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Jean Michel Basquiat: Mass Productions

Mass Productions
March 23, 1982

OPEC isn’t the only world community with an oil glut these days. To anyone walking through Soho this week, the sense of overproduction is overwhelming. Maybe artists with waiting lists should have their paintbrushes taken away for a while. David Salle, certainly one of the best artists of his generation, is distracting us from this fact with an endless three-ring show at Castelli South and Mary Boones East and West. Surprisingly short on really good paintings, it seems more a statement of territoriality than anything else. I don’t even mind the lapses in quality — it’s interesting to see an artist as good as Salle push at his ideas and not be afraid to flounder. But I do mind the scale of pres­entation, which verges on the corporate. Discretion isn’t only the better part of valor.

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Of course, where production figures in, shows which don’t make any mistakes can be even more boring. Jean-Michel Bas­quiat first made his name as the graffiti artist-poet Samo, whose observations about the state of the world have amused and provoked New Yorkers, at least down­town ones, for the last few years. I always thought Samo was some frustrated older artist who hadn’t made it in the system and was taking his revenge with his excep­tional graphic and verbal skill. Wrong, or at least partly wrong.

Basquiat is only 22 years old and, hav­ing turned from masonry to canvas sur­faces, he seems to be having little trouble joining the system. But in a way I was right: Basquiat has absorbed every trick in contemporary painting’s book at an astoundingly early age. He’s so precocious he’s practically old before his time and his sensibility seems very European, also in an old vein. In a word, it turns out that graffiti art can have the hell domesticated out of it. This art seems made for a museum — it has the same imitative primitiveness that I associate with Art Brut, the same roughed-up perfection that comes from savvy imitation.

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The paintings are large, usually with big apelike heads or figures — King Kong/Space Man hieroglyphs fraught with echo­ing outlines — rising from a dense rubble of scumbled paint, drips and scribbles, most of which remain largely decorative. It’s hard to dislike them, but I keep coming back to how old and tame and well-put-­together they seem. Almost every canvas offers a seven-course painting that is done to perfection. The sense that they couldn’t take another mark, word, or smear looks at first fascinating, then calcifying, for it becomes an aspect of their illustrational stylishness. They’re too perfect to be as raw as they pretend. Plus, the drawing and colors get really monotonous. After a while, it all starts to look like great graphic design — trompe l’oeil graffiti meets trompe l’oeil painting, as effective on a billboard as in a spread of New York maga­zine.

Finally, we do come up against Bas­quiat’s youth in the assumption that sheer graphic talent, driving, streetwise belief in self-expression, and a working knowledge of painting’s many wonderful tricks are all that is required. These have gotten him someplace, but, so far, not far enough.

(Annina Nosei, 100 Prince Street, 431-9253, through March 31)

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Birth of SAMO

SAMO© Graffiti: BOOSH-WAH or CIA?
December 11, 1978

Big city graffiti peaked in the early ’70s, somewhere between the NYC Transit Au­thority’s decision to sic killer dogs on the vandals and visigoths, and the media hoopla that greeted the first graffiti artists show in SoHo.

We had pretty much stopped looking at the walls until this fall, when we noticed something new. The best graffiti suddenly had more to say than just a nickname and number. To be sure, the Communist Cadre had been stenciling slogans like YIPPIES JE­SUS FREAKS AND MOONIES ARE GOVERNMENT for years. But who was writing ONE WOMAN IS RAPED EVERY IO MINUTES — CASTRATE RA­PISTS? Or drawing chalk outlines of fallen bodies with bright red bloodstains? And who the hell was this guy Samo©?

