Every season brings new artists to the street art scene, while others leave town, or simply fade away. The summer, born in the age of Covid-19 and #BLM when the federal government tries its latest attempt to kill off postal services so it can privatize one more thing the taxpayers used to own, we now see work in New York re-engineering that time-honored graffiti-tag vehicle, the USPS address sticker.
Sticker Maul is a mixed-media collagist with a loose style of irony and a textual wit paired with photos, as well as straight-up wordplay. Topics are vaguely social, mainly clever, the demeanor sincere without pomposity. These are good qualities for an artist working within a smaller canvas on the street who wants to “cut through the clutter” – and its working!
In what is possibly the first mural festival to take place in the world after, or during, Covid-19, BSA once again is proud to support Avant Garde Tudela International Contemporary Muralism Festival next month in Spain.
Commemorating a decade of existence as a quality cultural force with and exceptional lineup, it’s featured the works of artists some may consider part of a gold standard in public/street art interventionists and thinkers: Sixe, Mark Jenkins, Evan Roth, BLU, Ron English, Spy, El Mac, Escif, C215, Faith XVII, Vhils, Franco Fasoli (Jaz).
This years’ Avant Garde
Tudela event is curated by Jorge
Rodríguez-Gerada and BSA will be pleased to bring you exclusive behind
the scenes reportage as well as shots of the artists at work courtesy a BSA
frequent collaborator and photographer Fer Alcala.
place from the 8th to 14th of June, this year features a line up including Miss
Van, Mina Hamada, and Jeff McCreight (Ru8icon).
Amidst the fusillade of news from the Middle East these days, you may have missed that the young people of Baghdad in Iraq have been demonstrating in the streets against the government. They are fighting for pretty much the same thing that all people in every society eventually fight for – autonomy, fairness, freedom, liberty. Not surprisingly, Street Artists are helping give voice to the aspirations of the people, and possibly inspiration to them as well, with walls to the underpass into Tahrir Square serving as an open-air gallery of murals and slogans
Artist and animator Sajjad Abbas says his artworks on the streets are addressing the desires voiced by the protestors, and giving voice to the fallen. “The main goal of the protest is the motto ‘نريد وطن ‘, which means ‘We want a homeland’,” he says. “It’s a motto that has a deep and clear meaning and indicates how open-minded the protests are. The protesters are also asking to isolate all the parties and to never elect them again.”
Today we have images from recent protests as well as a few stencils by Abbas. You may recognize a style common in Street Art with political or social critique in cities elsewhere during the last decade and a half. The energy that is evident in these scenes is full of anticipation and emotion, the desire to express serious dissatisfaction that is evident in many sectors. In the disordered street and cafe scenes, you can also see a singularity of determination by some, a collectivity among others.
By creating a stencil portrait of one of the leaders who has been killed, a hero is being elevated – along with the values they are thought to have signified. Here you see an image of Safaa al-Sarai, one of the higher-profile activists/protesters whom news reports say was killed in October after getting hit in the head by a smoke grenade. In just a few short months his image on the street is transforming him to that of a martyr in popular culture and in memes – merging with imagery from sports culture as a protective goalie.
In fact, Safaa al-Sarai was a “goalie”, according to an account in the Times of London; “a human buffer armed with a wet sheet to intercept tear gas canisters aimed at protesters. ‘One hit the ground then bounced up into his head. He had a brain injury and was bleeding. They couldn’t save him,’ said his friend Hayder Alaa, a 21-year-old student.”
We asked Sajjad Abbas about his experience as a Street Artist in Baghdad during these tumultuous demonstrations and about his opinion of the role of art and artist in the street.
Brooklyn Street Art:Can you describe the protests in Tahrir Square and what issues people are focusing on?
Sajjad Abbas: The protests in Tahrir Square are hard to describe. The young guys went out on the 1st of October in 2019. In the beginning, they were mostly from Sadr City. The government faced the protests during the most intense action and they killed lots of the protesters. They used live ammunition and there were snipers and they took the young guys’ lives.
