Queer artists and writers in the graffiti and Street Art scene have always been present but like everywhere else in the culture they were more or less bullied by peers to deny it or keep it hidden. It might strike you as ironic or even hypocritical that a subculture of people who feel largely marginalized would propagate another layer of rejection onto their own peers, but humans and clans can be mysterious. And we don’t forget that it was the fags and drag queens who fought against the police in 1969, and who ultimately won through sacrifice, persistence, and collaboration – despite the odds.
As attitudes slowly change in mainstream society, LGBTQ+ peeps with aerosol cans, stickers, stencils and wheat-pastse are also using graff and Street Art to bring their issues to walls around the city. Today we talk to two artists – Homo Riot and Suriani, along with photographer, film maker, and social activist The Dusty Rebel, who organized their own wall this week to collaborate in saluting one of those Stonewall queens who fought back, Marsha P. Johnson. Even after this new piece was vandalized, the crew simply went back to work to put it up again. The accompanying text and probable title of the piece is “Pay It No Mind”
BSA: Dusty, you’ve been thinking about this wall for Pride for a long time now. The Dusty Rebel (Daniel Albanese): For over a year and a half, I have been traveling around the world filming my documentary about the global Queer Street Art movement. Very little attention has been paid to the topic, which I find curious since so many street art pioneers were queer. In my exploration, I have found that many queer-identifying street artists primarily install their work without permission and it’s often more subversive- which stands in contrast to the growing dominance of muralism.
This wall is actually the kick off to a series of Queer Street Art that will be coming to NYC for Pride Month. I have partnered with Art In Ad Places, Keep Fighting NYC, and other community based projects to create a queer alternative to the overwhelming flood of corporate pride events. While not part of Reclaim Pride Coalition’s inaugural Queer Liberation March on June 30th, I was inspired by the activists who have organized to bring the “Spirit of Stonewall” directly to the street, and who are keeping the focus on the continuing needs of the LGBTQ+ community
BSA:What’s the genesis of your idea for this installation? Getting walls in NYC for artists to paint free of charge is almost impossible. How did you manage to get this sweet spot? The Dusty Rebel: Because it’s seems rare that queer artists get to paint overtly queer legal murals, I wanted to find a way to bring one to New York City. Several months ago, I contacted my good friend Steve Stoppart, and asked him if I could have his wall on Houston — just one block over from where Keith Haring painted the legendary Bowery mural in 1982. Immediately, he said yes and told me I had permission to do anything I wanted. We have no corporate sponsor, so the wall is totally funded by all of us chipping in as a community.
Once I had the wall, I immediately
reached out to Suriani and Home Riot — two artists I have known for years, and
who’s work had inspired me to start my film.
BSA:Almost as soon as the piece was completed someone defaced it. What was the message they tried to send by disrespecting the art and the artists? And how did you respond? The Dusty Rebel: I know street art is ephemeral, and I also know that work that is unapologetically queer is especially targeted. So I knew it was coming, I just didn’t expect something that big and that fast in less than 30 hours. We made this piece as a community, for our community. We really wanted to start conversation about the issues that LGBTQ+ people face, and to honor the memory of Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall Riot. To have that important conversation cut short felt like a punch in the gut
In terms of how we dealt with it – we
knew who it was, so we reached out to him and explained why the mural was
important. He said he wasn’t motivated by homophobia and apologized. And I get
it. I’ve known enough vandals to understand that sometimes when your bombing
you’re not necessarily thinking about what you’re hitting. But we had planned
for something like that, so we were ready to “pay it no mind” and to restore
BSA:How did Homo Riot and Suriani approach the collaborative aspect of the installation. The Dusty Rebel: We began planning this wall over seven months ago. I told them I wanted it to be a celebration of queer liberation and make reference to New York’s history. While they are familiar with each other’s work, neither had met in person. Both artists have very different aesthetics. Homo Riot’s work being more homoerotic and aggressive, while Suriani’s is a colorful exploration of gender. So I knew it would be a challenge, but I also knew they would take the collaboration seriously. This wasn’t just two artists who were slapping their work next to each other. They listened to each other and compromised, without compromising their artistic voices. So, I’m very proud of them and the wall they created.
BSA: Why do you think it’s important to have queer perspectives in Street Art? Homo Riot: Street art is egalitarian. It’s open to all and its consumption is not restricted to a particular class, creed or level of education. And because it’s ubiquitous in our current environment, it provides opportunities for queer and marginalized people to be visible. In urban environments, queer art becomes part of the landscape and our presence hopefully becomes part of the collective consciousness making way for acceptance and inclusion. In small towns and long stretches of interstate, representations of LGBTQ+ art are important for those members of our community who are isolated and may feel alone.
BSA: Why do you think it’s important to have queer perspectives in Street Art? Suriani: I think it is important to have queer perspectives in all kinds of art or environments. Street Art is a space of free self-expression. It happens in public space, so it is accessible to everyone. Queer culture traditionally occurs in closed spaces due to the repression and violence LGBTQ+ people have suffered throughout history. Expressing our values and points of view to a larger public might spread awareness of our existence and help our communities in our fights for equality in terms of acceptance and rights
The official art world is already aware of these issues as we can see with the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall“. The problem is that only a very limited percentage of the population has access to museums. Urban Art is part of the city, it comes to people instead of waiting for people to come to it. Our message is directly visible to everyone who’s out there in public space: Inside of that resides its main power.
They designed the Ritz, the Vanderbilt, the Ambassador and the Biltmore hotels in Manhattan, along with townhouses for the Astors, the Yacht Club, and apartment buildings on 5th Ave and Park.
They were also architects on the team for Grand Central Terminal, that Beaux-Arts centerpiece of Gotham with its high marble walls, majestic sculptures, and lofty domed ceiling.
Also, Whitney Warren & Charles Wetmore designed the Casino Building here in Asbury Park, New Jersey a celebrated historical magnet for thousands of tourists escaping the heat and seeking buffeting breezes. The soaring glass paned windows may remind you of Grand Central, but also of that illustrated postcard on the cover of the Bruce Springsteen album, and of colorful resort town living.
If you had been promenading through this public thoroughfare that connects Ocean Grove to Asbury Park when it was bustling in the middle of last century, you would have seen Skee-Ball machines, bumper cars, games of diversion, and hot dog vendors. Now a cavernous yet sometimes ornate cave from yesteryear, you will feel the soft ocean breezes and hear the call of the seagulls echoing inside the casino throughout the day, and sometimes the night.
You’ll also see 5,760 pieces of colored yarn hanging from the beams above, forming a shape-shifting brick of radiating color that appears to levitate. The brand new installation by Street Artist Hot Tea is lifted and pulled and choreographed by the ocean air, dancing to the sounds of waves crashing, emulating the currents of the sea. 17 rows define the physical boundaries, but your imagination can go much further with it in a matter of minutes.
“One of the focal parts of this piece is about how people interact with it,” says Hot Tea (Eric Rieger) as he unbundles 153 containers of yarns he prepared in his Minneapolis studio and suspends them above.
“Hopefully they’ll take that idea of interaction and, I know this is a big ask, but maybe they’ll take more time talking to someone face-to-face. That’s the larger idea behind my artwork and that’s why am so passionate about doing work in public spaces because I want to alter peoples experience. I want to create more intimate experiences for people who aren’t expecting it.”
“I love the beauty of this movement of the color next to the decay of this beautiful historic building,” says Jenn Hampton of Parlor Gallery who organized the project after many conversations with the artist in the last few years.
This is the first installation of its kind for the Wooden Walls Project that has brought many Street Artists to paint murals here on the boardwalk since Hampton began it in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. She says that part of her process is working with the artist and partly with the people who live and work in this seaside area who may think of public art as limited to statues or murals.