For those of you who haven’t waded through lower Manhattan lately, Samo© is the logo of the most ambitious — and senten­tious — of the new wave of Magic Marker Jeremiahs. Accompanied by the inevitable copyright and usually punctuated with an ex­hortation to THINK!, there are hundreds of pithy SAMO© aphorisms splashed on choice spots in Soho, Noho, and the Village, East and West. A random sampling will give you the idea:

SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD, STAR­-TREK, AND RED DYE NO. 2.
SAMO© AS AN END TO MINDWASH RELI­GION, NOWHERE POLITICS, AND BOGUS PHI­LOSOPHY
SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO JOE NORMAL BOOSH-WAH-ZEE FANTASIES
SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS
SAMO© CAN SAVE THE AVERAGE JOE
SAMO© AS A NEW WAVE NEO ARTFORM
SAMO© AS AN ESCAPE CLAUSE
SAMO©…JUST IN CASE

I met the perpetrators of SAMO© outside an East Village bar the other night and they agreed — provided no last names were used — ­to give me a tour of their handiwork and tell me something of its genesis.

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Aided and abetted by a tight circle of friends, the bulk of Samo©’s sayings are the work of two sharp, personable teenagers named Jean (17) and Al (19) who share re­markably similar handwriting and an un­spoken agreement about where SAMO© is coming from.

Growing up in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, respectively, both knocked about quite a bit. Jean dropped out — or was kicked out — of five or six schools. Al eventually found his way to Art and Design, where he was comfortable for a couple of years. Even­tually he dropped out too — it seems he spent most of his time decorating subway cars.

“Oh man, graffiti? Forget it. I was right in there with Snake 1, Phase Too, and all those cats. ’Cause that was my life at that point. Bomb 1, that was me. I must have gone through a hundred different markers before I was 16. Then after that I hung it up.

“But when SAMO© came along it was like whoa! a rush, you know? A reason to start writing again. The stuff you see on the sub­ways now is inane. Scribbled. SAMO© was like a refresher course because there’s some kind of statement being made. It’s not just ego graffiti.”

SAMO© was hatched this spring in the alter­native high school in Brooklyn Heights where Jean and Al ended up. “We were smoking some grass one night and I said something about it’s being the same old shit,” Jean recalls. “SAMO©, right? ‘Imagine this, selling packs of SAMO©!’ It started like that — as a private joke — and then it grew.”

Next, they drew a series of cartoons for their school paper showing people’s faces be­fore and after using SAMO©: “I used to be a lamo before I started SAMO©. Now I get some poontang everyday.”

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The etymology of SAMO© took a meta­physical leap in its next manifestation, a short story by Jean featuring a man searching for religion and a store called Religomat, where a salesman with a TV smile explains the pros and cons of the popular brands: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. Then the salesman pulls out SAMO©, a guilt-free re­ligion. It works like this: You do whatever you want here on earth, then when confront­ed with your deeds at the Pearly Gates you simply tell God: “I didn’t know.”

This May, Jean and Al took SAMO© to the streets. The first, at the corner of Church and Franklin: SAMO© IS NOW! A little way up the block: SAMO© IS COMING! On a church on West Broadway: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD. And in the men’s room of their high school: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO AL­TERNATIVE EDUCATION.

Does SAMO© in fact provide an alternative? “No way,” Jean and Al agree. “SAMO© is just a means of bringing it out,” Jean continues. “A tool for mocking bogusness.”

“Right, exactly,” Al agrees. “It makes people think ‘hey, maybe there’s another way.’ But it’s not like we can defend it. We’re really in a vulnerable spot to even talk about it with people from media.”

Talking to people from media was the last thing on their minds this summer as they fu­riously scrawled their message to the city. Jean estimates that he executed some 30 SA­MO©s on a good day, concentrating at first on the subways. “The D train, man, I covered it, ads and everything. And in broad day­light. Half of it, you know, is the arrogance involved.”

“We slowed down a little in June and July,” recalls Al. “But once you run it for that long it starts just coming up.” They became more and more selective, picking their targets. SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GREEK CHEESBURGER EMPORIUMS on a Greek cheesburger emporium. SAMO© AS AN END TO VINYL PUNKERY outside the Trash and Vaudeville boutique. SAMO© AS AN ALTER­NATIVE TO BOOSH-WAH YOUTH IMPERSONAT­ING ’60s PROTOTYPES on Stuyvesant High. Al grins: “Those guys hate us down there.”

