Thursday, March 29, 2012 8:35 AM
In Arizona, an African American doctor creates street art to heal the Navajo Nation. In São Paulo, a graffiti artist documents the lives of the homeless and working-class. In New Orleans and Chicago, an artist creates a space for people to share dreams. There’s plenty of cool street art out there, but these three artists use walls, thought, and skill to change lives.
Jetsonorama began wheatpasting large-scale photo-collages in 2009, reports Sarah Gilman for High Country News, after experimenting with photography and small-scale wheatpasting for the two-plus decades he’d served as a physician on a Navajo reservation. His work evolved and last September, as part of 350.org’s EARTH initiative to bring awareness to climate change, the artist wheatpasted giant images of a baby’s face looking up at a cloud-like lump of coal. Writes the artist on his blog:
“everyone i talked with was raised on the reservation. they all identified coal as a cheap source of fuel, especially for the elders. [...] everyone in my small sample identified respiratory problems associated with burning coal in the home. everyone acknowledged that the coal mined on the reservation is used to generate energy off the reservation for surrounding megalopolises such as denver, phoenix, albuquerque, las vegas and l.a. they found this arrangement to be problematic.”
Jetsonorama’s work seeks to heal beyond coal and its effects on individual bodies. Each of his pieces functions as a conversation-starter, creating both dialogue and a source of local pride.
Amidst the rubble of São Paulo Brazil, Bruno Dias celebrates everyday locals, be they homeless, prostitutes, or street vendors. For art nouveau’s Kendrick Daye, Dias’ art “expresses the relationship between physical space and the people of the country.” When the audience begins to recognize a spray-painted image as the homeless man nearby or a face on the wall as a street vendor, we can’t help but wonder what became of those who are not in the photographs near their portraits. In this sense, Dias has discovered a way to document the everyday fates of the oft-overlooked. The artist does not pretend that his portraits begin to solve social quandaries such as homelessness and prostitution, but he does commemorate those most affected by poverty and social struggle.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, artist Candy Chang brought focus back to goals and desires by turning one wall of a decrepit building into a chalkboard. The upper left corner reads “Before I die…” and below it are nearly one hundred places for passers-by to fill in the blank. “Before I die I want to ______________.” Answers range from the daunting, “SEE EQUALITY” to the playful, “Swim w/out holding my nose!” For a city burdened with the task of rebuilding as the rest of the nation scrutinizes, what better to focus on than hopes and dreams for individuals, community, and society?
“Before I die…” is not relevant only to New Orleans, however. Because the work re-centers viewers and creates a forum for local conversation ‒ two things sorely lacking in our plugged-in global network ‒ it seems it would be relevant almost anywhere. Earlier this month, the piece was installed in Chicago. The space (pictured above) was quickly filled beyond the sanctioned blank lines, reports Christopher Jobson of Colossal. And since Chang created a toolkit allowing installation anywhere, “Before I die…” has popped up in countries such as Mexico, Kazakhstan, and Portugal.
Friday, April 01, 2011 11:34 AM
Sometimes great cultural breakthroughs are watershed events, celebrated far and wide. When evolutionary forces conspired to mesh Appalachian hill music, Mississippi River Delta blues, and big-city boogie woogie and create a wholly new cultural entity in Elvis Presley, the country duly rejoiced. Other cultural milestones, however, arrive not at all with a bang. They percolate underground for forty years or more, roiling through several generations of evolution, adoption, innovation, and cultural adaptation, until they find a more gradual, quieter, and less publicized acceptance by the mainstream.
Such an anticlimax was the subtext of a peculiar moment during the most recent Academy Awards ceremony this past February. Only a half-hour into the event, presenter Justin Timberlake leaned into the mic, before announcing the winners of the best animated film awards, and deadpanned, "I, uh--… I’m Banksy." Then he straightened and said, "Wow, that felt good." The cryptic joke provoked mild and scattered laughter from the bemused audience, while another smaller, more select and distant subset of American culture—such as many Hollywood elites, who had become collectors after Banksy’s controversial Los Angeles 2006 show “Barely Legal”—rejoiced. At long last, Street Art had hit the mainstream.
The immediate impetus for Timberlake’s joke was Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature that was made by the street artist Banksy and that much of which took place in and around Los Angeles. The film is notable for leaving the audience in the dark not only about Banksy’s true identity (his face is blacked out and voice altered throughout the film), but also about whether the actual subject of the film—a filmmaker-cum-street artist named Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash—is or is not a hoax perpetrated by Banksy and others. This sort of “culture jamming,”—i.e., subverting, for political reasons, of mainstream cultural institutions (in this case, the art market and Hollywood)—is a hallmark of artists who work in Banksy’s chosen milieu and medium. After all, Banksy first came to international attention in the summer of 2005 for a series of mildly political guerrilla art works executed, by the artist and his assistants, in view of security forces on the Israeli West Bank barrier separating Israel.