“You have to educate a community of people who may not understand installation art,” she says, and while you watch the arduous process of Hot Tea and his assistant overhead for a few days, you’ll have an opportunity to hear a variety of commentaries from people passing by. On one of the sunny May afternoons a tourist from out of town is so enthralled that she returns during the night time to see how it was progressing and befriends the artist with compliments and bromides during the challenging windy passages.
One gent who identified himself as a Vietnam veteran was sure that the art installation was probably “gay art” because of its rainbow color range. He wondered aloud abrasively to anyone who happened to pass by about gay art and the lamented lack of Straight Pride celebrations, among other observations. A pair of bicyclists stop to engage with him about art in general and this piece in specific but soon appears to withdraw. Before zipping away they take turns yelling up to the artist to say that they like the installation a lot.
“You know it’s interesting with my artwork,” Hot Tea says during a break from the installation. “I have noticed that people of all ages and from all different ethnicities have some sort of say when it comes to my work. Like when I did the piece in the Williamsburg Bridge called “Rituals” it was anyone from little kids who were four or five years olds just immediately responding to the work – just a gasp or a shouted word.”
“They could be young adults or adults on their commute and they were slowing down on their way and that was what I was experiencing with this piece. The kids were gasping and pointing and telling their parents to look up. And then there were young adults who were saying that it was calming and relaxing them and then these older people who stop and say that they’re having an experience with this. They say that this is making them think of the space in a new way.”
“Hot Tea’s piece brings me an immediate feeling of peace and presence,” says Angie Sugrim, a producer with Parlor Gallery and the Wooden Walls Project. Her loyalty to Asbury Park is palpable while you speak with her and it is clear that this installation has affected her meaningfully. “I love how it changes according to the way I choose to interact with it. It’s like a river, though it is constant, it is always changing. I like the feeling of connecting with the piece as it undulates, and following its movement as though it was connected to my own psyche and consciousness.”
“Hot Tea has taken this journey with me for the last
five years and I cannot say enough about how wonderful he is to work with,”
says Hampton. “Watching how driven he is in his process has been amazing.”
He talks to us about the logistics of unveiling his idea to the public. “I’ve tried it where I just drop the whole bundle and try to separate it with my hands but there’s no way to get the yarn to drop individually and it just looks a lot cleaner if you drop it one by one,” he says, “It’s more time-consuming but the end result is much cleaner. All in all from conception to execution I would say it was about three weeks to execute this.”
With roots as a graffiti writer, Hot Tea has created his own niche on the street with yarn – surprising many peers while he is designing and mounting these space-altering large installations for large and small clients around the world, particularly in the last half-decade.
He says that this one in Asbury Park has been unique because of its proximity to the ocean and the impact of the natural elements on the movement of his piece. He says the effect has also affected him aesthetically and emotionally – and he hopes passersby will similarly be moved.
“I think when you are looking up from the bottom you can appreciate the mechanics of it and during the day the yarns are flowing with the wind and more attention is drawn to the color because the wind is moving it.
It’s more of a kinetic experience I think; That’s how I experience it and this whole thing is more about just the experience. Color is a huge part with my work but a lot of it is about creating a lasting memory that people will subconsciously remember when this piece is gone. I hope that happens”
The endgame of vulture capitalism. The implosion of the corporate culture. The subtle differences between public housing and private jailing. The melting of the ice caps.
However you have wished to interpret the work of Spanish sculptural street artist Isaac Cordal over the last decade, you probably thought he didn’t hold much hope for our future. Or us. But he says his work is more a reflection of what he sees, and he presents it will a subtle humor.
After a recent visit to his ceramic tiled and flourescent-lit artist studio in downtown Bilbao, we realized that his public art darkness is at least as hopeful as it is critical. All around the studio he has created a variety of rehearsal spaces, vignettes, and theatrical scenarios or displays with his figures interacting with other objects that he collects along the way.
It is at least as entertaining as it is educational. His sad characters and formal scenes of concrete dystopia are also humorous in their unlikely repetition, their utter lack of comfort, their repurposing of common objects as dire ones. His critiques of consumerism, environmental degradation, militarism, corporatism merging into fascism are sometimes couched by his own understated humor and attitude of childlike play as well.
Not that people were chuckling as they encircled the austere and degrading urban jungle scene he constructed in the Spanish capital for the Urvanity 2019 showcase in the courtyard of the Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos de Madrid. The tribal clusters of bald men in suits were situated above, partially submerged in, or up to their chins in gravel from a bombed out lot, perhaps churned rubble created by a drone.
But did the art crowd also see the two
businessmen carrying a stretcher full of wheatgrass? The absurdity is a relief.
Are they rescuing a rectangular slab of nature? Possibly cultivating it for
farming? Blissing out on a wheatgrass juice cleanse to counter the martinis and
And what about these new human-faced pigs gathered around, looking for a trough? He presents the human/animal hybrids without comment under electric lights that glitter warmly across the compound. They could be a metaphor addressing attitudes or behaviors. They may also be a glimpse into a law-free amoral future where any new life-form you conjure can be sequenced and produced.
A graduate in sculpture at the University of Fine Arts near his hometown in Galicia, he also studied conservation of stone crafts and trained in London at Camberwell College. He was a founding member of a digital art community called Alg-a.org, a heavy metal guitarist in a band called Dismal, and a publisher of a fanzine called Exorcism.
As you learn these details about his life in the 90s and 2000s, you gain a greater appreciation for the powerful work of a guy who has emerged uniquely on the global street art stage with his Cement Elipses.
As hard driving electronic drums, bass, and cryptic lyric loops pounding from a radio on a shop stool, we witness the fastidious artist at work in the tidy studio area in this converted warehouse on a dead-end block. As he circles the center island in his overalls looking for the appropriate steel bit or resin mold he bobs gently to the beat, skillfully switching attachments on his drill and hand-designed vacuum device.
Here is where you see the craftsman at work; carefully attentive, problem-solving industry in play, possibly more at peace while he is creating than when he is left to think too much. He picks up a pink pig figurine and begins the plastic surgery, the fine reconstruction; a gentle whirring, a whittling away of snout and a defining of chin-line.
The result is rough and unrefined, proportions not sweet. He blazes through these final actions and presents his new hybrid man-pig, a satisfied glint flashing by as he blinks. The drill whirrs downward and he sits on the stool for a minute to flip over the figurine a few times and inspect it.
BSA:I imagine sometimes that people must think that you are walking around with a cloud over your head – but you’re not really. You’re a happy person who thinks seriously about the world and its issues.
Isaac: It’s not that I am choosing the topics. It is something that came by default. It is my personality. Also I make this work because I do not like the kind of society that we have now. I think about all the improvements that we have from our new discoveries – and I don’t understand what the reason is that we have all of these situations and problems. We should be a smarter society and more just.
We can find water on Mars but we can’t feed people here – what’s the reason for this? Why is our only worry about how we can have more and more and more? In that sense probably in my work it is like that because I don’t understand what we are doing, or our idea of progress. I say ‘Wow, it’s incredible that we cannot work on a common welfare.’ So the work is probably a reflection of what I do not like.
BSA:Do you think your work is conceptual art? Isaac Cordal: I don’t think so because it’s pretty direct. It’s not codified. It’s very easy to understand and with conceptual art there is a semantic idea, meanings. It’s more of a movement of art.
BSA:So you been doing this project using cement for maybe 15 years? Isaac Cordal: I don’t know maybe the first one was in 2005. Maybe before because I have some others that I made in cement that maybe go back 1999 it’s crazy how fast time goes. Because it was in 1996 that I started to study fine arts at the university in my hometown in Galicia. I also went to stone-carving school for five years. We were like slaves there because we were working with big stones – but I learned quite a lot because I learned to do more in terms of carving and modeling clay.