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Soon, feedback started appearing on the walls. Some of it was friendly — SAMO© CALL HOME AT ONCE! MOTHER NEEDS YOU — and some of it less so: SAMO© AS SHEER TEDIUM on St. Marks Place; SAMO© IS CIA on the Washington Square arch; and, on the Grand Union at Bleecker and La Guardia, a major political graffiti — DEATH TO SOMOZA — edited to read DEATH TO SAMO©.

“They’re doing exactly what we thought they’d do,” says Jean, his voice rising. “We tried to make it sound profound and they think it actually is! That’s like a heavy com­pliment, man.”

Al picks up the thread: “People are so bored that when something seems mysterious and it keeps coming up it’s like ‘Oh wow! What’s going on? We better know about this!’ So they conclude this thing that we’re CIA.… I can’t begin to explain where they got that.”

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Their epithet, BOOSH-WAH, seems to pro­voke the most hostile reactions. The word was Jean’s contribution: “This city is crawl­ing with uptight, middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have. Sta­tus symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritu­ally, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming at people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.”

Is no surface sacred? They do stay clear of most private property, but government prop­erty and corporations are fair game, especial­ly subways, elevators, and public toilets. What about the millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent each year cleaning up? Jean has a ready reply: “That’s a drop in the bucket compared to how people are getting shafted in big ways.”

Jean is more troubled by his questions. Is it a cop-out to give SAMO©’s story to the pa­pers? Is it anti-cool to take credit for street art? And what of their ambition to some day work in art-related jobs, isn’t that BOOSH­-WAH?

And it should be reported that in the proc­ess of helping me with this story Jean and Al came under some rather pointed criticism from their friends, who worried that a taste of fame would go to their heads.

The strain of these last few weeks is reflect­ed, appropriately enough, in their art. One of their latest, and increasingly rare, creations reads: LIFE IS CONFUSING AT THIS POINT…SAMO©.

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The Banksy Diaries: Relive All 31 Days of His New York Takeover

Over the course of 31 days in the autumn of 2013, the enigmatic British street artist Banksy made New York City his canvas, and the Village Voice was there to document his urban takeover each and every day. “New York calls to graffiti writers like a dirty old lighthouse. We all want to prove ourselves here,” Banksy told the Voice’s Keegan Hamilton, in an exclusive interview. “I chose it for the high foot traffic and the amount of hiding places. Maybe I should be somewhere more relevant, like Beijing or Moscow, but the pizza isn’t as good.”

Here, we relive those heady days when New Yorkers didn’t know what masterpiece might await them on their morning walk to work.

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About two weeks ago, the elusive graffiti artist Banksy got the Internet whirring when he tore down his multipage website and left just a single black-and-white image of a previously unseen stenciled work and an apparent announcement of an upcoming, um, show titled “Better Out Than In.”

Predictably, speculation spouted forth: Where will Banksy — who has never been positively identified and has given few interviews, hardly ever in person, over the course of his street-art-world career — turn up? Almost as quickly, the consensus homed in on Los Angeles, though the location of the piece remained shrouded in mystery, and no one could offer any tangible evidence that it was painted in L.A.

This afternoon, though, Twitter sent forth words and images of a new Banksy sighting in Chinatown.

That’d be Chinatown, New York City.

And moments ago, the early birds’ tweets were confirmed…

…by Banksy himself, on his site.

In lieu of the static placeholder image of the past two weeks, there’s now an interactive message that begins:

BETTER OUT THAN IN

an Artists residency

on the streets of New York

followed by photos of the new Chinatown piece and an announcement that “for the next month Banksy will be attempting to host an entire show on the streets of New York.”

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: The street is in play Manhattan 2013 #banksyny

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Evidently, each new work will be accompanied by a stenciled toll-free number that people can call.

