‘Boom For Real’ Chronicles Basquiat’s Life as a Homeless NYC Teen (Watch)

Photo by Alexis Adler


Everyone knows the name Jean-Michel Basquiat. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, he became one of the world’s most influential artists, responsible for revolutionizing the New York art scene by popularizing street art and promoting a radical, political message. But before his paintings were selling for $110,000,00 at auction, Basquiat was living as a homeless teen in NYC’s East Village.

A new documentary, Boom For Real, explores this pivotal time in the artist’s life, which undoubtedly impacted his work and career. From the prevalence of drugs, crime and violence that he witnessed (in the documentary, director Sara Driver shows how his famous tag “SAMO” came from Basquiat seeing the “same ‘ol shit”), to his experiences with class struggle, these themes were at the center of the artist’s work until his untimely death in 1988. While most of the other films about the painter, like Tamra Davis’ 2010 Radiant Child documentary, touch on Basquiat’s career and the effect he’s had on contemporary art, Boom For Real sheds light on his life before fame, and how those experiences shaped him as an artist.

In theaters May 11. Watch the trailer, below.



Etnia Barcelona Releases New Basquiat-Inspired Sunglasses

Basquiat’s work was iconic, imbued with a level of unabashed emotion and power that street art hadn’t seen when he first began wreaking havoc on New York in the ’80s. By addressing charged themes like racism, politics and hypocrisy, the young painter gave new depth to graffiti art and infiltrated the world of high-brow aficionados with a personal, outsider approach.

Designer eyewear brand Etnia Barcelona has tapped into this narrative, creating a capsule collection of sunglasses that incorporate Basquiat-inspired motifs through smart, subtle details. An homage to the late visionary, this exclusive release follows the brand’s mission to develop authentic accessories with an eye for key cultural movements in art and photography.


Four different sunglasses will be available worldwide with patterns based on three original works by Basquiat. Though each individual piece is unique, Etnia Barcelona’s designed the eyewear with three vertices to resemble those hand-drawn, three-point crowns that we’ve grown to associate with Basquiat’s legacy.

A true fusion of substance and style, Etnia Barcelona’s forthcoming capsule sees the release of a fashion film, as well, featuring rapper Oddisee and graphic artist Elle—two contemporary figures who’ve both kept Basquiat’s rebellious energy alive today. Watch, below:


Write of Passage

By Alexandra Phanor-Faury 

Since Banksy launched his month long residency on the streets of New York, his much lauded and sought after stenciled work has everyone talking about graffiti, from Mayor Bloomberg, who deems it a sign of decay and loss of control, to art students defending its legitimacy, and landlords cashing in on their Banksy enhanced properties. But according to graffiti historian Sacha Jenkins, all the buzz about the world’s most prominent graffiti artist is riddled with misconceptions. “Real graffiti has always been about letters, and that’s the fundamental difference between Banksy’s figurative art and the people in the graffiti underworld,” explains Jenkins. “We call ourselves writers; the media called it graffiti.”

Jenkins is currently curating “Write of Passage” at Red Bull Studios, an exhibit (showing until November 23) commemorating the history of this American art form that he hopes will educate the public on the roots of writing and attempt to rid it of the unsavory reputation that has long plagued it. The exhibit features more than 100 original works that include a vintage subway door, canvasses, and photographs. “Because of this current graffiti hysteria in New York, I think people are more curious than ever to learn more about what the art they are seeing on the street really means,” says Jenkins.

The editor, TV producer (VH1) and author, who has penned a number of books on graffiti and co-authored Eminem’s autobiography “The Way I Am” took some time out of from the exhibit to school us on the language of graffiti, the effect it had on his life, how freight trains are the new canvas, and why Chris Brown’s attempt at graffiti is a colossal fail.