It was quite an experience for me. Most of the school was nice because it was more conceptual or theoretical – and it was interesting for me to learn more about contemporary art.
BSA: How do you feel about this time of your life as an artist? Isaac Cordal: The future for me I think is a little uncertain because every day is like a new year. I’m laying in the bed hiding behind my covers just looking over the edge. You say, “Oh my God another day that you have to prove yourself, do your projects.”
There are different venues and situations for artists but I think it is a kind of battle, a combat that first starts inside of you and after splashes onto others – your family or maybe your girlfriend. It’s not easy. It’s quite complex. I’ve had so many friends who were studying with me and they were talented but they couldn’t live their lives in this manner. It is a little bit uncertain. People may prefer to have a proper job. For me, probably not.
BSA:Do you have a sense about how people see your art? Issac Cordal: We have to deal with so many fears that this society is selling to us and it seems that you have to think about them. I think the people can understand my work very easily as it is very simple and representative.
BSA: What perceptions or reactions do you think they are having when looking at the “Yard” installation, for example? Isaac Cordal: The “Yard” is kind of a reflection of ourselves on a small scale. The topics are a little bit pessimistic but perhaps people can see it as a sort of reflection. They probably think about the topic that is suggested behind the installation.
BSA:Did you feel a sense of tension, given your worldview about politics and power and privilege and all of the societal structures we work within – your politics are so strong. How do you decide what to manifest? Isaac Cordal: I don’t want to do real political art. I think it is quite complicated. You have to be very clean. When you do political art you cannot make mistakes. In my work I am more interested in creating a reflection of what I see through the window. Sometimes I think I’m only speaking about myself. We are a reflection of the society and the society is always growing and evolving so probably as an artist we have to grow too.
The Italian textual conceptualist and urban/suburban public space instigator
ELFO has lodged his complaint on a wall against the misinformation that forms
our perceptions. The humorous one-off screed caught our attention so we asked
him about this low-fi textwork that seems decidedly Duchampian, with a nod to
BSA:Duchamp challenged conceptions of the art world with his “readymade” pieces and many a critic called him a fake. Your commentary references the “fake news” meme favored by the right wing news and politicians. How did you make the connection?
ELFO: Currently my work is returning to this message. I want to speak of the world and the history of art in ironic and contemporary way using contemporary terms. I chose Duchamp because his artwork changed the world of art. Duchamp is perfect because he played with fake identity and the critic system rendered him as a fake. He changed the rules of art, for me and many artists.
BSA:What role should art play in this world of “fake news”?
ELFO: In this world of fake news, art probably is a big fake – if it does not reflect society as a mirror.
BSA: Do you think art should always reflect our society like a mirror?
ELFO: The problem is not fake news in this world – it’s the human brain. Art must speak about serious issues like pollution for example. This is the next subject I’ll address since I have been looking at it for a long time.
Berlin streets are regularly teeming with the Vox Graffiti in shouting chaotic profusion – and have been for decades. The bubbling laughing raging hordes proffer a visual conversation that often roars, and you’ll have to yell to get your voice above the rest.
1UP and Berlin Kidz are two of the graffiti crews who reliably blast out their viewpoint, each with a uniquely unmistakable cadence and flair. This week one gilded the urban stage while the other was transformed upon it by British guest star Fanakapan with a ringing whoop, and with the angelic welcome of Alanis at the entrance, the Frühling party of Berlin is in full bloom.
Set upon a newly opened urban arena in Kreuzberg (thanks to the demolishing of a building adjacent to it) the actual bubble letters that distinguish the guileful Londoners’ letter style now rise above the rubble with multi-colored glee. Spelling out the 1UP letters in a way they never could, his interpretative take is framed by two runners of Berlin Kidz translation of Pichaçao-style colored cryptic tagging.
“As one can imagine this was just to good to be true,” says Sam Walter of YAP Productions, the organizers and facilitators of the lift and permissions. “Yes we did have problems with a security and also police since we had no official paper which gave us permission for the wall – but we got a couple of confirmations via phone calls,” he says with all the reassuring confidence of a Cheshire cat .
Together with the rest of the steel-spined-velvet-clad YAP posse, the 1UP crew and Fanakapan were celebrating on this vast muddy lot ringed in concertina wire as the sun set one night this week. Word spread quickly and the reunion at the wall felt like 50% Graffiti God magic mixed with 110% adrenaline helping everyone ignore the psychotic spring weather that warms you one minute and converts you into a popsicle the next.
The original motivation for the collaboration is based on an one-year-old idea between 1UP and Fanakapan, says Sam, “bringing those beautiful, shiny, giant 7-meter “1UP’ letters. These are young artists who take on a lot of risk to push the graffiti culture beyond its boundaries.”
“No animals, plants or 1UPs were harmed during this production,” quips the charismatic cultural curator and YAP team member Denis Leo Hegic as he texts process shots of the wall to the squad as the secret/public wall goes up.
“1UP carries the zeitgeist of Berlin out into the world like no other contemporary collective. The DNA of the crew is rooted in the streets of Kreuzberg, but the group also developed into a global family,” he says. The statement is only partial bravado, as a serious graffiti head in many cities will be able to tell you a rooftop, elevator, or train line that they’ve seen hit by the amorphous and amazingly anonymous crew that seems to shape shift and reconstitute itself – evidenced here where their enormous tag is painted by another artist entirely.
BSA: Is this a tribute piece to 1UP or is it a collaboration? Denis Leo Hegic: It’s gravity graffiti. Collaborative and collective work is already included in their spirit “one united power”. Fanakapan managed to portray it in such a powerful and gravity defying way and gave us the largest 1UP letters hovering weightlessly over Berlin. 1UP is a ubiquitous tag in Berlin. You can’t help but be aware of it.
BSA: Did the authorities take any interest in visiting the site when Fanakapan was painting the tag, perhaps thinking that it was actually 1UP painting? Denis Leo Hegic: We had quite an interaction with the local law enforcement. However, all the officers that appeared on site were being alarmed by other people and did not come on their own initiative.
BSA: How did you get permission to paint on this wall? Denis Leo Hegic: Through the intelligence of many. We managed to thrill lots of good, curious and courageous people who made everything possible: from a large wall in the center of Kreuzberg to the entire production. Fanakapan was extremely motivated and he literally blew those balloons up the wall.
BSA: Previously there was a building in front of the current wall. Now the whole wall is fully exposed, showing fully the long-running Alanis angel piece. Was any consideration given to the Alanis piece while planning the 1UP piece?
Denis Leo Hegic: Absolutely. I hate when some people say “curating a wall” or “curating a mural” – that’s such utter nonsense! How can one person possibly “curate” one single painting on one single wall? However, this wall succeeded to curate itself naturally. It’s a great composition with the two vertical stripes by Berlin Kidz on each side of the piece and being held by the Alanis angel from the ground. With Fanakapan’s addition of the 1UP bubble tag it became a marvelous “Kreuzberger Mischung” (Kreuzberg Mixture).
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.
“Graffiti ain’t something you do, it’s something you live,” says the text above a wildly lettered REVS piece in a 1996 photo taken in El Paso. If there is a New York graffiti/Street Art icon that you would identify with a credo like this, he’s definitely one. Self-secreted away from the limelight and distrustful of many of the characters that are on the graffiti/Street Art “scene” today, REVS is nearly a New York folk hero, despite appearing to be completely firm in his anti-establishment, anti-commercial views – rooted in punk and hardcore music and those values that helped form his sometimes shape-shifting character since the the 1980s.