Through this time, after that, all people were called for protests, a million people marched on October 25, 2019. Together they were protesting about religious and secular topics of many kinds.
BSA: Are the protesters mainly young people? SA: They are young guys who are tired of every chain that the politics and the religion men put on the people. They asked for a good life and freedom and presented their opinions to all the religious men and government people. This protest is against dirty government forces and the parties of the murders. Many of the protesters were killed and the government used smoke bombs and flash grenades as a way to kill. They threw these things directly at the protester’s heads, and some were injured pretty seriously, probably causing them a lifetime disability…
So far the government hasn’t answered protesters’ demands, but there has been murder and kidnapping.
Most of the protesters are the new generation who were born in the early 2000s, but there are also different people from other age groups. What is good about the new protests is that there are also a big number of young females who were also in the protests – and they were in the front lines of the protest.
BSA: What is the name of the person in the stencil art with the beard? SA: The guy in this picture is Safaa Alsarai. He got killed in the protest after he got shot in the head by a smoking bomb.
BSA:Why is he important and what does he symbolize for Baghdadi people? SA: Safaa was a poet who also participated in many of the older protests. He was hoping that Iraq could become unified and be one and he was dreaming about making for Iraq an Iraqi country. Safaa became an icon for the revolution in all the cities in Iraq.
BSA: The figure with the mask looks like he is playing soccer. Is he catching a tear gas canister? SA: The guy is a goalkeeper (“goalie”) who is trying to catch the smoking bomb. In this tunnel, a team was created to shut down the smoking bombs that came at the protesters – after getting it away from the protests in the area above the tunnel.
BSA: Why is it important to use art in the streets for you? SA: It’s like drinking water… it’s an expression of existence. Using the art in the street is to clarify and express my ideas about the policies and social aspects of those policies. Street Art is a revolution – It’s an imperative way to share your ideas, and you should have a statement about the “system”.
Both celebrate the power and expressive ability of the letterform and
yet each appear as entirely separate pursuits. Uniting them requires
understanding both very well, contemplating their friction, their
possibilities, and a lot of negotiation.
Since 2007 Niels “Shoe” Meulman has been investigating, experimenting
with, enraptured by this pursuit. From thousands of hand sketches in his black book
to the full-body immersion techniques of creating across large walls and
floors, using paint and brush by the gallon in premeditated/subconscious all-inclusive
gestural choreographies. Shoe knows how to stay in the moment.
It’s this elevating together of disciplines that reveals their contrasts;
awakening the inner conflicts and core strengths, parading them on view.
He discovered the perfect transmutation here in Brooklyn. It was that
night of art-making with Haze that was a turning point..
“We both decided to go to the art store and get a whole lot of tools and stuff and just started working to see what would come out,” he says as he glances out the 1st floor brownstone window at the pile of recycled cardboard in the tiny courtyard. 26 years as a writer from Amsterdam who had met his New York graffiti heroes like Dondi, Rammellzee, and Haring, Shoe had pursued a career in advertising, and was still in love with fonts and their power to communicate.
“Without a commission, without a brief,” he remembers. “And like that – my
old passion, calligraphy, mixing with graffiti, just came out!”
Shoe says he created “calligraffiti” and he ran with it: developing a
body of work around it, writing a book about it (Calligraffiti), collaborating
with a growing number of artists who also had an affinity for the penmanship of
an artful communication modality that spans centuries.
He has developed brushes, tools, techniques, opened a gallery in a
garage (Unruly), covered surfaces from cars to museum walls, finished three more
books (Painter, Abstract Vandalism and Shoe is my Middle name).
It was as if he had finally decided at 40 that it was okay to be an artist, and
he left advertising to dedicate himself fully to his craft.
