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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Banksy + A Delivery Truck = Mobile Garden

Banksy – you clever, clever bastard! The British street artist is in NYC being all clever and shit – like doing things and putting it up on walls and making us think in different ways and stuff like that. Oh Banksy! As part of his current ‘Better Out Than In’ exhibit, the B-man has taken an ordinary delivery truck and made it…..extraordinary. Ta-da!

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Okay, so he took coverted the back of a truck into a be beautiful, mobile garden complete with rainbow, waterfall and butterflies. The truck travels around the city and makes stops at different locations each night; kind of cool but also kind of annoying.

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The only way to check out the mobile Banksy exhibit is to randomly run into it or get tipped off via Twitter. The exhibit title: ‘All City.’ Tonight: East Village…

 

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Banksy Hotline: Call It NOW!

Banksy has once again hit the walls of NYC – launching a new show entitled “Better Out Than In.” Catch it if you can: His first work  piece appeared yesterday at 11 Allen Street and has already been painted over. It involved a young boy standing on another boy’s back, reaching for a sign reading, “Graffiti is a crime.” Oh, ironic Banksy.

Even funnier; call the Banksy ironic graffiti artist  tour hotline: 1-800-656-4271

I promise, you wont be disappointed; a scholarly voice drone on about the meaning of each Banksy’s street work. Be sure to press the right prompt – where you will momentarily be put on hold. Ironic humor then ensues…

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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

This Looks Cool: 1AM Mobile, A Neighborhood Art Tour in App Form

Sometimes, the best places to look for what’s great and new in the art world can be found in your own backyard, or in your own neighborhood. Street art and mural tours popping up in neighborhoods in cities all over the world, but you don’t want to be part of those totally commercial tourist traps. You’d rather travel and explore on your own. Now you can, for free, with the new app from San Francisco’s First Amendment Gallery, 1AM Mobile.

The purpose of the app is to document street art you may see on your daily ramblings and share it with a community who may also be into doing that. If you’re in a new city, you can check out what other people have posted and create a little street art tour out of postings that look interesting that you’ve found. There are even directions, so you don’t have to go through the embarrassment of asking locals where to find that legendary tag.

But, you say, 1AM Mobile, what will you do to address the ephemeral nature of street art? What if one of the community’s active users gets a great snap of a particularly wonderful and poignant mural, only for it to be painted-over or covered up days later? All uploads are time-stamped so interested readers can see how one particular site evolved—what was there before, how long a piece lasted, if it sucks and is worth covering up with your own work, all of that. 1AM Mobile is available at the App Store for iPhone and iDevices. So get out and do some exploring this weekend. The fresh air will do you good. It’s been a long week. 

What Banksy Would Paint, If Banksy Were Out of Ideas

There are plenty of great parodies and riffs on the artist and the myth that is Bansky. There’s pop culture punster Hanksy, who uses the Bristol street artist’s style to create amusing portmanteaus like "Stark and Recreation," an image of Aziz Ansari in an Iron Man suit. There’s Milbansky, who invaded Washington, D.C. And, of course, Banksy parodied the success of and the sudden, flourishing fascination with street art in the "prankumentary" Exit Through the Gift Shop.

But as any artist skyrockets to fame and as any artist’s style and ethos becomes recognizable, it becomes pretty easy to parody, if not totally lampshade. Enter Lazy Banksy, a pretty brilliant new blog taking Banksy’s formula and political message and just making them really, really not subtle at all. A map of America with the Statue of Liberty declaring "I’m With Stupid," the Kennedy assassination as an iPhone photo and other delightfully half-assed socially-conscious messages abound. 

Banksy’s ‘Slave Labor’ Stolen, To Be Sold At Auction In America

This story is so confusing and fucked up I’m not even sure I understand it.

 

The street artist Banksy made a piece of work called Slave Labor (or Bunting Boy), depicting a little boy sewing Union Jack flags on a sewing machine — a nod to children in sweatshop child labor — at some point in May. The work was then hacked off the wall of a shop in Turnpike Lane, Haringey, a borough in North London. Somehow, the entire mural found its way to America, where today it will be sold at Fine Art Auctions Miami for $500,000 to $700,000. (Another Banksy work called Wet Dog will also appear in the show.) 

According to the UK’s Telegraph, there’s a suspicion that the owners of the building on which Slave Labor appeared might have been involved in the mural’s disappearance.  I suppose, technically, they are the owners of the work. But of course that begs the question of who "owns" street art — especially considering that most building owners would legally view it as defacement, as graffitti is considered the bring down the value of a property.

It also begs the question of what kind of art collector would pay half a million dollars for a piece of work which was intended to be enjoyed by the public for free. 

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

‘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.

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.