Today it is a rare moment for BSA to publish an exclusive interview with an anonymous and articulate thinking man and writer whose practice we consider to be an important lynchpin between graffiti and what would later be called “Street Art.” The scale of his massive roller tags with sometimes writing partner COST, the series of personal ‘diary’ entries that number into the 200s in underground tunnels, the replication and repetition of tags and messages through new print methods, the move to iron sculpture soldiered to the streetscape – each of these moves broke a mold and expanded the definition of art on the streets in some way.
New York author and respected Hardcore music and graffiti documentarian Freddy Alva is publishing the second edition of his book “Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore”this month, where he gives you the full account of personally meeting with and interviewing the elusive writer/artist/musician – a generous portion of which we bring to you here today. Mr. Alva tells us what it was like to meet with REVS and speaks of the illuminating and wide-ranging REVs interview that gives details and perspective behind the lore in his evolution with aesthetic street expression in a way that is rarely heard. Our thanks to both of these folks for sharing their stories with BSA readers.
Intro from Freddy Alva
When I first started to write my ‘Urban Styles Graffiti In NYHC’ book in 2016; the first person on my list that I wanted to interview was REVS. I’d been a big fan of his output since the late 80’s and I knew he came from a Punk/Hardcore background, which made him an ideal subject to highlight the synthesis and crossover of these vital NYC subcultures that went on to have such a worldwide cultural impact. I managed to get a sit-down with him through mutual acquaintances & traveled deep into South Brooklyn to pitch my book. He was a bit distant at first but warmed up as he found out I used to book shows at a place one of his bands played at in the early 90’s.
As I laid out my vision for the book and the writers that I was planning on interviewing plus images that I wanted to highlight; he patiently listened and towards the end politely declined to be included as he preferred to keep his story underground and maybe I didn’t quite correctly explain what the final product would look like but he did agree for a couple of songs from his early 80’s band Adam 12 to be included on a compilation I was planning on releasing simultaneously with the book. I left Brooklyn a bit dejected but respected his decision & figured that was it.
Flash forward to when the book came out in early 2018 and I
got in touch with him again to return those Adam 12 songs that I used &
also to give a him a copy of the book to see what he thought of it. He called
me up the very next day saying how much he loved it & if there was any
chance he could still be included. Fortunately, the book quickly sold out and I
was planning on expanding the 2nd edition, as there was a chapter
that was left off the first time around, plus correcting typos and fixing some
of the photos so to add a REVS interview would make this the definitive
Like I stated in my intro to his section; people that follow
him might not be as aware of how much his experience in being a Punk Rocker has
really impacted all of his art in such a profound fashion. It’s unheard of
these days, in what’s called the street art world, to have an artist of such
magnitude and influence like REVS eschew all and any attempts to commercialize
He will never sell you one of his works, there won’t ever be
a gallery exhibition, he will not do any commissions and forget about any
merchandise/marketing related to him. One need not look any further than the
defiant, middle finger, fuck you to the system attitude espoused by American
Hardcore bands like the Dead Kennedy’s or the Do It Yourself ethics of
subversive English Punks Crass; all resonating in his work throughout the
years. I seriously consider him one of the last great NYC artists from the 20th
century that got his start and influence from two rebellious subcultures that
are near & dear to my heart. I feel fortunate to fill in some missing
pieces, giving a more nuanced picture of who he is and why his art comes out
the way it does.
~ Freddy Alva
What was your next tagging name? The very first name I had was SATIRE and I probably got that from the Monty Python show on TV. I didn’t know what it meant, had no fucking clue, but I wrote it on an abandoned house with this kid that wrote RED and lived on my block
At what point did you start writing REVLON? That started in 1983. After writing SIRO I might have been ME2 for a few weeks, then it was KIRK, took some bullshit tags in the village with that, nothing particularly good. I was hanging out with this guy D-ROCK, he was in a band called Cooker, known before as Weed or also Sacro 13; all the same band. He used to write and we would go on missions and also go to HC shows together all the time. He had a dope dancing style, kind of like John Watson. We were hanging out in my hallway one day and I went to the bathroom, saw this Revlon shampoo bottle while taking a piss and picked it up.
What can I tell you? I was young and stupid, I had so much hatred in me. I hated every fucking thing. I stuck with that for a while because I developed a good one line tag. It’s a horrible tag I know but I love animals and hate animal testing so this I again one of those contrary things that I’m against what the name stands for, like Adam 12. Another tag of mine is SHIESTA and once again I’m the complete opposite of that because I don’t shyster with people. I don’t like shysters, there is always this duality that goes with me.
Did you do any burners on trains with the REVLON name or get down with any crews? Yeah, we used to go to the 4th Avenue layups, the M yard, RR layups in the city. We also went to the ‘Dead Yard’ in Brooklyn on 39th street. Me and my partner NB were hitting tunnels pretty extensively in 1983. I never joined any crews.
At what point did the REVLON name transition into REVS? That happened in 1987. We were painting at King Kong’s cave in Brooklyn where the N train goes to Coney Island. I was doing a wall with LAW and EROS from Staten Island, plus my partner at the time, KAB, and NIKE from DESTINY crew. I did a REVS because REVLON is a such a horrible stupid fucking name. I abbreviated it and put a Z at the end because I was sick of REVLON. By 1990 I was a nowhere guy, like that Reagan Youth song, “Go Nowhere”, that was me. I just threw the rule book out the door and didn’t give a flying fuck about making straight lines in graffiti. I just wanted to destroy like Johnny Lydon and I never looked back because I feel that I’m in my groove.
It’s interesting this transition happened when graffiti in NYC changed after the train era and new techniques, like wheat paste posters, in street bombing became more prevalent. You are associated with that, tell me about it. I was walking down Houston near Mercer one day and saw some stupid poster for a Tom Cruise movie and I was like; ‘Fuck this, I’m gonna do my own thing’. I figured it out, got wheat paste and started going out solo, putting my posters up in the Village. This is in 1990 or maybe 1989 because I had my first girlfriend in 1988. She was Porto Rock and wasn’t hearing about any of this graffiti shit. I couldn’t be a bum, had to dress nice and take her to dance clubs like 10-18. That was fun, going to places like The Palladium, got to do what you got to do sometimes! She actually ended up running away with a sailor and moved to Hawaii. I was like; ‘Fuck this, fuck everything’ once again. I started doing these crazy sloppy rollers with the wheat paste because everything at that point in graffiti was so meticulous in 1990. Perfect straight lines, right angles… I was like; ‘nah, I hate everything’.
People must have have thought you were putting up movie posters when you went out. How did you hook up with COST? I would do low spots like doorways and one day I saw COST hitting all the backs of the ‘Don’t Walk’ signs on the street and I knew him since like 1985. He was putting these 8 ½ x 11 inch ‘Hello My Name Is COST’ posters and I was doing 11 x 17 inch ‘Who Is REVS’ posters. I ran into the dude from Videograf and told him to give COST my number.
Where did the idea to do rollers come from? I think LAW and EROS used bucket paint for their piece at King Kong’s cave but they did it as fill-in material. The concept of “John Loves Mary’ written on the side of a bridge with house paint also influenced me but I took it on steroids. I’m a white dude that likes tools, got to use tools, it’s part of my nature. I can physically do some stuff but I’ll always settle for doing something smarter not harder. I got an extension pole, like 24 feet long, for the roller me and COST did. We did our first roller on a parking lot by Duane St, right on the roof. It was a brown roller on a tan wall.