“Because my dad is also an artist- maybe I was finding the right moment
to be an artist,” he says as he shows you a stack of many papers from the art
supply store, and he contemplates why he had hesitated for years. It’s not that
he was concerned about competing with his father, but the stakes were high. Speaking
of his father, he says, “I think he was thinking ‘if you’re going to be an
artist you better be a successful one’ – because being a struggling artist –
that’s the worst!”
Additionally, he thought that before he could call himself an artist, he
should have something substantial to show. “It also felt like there was
something more profound to it,” he says. “I always thought that to be an artist
you have to have life experience and have some knowledge and purpose to bring
to the table, you know?”
Whether wide tip, wide brush, or wide cap, the bending letters are cryptic and stern in their old-worldliness. Fluid and stilted, wild and ornate, gilded, in black, in iridescence, in silver and gold. The additional layers of ink burst violently with destructive force in the swipe, the slash, the bash. The splatters are sometimes built up like an aura that glows around the cavorting dark letters – as if bruised and pummeled, their damaged and moistened epidermis now sweating black blood, infusing the air with a miasma of industrial soot.
With broad interests that delve into abstract, into wordplay, even poetry, this moment is the clarity in early morning fog on a quiet street in old BedStuy, now rumbling with the sweet sickness of gentrification. The residency that brings him here is so named to recall history and to look forward, offering a respite for many a visiting Street Artist.
“I didn’t really have a plan when I came here but, like many times, I come up with something on the plane like the day before – and of course it’s brewing in my head.”
He points to a couple of handled black plastic shopping bags that he has tacked to the wall. With a capacity to recognize and understand his own emotions and the emotions of an era, he has connected to the pleasantry printed on them “Thank You for Shopping With Us!”. It’s not just the sentiment that captures the late 1970s design hand, for him, it’s the upbeat openness and lyrical bending of the letters and lines that attract him.
The letters are sweet like cherry lip-gloss on a rollerskater in hot
pants in Central Park. Suddenly you are flipping through the pages of Eros,
Fact, or Avant Garde, a relief of melodic line and sexual liberty.
“Thank you for shopping!” he exclaims like a fan. “That’s so New
York for me; that’s exactly graffiti – that 70s Herb Lubalin look,” he says of
a time when magazines were so head-over-heels in love with new type treatments
that they might feature a 2-page spread of it entirely just for you to salivate
“It’s free,” he says, perhaps reflective of the liberal sway of social mores and the swinging romance that advertising had with the Baby Boomer’s ‘me’ generation of the seventies. It’s a phrase rooted in consumerism, cities were in the last throes of an ample middleclass America who had cash and credit to shop with. That fact contrasted with the suffering of a bankrupt NYC – a spirit that inspired train writers as well, even if used as critique.
“I think the whole graffiti scene that started here had something to do with this sort of lettering,” he says. “It came from that freedom that you could see in advertising. The type design was so good.”
For now, this month-long residency is a reprieve for Shoe, a time to
examine and relax into the spring that gradually warms New York and brings rose
blooms to the bush in the small front yard of this residential street. His new
sketches from his black book contain pithy barbs, hidden meanings, pop-culture
references, and life truisms drawn in what he might refer to as a monk-like
“I’m not religious. I don’t follow any religion and I don’t meditate but
I like this idea of knowledge and introspection,” he says. “This is where
Chinese calligraphy comes in and you are reminded of the medieval monks and all
kinds of calligraphers”.
A congenial host, Shoe shows us walls full of new pieces, individual words or phrases on a large variety of papers, textures, and stocks. He describes his inks with as much enthusiasm as his personal relationships, which are sometimes as tumultuous as the intense splashes of midnight here. You can see there is definitely work being done.
“That knowledge comes from that kind of introspection. The influence of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy comes in because at that time if you were by yourself writing…. Those monks either wanted to be enlightened or were enlightened in some way; it’s a search,” he says.
When a real graffiti head hits you in the heart, you know it’s going to burn brightly.
NYC writer Jonathan “Meres One” Cohen has been getting up on the streets for 3+ decades with his distinctive color-drenched style and “bright idea” icon and he has exhibited in venues as varied as Meeting of Styles, the Parish Art Museum, and the French Institute of Art.
