The Eternal Debate: Graf as Art

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{Powell Square, November 2012 – image by Thomas Crone}

When the Powell Square building was demolished earlier this year, there was a decent strain of support for the demolition, even from some unlikely folks, who are strong civic, city backers. And one of their key arguments was this: the hulking structure had become an eyesore. In this viewpoint, the Powell Square’s proximity to the eastbound lanes of the Poplar Street Bridge was a clear negative, with the muscular, graffiti-strewn building an extreme black eye for the City of St. Louis, a reminder of urban neglect for tourists and locals alike.

Proponents of saving the building argued a different tale, suggesting that the significant graf on the side of the building was no more than a cosmetic flaw, if that. The structure, they argued, was sound. That the windows had been taken out during a previous redevelopment scheme, in many respects, invited in the graf writers, with the guts of the building easily accessible by all manners of constituents, really: urban explorers, photographers, the homeless, July 4th celebrants; even school and church groups wandered through. To this end, supporters of the Powell could’ve argued that demo of the building was akin to putting a human being down for the crime of having too many tattoos.

That the Powell Square was a building with a significant graffiti presence was understood by all parties, though; both the exterior and the very-visible interior were liberally coated in paint, coming from the cans of the most-experienced heads in the game and the least-skilled. The demo was successful in the sense of removing the one building that showed the most graf in that corner of Downtown. But the nearby neighborhood’s now become the beneficiary of graf’s continual, ever-fluid movement.

These days, multiple structures in the immediate environment of Powell Square’s grassy footprint have been marked and none more significantly than that of the kitchen supplies company Servco, which is essentially the last building seen in the City as your vehicle speeds across the Poplar Street Bridge. While a variety of pieces have come-and-gone from the north-facing wall of Servco in recent months and years, the current piece is dozens of feet long, a serious strike on the building’s high walls by two members of the OFB crew, Ilson and the enigmatic Ed Box (aka Red Fox, aka Rex Ram), long of the area’s most-intriguing and prolific writers.

Even when moving at high speed and merging into traffic, the piece pops off the wall, offering a significant, colorful pop against the industrial activities all around it. But once you slow down, you see how detailed the work really is, both in terms of: time needed to execute and artistic vision. Looking closely, you realize that the two have created a multi-layered work, with lots of detailed shading. The letters are actually cast as the pickets of a fence, with a wooden motif. There’s a rat in the piece, a piece of a cheese, a mouse trap. For followers of the OFB style, all are images that have popped up in their work from time-to-time.

On Monday night, with an interesting, unseasonable fog settling over the Arch grounds and nearby riverfront, a friend and I drove down to the flood walls, hoping to see if the Servco building was accessible for a photo; from the highway, it looks as if the structure’s pushed right up to some train lines. As it turns out, you can, in fact, drive up to the building. On Monday, it was a weirdly busy place to be: some cars were parked nearby, high-performance motorcycles rambled by and, in a surprise, a member of the Park Service rolled up on her bike. She was nice enough, asking if we were lost. Satisfied that we weren’t, she mentioned all the places where graf was found around there, on both sides of the Arch grounds. It was an unexpected, cool conversation.

And it contained a little caveat. She mentioned, sort of as a throwaway or an aside, “Some of the art’s pretty good.”

As we continue to move through 10 weeks of conversations on graffiti, there’s no ducking a certain central debate, the role of artistic intent in all this. So many variations on the answer exist.


{a closer look at Ed Box & Ilson – image by Thomas Crone}

WHEN WALLS HAVE EYES

A month-and-change back, my friend Steven and I were rolling around North Broadway, looking for vantage points along the flooded Mississippi River. On our travels, we spotted a pair of familiar graf writings on the side of a brick wall, the tags of Ilson and Rat Fag. We pulled over on a side street, then another, cut off from the rest of the City by massive road construction. Here, the neighborhood was completely and forever altered, thanks to the ramp of the new bridge spanning the Mississippi. Pulling into the dead end, a familiar figure walked down the block, that of Jim Brady.