COST is a straight up graffiti dude, he’s a bomber, that’s what he knows how to do. Don’t ask him to draw anything. He can probably do a piece but he’s great at throw-ups and tags. He’s not into abstract work, but when we did that roller a lightbulb went off. We blew up the whole spot, no one could go over us. It was a sloppy roller but to his credit, he’s a very neat guy and meticulous. He cares about perception, wants to get feedback. I don’t care, just don’t go over me, say whatever you want. He was like; ‘Yo Rev, we got to make these things neat, make them clean and everything’. I was like ok; I can go with the flow so when we started doing that’s when it really took off. We started hitting everywhere and these things look pretty good, almost semi-pro lettering, kind of like a stencil.
I know spray cans are easy to rack, but how did you get all these gallons of paint and wheat paste? Wheat paste was cheap. I always worked, been working since I was 11 years old so I had money for buying wheat paste. We found on Reade St. an old paint store that had like a gazillion DOT (Department Of Transportation) yellow standard buckets and I bought every single one for like a dollar a piece. This is the DOT yellow that I used before meeting COST. I ran Houston and Broadway with a DOT yellow piece. We also used whatever we found in the garbage, didn’t care it was oil based, we are not painting someone’s house but just blasting as much as possible. We found Photo Backdrop paper in Soho and started doing what we called street paintings on them, then gluing those up. They were 4 x 6 feet tall. We started doing street paintings where you paint the doorway and then take some shoe dye, put purple in the dye, then do my character. COST was doing his stick figures thing and we ventured out to the outer boroughs as well.
I imagine you guys started garnering attention as far as this is something, it’s not like traditional graffiti from the 70s/80s. What did other writers think of it? Writers didn’t like it. COST came up with the idea of getting a toll free phone number and then got his grandmother to record some foul language messages, insulting people. People were like; ‘What is this shit? That ain’t Graffiti!’ When dudes saw one of our rollers outside of, like Tower Records, or in Soho, they’d be off balance not knowing what to think. All their shit in the bottom didn’t mean anything anymore.
It’s ironic because traditional art theory people would look at this as some kind of performance art and graffiti writers would say what is this? They would say what is this toy shit? How come you’re not using spray paint? Regular people would call up and ask what is this about. It was mysterious but we were just two graffiti guys.
I was tracing the origins of the whole ‘Street Art” moniker and arguably; a lot of it can be traced back to what you guys were doing then Oh yeah it can. Street art has been around for a while but they didn’t really call it that, like the dude that put the shadows up everywhere. Then it was the ‘Kill Your TV’ guy. We started calling it street art and now it’s a bad word, at least amongst graffiti writers. It’s not a bad word for the people making money off it. I don’t call it graffiti anymore but “Greed-Fitti.” Once you throw money into something it has a way of making things go weird. All these dudes are selling things because there’s no real graffiti anymore. They took away the trains, buses, handball courts, the parks. Guys play with the tunnels now, RD and SEN 4 have the fire hydrants but we’ve got virtually nothing. Maybe some overpass by the freight trains. All of us still have the itch and being grown men now, we could do a good job. Everyone has a family with mouths to feed so they’re selling everything and calling it graffiti but it’s only graffiti when it’s up.
When did the rollers and wheat pasting era come to an end for you? Me and COST would argue a lot. We’d have these crazy discussions because we were together so much and have way different philosophies on life. I had to put my foot down otherwise he would have printed t-shirts to sell in Macy’s or something like that. One day we were wheat pasting and it ended up with us saying ‘Fuck You’ to one another. We went our separate ways but cops were trailing him because he was putting up a lot of stickers. Whenever we’d do a roller, he’d bring cans and do throw-ups. I didn’t want to do that because I don’t like spray paint anyway, but love tagging.
Is that when you started your series in the tunnels? Yeah, any motherfucker can write on a piece of paper but graffiti needs balls. The best graffiti guys have balls and talent, that’s dudes like ZEPHYR, SEEN, BAN 2. Some guys can get up but don’t have the talent. The tunnel thing was a case of I don’t give a flying fuck, I’m going to do whatever I want to do, don’t care who sees it. It’s not in book form, just made that shit up as I went along. I can’t spell. I was going with bucket paint and a ladder all painted black, clothes were black, pole was black. I used the best quality paint I could get my hands on and did 235 of these series. I didn’t get my groove on.
At what point did your steel sculptures come about? I don’t call them sculptures, more like metal pieces. DIVA used to call them weld-ups. I come from the working class so I build stuff. The first weld-up I did was in 1990 and it was a cage that I installed in Soho with railroad spikes and some epoxy on the bottom. It ran for a couple of months and then I did another one by the cube on St. Marks. It was an oil can that was for the Gulf war in 1991. Me and CZ, who I used to write with, humped that thing from my third floor apartment on the Lower East Side.
I started to get more into welding
and even when I was hanging with COST I would tell him to get a book to get the
concept of welding. He was like, ‘Nah REV, it’s not the right time.’ He doesn’t
come from the working class, has a different background. I got down with my
union and started getting better at welding, practice in anything will make you
better. I got balls and you combine that with being good at something; this is
the shit I’m into. I love getting into steel with a grinder and a torch. It’s
so easy to get a rechargeable grinder now but they didn’t have them back then
and now everyone is forty years old. Fifteen year olds ain’t fucking with that
but grown men know a little bit about tools. You can lose your shit once you
weld something. They’ll cut the fence down and go for the easiest part of your
piece, just take it down. That’s where I’m at, trying to device ways to make it
hard to take down and they’re looking for ways to stop me.
I remember at the time
you and COST were doing stickers and the 12” cover cover seemed an extension of
that as the cover looks like one giant REVS sticker
I can see why you say that but the
cover wasn’t a sticker, it just looks like one. That’s the difference between
me and COST. The 12” was a personal thing to me not some kind of mass media
campaign. I didn’t give a shit about becoming anybody. That’s the great thing
about the Adam 12 guys, none of us wanted to become anybody, that’s why I like
those guys. Other dudes like the Greed-fitti guys always want to become
somebody, they want to be the next Andy Warhol, Keith Haring or Basquiat.
That’s the problem because the
Greed-Fitti guys don’t come from punk. They don’t come from ‘Fuck you, stay the
fuck away from me’. I’m not left wing, I’m not right wing, just stay the fuck
away. That’s the punk I know and grew up on and when things started changing in
1984, it was disheartening. The machismo, why have violence against your own
people? As Jello (Biafra) says; ‘Thrash a bank if you have the balls’. Why fuck
with your own kind, back then everyone got along except for maybe there was a
hippie or two that got beat up at CBGB’s.
An NYC original whole-car graffiti writer and painter in the 1970s/80s, Mr. Quiñones is now prepping for his latest gallery show, a solo at Charlie James Gallery in LA’s Chinatown.
40 years after his first gallery show in Rome that many point to as groundbreaking for graffiti writers transitioning to contemporary art, Lee is easily time-travelling to those days while he is working on new canvasses that invariably include imagery from that era, even as his own style has continued to evolve and he has greatly expanded his visual repertoire.
Lee Quiñones. “9 Lives” (photo courtesy of the artist)
Here in his Bushwick studio his focus gathers around his penciled paint strokes as he builds up the exterior of a train racing across canvas that will be called “Born From Many Apples”.
“It all goes back to the old saying, ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ and I always remember that,” he says about a socially connected, universalist philosophy that has often appeared thematically in his work. “Born from many apples. We are part of all these things and people”.
“It was a pretty special time and place,” he says of train writing in the late 70s, “Obviously all good things come to an end, so I’m okay with that.” Not romantic about the conditions of the city during those years, he’s clear about the raw nature of painting and looking for adventure on train tracks in the terra incognita of a declining New York.
Lee Quiñones. “Counterfeit Entitlment Makes For A Brittle Society” (photo courtesy of the artist)
Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and studying the train lines for the best exposure for his rolling canvasses, Lee hustled for the opportunity to go large scale, to be “All City”, often drawing his trains in detail on paper before grabbing paint and staking out a spot. From the start, he took his craft seriously.
