Archive for December, 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.