodernists designers are unhappy with the way that Helvetica has become almost the typographic “default” of designers and is therefore leading to the decay of urban landscape. This has led to a swing back to subjective typeface designs as well as other experimental designs. Designers from this school of thought believe that typeface should display at least some degree of vitality and personality. This is because many post-modern designers believe that just because something is legible doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth reading. Therefore, they believe that in this sense, Helvetica’s legibility and overuse has led to overcrowding in the modern visual landscape with useless and often irrelevant information. Borrowing lettering design ideas from graffiti, stencils, grunge, and other hand-lettering styles, this film demonstrates how certain elements of street art have been appropriated and ruthlessly added into the corporate visual landscape. It’s rather ironic when this happens, because graffiti is widely considered a method of reclaiming public space or to display one’s art form.

This film gives those studying the corporate visual landscape important insight into the uses and connotations of typography. It leaves its viewers to question how typography affects them and their consumer behavior. But more than that, it shows how elements of the visual landscape will eventually be capitalized upon. Definitely a must-watch for anyone interested in learning more about graphic design and the corporate visual landscape.