But while Timberland’s joke may represent Banksy’s emergence into mainstream awareness, it also was an unprecedented mainstream nod to the legitimacy of graffiti culture and the entire street art movement, a nod that had been many, many years in coming. Exactly how many years is difficult to say, of course. Public scratch marks—“graffiti” derives from the Italian word sgraffiare, “to scratch,” and before that from the Greek gráphein, “to write”—have been found in urban settlements forever. The equivalent of “for a good time call _____” has been found in graffiti among the ruins of ancient Ephesus, Rome, and Pompeii. And while this shows that the impulse for public scratching and writing is essentially human, over the centuries these markings rarely, if ever, rose to the level of “art.”
The idea of graffiti as an art form (that is, street art) has a murkier history. While scholars note the avant-garde art adoption of graffiti forms as early as the 1960s—in the work of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism starting 1961 and of New York artists like John Fekner in the later 1960s—much of this work is coolly conceptual and somewhat lacking in the expressionistic verve, stylistic idiosyncracies, and other unique conventions of later street art. For my money, a more intriguing point of origin for the styles, conventions, materials, and means of expression of what we know today as street art can be found in the placas, or "wall writing," of los Sureños, or the Chicano street gangs of Los Angeles.
Starting in the 1960s, mysterious gang markings, usually made from black spray paint from the aerosol cans that had become increasingly common in the 1950s, proliferated all across Southern California. When I was a kid in the 1970s, you would find these hieroglyphs on the walls of city buildings, on suburban fences and playground walls, and under freeway overpasses or in flood control channels. Such graffiti served the purpose of marking territory and advertising a gang’s merits (over those of its rival Hispanic, African-American, and other gang), and also of culture jamming the dominant white culture of L.A.—i.e., sticking it in the face of the moneyed interests that ruled these kids’ lives. Each gang competed to develop more elaborate artistic flourishes—i.e, artistic style—in order to advertise what the gang was all about. In an era before the hyperawareness of gang culture—before N.W.A., Boyz n the Hood, and violence-glorifying video games focused on gang life—to many these markings were horribly evocative, infused with an abstract sense of menace and threat.
But the graffiti was not just advertisement. Sureño gang markings developed out of a long history of struggle against marginalization and prejudice. Beatrice Griffith, in her book from the late 1940s, American Me, describes the emergence of a proto-gangster lifestyle among the zoot suit pachucos who fought with servicemen stationed in L.A. during World War II and eventually rioted after the murder of a young Latino man in 1943. According to Susan A. Phillip’s history on L.A.-gang and hip-hop graffiti, Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A., the graffiti of L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s was a means of communications that expressed something about hybrid cultural status of many of the young gang members making the marks. “Pachuco, cholo, pocho,” she writes. “Africans in America. People stuck in the spots betwixt and between cultures may be part of things but seem to belong nowhere…. Hybridity creates new social forms within the ‘layered conception of the modern world,’ balancing modernity and tradition.” This self-awareness among gangsters of their hybrid life led them to develop hybrid forms of communication that increasingly resembled art. Or, as Phillips quotes anthropologist Nestor Garcia Canclini: “Graffiti is a syncretic and transcultural medium. Some graffiti fuse word and image with a discontinuous style: the crowding together of diverse authors’ signs on a single wall is like an artisanal version of the fragmented and incongruent….”
For a skinny, faceless kid from Bristol, England, like Banksy to take on the style and working methods of the street-savvy Sureño wallbangers, and for him to come to Los Angeles forty years later to make a movie and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from sales of his graffiti-infused works of art, is of course ironic. But it is also, in our increasingly hybrid, synthesized, mishmashy, and multicultural world, somehow completely fitting.
Michael Fallon is a guest blogger for Utne.com. He is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications.
Both images are licensed under Creative Commons.
The author owes a debt of gratitude to the photographer Howard Gribble (a.k.a. Kid Deuce), whose Flickr photoset of 1970s-era L.A. gang graffiti (some examples of which are linked to above) is a treasure trove of visual information.
Thursday, November 11, 2010 2:49 PM
That giant bearded man blowing on a dandelion or that Mystery Science Theater 3000 stencil at the bottom of a wall is trying to tell you something about your city. Street art and those artists who make it, that is, might be trying to show you something about the place you live, not just their art.