How did “Write of Passage” come to fruition?
I’m an Editorial Director for Mass Appeal Magazine and we took this idea to Red Bull. I wanted to educate the public at large and hip them to the 40 year long history and the tradition that has been passed down to the folks around the world. It’s a great American art form, like rock & roll, jazz, the blues, and everything else people love about American culture. Graffiti is part of that pantheon and the world at large recognizes it. Red Bull is not an American company and they see the value and understand there is a culture here that speaks to people around the world. If you understand the root of the language of graffiti that was born in New York and Philadelphia, you can go anywhere in the world and you’ll find people of all races who participate in this writing culture and you can understand where they are coming from. This is because a percentage of what they might paint is an extension of what was pioneered in New York.

It’s fair to say that most people believe anything painted on a street wall is graffiti. “Write of Passage” clarifies that is not the case. Is Banksy more of a street artist?
[Graffiti] was called writing because they wrote their names. In the writing subculture, it’s all about language, words and focusing on that. In street art there might be dolphins, a rainbow or a smile, things that are familiar to folks in everyday life. Graffiti is a language most are not familiar with and are intimidated by. You are not really considered a writer unless you focus exclusively on letters and your desire is to create a letter form that makes you stand out. You can be a graffiti artist that incorporates faces and smiles in your writing. In the case of a Banksy, he has writing in his work but there isn’t much attention placed on the detail of creating writing or a word that is stylistically important. The words in his piece are just there to help communicate the bigger idea. The big idea in writing is the letters and words.

You don’t hesitate to call out people posing as writers. You penned a pretty hilarious and direct open-letter to Chris Brown addressing him adopting the graffiti artist moniker.
I’m not gonna say he has no artistic talent because obviously as a recording artist he does. As someone who works in the medium of spray paint, which I’ve seen him do, that is no easy task. He has what people in the culture call “can control”. He knows how to handle a can but just because he is painting a horse or donkey doesn’t make it graffiti. You have to work on your letters. With all the paint control in the world and all the money in the world, it will still take him years to understand the aesthetic of letter forms and know what’s been done before and what it will take to improve on that. I heard he is getting mentored by Slick from the West Coast who is certainly a respected guy who completely understands what it takes. I just don’t think you come off the street and say, “I’m Chris Brown, I’m painting a horse and I’m down.” That’s not how it works. You can paint a horse if you want but if your letters aren’t tight than you’re a guy who can paint a horse.

Will it ever be possible to shake the negative connotation of graffiti?
As long as it’s illegal to write on other people’s property, it’s always going to look like vandalism in the eyes of those people who don’t want it on their property. That’s a clear fact. Some graffiti writers will argue they were painting trains and making them beautiful and they did it to be creative, and now the MTA will have an ad wrap around an entire bus. Guess what? It’s capitalistic America and for the right price I’m sure the MTA will let you paint whatever you want. When you see a Banksy on your property illegally, people wanna dance on the ceiling. They understand they are gonna make money. If a graffiti artist wrote on your property, you might not understand what is being communicated and there is no money in it. I think that’s the fundamental difference between how New York is reacting to what Banksy is doing and the reaction a writer would get. If you’re dedicated enough to still be doing illegal graffiti, good luck, ‘cause if you get caught you’re looking at a serious felony. There are a lot of positive outlets for young people who have artistic talents and are fans of this art form. It can be communicated in a number of ways that don’t involve crime or what one might view as vandalism.

So are there still writers who bomb trains?
There are still people keeping it real, as they say. A lot of these people are older and whiter. Many think that graffiti is done exclusively by poor Black and Latino kids. A lot of the practitioners right now are white men in their thirties. There is burgeoning subculture of freight train graffiti that’s happening now too. You paint a train New Jersey and it ends up in Ohio.

How did you discover graffiti?
I moved to New York from Silver Spring, Maryland in 1977 and my mother told me to go outside and play. I had a football looking to make friends and everyone else had a magic marker. I learned that everyone had an alias and a graffiti name. Even my sister who is six years older than me had a graffiti name. She wasn’t a serious artist but she could write her nickname in a very stylized way. I stuck with it and then crack hit and most of the kids began to sell drugs. They would say, “Why are you still doing this? I’m gonna go make $1,000 a day. Graffiti is so passé.” That was in the ‘80s.