This month he has contributed his talent, name and heart to protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people to celebrate the 5oth Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that sparked a civil rights movement that burns today. We were lucky enough to catch it and grab a fast shot last week – and very lucky to ask him about it in an email conversation here where he shares his personal take on the topic “Love is Love”.
BSA: Besides the straight forward message of the campaign, some people may not see the connection and will wonder what’s your relevance to the LGBT community. How would you address that? MERES ONE: I am always puzzled by the “relevance” question. I marched and did hundreds of signs for “Black Lives Matter” and my intent or connection was not questioned. The mural is about love, about acceptance, about respecting boundaries and others’ choices and rights to love. As I have said before love and falling in love is a powerful uncontrollable feeling and no one should dictate the premises of such feelings. I obviously have friends living in a same-sex relationship, including Taylor and Lauren whom See TF painted next to this mural. My cousin is a lesbian rabbi – does that even matter? I think you answered that question for me perfectly at the wall when you said ‘sometimes it takes a majority to stand up for the rights of the minority.’ So maybe that is it. I am standing up and doing what I love for my friends and for strangers alike.
BSA: Why do you think some people have a hard time understanding that loving or love is one of the most personal acts and they try to dictate and control who we choose to love and partner with? MERES ONE: Actually very often I am asked why I think graffiti is misunderstood or represented vs. street art. I always answer that people tend to fear or dislike what they cannot understand. The segregation and judgment experienced by the LGBTQ+ community is mostly based on fear and misconception. It is unfortunately carried and supported by many clergymen and women, and it is supported by our own president and many elected officials. So again if we all became a spokesperson for love, if we all stood up for that right, we could make a difference. I feel that this initiative curated by the Lisa Project is gifting our city with 50 beautiful murals, but it is also opening dialogue. Sometimes maybe it will force dialogue and that’s amazing and a step forward.
BSA: The style of the message and the mural itself is reminiscent of a postcard. It exudes nostalgia. Do you think people are longing for simpler, kinder times? MERES ONE: It is for sure echoing a postcard, a time when people actually wrote and committed to their words. I hope and would love to know that the audience would use the wall as a backdrop to send a message of acceptance and love to whoever they want. I for one am, and I think many are, longing for some of the old New York, for kinder and more people-focused time. We are living in a very difficult era and it seems that so many basic rights which were fought for are being reversed by our current administration. So yes I think a lot of us are left with an uneasy feeling and worries.
BSA: What was your experience with the passersby as you were painting? What were some of their reactions? MERES ONE: So many – mostly positive I will add. I try to give my attention to everyone as long as I am not all the way up on the lift. I heard funny comments, some passersby the first day were worried this was going to be a Colossal ad. I guess the lift and organization looked very professional and they were relieved to hear about the project and the birthing of new art on the block. Once my light bulbs were visible there was a lot of honking and shout outs from people driving by. I was surprised by the amount of genuine ‘thank you’s that came from people.
I love the fact that people read out loud “love is love” and kept on walking. The local businesses – from the owner of 3 Dollar Bill cheering us on, to the Wells bringing us cold water, to Saints coffee roaster thanking us, they all seemed really happy about this installation on their block. We managed to create a story thanks to the trust of the people at Lisa Project and people get to see a true narrative by me, See TF, JPO and David Puck. I feel people are relating to the wall and owning it in their personal way, and that was the goal here, so I am super pleased and humbled to have been part of it.
our thanks to Wayne and Rey at The LISA Project for organizing the artists for
In 2007 the anonymous graffiti artist Banksy painted a series of political works around Palestine.
Later there was a mad scramble by people to cut them down and to sell them to the highest bidder on a secretive and clandestine art market. One mural in particular that depicts an Israeli soldier asking a donkey for its papers created a furious response from many. It also sparked its removal – and eventual offer for sale.