“To enhance your enjoyment of the exhibits an audio guide is provided via cell phone. Simply call the number next to the painting and select the appropriate option on the keypad.”

The first number: 1-800-656-4271 #1.

Not satisfied to take the Internet’s word for anything, Runnin’ Scared immediately sallied forth from our 100 percent graffiti-free Maiden Lane headquarters in search of Banksy’s in situ debut.

More as we we learn it.

UPDATE: We found it! It’s at 18 Allen Street, near Canal, on the Lower East Side.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 2: Here’s the Location of Banksy’s Second New York Artwork Discovered in the Last Two Days

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: Westside

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This morning, Banksy’s second piece in his month-long show went live on his site, just a few hours after his first piece, The Street Is in Play, was tagged, defaced, rebuilt, then finally buffed. The second piece has no title and is located in the impossibly vague “Westside.” Luckily, Runnin’ Scared has tracked it down. Hint: It’s on the West Side.

The Banksy hotline (800-656-4271) was no help at all. No extension has been posted for this new piece yet. We went out on a limb and guessed #2, but were thwarted by the deliciously weird voice on the phone, who told us to listen to some waiting music apropos of nothing.

Gothamist reports that they’ve located the second piece, this time in Chelsea: The second Banksy is on West 25th Street between 10th and 11th avenues.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 3: Banksy’s Third Artwork in Three Days Appears, This Time in Midtown

https://www.instagram.com/p/fAawhRK-xY/?taken-by=banksy

Better settle in for this one, folks. At this rate, we might have daily Banksy updates during the month. At around 9 this morning, Banksy posted his third stencil to his Instagram and website in as many days. Keeping the good humor coming, this latest piece shows the silhouette of a dog taking a leak on a fire hydrant with the thought bubble: “You complete me…” We’re assuming the title of the piece is All I Ever Wanted Was A Shoulder To Crayon, which made us laugh harder than we probably should have. No specifics on the exact location yet. All we know is that it’s somewhere in Midtown, and we’re going to do our best to find it.

UPDATE: We found it. At the very least, the information hotline is live (1-800-656-4271, #2). For someone who has totally convulsed New York City with what’s probably the biggest scavenger hunt in history, Banksy has somehow managed to stay self-deprecating about his work.

The narrator on the hotline opens his description of the latest piece with: “Are you’re looking at one of the great artworks of the 21st century? If so, you’re in the wrong place. You should be looking at a stencil of a dog peeing on a hydrant.”

The rest of the narration satirizes the nonsensical jargon that often accompanies pieces of art in galleries; the point here is not some grand statement about the “juxtaposition of form and substance,” as the sly voice says, but about getting thousands of people to run around Manhattan searching for the image of a dog peeing on a hydrant that’s in love with it. And isn’t that more fun?

Runnin’ Scared will post the location as soon as we find it. Let’s hope no one destroys or buffs it before we get there.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 4: Banksy Posts Three New Artworks in One Day

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: Bushwick

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Wowza! New York woke up this morning to not one but three new Banksy works in one day, scattered across the Lower East Side, Bushwick, and Williamsburg. The new set is called Random Graffiti Given A Broadway Makeover (An ongoing series), and they’re the best ones yet.

With his other works, Banksy’s humor was more winking that out-and-out funny. With these new ones, basically high-brow mad libs, he is obviously going for the big laughs. And considering that neither Occupy! The Musical nor Dirty Underwear The Musical aren’t outside the realm of possibility, he might be going for sobs, too.

The three pieces aren’t accompanied by a hotline number, but we’ll wait to see if his page is updated with one.

We haven’t pinpointed the locations of all three yet, or even which stencil is in which neighborhood — Banksy’s Instagram says Occupy! The Musical is in Bushwick, so it stands to reason that Playground Mob and Dirty Underwear are in or near Delancey and Williamsburg, respectively. As always, Runnin’ Scared’s tip lines are open, so if you have any idea where they might be, get in touch!