Graffiti kicked off your career in media…
I ended up publishing a graffiti ‘zine when I was 17. It led me to publish other magazines, write for establish publications, write books, and produce television shows. Graffiti got me started on my media career. It’s been a very positive happening in my life and I was never the best at it. I was able to take away the power that lies in saying I’m a writer at 12 and as an adult, I literally became a writer. There is something very narcissistic about it. It comes out of an environment where people have very low self-esteem and are looking to channel emotions and energy. It’s about saying I’m someone and you are gonna recognize me. That confidence helped a lot of people apply it to other mediums.  Many of these kids who started this are now pushing 50 or 60 and they were essentially doing an exercise in branding through perfecting their names. You can choose to look at all the negative attributes, but if you strip away all the positive attributes you can channel that energy in a smart way.

I interviewed Lady Pink [an iconic writer] years ago, and she was adamant about separating the art from hip-hop culture, whereas many other artists see it as one of the elements of hip-hop. What are your thoughts on it?
In 1980 there was a pretty definitive Village Voice article that kinda put graffiti, breakdance, DJing and rapping all in one article. At that point, in 1980, graffiti was happening for 10 years, breaking was around 10 years, DJ for seven and eight years, so these cultures already existed. What they had in common was this energy of young people. It just so happens many of those young people were renaissance and they were involve with all these elements at once. A lot of the writers who started in out in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s had nothing to do with hip-hop because hip-hop did not exist. One of the well-known early writers in New York was this Greek kid called Taki183. Maybe he liked some black music but hip-hop had nothing to do with his existence in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The attitude that comes with being a boisterous writer and saying “look at me” is very in line with an average rapper. I am not gonna correct somebody who says it is part of hip-hop, because it is in a sense. But it also predates hip-hop.

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Farewell 5Pointz: Visit While You Still Can

The landmark factory building and world-famous “graffiti mecca” known as 5Pointz is officially on death row, having lost its latest battle against the landlord and developers who want to see it razed to make room for two luxury apartment buildings. Named to signify the coming together of all five NYC boroughs, 5Pointz encompasses 200,000 square feet of artist studios, galleries and walls covered in graffiti art.

“I made something special with the 5pointz—not me, but the artists,” Jeffrey Wolkoff, the building’s owner, told WNYC. “I created it, a vision, and we’re going to do something special on these buildings, something special by the time we’re finished with it.”

Marie Flageul, a spokesperson for 5Pointz artists, doesn’t see anything special about another luxury doorman building going up in New York, and in this case, she says it’s harming the creative community: “Long Island City is not Williamsburg. Long Island City is not Dumbo. Long Island City has been struggling from day one to keep an artists scene. And everything they’re doing in developing Long Island City is pushing out the artists.”

According the 5Pointz website, founder and curator Jonathan Cohen, a graffiti veteran mostly known through his tag Meres One, had “plans to convert the five-story, block-long industrial complex at Jackson Avenue and Davis Street into a graffiti museum.” He had been seeking a 501(c)3 certification for 5Pointz to receive tax-exempt status, which would have allowed tax-deductible donations. But instead, LIC will be getting two apartment towers, both more than 40 stories.

The site also notes: “Over the past decade, the striking, graffiti-covered warehouse has attracted several hip-hop and R&B stars, including Doug E. Fresh, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Kaz, Mobb Deep, Rahzel, DJ JS-1, Boot Camp Clik, Joan Jett, and Joss Stone.”

A small concession has been made, however. Wolkoff, who let artists cover his building in graffiti since 2002—including a celebrated portrait of the one of hip-hop’s founding fathers, Jam-Master Jay—said that the new buildings will have an arts space “for some artists, not graffiti, but regular artists.”

Not sure what a “regular artist” is, but for fans and purveyors of aerosol-based art, it’s a sad day—and time to make one last pilgrimage to the place known as the “Institute of Higher Burnin’.” The apartment complex’s residents will have to get their art fix from nearby MoMA/PS1, a converted public school that does feature some works painted directly on its interior walls (like Richard Artschwager’s famous pill-shaped “blips“).

Historically, graffiti has generally been viewed by the ruling class as vandalism, but it has found a warm embrace within the confines of contemporary art. Curator and art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, for example, has been a strong defender, having been involved with graffiti and street art culture for three decades.