In years past, Brady had worked on Steven’s motorcycles and this recognition calmed Brady He’d first wondered if the two of us were on-site to tag the building, ourselves; while the tags weren’t all on his property, a couple warehouses on this secluded corner of 8th Street are conjoined, so he keeps a lookout on all of it. This day, his demeanor suggested that he meant business.

We chatted for a bit, took some photos and rambled on. But a few days back, I swung back down North Broadway, hoping to run into Brady. As luck turned out, he was on the block, or at least in a nearby field, where his two, big dogs were out for an afternoon rest break. As one of them, a white pit named Pretty Boy rolled himself into leash entanglement, Brady talked the recent breakout of graffiti in a neighborhood that he calls “The Top of the Mound,” a reference to a nearby Indian mound marker.

He said that his own building, and that of his neighbor Brad, narrowly survived the highway exit ramp, with MODOT eventually moving the project from within 16-feet of their buildings to a slightly more-forgiving 60-feet. This area’s primarily used for industrial and storage uses, though there are strange little pockets of residential around, too, people living in buildings that don’t exactly resemble traditional homes. The graffiti that’s streaked through the area doesn’t discriminate between occupied and unoccupied spaces, though, with Brady’s building’s among those touched-up recently.

“Once a building’s been tagged,” he figures, “the other taggers come around.”

In his case, though, he’s actually met a few of them, coming out of his building during an unofficial painting session a couple months back. The police were called, a few arrests were made. With misdemeanors the usual result of these arrests, he figures that the cases were dropped, or handled on some lower-level of punishment; he didn’t find out. His concern isn’t so much on the outcome of any judge’s decisions, though. Instead, he’s annoyed that the brick throughout the neighborhood’s been affected.

“Brick is pain in the ass,” he says of sandblasting. “You never know if what’s been sandblasted is going to match the rest of the brick.”

He points to a nearby wall. Though neither of us know the exact branding or style of the brickwork, it’s a good-looking style. It’s also got two, reasonably-large bits of paint along his own west-facing wall, which is painted red. Like Brady’s own building, the owner of that space, he says, is opting just to leave the pieces up, since they don’t face Broadway and their removal looked streaky on another portion of the building.

We get to talking about graffiti in the neighborhood. And this is definitely one of those areas directly impacted by all kinds of graf, from quickie gang tags to large, detailed, crew-made pieces. He points to an area across I-70, saying that several buildings in that neighborhood are hit on every wall. It seems, though, that he’s as upset about the area’s overall vacancy, as much as the marks left by graf writers.

“What’s terrible,” he says, “is that there are so many bitchin’ buildings over there, ones that I’d love to buy. But they’re just in some of the worst real estate areas you can find.”

As someone who drives the city streets with regularity, he sees graffiti on a regular basis, pointing out new work he’s come across on Kingshighway and Grand, among other places. Based on his strong comments a few weeks before, he sounds a bit more measured today. So I ask, “as stupid as this may sound, do you see the art in graffiti?”

He doesn’t pause as he says, “There’s another building nearby that’s covered by a shitload of stuff. And, if anything, it does make an empty building look like something. I’ll give it that.”

A MEETING OF THE MINDS IN MAPLEWOOD


{Eyez on the St. Louis Flood Wall – image by Thomas Crone}

When talking about this graffiti-based journalism project, the one name that keeps coming up is that of Peat Wollaeger. The interesting thing about this is that Peat Wollaeger’s not a graffiti artist. He works with stencils and his work’s moved out of the underground and into the realm of commissions, as well as products like DJ slipmats and clothing. These days, his credits including a national ad campaign for Mountain Dew, mural work in cities and states all around the United States and several gallery shows in St. Louis.

But he’s always kept an eye to the street and, because of this, he inhabits an interesting, civic space. Even as his works have become larger and more official, he’s continued to champion smaller efforts and he was working to bring back Paint Louis in the years prior to its 2012 reboot. In both years of the Paint Louis return, he’s been on the flood walls, adding pieces alongside those who work in only in the unsanctioned, nocturnal realm. In June, he met a few new folks, including one young cat who we’ll introduce here as “Anon.”

