Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A problem with street-art, pt. 1

I have noticed more and more throughout the East Village that a street-artist has been tagging every possible inch of space.  His tag is evidenced below, on the right.  I had assumed that he was a young kid who had found a new way of expressing some irreverent sense of himself and was exploiting it to the full. Much as a pubescent girl will do when she discovers how to write her name in cursive. She will write it on every surface available to her, oftentimes experimenting with combining single or various boy's names, to perform the sort of magic in her mind that fuses the two together in some romantic notion.  It is a form of witchcraft, of course, but a seemingly harmless and ubiquitous one.

But as for our subject, and his tagging insistence, I couldn't help but wonder if he was an artist that believed himself to be promoting his work. There were a few problems with this though.  One was that he seems to insist on associating himself with other street artists who he seemed to have no genuine connection with, like Banksy:

This, in and of itself, represents no genuine problem for me.  But it is the other way that he defiles the neighborhood that perturbs me, and others.  He will take reasonably interesting street art and tag his name on it, blurring the distinctions between what he has done and what others have done, ostensibly for his gain.  The examples are many, but here is one that I happened to have photographed without even noticing his tag at the time.  It was not until later, when the level of his error become impossible not to notice that I realized what he had done this to this work.  I went back to verify, and sure enough, the blue that he used to sloppily augment the cat's eyes was a different color from the blue outline but the same as the color used for his tag, found on the upper right portion of the work.

There are other examples.  He tagged his name on the image of Joe Strummer's t-shirt on the wall painting on the corner of 7th St. and Ave. A, the one known as "The Future Is Unwritten."  To some this is sacrilege.  I wonder if he knows who Joe Strummer was.  I went to get a picture of that but it had been painted over.  Follow the link above for an article about it.

Respecting others' work is not a cornerstone of all street art.  In fact, many street artists take great pride in subverting the work of others, though many of them do so creatively to the face of advertising, as a way of re-asserting their identity in the space that is as much or more theirs than the advertisers. Billboards, street posters, store-fronts, etc.  To not only deface the work of other like-minded artists, but to attempt to steal credit from them, goes against the ethos of the form somewhat.  To fight against accepted norms is the role of certain artists, but to do so artlessly is unambiguously tiresome.

There is more...

There are parts of the neighborhood where you can not walk more than a few steps without seeing his tag.  The image below is about 10 feet from the lead image to this post.  Even though it makes no discernible sense to tag on an old wooden door, the entranceway to a private residence, he chose to do so. Perhaps in a fevered state of creativity, perhaps only in an ongoing publicity push.

For fun I pretended that I was a cop and assigned to this case. I began to devise ways that I would go about catching him.  I thought of writing entries online praising his work, suggesting connections and advancements that to him would seem plausible, offering to facilitate those advancements, having him get in touch with me, filming him perform his work, then turning it over to the judge.  This is the type stuff I dream about as I'm walking the dog, you see.

It then occurred to me that I didn't want to be a cop, or pursue street-artists, at all.  I support what they do, mostly.  It is this example and others like it that I took exception to.

As soon as I did the most perfunctory research on him I discovered that he had already been arrested. He had a showing at a local gallery and was arrested the night before the show, missing the show altogether, and presumably disappointing those there to see him, David Byrne among them.  This arrest, I'm certain, validates him even further in the minds of those who seek to believe that an artist must suffer to vandalize society, and what could be better to exemplify suffering than being arrested for your art as you are committing that very art.  Several New York artists have had a long-running dalliance with street artists, and it's no surprise.  It lends them a certain type of credibility: cred, it's called.

Warhol's condescending fascination with Basquiat being but one example among many.  If an artist is black, or gay, or even better: all of those things, and dead.  Well, voila!  There alone must exist urban sensitivity supreme.  It is a form of racism that is hardly ever questioned: to prefer one group over others using a set of indiscriminate criteria and as a replacement for genuine response and appreciation.  It is a way of saying that the art of one group, or individual, is superior to that of another based on their race, or sexual leanings, and it supersedes appreciation of the art itself.  It is the unseen and unquestioned triumph of racist leanings in our culture.

I like David Byrne and appreciate his music and art efforts.  I once went to see him perform here in New York as a gift for my birthday.  I was standing upstairs by the bar, listening to the opening act, whose name I believe was "Chocolate Genius."  An enthusiastic young "metro" kept trying to hush me as I chatted with my girlfriend there at the bar.  I responded that this was a bar, and as such it actually invites conversation, it does not demand the abortion of it.  His undying admiration for art revealed itself further in him imploring me to Be Quiet! while "Chocolate" was expressing himself.  I said, I could give a fuck less about Afro-Skittles, I came down here to DANCE!!!!!

