Saturday, June 13, 2009

Urban Scrawl: Graffiti Artists

Deborah Voorhees

When New York sanitized its subways and ghettos of graffiti in the late 1980s, Norman Mailer compared the city to a jungle without foliage. He even bemoaned the controversial art form's death. That assessment has proven premature.

Galleries around the country, and especially abroad, are showing the work of graffiti artists with nicknames such as Crash, Stitch, Phase 2, Ozone and Vert. Last month alone, exhibitions opened in Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Germany and Australia, as well as in the Dallas area.
"Aerosol Scrawl: An Indoor Graffiti Extravaganza" runs through Saturday at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson.

"Graffiti art is going through its first revival since [Keith] Haring, [Kenny] Scharf and [Jean-Michel] Basquiat had front-row seats in the art world in the late '70s and early '80s, " says Greg Metz, coordinator for UTD's main gallery. "It's time for graffiti to claim its place as an art form."

These days accomplished graffiti artists, called "writers," receive commissions to do work for bars, galleries, restaurants, record stores and other businesses. In New York, three former street kids - who go by nicknames Nicer, Bio, BG183 - started Top Artistic Talents to create urban art; clients include Coca-Cola, Reebok and Seagram's Chivas Regal. Others have taken the skill they honed on the street to Internet Web sites and advertising art.

Even lesser-known artists are getting commissions for their work. Dallas graffiti artist Greg Contestabile (a.k.a. Ozone), whose works are in the UTD exhibit, makes much of his living painting urban scenes and graffiti for clients that include several Deep Ellum clubs and area businesses, as well as the television series Walker, Texas Ranger.

"When they're doing an episode about gangs or an urban scenario, they call me to do the graffiti, " says Ozone, who's 36. "I've done about five or six episodes now."

Even though graffiti has gone beyond the scrawls on bathroom walls and subways, it remains a contentious subject because of its roots in vandalism. "It's discouraging when you see "Lobos' or "East Side Homeboys' scrawled across a wall, " laments 19-year-old Luke Harnden (a.k.a. Vert), who also has work in the UTD exhibit. "That's how many people view graffiti. "Masters' [accomplished graffiti artists] set out to make the environment look better, not worse."

Of course, the Dallas city ordinance banning graffiti reflects a different perspective. "I've seen some great work out there, " says Dallas police Sgt. Mark Langford, who serves on the gang unit. "Some of these guys have real talent. But it doesn't matter if it's a gang symbol or a pretty picture. If they don't have the owner's permission, it's illegal."

Vert has done illegal pieces. Some owners and anti-graffiti citizen groups "paint over anything in the realm of graffiti, whether it has artistic merit or not. That's [disappointing] but someone has to clean up, I guess." The ultimate compliment to artists is when their work is left alone.

Vert has been fascinated with graffiti since age 13 when he first saw it towering 10 stories above on an abandoned rice mill in Houston. "It drove something inside of me, " he says. "There's just something exciting and dynamic about the architecture of words, bending letters around and making them into images."

Early on, the danger element appealed to him, but these days Vert and his peers are as likely to paint legally as illegally. Not having to worry about getting caught gives them the time to do detailed pieces. "I'll approach bar owners and other business owners and proposition them, " says Vert.

Local artists rarely see their works in galleries; for some, the UTD exhibit has been their first chance. Mostly, their work is temporarily displayed on a few walls and fences around Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville. The free-for-all space where owners have given their permission is limited and highly competitive, and work can literally disappear overnight. Part of the tradition of graffiti is to photograph your work; often, it is the only lasting record of it.

"There's always another artist ready to paint over your work, " says Vert. "I try not to let it get to me."

In Dallas and around the country, graffiti art has not held collectors' interest since the first surge in the early 1980s. Still, last November, the self-portrait by Mr. Basquiat, the late graffiti artist, sold for $3.3 million at a Christie's auction in New York.

"Internationally, graffiti art has remained very hot in Holland, Germany and now Japan, " says Jan Ramirez, deputy director of collections at the Museum of the City of New York. "Many of the early New York writers - Crash, Daze, Phase 2, Mico, Lady Pink - have gone on to have major international careers."