This isn’t Anon’s name when he gets up, but I’ll respect the desire to remain, well, Anonymous. Though not from St. Louis, Anon came to town from parts unknown in the South, a life that saw him turning to art as an escape, a release valve. Anon’s sitting in Peat’s Maplewood studio and office because Wollaeger, aka Eye, has been interested in not only getting out his take: he also wants others to be able to tell stories. With this in mind, our get-together involves a few beers, Anon, Wollaeger and the latter’s two assistants, talkative Irene and quiet Chris.

It’s not a knock or sign of disrespect to say this: for the purposes of today’s piece, I’ll focus on the dichotomy of Wollaeger and Anon’s outlooks on public art; we’ll hopefully revisit with Irene in a few weeks, on another piece of this puzzle. If he says it once, he says it 100 times: Wollaeger may’ve done some tagging in his teens, but now that he has a wife, three kids, a house and an art career to support, he’s not getting up illegally. Ever. His work, he says, isn’t to be confused with a graf writer swinging off the back of a billboard after midnight. His work, he says, is about creating better, more-colorful spaces. His work, he says, may come from a tradition that shares artistic influences of graffiti, but it’s now a new animal. His work, he says, is work.

Anon, on the other hand, is unrepentant bomber. As he arrives and sits down to talk, we semi-establish that no names will be used, though I eventually gather his street name. He says he doesn’t trust me, and I suppose that’s okay, as his graf writings are not only prolific, but sizable and on a number of public spaces and occupied buildings. His wariness is, really, quite understandable, so we start off our talk with the requisite degree of studied distance. We’ll meet in the middle as we go.

For Wollaeger, he doesn’t want the message to be too confusing, so let’s split this into two discussions, which happened at the same time, Wollager’s take first.

Though most people have been respectful of his work around town, Wollaeger admits that things will and do crop up atop his pieces. For the most part, though, “people are still respectful. Every once in awhile, they’ll hit things up. But I think St. Louis is hungry for more street art, more murals. We’re seeing it in the project we just did in the Loop, which was so positive. And it’s great to see what’s happening with Paint Louis.”

He’s got a solid sense of energy, Wollaeger does. I’ve known that since working with him at stltoday.com, at the dawn of the 2000s. He worked in the art department and I was in editorial. Before leaving there, I recall his work moving off the digital screen in into public settings; I bought one of his first pieces, featuring the giant head of a small dog, at a show inside the old Lemp Brewery. Since then, we’ve both moved through various settings; when his split from a corporate web design gig, he went to work doing art full-time.

As for his mid-career shift, he admits that “most people my age have gotten old. They do stupid stuff.”

To fend off the creep of age, Wollaeger admits that travel gives him a major infusion of spirit, that checking out the public art scenes of other towns keep him lively. Though most of his efforts are based in St. Louis, his Eyez brand, he feels, has potential all over the world. There’s practicality involved in making it all work, as well as artistry.

“That’s why I do shows in New York,” he says. “Because people are educated in art. There’s more money, people are buying art. When you’re spending, $3,500 a month in rent, you can afford a $1,500 piece. In Vegas, the average rent is $1,500, so the price is $700. In St. Louis, the average rent is $600, so pieces go for $300. It’s been tough going from doing it all for fun, to doing it for a living. It’s changed the game for me. It’s a big hustle. We had our first baby in Chicago and it was time to start making some money, so I came to St. Louis to work. After all the corporate stuff, it’s definitely been a crazy journey. I developed something (Eyez) that people understand and it’s been a really cool ride. Even though I live in St. Louis, I think globally. We’re right here, in the middle of everything.”

Lately, a couple of wall pieces have been a part of Wollaeger’s agenda, as well as a travel to New York. As he did there, he recently applied a popping wall piece of Nelson Mandela to an intersection here, on the corner of Cherokee and Iowa. There’s also a huge mural that he worked on in the U. City Loop, which has been tagged at least twice since he and his colleagues put it up; the project came with the City’s blessing.