The gritty megapolis of his childhood was in perpetual financial austerity. Many neighborhoods appeared lawless, even avoided by police. Social or sports programs for youth were threadbare if they existed at all. Yet somehow graffiti kids who broke into train yards to paint coalesced into an underground community. “The camaraderie was there.”
Competition and verbal lore were part the game of course, but writers also shared their techniques and improved skills with each other, he says. He speaks about the bonds forged among the graff writers in the early days; How they would exchange tips for tool making, techniques and hitting trains. It has the markings of a tight community.
“Dudes really respected each other and writers were happy to meet each other,” he says. “We all brought our black books and we asked each other to tag it, like ‘can you put my name down to see if I can do it better with your style?’ It was a lot of sharing going on.”
Lee Quiñones drawing from 1980. (photo courtesy of the artist)
His prolific activity, creative experimentation, and constant study of his craft scored him a shot at the gallery scene before he entered his 20s, even though it was on another continent entirely. “The first major European show of graffiti-based art opened at the galleria La Medusa in Rome, Italy, in 1979,” he says. “Fab 5 Freddy and I showcased our very first works on canvas in an attempt to bring it above.”
Forty years later he opens “If These Walls Could Talk”, a bold show of new works – a series of framed “tablets”, says Charlie James. Here you’ll see “writings on slabs of drywall and wood paneling that once were the walls of Quiñones’s studio(s), which were painstakingly removed during recent years. Unlike the urban landscape largely hostile to his earliest artistic production, these walls have offered an inviting interiority for the artist to perform his spray bomb color tests that ultimately become the foundation of his paintings.”
True to his origins, Lee says he has developed his practice by study and sharing perspectives. “You have to be able to talk to people about work, about other artists, do comparisons, do evaluations, critique it – it makes for great conversation.”
We talked with Mr. Quiñones about the new show and his perspectives on his evolving practice as an artist:
BSA:Four decades into your work as a self-made artist, one of your paintings for this exhibition is titled “Karma”. What was the genesis of this and what role does Karma play in your life as an artist?
Lee Quiñones: There are several pieces in the show that have ignited the idea of karma.
I spend a lot of time in my studio having sit-ins with my work whether there are already formed or in theory, so I have many passages of time that come to mind and usually one thing reflects on another or as I say, rhymes with each other. Life is fulfilling and revealing like that if you look hard enough.
On that same note, I review life and humanity in a sarcastic manner in my head over time, and that in turn spills out onto my work or onto works that are specifically worthy of sarcasm.
BSA: Given the nature of graffiti vandalism in train yards and on the street, and your own illegal car racing on the streets, you may have used up your metaphorical 9 lives that is assigned to curious cats. Can you talk about the painting you have created for this exhibition entitled, “9 Lives.”
Lee Quiñones: I have over time studied people in challenging situations that hide certain emotions in the details and reveal eye candy for the rest of us that just simply look and not see. The study painting “9 lives” centralizes around the segregation that unfolded its ugly head during the late fifties when students of color were finally allowed to attend certain schools throughout the nation.
I was especially driven to the 1957 incidence at the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas where nine freshman students of color were to be escorted by police and or national guardsmen to their respective classes of study. One of the nine students, Elizabeth Eckford came early that day to school and subsequently endured a gauntlet of hate chants from her future fellow students led by a very angry and vocal Hazel Bryan. The photograph that captured that moment etched that dark time in the history books.
What I found in making this piece of which it is a study to a larger one in progress is that their emotions of hate and courage were so prominent in their hands. The juxtaposition of a hand clutching a rolled up newspaper in a authoritarian way fueled by hate and fear against a hand clutching books of study showing steadfast and courage was irrefutable.
BSA:In studio we touched on the topic of how graffiti and street artists like to talk about “community” but often we have observed that there’s little support among the artists for each other in practice. You mentioned how in the old days of train painting you guys really supported each other shared techniques and exchanged your new style discoveries. What changed?
Lee Quiñones: Manufactured entitlement.
The air is thin in some places of success and artist have only artists to rely on as sound boards and for sound advise. That there is the oxygen needed to be authentic and poised for your moment when it comes rightfully so. What you do with that moment is embrace your hard work and to not be compelled to feel threatened by an associate.
I keep my closes allies from back in the day on the front pages of my day planner and I’m always interviewing new souls.
BSA:You are having your first solo exhibition in LA. What took you so long?
Lee Quiñones: Funny, after discussing the show with Charlie James, whom I find to be one of the most open and enthusiastic people in the arts, I realized that this wasn’t just another show with everyone under the umbrella. It is my first solo show in Los Angeles on the heels of quite a few group surveys and splashes. Those exhibitions have their place and time and what I have been preaching in silence for some time now is; “that in order to see a movement for what it is worth and how it weathers throughout the passage of time is to look closer at its inner working parts individually”
I’d like to think that this is a prelude, my first shot across the bow of the left coast in what will be a gathering of works itching to spill out.
BSA:Most people are familiar with the path that NYC graffiti culture took in the 80s and 90s to Western and Eastern Europe – and you’ve had the opportunity to hang out with writers from around the world thanks to your pioneering work on trains. Would you say that there is a difference between the graffiti experience in NYC and in Europe?
Lee Quiñones: Sure thing. I mean, while things are extremely close to you while they are developing, you can’t possibly see it clearly, so in essence, you need to remove yourself for an incubator period in order to focus more vividly and perhaps compare notes with your line of experiences. Europe has an extremely vast history in the arts throughout the ages. Empires have come and gone and in the end, we begin to understand them through the art that survives.
America is not of age just yet. It has acne, still wrestles with its growing pains and is hesitant to show its proper ID at the velvet ropes, so this particular movement which had no reference to art history in the first place is just cresting it’s wave.
BSA:Not many artists can sustain a long career, especially true when it comes to graffiti writers. Challenging oneself to explore and take risks as an artist appears to be crucial to continuing to evolve creatively – particularly if you want to become professional. What’s your biggest challenge as an artist these days?
Lee Quiñones: Ushering people out of the context of nostalgia and looking at the current state of affairs in the works of today.
I mean, the subject of the trains and all its glory is for me to bring out on occasion with a twist, not for people to theoretically box me into it. I turn pages because I don’t want to be defined on one page.
Personally, my own challenges consists of navigating around my own self tripping wires. Some are booby-trapped and some are triggers for the lights at the end of the tunnel.
A non-stop full-voiced welcome fills the air of this factory loft space with stories and smoke and sports talk radio as you ascend steps from the truck-traffic cacophony of cold and rain on this Bushwick thoroughfare. For the next hour and a half, you are warmly surrounded by clothes racks and boxes and spray cans and multi-faceted anecdotes and impressions and fragments of memories that get shaken and sprayed and circled back to.
Here is a fond remembrance of something his mom or dad said from his childhood, an adroitly drawn quip about a curious gallerist, an excited discovery of new Super 8 footage of a mission with famed NYC graffiti writer Dondi in Japan to promote Wild Style. Elsewhere he recounts a meeting with Joe Strummer in a New York studio to share and record his own penned rap lyrics with The Clash, a trip to Berlin in ’85 with Keith Haring, a recent conversation with MODE2 who lives there now, a description of his personal misgivings about wearing his US military uniform into town while stationed at Yakuska Naval Base as a 20 year old.
An omnivore of ideas and initiatives and world cities, his march as a creative force of nature only gathers speed as he nears 40 years since first emerging from graffiti writing as a studio artist.