An unexpected and riveting tale told through the perspective of a local taxi driver named Walid, the offending wall becomes the main character; shuffled through chaotic Bethlehem streets, ferried across the sea, featured at auction, brandished for collectors. The prejudices, perspectives, and startling insights on display never stop revealing themselves. Needless to say war, pacifism, greed, celebrity, fanboy-ism and occupation all make very awkward partners – providing an endless study in contrasts.
“One year after we saw it debut at Tribeca, The Man who Stole Banksy is enjoying a far wider distribution beginning this month through Amazon Prime in US and Canada. On the occasion of its mass release, we spoke to Christian Omodeo, a professor and curator in the field of urban art. More importantly here, Omodeo was a screenwriter on the film with Filippo Perfido and the director Marco Proserpio. We asked him to reflect on the origins of the film and how as a documentary it continued to grow and mature during its long journey to the big screen, and now the small one. “
BSA: Can you describe your role in the film, and how you watched it grow and mature?
Christian Omodeo: I first met Marco Proserpio in 2012 and we were working on this project until 2017. Marco was just back from Palestine, where by chance he met Walid, the main character of the movie. Walid told him that he had cut a Banksy painting with the intention of selling it on Ebay. Marco decided to do a movie about this crazy story.
He also wanted to describe the political situation in Palestine without portraying this community as victims as most of the media do. At the same time he did not know how to exactly deal with street art. Since that time we have worked together on the story. I carried ideas and stories that were related to Banksy’s involvement in Palestine and to the commodification of street art, while Marco was filming and looking at this story from his own point of view.
We traveled a lot and interviewed many people over a period of 5 years. In the end, we had enough footage to release 3 movies! While working on it our point-of-view on this story has totally changed. Looking at street art from a Palestinian point of view, while the Western art market was definitely consecrating it, gives you a totally different perspective on things.
This is something that has also been fundamental for me as a curator, pushing me to a more radical attitude towards the commodification of street art. Between 2012 and 2017, while new self-proclaimed “museums” of street art were popping out everywhere, I started to think about what a museum of street art should be and if it makes sense to put street art into a museum. I was seeing many nice collections of well-hung canvases, but this way of building up a street art narrative seemed to me to be very reductive, in parallel of what we were doing within the movie.
This is how my role on this project has changed from being only an author, I became an actor in the role of the curator of the Bologna’s exhibition which became known worldwide due to the reaction of the artist Blu – who defaced his walls in the city in response. People have mainly focused on Blu’s reaction against the foundation that financed the show, without looking at what was happening inside the museum – as well as seeing the new street art narrative we were putting together.
The movie shows this story at the end, but such a topic is so powerful than it would be for the movie or another interview!
BSA: The movie first appeared on the art film festival circuit a year ago. Now it is going to reach a far greater audience than that narrow selection of people. It more accurately mirrors the audience that street art is made for, no?
Christian Omodeo: Of course! We are happy to see the movie reaching a larger audience. This is what this movie was supposed to do since the beginning. We did not do it simply for a bunch of lazy ‘film buffs’ and festival “arty farties” as Filippo, who wrote the film with us, calls them. Unfortunately the movie industry has its own rules and once a producer and distributors come on board, you lose control of your work. Let’s hope that other platforms like Prime will distribute it in the future.
BSA: The story appears rather simple on the surface but then opens up to layers of complexity with themes of challenging power, revolution, commercialism, colonialism… How has your perception of the film changed since you first made it?
Christian Omodeo: It has not changed at all. It’s normal to me – it took me less time and effort to discuss a Ph.D. at the Paris-Sorbonne University than to work on this movie. This is why, at the end of the process, we felt quite sure of our conclusions.
What has totally changed however, it’s my personal and professional way of dealing with street art. Before my involvement with the movie, I was mostly dealing with its theoretical aspects. Today I am more focused on bringing these ideas into the real world, in taking real actions. These are things that I believe are always important to discuss. I’ve seen this clearly during some Q&A at some festivals – but we cannot just talk if we want to develop ways to work with a narrative around street art that doesn’t whitewash it. I’m working on a few projects right now. I hope to have some news soon to share.