Deitch’s first show in New York following his recent resignation from MOCA opens today at Leila Heller Gallery and reprises “Calligraffiti,” an exploration of Middle Eastern street art and calligraphy that he curated in 1984. The exhibition is timely. Just this month, the Amman, Jordan-based news website Al Bawaba observed that “[g]raffiti, once the trade of thugs and unruly teens, is having something of a second coming in the Middle East.”

Indeed, while many see graffiti as a scourge, it has often proven to be a unifying social force, particularly for communities that have undergone periods of shared hardship. In her essay “Graffiti as Trash Rhetoric: Debating the Future of New Orleans through its Public Space,” Doreen Piano, associate professor at the University of New Orleans, notes “graffiti’s role in the city’s recovery, engendering a vibrant local writing culture.”

And then of course, there is the art form’s lighter side. “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing,” wrote graffiti artist and street art provocateur Banksy in his book Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall. “And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.”

For more information about 5Pointz, visit their website.

image: Ezmosis

Legendary Bronx Graffiti Artist Cope2 Reimagines BlackBook Logo for Mountain Dew Kickstart Launch

To celebrate the launch of Mountain Dew Kickstart, a fruit-infused breakfast beverage that occupies the space between juice, coffee, soda, and energy drinks (market research says there’s a space there, so there is), the company hooked up with legendary graffiti artist Cope2 for a cool project. They rented studio space near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and had the Bronx native (birth name Fernando Carlo) reimagine the logos of a few select magazines. They also sent a car, and I enjoyed weaving in slow motion through the Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg, marveling at their religious garb and the fact that Purim pop-up stores exist ("For All Your Purim Needs").

When I finally got to the studio at around noon–up the rickety elevator and along the dark, battleship-gray corridors–the gregarious artist got right to work on the BlackBook logo, wasting no time in creating an edgy, city-inspired work of art that takes the brand’s moody edge and gives it just the right dose of street style. It was fun to watch him make it, a process that took no more than half an hour. At first it seemed kind of bubbly and formless, but once he added the black lines between the letters and the dripping effect, it really popped off the canvas. How do you get the lines so sharp? I asked. "Thirty years of practice," Cope answered.

Cope In Progress on BlackBook Logo

It’s actually more than thirty years. Cope started tagging subway cars and buildings back in 1978, as a pre-teen, soon becoming one of the city’s most prolific–and wanted–street artists. Plenty of run-ins with the law ensued, and, banking on a talent that surpassed most of his peers, he went mainstream, having since done work for everyone from Converse to Mark Ecko to Time magazine. (There’s still the occasional arrest, though. You can take the artist out of the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of the artist.)

Now, Cope’s art, which extends beyond tagging to elaborate oil paintings and other multi-media projects, is visible in galleries and other public spaces around the world. And here he was in Brooklyn, spraying away at the canvas as I sipped a can of orange citrus Kickstart (tastes good, gets you going). It’s amazing to see him work, his mind moving even faster than his hands as his vision unfolds on the canvas. In what seemed like no time at all, he was finished and we were posing in front of the slickest magazine logo out there. Of course, he also created a logo for Mountain Dew Kickstart, which is a bit more elaborate.

Cope Mountain Dew Logo

I gave him a copy of the latest Vibe, our sister publication, and he whipped up a logo for them as well. I’ll let them present it to you. Again, we admired his work and chatted a bit about the process, before he painted over it and started on the next one. Even in the studio, graffiti art is an ephemeral thing. Enjoy it while you can. And a big thank-you to Mountain Dew. If only every press event was this fun. 

Cope and Victor

For more information on Mountain Dew Kickstart, visit facebook.com/mountaindew and follow them on Twitter at @Mtn_Dew. For the latest on Cope2’s work, visit his official website

Photos by Sarah Hoppes.