Exploring the work of one Baltimore street artist, who goes by the name Gaia, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson writes in the October issue of Urbanite that through his work “one can almost hear the city speak.” So, what exactly is the city saying? For Gaia, who is also a gallery artist, his images of desperate looking animals with human arms and hands are “expressive of the contention between the wild and civilization.” That contention has led us to a point where, according to the artist, “we know that we are going on the wrong path, and there are messengers telling us that our lives aren’t sustainable, but no one is listening.” Dickinson would probably categorize Gaia, and other street artists like him, among those messengers. The way she sees it, simply making people notice the abandoned and destitute buildings is bringing a message to them:
It's easy to overlook the abandoned building near the corner of Park Avenue and Franklin Street on the edge of Mount Vernon. Traverse this city enough, and the sagging facades, the sunken roofs, the boarded windows become so commonplace that they are invisible. But here, on a weathered brick wall, a drawing of a man looms over the alley demanding attention. White, elderly, plump with success, he is rendered in black and white and looks toward Franklin with a dispassionate eye. His presence somehow amplifies the condition of the structure: With the roof gone and the windows blown out, sunlight pierces a seemingly moth-eaten shell. Trees grow where they shouldn't. Exposed wood roof trusses give the feeling of a beached ship, as though the building has been marooned and left to rot.
Suddenly, you see the building. Really see it.
Image at top courtesy of Dustin Luke Nelson.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 12:50 PM
Kind of makes you want to go out and paint a wall... In Rome...
(Thanks, Wooster Collective.)
Wednesday, June 17, 2009 2:36 PM
Fans of street art may be familiar with French artist Invader , who creates 8-bit-inspired mosaic tile art that can be found on city streets and in galleries around the world. He is also credited with originating a style of art called “Rubickubism,” which, as he demonstrates in the video below, uses Rubik’s Cube squares as the medium for a sort of digital pointillism. He has an upcoming solo show at Jonathan LeVine Gallery , one of my favorite galleries in New York, starting June 27th.
(Thanks, Wooster Collective .)
Image courtesy of Invader
Wednesday, May 20, 2009 5:02 PM
When Fox News reports on Banksy’s latest $191,000 sale , it may be time to rethink the subversive value of street art.
Bay Area artists Sabina Nieto and Tarak Shah have taken art back indoors with the establishment of mauve? , an office-space micro gallery in Berkeley, CA.
Situating aesthetic creativity within austere productivity, the gallery provides three 3’x6’ cubicle panels to local artists for one-month engagements. The gallery's third show, “Strategic Alternative Payback Plan” by William Calabrese and Harish Bhandari opened May 12.
Monday, April 13, 2009 12:51 PM
Global street artist Above’s recent piece, Easter AIG Hunt, skewers corporate bailout culture by imagining a Wall Street type stealing eggs from crying children.
For more information on Above, read this profile in the San Francisco Chronicle, visit his website, or check out videos from his world tour from Wooster Collective.
EASTER AIG HUNT
Source: Wooster Collective
Tuesday, February 03, 2009 1:55 PM
Undercover photographer JR, who I blogged about last summer, has completed another amazing project, this time in Kibera, Kenya. He installed his distinctive black and white portraits on the rooftops of one of the largest slums in Africa, depicting women who live there. The images protect the structures from water damage, and are large enough to be viewed by Google Earth. He also installed the top portions of the portraits on the sides of the train that passes twice daily through the area, which momentarily align with the bottom portions installed on the hillside to complete the image.
(Thanks Wooster Collective.)
Monday, July 28, 2008 12:21 PM
One of my favorite outdoor artists, undercover photographer JR, has posted images from his new project in Cartagena, Spain. JR, best known for his earlier projects Face2Face and Women Are Heroes, “transforms his pictures into posters and makes open space photo galleries out of our streets.” He also posted a video documenting the Cartagena project here.
(Thanks, Wooster Collective.)
UPDATE (8/21/08): JR has posted cool new images from Rio de Janeiro.
Monday, April 21, 2008 3:00 PM
It’s difficult to capture the attention of a New Yorker. Artist Joshua Allen Harris has found a way, not only to make people stop and look, but also laugh out loud, and that’s good for everybody. His adorable inflatable creatures harness the power of the burst of air that accompanies a subway car’s passing, creating a wonderful, herky-jerky effect that gives the creatures their personalities. Best of all, in their deflated state, they look exactly like trash caught in the grates. As is often the case, things are more than they seem.
(Thanks, Wooster Collective.)
Here are two videos of Joshua Allen Harris’ work:
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