“1980 was the breakout year for us because we were all beginning to surface,” he says of the number of events that occurred that year and brought graffiti and street culture to a larger, more mainstream audience, and hopefully, a collector base. That was the year of the “Times Square Show” by Colab that introduced art and performance from the “Downtown” and “Uptown” scenes. It was also the year that Stefan Eins’ Fashion Moda gallery in the South Bronx had its first exhibition of graffiti art – Graffiti Art Success for America (GAS) – curated by artist John Matos (aka Crash), the show included work by graffiti culture artists such as Futura, Lady Pink, John Fekner, Disco 107, Fab Five Freddie, Futura, Kel 139th, Lee, Mitch 77, Nac 143, Noc 167, Stan 153, Tom McCutcheon, and Zephyr.
“We were all willing to come above ground and investigate what was happening,” he says. “That was also the year I did the ‘Break Car’,” he says of the uniquely abstract whole graffiti car he painted that set him apart stylistically from the NYC graffiti writing pack and was captured famously by photographer Martha Cooper. That car and that style would proved to be the Cold War inspired rocketship that launched Futura 2000 into a forty year exploration of the Cosmos.
Fast forward to April 2018 in Lille, France, and Futura toils and emerges with a new body of work incorporating his long-held love for the interconnectedness of the galaxy, the stars, and the planet.
“I’ve been a child of the planet since I was a kid,” he says as he recalls the impact of the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens and how it tapped into his innate desire for exploration. “Every nation had a pavilion,” he says, and suddenly you see his collection of miniature architectural wonders from around the world, all grouped together for an idealized cityscape.
“I’ve got Berlin, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, Roma, Peru (Easter Island), the Blue Mosque in Turkey, Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi,” he says. “I don’t have Taj Mahal, but I’ve been to it. I need that.”
“The 5 Elements” is the exhibition that opens this week at Urban Spree in Berlin and of course refers as well to the so-called “Five Elements of Hip-Hop”, of which graffiti is one. But he reserves this reference to a greater sweep, expressed in about an expansive show. “There’s a whole series on water, air, on fire,” he says, “It’s all at some point color coated for each element.” He also creates a series of circular canvasses hung in relation to each other to evoke the planetary system.
“I think they’re like 70 pieces, in terms of that I don’t think I’ve ever done anything this extensive,” he says.
But “The 5 Elements” is not a retrospective show, says Urban Spree founder and curator Pascal Feucher, who has been preparing the show with co-host Art Together. “On the contrary,” he writes, “Futura worked specifically on a large museum-style conceptual exhibition, tackling the ambitious theme of the Creation of the Universe, confronting himself to the cosmos, the planets, the infinitely small, the Big Bang and the fundamental elements, producing a corpus of works that becomes a path to the exploration of the universe as well as providing a backdoor into Futura’s internal galaxy.”
Coinciding with the show will be the release of a 128-page companion book titled “Futura, les 5 éléments” – certain to be sought after.
For the ever expansive graphic designer, clothing designer, wordsmith, musician, sneaker head, graffiti writer, abstract painter, photographer, the dots are all connected – and it always also connects to his roots.
“I like it when it’s a degree removed, yet connected – when you realize that the whole school – at least the whole New York City school, is vast,” he says. “It has touched a lot of people.”
Below are images of the 4 screen prints that will be released at the opening of “The 5 Elements”, based on the painting series “Pure”. Each 8-color screen print is hand-pulled by Dolly Demoratti (Mother Drucker/Urban Spree Studio), signed and numbered by Futura. The 50 x 50 cm prints are only sold as a limited edition of 100 sets.
Futura. Pure Earth. (photo courtesy of Urban Spree Gallery)
Futura. Pure Air. (photo courtesy of Urban Spree Gallery)
Futura. Pure Water. (photo courtesy of Urban Spree Gallery)
Futura. Pure Fire. (photo courtesy of Urban Spree Gallery)
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!
When the Street Artist is not taking over bus shelters and reconfiguring fashion ads into grotesque critiques of beauty culture, he has also been learning about analogic photography at Nau Bostik. The Barcelona-based cultural space has phenomenal education programs for artists to develop their skills with facilities equipped with one of the best photography laboratories in Spain.
But learning how to create a photographic print there kicked Vermibus’ butt – making him nearly quit in his pursuit to get it right.
“One by one, the artist carefully applied liquid emulsion on sheets of 100% cotton paper of the highest quality. By contrast, the developer was applied with an expressive brush stroke, which makes each one of the pieces different and special,” says the official press release for the new print he created, called “Katherine.” It doesn’t say that he failed multiple times before he discovered that technique.
His perseverance is documented here on BSA today as photographer and cultural documenter Fer Alcala interviews Vermibus about his residency and the challenges he faced learning how to create this work.
Fer Alcala:So, you spent some weeks as a resident artist at Nau Bostik working on the Katherine print. At the same time, you were doing a workshop with some school students about adbusting, contrapublicity… Which came 1st: the creative process of the print, or having to do the workshop, where you ended up with the idea of developing Katherine at Bostik? Vermibus: The print and the workshop were two completely different projects that took place at the same time. I was invited by Xavier Ballaz, from Difusorbcn, to give a two month workshop in Barcelona about counter-advertising from the feminism and gender theories perspective.
The challenge was to find a place where to live and work during this time in Barcelona, that’s how the art residency at Nau Bostik came across.
I was supposed to have a room and a studio there but, because of the characteristics of my materials (the solvents) we couldn’t figure out where to install it. So, I had to approach the residency in a different way.
Fortunately, Nau Bostik has an important relation with analog photography and also they have one of the biggest photo-laboratories from the country “La Perversa”. It was impossible not to feel inspired by this place.
Adapting my needs to the situation I end up develop my last print there.
Fer Alcala:If I’m not wrong, you’ve launched 3 prints to date, using a different technique in every one of them. Could you tell us a little bit about all this and how you have chosen each process? Is it kind of a challenge for you? Is it a matter of not repeating yourself?
Vermibus: After trying them, I think other artists can profit more from techniques like giclée and screenprinting than I.
When I’m creating, I like to have an experience and I want this one to be reflected in the final work. At the same time, I’m interested in the investigation and the developing of techniques that break boundaries and open new or forgotten paths.
Fer Alcala:I had the chance of spending some time with you at the laboratory witnessing the developing of Katherine. I have to say that it was a very delicate, technical and magical process. Did you have to learn this technique from zero? What was the most stressful part of it? Did any ideas about quitting the project come to your mind?
Vermibus: I knew the very basics of analog photography and I knew what I wanted to do but I had to learn how to do it, almost from zero.
Of course, I had all the problems someone could have in a laboratory, literally every single one of them.
To be in a dark-room for long periods of time, when things are not going good can be devastating. The idea of quitting came to my mind many times.
But from my experience, when nothing is working and you are close to let it go is when magic happens. During the last week of the art-residency I found out that the main problem was the composition of the paper, so I decided to give a last push and I got a beautiful top quality paper that was decisive in the production of the print.
In the end, I could have everything ready on time with the results I wanted from the beginning.
Fer Alcala: Once Katherine was produced, you showed it in the exhibition context during Moniker Art Fair London. After all the hard work, were you happy with the results and the feedback you got from attendants, collectors, other artists? Vermibus: The moment of showing your work is when all the pain has passed and you can enjoy. I really believe Brutally Human is the best collection of works I have done until now. The feedback was great, so it seems like the people enjoyed it too.
Fer Alcala:Is there any way to still get it? Vermibus: I think Moniker Art Fair still have some prints left.