[Follow Victor Ozols on Twitter]

[Related: Vibe’s Logo Gets Revamped By Graffiti Artist Cope2Graffiti Artist Retna’s World of Words; Retna Murals in Vegas are Brilliant]

‘Moustache Man’ Patrick Waldo Talks Street Art, His One-Man Show

Five years ago, I worked at the Huffington Post and sat at the same table as a sardonic young video editor named Patrick Waldo. We both moved onto other jobs, years passed, and we lost touch as ex-coworkers do. Then in the summer of 2011, Patrick was suddenly in the newspapers, only they were calling him "the infamous Moustache graffiti bandit." Yes, Patrick Waldo was the street artist who scrawled the word "moustache" on subway ads all over the city. Kate Moss’s face was hit, an ad for Chanel lipstick was tagged,  the happy bride in "Mamma Mia!" got a moustache for her wedding day — and those are just some of the prolific tags he made. In the year since Waldo’s bust by the NYPD, he’s been busy: one, watching Zara and even Maybelline rip off his moustachery, but two, creating a one-man show, Moustache Man: Confessions Of An NYC Grafitti Artist, now being performed at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. After the jump, I chatted with Moustache Man himself over email.

So, why moustaches?

The whole moustache thing was just kind of something I stumbled across- I saw an ad at a subway station with graffiti on the face and from far away it looked like a moustache, so I thought writing "moustache" on the upper lip would be funny. I had no idea it would go as far as it did.

Do you consider what you do street art?

Some people call it street art, some people call it graffiti- I’m a huge fan of both so I’ll take either of them.

It seems like you didn’t discriminate much on who got moustaches — was it just any opportunity that presented itself that you seized, or did you do specific typs of ads on purpose?

When I first started I was looking for posters with beautiful models in super serious, sexy poses, or bad reality show ads where the stars have their mouths hanging open or are making some otherwise dumb face- anything that could be undermined very easily by a moustache. But as I started doing more and more of them I treated almost every poster the same. They were all ads, they were all fair game. Some of my friends (redacted-ex-HuffPost colleague, actually) would give me shit about doing posters for things like BAM shows, so every now and then I’d stand in front of a poster weighing out this moral dilemma. But usually that ended with me just saying "Fuck it" and moustaching it.

How did a typical tagging session go? Or were they all unique?

Yeah, I mean there was no typical tagging session. I never really set out on tagging missions, I’d just make sure that before I left my apartment I was armed with a bunch of Sharpies. Cell phone, wallet, Sharpies. That was my checklist before I walked out the door. And then wherever I’d go, I’d hit as many posters as I could. I started with one marker — it was a Bic "Mark It" — but I was passing up a lot of faces because they were too small or too big for the marker, so I started carrying around a bunch of different sized markers. I used a Sharpie Chisel Tip for most faces because it was super thick and dark and made the moustaches look more like actual moustaches from far away. I used regular Sharpies on smaller upper lips, Sharpie Ultra Fine Points on tiny upper lips, Sharpie King Size markers on bigger than normal faces and then this monster of a marker called the Pilot Super Color Wide and Broad for the biggest faces. It was a ton of markers, and I usually carried an extra of each because once you start using them it wears the tip down and they get fatter, so I wanted to have as many size options as possible. Winter was awesome because I could just stuff them all in my coat pockets, but the warmer months sucked because I’d have to walk around with all of them in my pants pockets. Too bad Jncos went out of style or I’d have been set.

Did you have lookouts?

If I was with my friends I’d just start doing them and usually they were cool with it. If there was a police station nearby or a cop on the platform I’d sometimes position them so that they formed a little barrier between me and the cops, but I usually didn’t need to be too sneaky about it. Some of my friends would be terrified and power walk down the platform as far away from me as possible or run across the street if I was doing them aboveground, but most were surprisingly good about it. (Redacted-ex-HuffPost-collegue actually was really good about being a lookout.)

How often did people see what you were doing?

All the time! They had to — I was doing them during rush hour, I was doing them outside in broad daylight. I preferred doing them in the middle of the night when no one was around but the only way I could’ve done as many as I did was to just do them all the time, so that’s what I did.

Did anyone ever say shit when they saw you?