Wollaeger says, “My motivation, honestly, is to make the city a lot fucking cooler. When I’m sitting here and thinking about a wall, whether I’m paid or not paid, I think about what’s going to make the area look better.”

Anon, on the other hand, is an unrepentant bomber, but with a backstory.

“Even when I was in kindergarden,” he says, “I’d blow off my teachers. I didn’t get a rush out of being bad. But I’d be sitting there drawing or reading, instead of doing my schoolwork. My dad said ‘you’re doing B’s and C’s and you should be doing better.’ But once I was a teenager, I started skating and BMXing. One day, I was in school suspension and I saw this gangbanger write Florencia 13 on a desk; it’s a gang that we don’t have around here. He pulls a marker out and put this huge mark across the desk and I’m like ‘aaaaahhhh.’ I’ve always been artistically-minded. But the arts scene turns me off. The direction that I’m going is to not compromise, unless people are going to pay for my branding. I’m working on my own stuff, under my own name, not related to this. Until then, I’ll suck it up. Graffiti’s an immediate thing. I can go downstairs right now and catch a tag. I don’t have to submit a fee, buy supplies, worry about it being official. It’s the ultimate impulse relief for me.”

He adds that, “Graffiti is the instantaneous act of expression without permission. I guess that’s my definition of it. It’s an outlet, without having to ask anyone first. We’re halfway through it, you see somebody calling the cops, we’re outta there. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel bad about it. If I did, I wouldn’t do it. The consequences are there. In my personal story, graffiti’s the first thing to say to me that everything’s okay; you’re never going to get bored. It’s an open-ended thing. It’s not like a baseball game, with nine innings, two teams, a set of rules. At no point do you think ‘I’ve done exactly enough graffiti and now I’m done.’ There’s always another spot, another city, another country, another continent. There’s no set, done point.”

Anon says that during the spring, he put the word out, creating an alternate to Paint Louis. The call was answered and dozens of graf writers, came to town and stayed at his place. In doing so, the amoeba-like body worked all corners of the city. In fact, they busted up-and-down Jefferson so frequently that Fox 2 News paid attention, working on their third graffiti piece in a month. Largely that piece centered on the fact that Jeff Lockheed’s home on Jefferson was hit; Lockheed’s the 25-year owner of the Venice Cafe and an arts linchpin and was none-too-pleased with the work. Watch the piece for more on that.

“We’ve had a lot of people into town,” he says. “I don’t know, it’s probably totally my fault. I’d mention, ‘hey, come through, bring paint, bring drugs.’ We did an event in May with 50 people. ‘We’re just gonna rush the city. We’ll wild out.’ Paint Louis is the exact opposite. These were 50 people I’d invited. Friends and friends of friends. We told them you can paint the flood walls if you want, but my name’s not on paper, there’s no one to go to. Everyone had a blast, 50 people at my house, crashing on couches and blankets. A lot of these people don’t paint legally. They don’t do the official stuff. That’s what I tried to do with my meetup. Everyone who’s out there smashing out stuff could come.”

This is an interesting guy, this Anon. He’s got the bravado, the one-liners about having “10 cans of paint, eight hours and fuck-you mentality.” And he’s also schooled in the arts, with a definite perspective on his art form’s history and future, even as he keeps one other (and also anonymous) foot in the above-ground world; e.g., he hopes to have a gallery show of non-graf work in the next half-year. He draws on an analogy about the history of accepted, official, museum-quality art. How that model broke down before World War I, though those who rebelled against the aesthetic of the day didn’t live to see riches.

Today, he says, similar models exist. In London, for example, where he says, “people will put up a piece of plexi-glass over a Banksy, even though the pieces next to it are getting buffed. It’s all subjective.

“When you’re doing billboards and highway spots, it’s like you’re a five-year old again,” he says. “Hell yeah, I’m a grown man, but that means having stress build up. Most guys sit there, drink a beer, watch a TV show. When I hit a highway spot, that guy’s drinking coffee in his car, but for 25 seconds, he sees pretty colors. ‘Hey, shut up, look at this. Form your own opinion. And, you know what? I don’t care what you think, ‘cause I already did it.’”