Fer Alcala: I would like to ask you a couple of things apart from the creative process of Katherine. I think that, while you were doing the workshop at the school, working on issues as beauty, the role of women in advertisement, gender… the La Manada rape media coverage was at its height. Did it influence the way you approached the work with the students? Vermibus: Working with kids is something that I didn’t do before, so my approach towards the students, the profession and of course it was taken with massive respect.
I was preparing the lessons with a lot of care but adapting myself and the content to the needs of each moment So, what happened during that time with La Manada was the worst that could have happened to the girl, to her family and to womens rights in general but perfect to make young people understand the importance of respect and empathy.
Fer Alcala:You are developing your own solvent, which I think is great. Could you explain to us why you have decided to do it and give us some tips about the technical side of it? Vermibus: Together with Elena Gayo, a renowned conservator and restorer from Spain, I’ve been developing my own solvent.
The idea had different goals: reducing toxicity, gaining molecular stability and understanding better my technique to be able develop it.
After months of work and infinite setbacks (similar to the process of the print) I found the correct proportion of “ingredients” to create my own solvent.
Visually speaking it leaves the painting slightly smoother than the old solvent and the molecular structure is much more stable because I control the ingredients. Also, I can modify the mix because I understand what each of the solvents does individually and all together.
But the most important is that we could reduce the toxicity drastically, from a commercial solvent that was carcinogenic, neurotoxic, mutagenic and reproduction-impairing to a solvent that produces no irritation through skin contact and inhalation. And that’s a big deal.
Fer Alcala:Is it something that you are doing for yourself or are you planning to produce it and sell it at a larger scale? Vermibus: The solvent is absolutely adapted to my needs but who knows, maybe one day…
Fer Alcala:Tell us about your plans for 2019 Vermibus: 2018 has been a very decisive year. I spent most of my time reflecting on what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, but specially with who I’m working with and with who I’m not.
I have learned a lot this year and 2019 will be the moment when all what was learned will start to materialize. That’s all I can say for now.
‘The Gag Law made me do it!,” says Street Art activist and social commentator Bill Posters as he talks about his new kiosk takeovers in Placa Espanya, Barcelona. The large black and white photographs are of two free speech advocates arrested for offending ‘Ley Mordaza’ in Spain – a curious concoction of restrictions passed as law 3 years ago that most people would tell you are clearly repressive and are frankly difficult to believe would last for long in a European country.
Article 578, known as ‘Ley Mordaza’ (the ‘gag law’) has been condemned by Amnesty International and is symbolized in these Street Art pieces by the piece of red tape that goes across the subjects’ mouths. Mr. Posters tells us he intends it to be an interactive piece that the public can remove the tape themselves, symbolically allowing the subject to speak. This act of de-censorship is a novel idea and in fact someone recently did that and photographed it (below).
The artist tells us more details about the two subjects, who he says are, “taken hostage by the Spanish state’s legal apparatus that is increasingly designed to silence both political and cultural dissent.”
Anna Gabriel: “After the holding in 2017 of the Catalan independence referendum, called by the Generalitat de Catalunya, and declared illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain – the former spokesperson for the Catalan pro-Independence campaign, was called to appear in front of the Spanish Supreme Court to give evidence about her participation in those events. On February 20th, 2018, she stated in an interview to Le Temps that she would not show up for her court hearing, while in a self imposed exile in Switzerland.”
Bill Posters. Portrait in Exile 1 – Valtònyc. ‘Lay Mordaza Me Obliga’ / ‘The Gag Law Made Me Do It’. Intervention in Placa Espanya. Barcelona, Spain. October 2018 (Screen grab from the video)
Valtònyc: “A vocal pro-independence rapper from Catalonia was sentenced to 3 years in prison in March 2018 for lyrics that contained (alleged) glorification of terrorism, slander, ‘lèse-majesté’ (defamation against the crown), and threats.”
Here at BSA we don’t pretend to know all of the history or innerworkings of Spain and Catalonia – or Brooklyn for that matter – but we do worry seriously when we hear about artists being silenced and jailed for speech – and you should too.
Through a third party BSA was able to send a few interview questions to the twenty-four year old Catalonian rapper Valtònyc, who is featured in one of these Street Art pieces and who Belgium recently refused to extradite. With a number of “western” societies going in a hard-right direction politically, we wanted to understand how a country like Spain could have passed these recent laws and how they are affecting artists – those weirdos who usually are the first to test the limits of free speech.
Edited for clarity and brevity, these are the answers we received back:
BSA:Democracy returned to Spain in 1977, yet 41 years later you were convicted by the Supreme Court of Spain for exercising your rights to express your opinions not only as a citizen but as an artist. How is it possible that a member state of the EU, one that bills itself as a democratic state, can rescind freedom of speech among its citizens? Valtònyc: Being condemned for a song lyric is not the most serious thing that happens in Spain. Since the beginning of the supposed “democracy”, Spain has the only general secretary of a communist party in prison under a life sentence. Now he is also joined by the president of ERC and the ministers of Catalonia without trial and with accusations of up to 30 years for rebellion.
In Spain, multiple daily newspapers, websites and illegal political parties have also been closed. All this while Europe watches. We are not a bourgeois democracy like other countries in Europe, we are a fascist state and it is demonstrable.
The above photo of the installation shown without the red tape was sent to Valtonyc (the Catalonian rapper in exile) which shows his portrait with the red tape removed. “Someone, an unknown member of the public transgressed the boundary from observer to participant which is what the project intended!” Bill Posters
BSA:What about democracy? What’s happened to the Spanish Institutions that were created after the dictatorship to protect the rights of its citizens? Valtònyc: In a democracy, institutions are there to serve citizens. In Spain they only serve to condemn them. There are 20,000 people affected by the ‘gag law’. When there is a wave of organization and demonstrations, they respond with repression.
It is curious that they never condemn fascists or Nazis and that the accused are always communists and anarchists. The constitutional court does not respond to violations of the constitution, such as my sentence and that of the remaining 15 rappers. Is not freedom of expression a constitutional right?
BSA:Do you think the current state of Spain is a direct consequence of corruption? Valtònyc: Brussels recently has shown that Spain is the most corrupt country in Europe. Of 1400 corrupt politicians, only 70 have entered prison and none of them has served their sentence in full. Worst of all is corruption within justice – how judges paralyze investigations of political parties or destroy evidence of illegal financing. It’s a disaster.
BSA:Do you see other young people like yourself being aware of the social issues and the struggles facing Spain now? How are they getting involved to help create a better country? Valtònyc: Every day people are more aware of what is happening in the Spanish state and are organized or mobilized. There are never enough, but as in France, we in Spain also have examples of organization and struggles that have ended in victory. There are the examples of Gamonal, the train of Murcia, or the miners of Asturias. It shows that the people united and on the street, not only on the Internet, can preserve all the rights they try to take away from us. History proves this as a fact and it has never changed.
BSA:Do you think most young people in Spain view the Spain of Franco as something in the distant past and see no connection between his 35 years in power and the concerns of contemporary Spain? Valtònyc: I believe that many people are aware of the rise of the extreme right throughout Europe; how the extreme right takes advantage of the weaknesses of the popular classes in their speeches and thus wins their sympathy. The problem is that we do not organize ourselves to stop fascism and then we are surprised that in the elections they win so many votes. Fascism advances if it is not fought and it is a pity that people do not understand that this is more than a simple slogan.
BSA:Do you think artists must take a position with their art to lead a revolution for change? What is the part that art plays during times of social unrest and injustice? Valtònyc: I believe that art has to be a tool for social transformation; a hammer to shape reality. All art is political, many people think not, but that’s the way it is. Your art can serve the oppressor or the oppressed class, but it is impossible to stay out of politics. Now in the HipHop scene the Trap sound abounds and the political rap is not so notorious, but we still remain combative rappers in the trenches – especially in South America and in France.