Oh, yeah, people reacted all the time, mostly positive. Sometimes people would try to take a picture with me and I’d have to explain how graffiti works and how it’s probably not a good idea to put my picture out there. One lady was walking by me when I was doing these huge Lady Gaga posters outside UCB on 8th Avenue and she doubled back when she realized what I was doing. She had this very thick Latina accent and she goes "You do these everywhere?" and I was like "Yeah" and she goes "It’s your yob?" And in a way, yeah, it was kind of like my yob — just unpaid and with no yob benefits.

Tell me about the time you got arrested.  

The arrest was crazy- one of the weirdest days of my life by far. The weirdest part was that I wasn’t tagging anything. I didn’t have any markers on me. I was coming out of work and five plain clothes police officers swooped in on me. They’d been investigating me over a three month period and had been staking me out that day to get me as soon as I came out of work. I tell the whole story of the arrest, the interrogation that followed, my time in jail and all that stuff in my UCB show, so I’ll save all the juicy stuff for that. October 18th! 8pm! UCB Theatre New York! Shameless plug!

When did you decide to do a one-man show?

I’ve been taking improv classes at UCB since right after I moved up here in 2006. I met a bunch of people I clicked with in a UCB class taught by Zach Woods (from The Office) and we started a team called, wait for it, Out of the Woods. We perform at UCB every now and then but mostly at indie venues all over. We’ve been doing it for like three years now, over 100 shows at this point, so we’re at that point where we’ve got "group mind," as it’s known in the improv world. We came into it with a similar sense of humor, I think that’s what drew us to each other in the first place, but after spending so much time together now we’ve like melded to the point where we finish each other’s sentences, beat each other to the same punchlines, can almost predict how a person will react in a scene. We’re like that annoying married couple that’s really good at Catch Phrase. But our sex life is terrible. We almost never fuck anymore.

I decided to do a one-man show a few months after my arrest, when I realized there were so many weird things that happened during the Moustache Man stint that it might make a fun show. I’ve been a performer for a while, so it seemed like a natural progression to tell the story on stage.

Are you worried about doing a show about something so visual? Will images of your tags factor into the show?

The show has a ton of images in it. I tell some stories and show some pictures and tell more stories. It’s like a TED Talk but way smarter.

So what are you doing as a day job these days? What’s next for you artistically — both in terms of street art and comedy?

I’m giving private walking tours these days through Streetwise New York. I miss the double decker bus tours- those really were so fun to give, but I’m a huge NYC history geek and there’s no real better way to see the city than to walk it, so I’m enjoying the walking tours. Still performing with my improv team Out of the Woods, still doing the Moustache show at UCB (October 18th. 8pm). After that, only God knows what will happen. JK, there’s no God.

Contact the author of this post at Jessica.Wakeman@Gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter and Tumblr.

1980s New York Graffiti Art Has Never Been Less Cool

Two painters who have emerged as touchstones for their artistic moment after conveniently dying young—Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat—have now settled comfortably into stultifying legacies that will keep them on the wrong side of “fashionable” for decades to come.

Haring, on the one hand, had to defend his work from charges of commercialism while he was still alive; such is the price of accessible pop. Yet what we’re seeing today (I point you to the Duane Reade installation pictured, a spectacularly thoughtless appropriation of Haring’s Radiant Baby for a set of designer baby bibs) is so utterly divorced from the original commentaries about crises like AIDS and Apartheid and crack-cocaine as to seem a hollow plagiarism. When you see a wall in Brooklyn tagged with one of his trademark figures, it’s difficult not to scoff at the homage, earnest or not.

Meanwhile, the art world’s Basquiat bubble is inflating like Rush Limbaugh at a Vegas buffet. Christie’s will in November auction an untitled piece that should fetch $20 million:

"Great works by Basquiat have become close to impossible to find in recent years," said Loic Gouzer, international specialist of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, said in a statement. "The market has been waiting a long time for a work of this caliber and freshness.

"Basquiat is increasingly being recognized as a grand master of post-war art alongside de Kooning, Warhol and Pollock," Gouzer said.

"We expect it to set a new record."