I resist admiration or discrimination based on the self-conscious addressing of one's color, or ethnic heritage, or any other similar criteria.  Pain and joy are credible in art to the extent that they are expressed artistically.  It is no crime to use one's heritage as a basis for context but if that heritage serves as an exclusionary impediment to others' experiencing the art then questions must be asked.  It is NOT a black thing, and I very much do understand what that statement implies.  But telling me that I don't, or can't understand, invites me to go ahead and try.  If what I find there is racist gibberish then don't also ask me to be silent about it.

All that being said:

I had no idea who he was at the time of his arrest. Though I had been noticing his stylized name paintings almost every single step that I took in the neighborhood.

I went by the store front where he seems to operate from, to see what there was to see.  As I walked in there were a few of his pieces hanging from the walls. Things that were more interesting than his street tags.  I took a single picture.  A person watching the shop asked if anybody could take pictures. I heard a "No" from somewhere unseen. So I said, ok, looked around for a couple of minutes then walked outside.  Once outside I took a few pictures of where he works, out on the sidewalk. A young latino man followed me out and started yelling at me that I can't take any pictures.  I said that I'm in public and I'll take any pictures that I want to.  He seemed to want to get closer to me to either emphasize his point, or because he perhaps had difficulty with hearing.  He approached quickly but stopped just short of hugging distance.  He again asserted his version of the laws of private property.  I emphatically explained again that this was not private but rather public property, the sidewalk.  He again emphasized his version of property laws and augmented it with wild gesticulations.

Below is the store-front that he was presumably charged with protecting against photography. It should be noted that this is only a few feet from the renovated public bath-house that Eddie Adam's resided and worked at for the remainder of his life.

It was about this time that I realized that this bright young fellow might be unhinged.  I thought that a quick test might render a negative or positive result.  I asserted, I'm in public and I'll take a picture of any fucking thing I want to, and if you don't get the fuck out of my face you're going to end up in jail just like your hero, but only after a very serious ass-kicking.  Do I make myself clear?

He was not only able to understand this line of questioning.  He contributed to the experiment with his own line of questioning: Do you want me to stomp your ass right here and now?

I said, Well since you give me a choice, I suppose that "no" would be my answer.  But you still haven't answered my question...   I believe he called me a "nigga" as he walked back inside excitedly.  I decided that this signaled the end of our discourse, for now, and the thought of him accumulating other subjects that might disrupt the purity of our experiments occurred to me. In the interest of scientific inquiry I decided to return to the lab and collate the raw data.

I returned to this strange zone of private property later that night and decided to collect even more raw data. A slightly older latino man, one closer to my age, met me at the door of the shop, oddly, and we had a pleasant conversation.  We discussed street-art, tagging, graffiti, and the difficulties associated with performing an art that is seen by the law as illegal.  We also discussed the unique temperamental dispositions of artists, and the trouble that they will occasionally get themselves into when confronted with commerce and personal choices, like addiction. He explained that the subject of this piece was currently in jail, serving 30 days for tagging.  In a fevered state he had signed an admission of guilt and a promise to clean up his tags when he gets out of jail.  I expressed my interest to video this process as well as interview the artist himself, possibly while he was performing his retribution.  It was my belief, then as it is now, that there is a story to be told there.  A story of timely importance, considering the rise in interest of street-art.  I asked if it would be possible to shoot an interview with the artist.  We exchanged numbers and shook hands and smiled at one another. I confided that my earlier experiment in making contact might have been misunderstood, as the ways of science can seem perplexing and elusive from the outside.

As part of the milder conversation relayed above the man I spoke with also told me that other street-artists have been coming from all over the world, like London, to work with our local genius.  This explained the tag that is shown in the lead image, though it does not explain how or why the very well-known artist Banksy chose to misspell his name on this occasion, or why he would choose to tag with the same can of paint used by our hero, or in the exact same style.  These are questions meant to be pondered if they are to produce any meaning, or answers.

I thought that maybe I would also experiment with tagging his tags. Modifying them to say Lacroc , or perhaps Laroche, or maybe even Lecrack.  Lara Logan.  Lyndon Larouche.  Who knows.  It could be my contribution to this vibrant artistic statement. Larock you like a hurricane.... I could begin to go by the... Sq6rpion

But alas, I was already too late.