BSA Exclusive Announcement and interview with the director and the star of
Documentary by Selina Miles
BSA is proud to announce the world premiere of Selina Miles’ new full-length documentary on the life and career of New York photographer Martha Cooper at the Tribeca Film Festival next month. Separated by four decades and an ocean or two, the Australian film director and the American photographer – each of whom has garnered serious respect in the myriad subcultures of art-in-the-streets with phenomenal storytelling abilities and an innate sense of timing – together land a remarkable film capturing life as a street-shooter, making the multi-chaptered story sing.
It is a fascinating visual sweep that illustrates the unusually gratifying paths that this ever-curious ethnologist charts on the streets (and below them) worldwide since receiving her first camera from her father at age three. The film is a well illustrated collage of a remarkable 70 plus year span showcasing Coopers’ 6th sense for people, urban culture, and burgeoning subculture. Viewers get to see the huge variety of interests she has investigated with amiable warmth and academic rigor – from the Peace Corps in Thailand to tattoos in Japan to graffiti train writing in New York to the daily lives of people in her native Baltimore.
With ample interviews and vintage video footage never seen before, “MARTHA: A Picture Story” follows Ms. Cooper across continents into the streets, through tunnels and over rooftops to provide illustrative background contexts for her decisions, her driving motivations, and her pure determination to succeed as a professional photographer – despite man-made and societal adversity.
We’ve been very fortunate to see this diamond of a
documentary up close, and we can say that MARTHA is legitimate crowd-pleaser.
spoke with Ms. Cooper and Ms. Miles for this auspicious announcement day about
the new movie:
BSA: Your personal and professional history has often been about overcoming challenges and pushing aside barriers. Is there one new challenge you have gone beyond to participate fully in a documentary about you? Martha Cooper: Well like most photographers, I’m more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it especially when speaking. I can’t say I’ve gotten good about overcoming being filmed, but I tried hard to give good footage.
BSA: One of the challenges of being a doc filmmaker is the number of hats you have to wear – sometimes perhaps feeling like you have to do everything yourself. What did you discover about your preferred role/s on a film? Selina Miles: Making a documentary is certainly a dynamic job and requires a mix of technical, social and creative skills. Learning from a photojournalist with 50 years experience such as Martha has been a wonderful experience. I started my career in video making by mucking around with friends making graffiti videos and shooting street art festivals, and the DIY spirit of both of these art forms really gave me an advantage on this project.
Not all directors know how to shoot or how to edit, but thanks to these early experiences I do know a little about all of these disciplines. Being able to just grab a camera and shoot, or to edit my own little concept videos was very handy in getting the project off the ground. That being said, being able to employ an amazing editor like Simon Njoo and having the mentorship of producers like Jennifer Peedom has also been a dream come true and really helped take this film to the next level.
BSA: With the new documentary many people will learn about a more dimensional photographer than the one they most frequently associate with the name Martha Cooper. Why is this important? Martha Cooper: I’m often called a graffiti, street art, or hip hop photographer but I don’t put myself into those categories. I would like people to understand that the common denominator in my choice of subjects is art in everyday life. I’m always looking for examples of how people are creative in their everyday lives. Graffiti is just one of many different examples.
BSA: Is there a special approach or formula that one tries to follow when making a story like this for a more general audience. Selina Miles: I think that the interesting thing about this story, in particular, is that it explores a subculture that is so misunderstood by so many people. Everybody has seen graffiti and has an idea of what it is, but I still think that few people really understand why it exists and where it came from. There’s so many tropes and ideas about graffiti and those who practice it that are just plain wrong or oversimplify a very complex idea. It’s been an enjoyable and interesting challenge for me to unpack the facts and rules of this subculture as I see them, and step them out in a way that somebody completely new to the culture can understand and appreciate Martha’s story.