Truly, street art has no cachet until it hangs in the triplex penthouse of a person who vastly overpaid for it, don’t you think? I mean, either there or around a baby’s neck. You might even split the difference: put it in a museum, where no one will see it. Now that’s cool.

Follow Miles Klee on Twitter.

Retna Murals in the Parking Garage of the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas = Brilliant

Arriving at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas last Wednesday evening, my friend and designated driver Ted Madsen told me to keep my eyes open for something cool in the parking garage. He was referring to a high-tech system of red and green lights that show which parking spots are unoccupied. The system was impressive, except that the sensors don’t always recognize compact cars, which must be rather rare in Nevada. But after we parked the Infiniti and began walking to the elevators on our way to the Vesper Bar, I spied something much cooler. The walls of the garage were adorned with murals by graffiti artist Retna.

It was one of several sublime moments in Las Vegas, which I was visiting to fête the launch of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey – a smooth, honey-flavored bourbon that’s great as a chilled shot – at the nearby MGM Grand. The moment I saw the walls, I literally stopped in my tracks and said words to the effect of “Oh my god, that’s Retna!”

Retna, for those who haven’t seen his work in galleries or read my BlackBook profile on the man, is a Los Angeles-based graffiti artist who produces paintings, sculptures, and large-scale murals that incorporate stylistic elements of Arabic and Hebrew writing, Asian calligraphy, the Old English style of gang tagging, and Incan and Egyptian hieroglyphics. There’s something truly engaging about his work, as though it imparts a very clear message through its characters – which don’t actually represent any language. And, apparently, it’s amazingly well suited for large, utilitarian spaces like the garage beneath the most exciting new hotel on the Strip.

In part, I suppose I was pleased with myself for recognizing his work. But I’m far more impressed that somebody at the Cosmopolitan was prescient enough to hire Retna to do the murals. Whoever was ultimately responsible for the commission deserves a major pat on the back. More than 99% of the people who see the murals will have no idea who painted them, but that hardly matters. They represent contemporary art at its finest, the polar opposite of the oversized Grecian urns and clown paintings that pass as art in some of the resorts. With the Retna murals, even if you don’t quite know what you’re looking at, you know you’re seeing something real.

Better still, the Cosmopolitan doesn’t even make a big deal about it. The only mention of it on its website is a news release about its Wallworks series. (I regret that I missed the works by Shepard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, and Shinique Smith.) With Retna’s murals, the Cosmopolitan achieves something so many resorts in Las Vegas aspire to but rarely attain: class.

Street Cred: The New Graffiti

There’s a new book out for people who like to display books, not read them. Graffiti New York features over 1,000 images of the city’s best tags, burns and get ups and details the history, social structure and aesthetic concepts of the movement from birth to mainstream globalization. While the images of the book are quite dazzling, the richly documented history is more interesting. A quick lesson in contemporary graffiti culture after the jump.

1. The boom box/break dance graffiti subculture oft romanticized no longer exists. The Man got hold of graffiti. Brands realized associating with graffiti made consumers associate the brand with counterculture and freedom. See Adidas. See Coke. And, of course, Louis Vuitton–because nothings screams anti-fashion like a $3000 bag.

2. There exists a dichotomy between graffiti artists–those who paint legally and those who don’t. Some of the former group land in art galleries, and some still get down tagging the sides of buildings and other various structures—they just get permission from the landlord. This allows them to concentrate on their form and create intricate works of art without interruptions from the Popo. On the other side, old school, law-breaking graffiti artists do still exist. They mostly remain pseudonymous (like Banksy) though. It’s unclear whether these artists think the work of their law-abiding brethren legitimate, but there’s definitely an extra stamp of authenticity for those who withstand the fear of arrest. These artists tend to make smaller, quicker works to avoid running into problems with the law.

3. Graffiti art is no longer as unstable as it used to be. Artists always risk the chance that their work will be covered up or removed (especially if done illegally), but with the help of sites like at149st.com and Art Crimes, a work of graffiti can be preserved via the world wide web. Three cheers for technology!

Now that you’re an informed graffiti spectator–appreciate away! Next week we’ll delve into the deep, existential aesthetics of “the drip effect.”