UPDATE: This morning Runnin’ Scared set out in search of all three of today’s Banksy pieces. After trawling the streets of Williamsburg to no avail, we returned to the Village Voice offices in defeat. Turns out, there was nothing to find: Occupy! The Musical, to be found at Broadway and Hewes Street, had already been buffed. But we did nail down the location of the Lower East Side piece, Playground Mob The Musical. And the world was bright again.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 5: Banksy’s Latest Piece Is a Moving Truck of Paradise

Earlier today, Banksy’s website was updated with his latest creation: a 1992 GMC delivery truck hauling around paradise in the back. No use in pinpointing an exact location for this one — the truck will move to a new location somewhere in the city every night at dusk. There was an earlier false alarm, so as of right now there have been no confirmed sightings. Banksy’s website states that it will be somewhere in the East Village tonight. After that, who knows?

The hotline extension for the truck is #3. Calling it up, the man on the other side explains that the souped-up truck “boast[s] a number of features unique in its class,” including “a digitally remastered sunset that never sets, a waterfall pumping over 22 gallons of water a minute, and some plastic butterflies duct-taped over a fan that move around a bit.”

In case you forget the joke halfway through the telling, Hawaiian steel guitar is playing in the background.

Then the voice recording does something that the rest of hotline extensions did not: It is serious for a second. Reading a passage from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the narrator compares Banksy’s graffiti to the “sowing of seeds illicitly” during the Great Depression when large corporations took exclusive control of farmland for industrial production. (Sound familiar?)

From the Steinbeck:

And a homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at the fallow fields which might produce food but not profit, and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children.

Now and then the man tried; crept on the land and cleared a piece, trying like a thief to steal a little richness from the earth. Secret gardens hidden in the weeds. A package of carrot seeds and a few turnips. He planted potato skins, crept out in the evening secretly to hoe in the stolen earth.

If you see the truck anywhere, let Runnin’ Scared know. We’ll be out there to check it out.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 6: Rebels Bazooka Dumbo the Elephant From the Sky

https://www.instagram.com/p/fIT8vnK-8H/?taken-by=banksy

No update on new tags today. Banksy explains on his website, “I’m not posting any pictures today. Not after this shocking footage has emerged…,” posting doctored footage of Islamist rebels lighting up Dumbo the Flying Elephant with rocket launchers. Click through for video of Al-Jazeera’s latest coverage of the War on Cartoon Animals.

It’s unclear what this is supposed to mean (is the next piece in DUMBO? Does the neighborhood suck so hard we should subject it to mortar fire?); until we get an answer, at least we have the sight of rebel fighters dancing on the dead body of a childhood favorite to tide us over.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 7: The New Banksy Is Somewhere in Brooklyn, a Paean to the Heart-Shaped Helium Balloon

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: Brooklyn

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After the excitement of this weekend’s magical truck of paradise, this morning’s newest Banksy piece is a little less ambitious: It’s a heart-shaped balloon, somewhere on a gray wall in Brooklyn, covered in bandages (or “plasters,” as those wacky Queen’s-English-speakers call them).

And then, because this is Banksy, the accompanying audio guide shoots it all to hell. Over a syrupy piano background, a saccharine voice proclaims: “The helium balloon. An object of such poetry. Its lightness, its fragility, its way of wandering on the breeze. This piece is obviously an iconic representation of the battle to survive a broken heart. It’s an uplifting visual poem to that most fragile of human emotions, that seem to move within us as if on a soft breeze.”

Record scratch. Sucking sound. Helium voice. “Hey check this out. Yeah, yeah, hey, this doesn’t hurt your throat, does it? I sound like Mickey Mouse…” Someone’s best attempt at a Brooklyn accent: “Minnie, I got something fa yew…yeah, come on Minnie…”

And here we are, feeling a little creeped out by a helium balloon. Thanks, Banksy. Thanks a bunch. We’ll keep you updated with the location once we find it.

