The last time I went to a gallery was three or four months ago when I tried to see Rammellzze’s The Letter Racers at the Susanne Geiss gallery. I say tried, because I never made it to the show. I arrived at the gallery to find the door closed. I rang the doorbell and a very sleek, slightly pissed-off girl answered. She told me they were closed for the next two hours, and when I come back to use the other door. I don’t like to wait and by then I was feeling a strange mix of intimidation and irritation. But this was Rammellzee so I decided I would stick it out, and come back in two hours. The gallery is on Grand Street, prime street art neighborhood, so I started walking around, scanning the streets as I went; getting in my ‘graffiti journey’ mode: entering a portal of love, despair, needs, dreams and obsessions that scream so loudly for attention that I make abstraction of all other things tangible: the people around me, the noises, the chaos, time, myself. When I came out of my “graffiti trance”, four and a half hours had passed and the gallery had closed. I was disappointed not to have seen the Letter Racers but I would not have changed anything about that afternoon, where I discovered myriad touching and provoking street art.
I am not trying to raise the debate over the merits of institutionalized, ‘elitist’ art versus popular, gritty, street art. I find the dispute futile, and believe both models have their place; anyway, one could not exist without the other (but this is a complex conversation for another post). An article today on how the city of Säo Paulo is lifting its five year ban on billboard advertising as long as the advertising is in the form of “graffiti”, made me ponder the state of co-optation of graffiti and street art as a guerilla marketing technique. But when my cat lost interest and walked away, I changed gears and started reminiscing about what street art means to me and how integral it is and has been to my education, or formation, as a rethinker.
I don’t remember when it started, maybe five or six years ago, this impulse to seek out graffiti. It had been going on for a while when it became something more than a passing hobby, evolving into a full blown mode of life. Walking around, looking at all the ‘notes’–the images, texts and other forms of imprints-from other people, who share my city and my condition of being human, has become something of an addiction for me, it’s become a necessary part of my well-being, making me feel deeply grounded in my own skin and connected to the rest of humanity. There is something about the use of the street as a medium that always communicates, to me, anyway, the “mammalian” nature (was absorbed with Christopher Hitchens’ quotes yesterday…so some of his terms and obsessions are going to come through…) of the artist behind the piece. I always think of the individual–that cauldron of dreams, needs, imagination, love, desires, obsessions, anxiety, drives and emotion, all wrapped up in our porous, puncturable and decaying skins—that cared enough to make the piece. In that sense, street art, in whatever form it takes, is a way to make “others” “people” and “humanity’ immediately accessible and tangible.
It is always a deeply empathetic experience, to seek out and find love notes to humanity left by complete stranger. It was the day that my grandmother passed away that ‘graffiti journeys’ really entered my life. I got the call early in the morning. It felt like someone had violently ripped out whatever center I had. I didnt know what I was feeling or how to deal with it, so I just left my apartment and started walking. I scanned the streets, furiously searching for every bit of paint, ink, chalk, or paper ‘calling’ to be seen, as I walked. And so I spent the entire day following one ‘love note’ after another, feeling the joy and despair of the people that had left them, making abstraction of everything within myself to exist in the immediate moment–within the organic, dirty, smelly and infinitely beautiful palimspest of humanity that is NYC. It made me feel better.
I have always been deeply moved by various forms and expressions of art, but static images (discounting photography) have only made me cry twice. Once, in the Louvre, in front of a Fragonard painting, and once on the streets of New York, in front of this anonymous tag:
I have noticed a strange paradox about New Yorkers and the vibes of the streets here. We’re often described as unfriendly, hurried, blazé, dirty and frenetic, which we are. But there is also a special atmosphere of respect for the whimsical, the authentic, and the sacred, however one chooses to define that. When I had cried in the Louvre, it had been in a moment of strong and overwhelming emotion that was quickly tempered by the stares of other tourists. But here, on Prince and Bowery, as I experienced a similar moment of being deeply touched, there were no stares. The city, with its unquenchable energy, pace and life, went on, just as it always does. It was comforting.
The term Street Art today is as broad as “Art”, which, I suppose, means gallery, or rather, institutionalized art. Street art goes far beyond the graffiti tags and throw-ups to which the term owes its roots—from urban hactivist like Florian Rivière, yarn-bomber, Agata Olek, reversed graffiti or “grime” artist Paul Curtis (aka Moose), Iranian stencil artists Icy & Scot, street art installation and photography artist Slinkachu, JR’s Inside Out project to Blu‘s wall-painted animations (Muto & BIG BANG BIG BOOM)—street art is everywhere, taking all sorts of existing and new forms, and more often than not, driven by the desire to jolt individuals and communities out of their routines and acceptance of the status quo to collectively rethink our human experiences.
Would love to hear about your experiences of street art/favorite artists and obsessions!