Peat and Anon and company sit amidst the artwork collected in the Wollaeger offices-and-studios. It’s a representation of what’s been happening in street art and graffiti over the past few decades, Wollaeger curating these pieces directly from friends and strangers. And when the conversation in the room finds those moments of disagreement, those little sparks, this room lights up even more. These are creative people, hashing out the do’s and don’ts. To sit there and listen… there are a lot worse places to be.

COFFEE, TEA AND PERSPECTIVES

Daniel Burnett and I have chatted before. In fact, I hired him to do a mural on my garage, an old Sears-style, metal model that was rebuilt with some City rehab monies. I paid him out of pocket, though, to add a two-sided mural incorporating nature. It was a relatively open-ended request and the piece wound up a little less nature, a little more hip-hop. And that’s why Burnett sometimes shies away from commission work; people have one thing in mind, he’s got another, and the results can occasionally come out a little strangely. (Though, to be clear, I’ve sported his work in my yard for two years now; no complaints.)

When painting with the Screwed Arts Collective, he’s got total freedom. The group, now 11 strong, paint large installations, the work a blend of as many influences as members. Recently, Screwed Arts put on a show at the RAC Galleries on Delmar; the party spilled outside the open doors, with four DJs simultaneously scratching, cutting, looping and otherwise manipulating all types of beats and melodies, the music a perfect accompaniment for the intense, hyper-detailed work inside, created on-site over a month’s time.

Burnett says that hip-hop played a huge role in his own coming of age with graffiti.

“To me,” he says, “for people specifically around during the time of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, hip-hop brought people in. You invested in all the so-called elements of hip-hop. No matter who were, if you were into hip-hip, there was a classic semblance of what that was. You’d typically be into graffiti; writing it, if not on the street, then in sketchbooks. You’d probably breakdance, freestyle and if you had access to turntables, you’d DJ, as well. Within the culture, there’s a lot participation, in groups. Live, there’s call-and-response. There was never this idea in other genres of music, art and culture. There, you just observe people. In hip-hop, it’s encouraged that everyone should be taking part. If you go to a show, afterwards there may be people freestyling, even on the parking lot, with the attendees doing it, and the performers, as well. From that time on, everyone into hip-hop messed with graffiti.”

Sitting at MoKaBe’s on a warm summer morning, we further discuss the definitions of graffiti, both as a worldwide term and as a hyper-local one. There may be some differences, regionally.

“There are people with more of a finger on it,” he says, suggesting that he’s an observer now, not an active participant in the streets. “But there’s quite often, in St. Louis especially, a very hard edge that people take. The difference of what a graf artist is and isn’t. There are people that pride themselves on being bombers and are very strict with that ethic. In a sense, it’s changing a bit here. There’re some younger guys doing things that might be a little bit of a stretch.

“I think a lot of people in St. Louis that are into graffiti aren’t particularly artistic people,” he adds. “There seems to be in St. Louis a more ambitious mentality overall, rather than ‘oh, here is my art.’ Here, there can be a hard line, that if you’re not bombing on the streets, you’re an art fag and you can get easily alienated because of that. In other cities, there seem to be more blurred lines and an acceptance of graffiti and street art. No one’s criticizing each other. In Chicago, really respected graffiti writers can work on collaborations. People can have t-shirt lines, or do murals or a number of other things. It’s more prominent in a lot of places. And while that (crossover is here), you do see some of it, it’s not as present in St. Louis.”

Asked to address the common, community complaint that graf lacks artistic merit, Burnett chews on the question a moment, then answers. I know from his usually serious tone that this comment’s even more considered, as he slowly sketches out a response.