UPDATE: The newest Banksy is in Red Hook, at the corner of Van Brunt and King streets. Maybe wait more than five minutes to destroy this one, kids.

— Anna Merlan

DAY 8: Find This Fake Plato Quote Somewhere In Greenpoint

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: Greenpoint

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Banksy had us worried there for a second. When we hadn’t seen an update on his site by noon, we figured his possible outing this weekend to reporters had scared our favorite street artist off. But at 12:30 p.m. Banksy updated his Instagram with the latest entry in his city-wide exhibition: simple text scrawled on a blue (gray?) wall somewhere in Greenpoint. Though not that pretty and more annoying than funny, we’re at least relieved Banksy hasn’t hightailed it back to the U.K.

Adding to his emerging body of gotcha! graffiti, Banksy put the piece up somewhere in Greenpoint, according to his Instagram. His homepage hasn’t been updated yet with either a photo or a extension on the exhibition hotline. Runnin’ Scared will update as soon as he does.

The tag itself reads:

I HAVE A THEORY
THAT YOU CAN MAKE ANY
SENTENCE SEEM PROFOUND
BY WRITING THE NAME
OF A DEAD PHILOSOPHER
AT THE END OF IT

— PLATO

Despite our aversion to all things meta, we’ll be hunting for this tag just like the rest of ’em. If you have any idea where this might be, don’t hesitate to drop us a line.

UPDATE: We found it! 255 Freeman Street, on a metal door between Provost and McGuinness streets.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 9: Crazy Horses Riding Through the Lower East Side to a WikiLeaks Soundtrack

https://www.instagram.com/p/fQEYojK-we/?taken-by=banksy

The Lower East Side is host to Banksy’s latest piece: a crowd of stampeding horses in night-vision goggles, classical figures of men prostrating themselves before the wild stallions as they ride gallantly into battle. Or something. Anyway, we’ve got the location of the piece, thanks to a helpful commenter on Instagram.

A distinguishing feature of this new piece is that no part of it is on a wall: It’s rendered on the sides of two vehicles, adding impressive visual depth.

But the real heft of this piece is in the accompanying audio. No tongue-in-cheek barbs aimed at the art world. No smarm about the nature of graffiti in the modern era.

No, just the racket of gun turrets and radio communications between soldiers killing civilians.

The cut comes from the infamous Collateral Murder video released to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning in 2010. The 17-minute horror show depicts the killing of children and civilians by U.S. soldiers in Iraq trying to rescue wounded Iraqi combatants. The sound taken for the Banksy piece starts comes around the 12-minute mark.

It ends with: “They shouldn’t have brought a kid to a gun battle.”

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 10: There’s a Little Graffiti Beaver Out in East New York

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East New York

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Well this is refreshing: a Banksy piece in the reaches of New York’s outer rim. Today’s Banksy lands in East New York. Don’t worry, folks, it’s just a quick ride on the J train from the comfort of your South Williamsburg co-working space. That said, we’re guessing this one is going to take a little bit longer to find, so stick with us as we track it down.

There’s virtually nothing to this piece: no audio, no text, just a lonely beaver seesawing* on a rusted “NO PARKING ANYTIME” sign. Cute though, ain’t he?

So tipsters: you know what to do. If you know where this Banksy piece is, let us know.

UPDATE 1: We found it! 274 Bradford Street near Pitkin Avenue, East New York, Brooklyn.

UPDATE 2: Someone hired contractors to chisel the beaver out of the wall. How’s that for a sentence?

*Correction! He’s not seesawing! He knocked it over! dawwwwwww.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 11: A Truck Full of Very Loud Stuffed Animals In the Meatpacking District

As many suspected yesterday, Banksy’s artwork for Day 11 of “Better Out Than In” is indeed a military-style cargo vehicle hauling screaming stuffed animals (Because, who else?). “Sirens of the Lambs” will be touring the meatpacking district and then the rest of the city for the next two weeks.