BSA: Your photos capture a time and a moment and a technique of creation, but also often the more atmospheric and cultural energy of the street. What has drawn you time and again to capture this to share? Your own curiosity? Martha Cooper: Not exactly. As you know, I like looking for things and collecting them. Photography is a challenging quest and taking a good photo is the reward. The nature of what I’m questing for can change according to time and place but in general, the world is more interesting to me if I have a camera. The possibility of photographing something makes me look at my surroundings with a keener eye than I would without a camera.
BSA: Martha stood on the shoulders of feminists before her, yet blazed some paths that were very much her own – frequently without support. What is one lesson a younger person may take from Martha Cooper when they watch this movie? Selina Miles: Marty often says that people today don’t understand what it took to survive as a freelancer in earlier decades, especially as a woman and I completely agree. It’s a common thing that you hear but it’s very true, we are lucky these days to live in a world so connected and relatively accepting of all kinds of races, ages and sexes. That being said, there’s always going to be a frontier, and I hope that young people watching Martha’s story will be inspired to push beyond that frontier in their own way, and not be held back by anybody’s expectations of who or what they should be. And do it all the time with a smile and a sense of humor!
MARTHA: A Picture Story.
Premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival,
which takes place from April 24 – May 5th. Public tickets will go on sale on
Tuesday March 26 at 11am ET. Tickets are extremely limited and we recommend
purchasing tickets early.
Here graffiti and street art intersects with the world of publishing, specifically with books and zines and related obscure and/or scholarly publications known to relatively few. The list of publishers participating in this genre has steadily grown in the last few years to about 50 here; heavily Eurocentric at this point from countries like Netherlands, Russia, Germany, France, Australia, Japan, Czech Republic, the US and others.
Previously hosted in Barcelona and Berlin, Unlock is coalescing around a growing interest in defining these movements from historical, artistic, and anthropological vantage points; documenting and even codifying an unruly canon of expression through discovery, sharing information, and teaching one another. Toward that end it also hosts talks, panels, and screenings – this weekend included speakers like Jens Besser, Suse Hansen, Hugo Kaagman, Carlo McCormick, and Diana Ozon,
Among the self-publishing authors represented at the fair this year are Adam Void and Chelsea Ragan, who have been operating a Graff Zine distribution / publishing house called Cut In The Fence. Mr. Void share’s with us today images of his new work, straight from the D.I.Y. / punk / cargo jumping scene that is always inter-marbled with graffiti and autonomous art making in the US, where he operates. Today we’re pleased to present a great interview with Mr. Void and Javier Abarca, the founder of Unlock, and who also is an artist, researcher, and educator.
Adam Void:Javier, in your 12+ years as a researcher and educator of graffiti and street art, what brought you to founding the Unlock Book Fair & the Tag Conference? Javier Abarca: There is a whole scene of independent publishers working with graffiti and related fields an there was no meeting space for it. The idea immediately caught on, which showed there was a need for it. We also use the fair platform to advance the research on neglected but fascinating topics within the field. Last year we focused on hobo graffiti, this year we are delving into punk graffiti. We gather and display rare books on the subject, program talks and screenings about it and publish a companion book with obscure documentation.
Adam Void:How do you see the Unlock Book Fair differing from other zine fairs or celebrations of graffiti & street art? Javier Abarca: Unlock is much like other book fairs, but it is focused on a particular field. It has little to do with other events related to graffiti and street art, which tend to focus on the production of commissioned artworks. Our job is independent research and documentation of furtive public art, mostly in the form of books and zines, but also screenings, talks, performances, etc.
Adam Void: This year’s showcase is focused on “Punk & Graffiti”, what are the core connected elements between these two cultures? Javier Abarca: The core thread connecting punk and graffiti is of course the DIY ethics. Today graffiti has turned, to a great extent, into an act of consumption, but it used to be all about do-it-yourself. DIY is the defining quality of punk, of graffiti and of many other independent cultures.