“As for artistic merit…,” he says, pausing. “It’s such a loose term. It maybe has a definition that made sense in the Renaissance, in the Golden Age. The post-abstract painters were able to get away with putting a black dot on a canvas. It’s very hard to separate intent when people say ‘artistic merit.’ There’s an idea of craft vs. the idea of the concept behind the art. You’re talking about craft, skills, expressions, hard work… all these things are where the artistic merit lies. There’s can control, the use of color schemes, the way you execute your piece. There’s a general term like style. You’re creating your unique fingerprint when you’re working on something that’s been done a million times before. Graffiti is very repetitious over time, what you do with a can of spray paint in a blank corner of the map can get filled in very quickly. It’s hard to do new things, in a new way.”

He sketches out some general notions of a St. Louis style, suggesting that all regions, even parts of regions, can see different looks. Here, he feels, there are lots of rounded letters, less-direct, squared lines than in other cities. More text, less graphic pieces, too. Partially, these things lie in time; the quicker you work, the more that rounded letters are your friend, as they can get you on-and-off a wall quickly. Locally, he says, that his eye is caught by a few writers.

“I like most of the stuff that the LD crew members are putting up,” he says. “People that specifically impress me in town are Horse, or Phers, who is technically very proficient. He only does legal walls and is an old-timer. He’s got a kid and lives out of the city limits, has a relatively normal lifestyle. But he’s known and respected and is affiliated with some national crews that are well-represented.”

Within his own affinity group, the Screwed Arts Collective, Burnett says that he’s still the guy with the can of paint and the vision to use the same.

“Screwed Arts is definitely a collective, and is not graffiti-based,” he says. “And it’s not street art, though that’s the genre that people like to push us into. In fact, I’m pretty much the only person that does spray paint work, though others may use it for accents. But we’re not about street art or graffiti.”

We’ll revisit Screwed Arts next week.

CONTINUED READING AND VIEWING

Let’s go to the movie this week. There’s not a small amount of documentary cinema about graffiti, street art and the many offshoots of the same. This week, we’ll point you to a few of the best options. Watch these over a week and you’ll likely be checking the price of Montana Gold at the local art supply shop.

You can watch all of “Bomb It” (Jon Reiss, 2007) on YouTube:

Tony Silva’s old-school “Style Wars” (1983) has also been ripped to YouTube:

And a trailer for “Next: A Primer on Urban Painting (Pablo Aravena, 2005):

No one does digital docs as good as Vice. Here’s a clip on Steve Powers, the one-time ESPO:

And, for those of you that are still reading, CLICK HERE for a short, sweet history of graf terms from the Art Crimes.

Please consider supporting this journalism project via Kickstarter (click here)

A Second Run of Paint Louis is the first installment of this 10-part series. Thomas Crone has reported on St. Louis culture and civics for two decades, writing for a large cross-section of local publications and websites. This summer, in covering the world of graffiti in St. Louis, he’s found a topic that neatly intersects a number of topics, deeply-rooted in the worlds of art, politics and the law.

Working on the 10-part series for nextstl.com, Thomas will document the local street art scene from the flood walls of Paint Louis to the back-alley touch-ups of Operation Brightside. Speaking to city officials, neighborhood activists and those involved in the activity themselves, the series will highlight multiples angles of the graffiti culture and its impact on the city around it. Though not completely limited to the urban environment, it’s safe to say that the piece will be focused on the central core of the St. Louis region, with the City serving as the primary home for the conversation.

Supporters at the $50 level and greater will receive this unique nextSTL.com logo T-shirt printed by STL-Style and designed by Chris Sabatino of Art Monster:

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  • Greg G

    Very interesting article. As the owner of the Servco Buildings downtown I have to tell you I have very mixed emotions about the graffiti art on our sign. I acknowledge that it is in fact art, and it’s unique and interesting, but it has defaced the art of one of the last wall Sign painters of our time, Lonnie Tettaton. We commissioned him to repaint our signs (he did the original back in the 1980’s) on the first street property about three years back to honor our companies history. Lonnie was the only one willing to build the scaffolding necessary to paint that sign and even being in his 80’s did some of the work himself (he’s an amazing man). So it’s sad to me that someone would deface that work, especially someone like Red Fox, who also seems to be an artist.

    We do plan on fixing our sign in the near future and it’s my hope that people will respect the art that we paid to commission by letting it be.

    Thanks,

    Greg G.