Despite the renewed interest among some galleries, museums rarely explore the genre. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had the Bay Area graffiti artist Twist spray a wall mural in 1996 that stayed up for four months. The Museum of the City of New York owns urban artist Martin Wong's private collection of New York graffiti art and hopes to mount an exhibit in 2004 after completing a new 35,000-square-foot hall.

Historically, graffiti has always been primal and public. "Prehistoric predecessors wrote on cave walls, " says Mr. Metz. "Many were done similarly to spray painting. They'd blow pigmented oxides through hollow bones to record their signature or codifier. It became a permanent record [or] shadow of their temporary life form."

Throughout history, the impulse to make one's mark in a public space has endured. Pompeii and the Great Wall of China are famous for their graffiti. In World War II, troops scrawled messages on walls.

As a contemporary genre, graffiti first came out of the ghettos, subways and sewers - a kind of modern cave - in the 1960s as a way for gangs to mark their territory. The writing explosion didn't occur until 1971 when The New York Times profiled "Taki 183, " a delivery boy who wrote his "tag" nickname all over the city rather than just confining it to his own neighborhood.

"The newspapers were a great stimulus to graffiti because they covered it like they were covering a war, " says Jack Stewart, who earned his doctorate in subway art from New York University. "They [the youths] all wanted to get their names in the papers."

By the end of 1971, the scrawl covered the city. Writers had to invent new ways to draw attention to their name. Bold color and exaggerated three-dimensional letters began showing up, and the images grew larger and more abstract.

"It was the voice of the people from the underground, " says Vert. "It was a common man's way to fame."

By 1972, the subway was carrying youths' names around the five boroughs of New York, and the once isolated gangs formed writing clubs as a way to exchange creative ideas. "They got to know each other because they admired the talent of writers from other neighborhoods, " says Mr. Stewart.

Graffiti art is as uniquely American as jazz, rap and rock 'n' roll. The New York graffiti marks the first stylistic change to wall scrawling since Paleolithic times, says Dr. Stewart. "There has been no other graffiti that was created as a work of art until these youths in New York, " he says.
Graffiti artists such as Vert still follow their lead. The style of lettering remains remarkably the same whether the graffiti is in Italy, Germany, Holland or any American city. Artistic talent and daring feats, such as hanging over a bridge to "bomb, " or paint, a hard-to-reach spot, are still highly regarded.

Unlike their predecessors, Vert and his peers think nothing of using brushes and rollers along with their spray can. The skill that's required when working a spray can is still admired. Drips come from the inexperienced hand, and Vert, as those before him, uses different size tips to get varying spray widths. Some tips he plucks from other aerosol cans and others he makes himself.
Writers still have tight networks, but their selection of canvases has grown much larger. Not only do graffiti artists share "pieces" from around the world on the Internet, but they also no longer just paint their own cities.

They travel the highways to reach legal walls. Cities such as San Diego, Phoenix, Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis have put on writing events for artists around the country. In August, Vert and his crew rented a van and headed to St. Louis to participate in a massive aerosol "bomb" on a Mississippi River flood wall, which runs several miles under a railroad bridge through downtown.
Crews marked out their spots, like homesteaders plotting off land. Vert and his crew ended up at the end of the line with about an 80-foot section. At events such as these, they meet other writers, exchange ideas and often stay in touch. Vert, who gets a particular thrill painting freight and passenger trains, receives letters from artists in other cities who have seen his work.

Trains offer youths increased visibility that the metropolitan transit systems just can't. But more has changed than national recognition among these artists. Characters and images - something purists balk at - have been creeping into the art form for years.

"If it doesn't have letters, it's not "graf, ' " says New Yorker Hugo Martinez, who 27 years ago was the first to encourage graffiti artists to put their work on canvas. He owns Martinez Gallery, which shows graffiti art.

Ozone sees it differently. His attraction has always been to images, not letters. He's known for a cartoon punk with bug eyes and a pack filled with aerosol cans slung over his shoulder. At the UTD exhibit, the character stands in front of a fire hydrant looking out over the city.

"That's where the symbolism comes in, " says Ozone. "He's like a dog marking his territory."

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