Adam Void:Can you expand on this some? How do punk and traditional graffiti cultures exhibit the Do-It-Yourself ethos? What is the change you have seen in graffiti as of recent times? Javier Abarca: Punk’s approach to creating music and graphic communication is of course quintessential DIY. And graffiti used to be that as well, kids had to find ways to hack the elements on hand –spraycans, markers, inks, the subway system– to create a fantastically visible city-wide graphic communications game starting from zero resources.
It is the specialized media –fanzines, then the internet– and the specialized market –with custom-made tools and materials of every kind– which have largely transformed graffiti from DIY to an act of consumption. People do not need to go out and seek the graffiti throughout the city to get inspired when a whole world of graphic references is just a few clicks away. And there is no more need to hack and customize tools –after learning how to do it from a mentor– when any specialized tool you can imagine is readily available and can be bought online.
Adam Void:Most of the publications in the showcase are centered on punk & graffiti history. What do you see as the future for this element of graffiti? Javier Abarca: Punk graffiti is mostly a thing of the past. The focus of the two “Punk Graffiti Archives” books we have published for the fair are the punk-originated tagging scenes that thrived in Amsterdam and Madrid in the late 70’s and 80’s with barely any knowledge of what was happening in NYC. These are largely ignored cultural treasures. Both cultures disappeared when the NY tradition of graffiti took over European youth through the 80’s. Punks may still write on walls, but graffiti as a culture is dominated globally by the NY tradition.
Adam Void:Unlock has exhibitors from all over Europe (19 countries), as well as Japan & the US. What are the main similarities and differences in the publications exhibited across this wide sampling? Javier Abarca: Each publication is a unique, fascinating world. But most publishers work from a similarly independent, even DIY position, even if they are based in different continents. This means the possibilities and limitations they face tend to be similar, which can translate into their approaches and results.
Adam Void:Are there other continents, countries, or parts of the world that you would like to get involved with the Unlock Book Fair and the TAG Conference? If so, how should they get in touch for next year? Javier Abarca: Both the Tag Conference and the Unlock Book Fair are meetups of the international global scenes of graffiti research and graffiti publishing. They could take place anywhere. People can get in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through our Facebook and Instagram accounts @unlockfair and @thetagconference. We are in conversation with people from a number of cities in Europe and America who have expressed their interest in hosting the events.
Adam Void:Will you share an anecdote from the three-year history of the Unlock Book Fair that best exemplifies the spirit of the event? Javier Abarca: That would be the cantina. A central feature of the fair is the cantina serving complimentary, communal meals to publishers, speakers and staff. It is run by Unlock team member Akim, the Berliner legend of graffiti, street art and underground mischief, whose cooking abilities are well known in the scene. One of the main goals of the yearly Unlock Book Fair is to be a meetup of the publishing scene, and the cantina is its social heart.
Apart from this, the hilarious and fascinating readings and performances by team member Dumar NovYork –the legendary NYC bomber– are probably the moments that best portray the spirit of the Unlock Book Fair: knowledgeable, but just as fun.
Adam Void:What have you seen at this year’s fair that brings you excitement about the current state of graffiti publishing? Javier Abarca: The graffiti publishing scene is growing stronger and more interesting. It would be fair to say the Unlock Book Fair is playing a key role in this, in Europe in particular. A number of publishers have mentioned how this yearly meeting has become a motivation to put out more and better work, and how they leave the fair inspired by the contact with so many books and publishers. People are coming from as far as Moscow, Montreal, New York, Sydney, São Paulo or Tokyo to present their books, to talk, or simply to attend the fair and the Tag Conference.
Adam Void:What is next for you in your personal exploration in the dusty corners of graffiti culture? Javier Abarca: Next year’s Tag Conference will again create space for the the study of barely known forms of name writing. There is a list of obscure topics we want to explore in coming installments of the Unlock Book Fair. And I am working on a new groundbreaking international project that will create more opportunities for shedding light on overlooked topics which deserve more exposure among specialized audiences. Stay tuned!