We don’t know if the truck will be curbed during its two-week tour, or if it will be rolling around continuously. We hope it’s the latter: Behold the video below, in which a moving vehicle filled with shrieking toy animals induces the fight-or-flight response in innocent onlookers. Thank you for the belly laugh, Banksy.

OK, so it’s a truck full of fake farm animals. It’s in the meatpacking district. The animals are screaming. What could Banksy be telling us?

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 12: Banksy Comes Back to Manhattan With Concrete Confessional

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:manhattan. Concrete confessional

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Banksy is going for a more, uh, general approach with his location hints. Earlier this morning he posted Day 12’s artwork, Concrete Confessional, a slouching priest framed by, well, concrete. A little more understated than screaming stuffed animals, don’t you think? No audio comes with this one. We don’t know where it is, but seeing as how Manhattan is over 20 square miles in size, Runnin’ Scared would love your help in seeking it out.

UPDATE: Found it! Banksy’s newest is in the East Village on East 7th Street, right by Cooper Union.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 13: Banksy Was Selling Art in Central Park on Saturday

Banksy set up a stand selling some of his stencils right beside Central Park on Saturday. He sold seven. An old man was posted at the stand. At one point, he methodically eats a sandwich. Riveting stuff.

According to a video posted to Banksy’s website, the stand didn’t make its first sale till 3:30 p.m., and three buyers were responsible for the day’s total take of just $420 (each piece went for $60 a pop.)

As if the point were to make money. What joke are we being bludgeoned with today? A comment on Banksy’s celebrity? Making fun of tourists? An answer to our favorite East New York businessmen?

Before you cinch on your Banksy-hunting utility belt, a warning: His website points out that the stand was a one-off and would not appear there again today.

See the results of yesterday’s pop-up stand in the video below. If you happened to have passed by the stand yesterday, drop Runnin’ Scared a line.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 14: Latest Banksy Discovered in Queens, and It’s a Quote From Gladiator?

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: Queens

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After making three unsuspecting passersby potentially very rich on Saturday, Banksy started off week three of “Better Out Than In” with a stencil in Queens. It’s a simple design of a man erasing a movie quote written in hot pink scrawl.

UPDATE: Tipster George Burles got in touch with some photos of the latest Banksy piece. “There were just a few people there and the paint was still wet around 10 a.m.,” says Burles. Still wet! Banksy cut this one real close.

Gothamist scored a major scoop this morning when they reported the location of the Banksy piece well in advance of Banksy himself announcing it. Tipster Heidi Trenholm told Gothamist’s Jen Chung that she was pretty sure that the piece was Banksy’s.

“I’m pretty sure I saw him leaving and it still smells like fresh paint,” she explained.

Wait, what? You saw Banksy? Apparently a middle-aged white guy with glasses acknowledged Trenholm and then drove away in a rental truck.

OK, weird. But It gets weirder:

The line, “What we do in life echoes in eternity,” is taken from the 2000 film Gladiator, a movie ostensibly about Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix fighting over a fur coat.

Russell Crowe’s General Maximus delivers the line in a speech to soldiers on the brink of battle with a barbarian horde. Inspirational to warriors and commuters boarding the 7 train alike.

If you think that’s too lowbrow, Banksy says the hate nourishes him.

“Some people criticize me for using sources that are a bit low brow (this quote is from ‘Gladiator’) but you know what? ‘I’m just going to use that hostility to make me stronger, not weaker’ as Kelly Rowland said on the X Factor,” reads his website.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 15: Is This Today’s Banksy in Morningside Heights?

Is this the New Banksy?

A tipster let us know that they might have spotted the new Banksy up in Morningside Heights. We haven’t confirmed it to be today’s Banksy, but from the looks of it, Runnin’ Scared thinks we have a winner.

UPDATE 1: We have the location, but it’s still unclear if it’s a Banksy or not.

UPDATE 2: False alarm, folks. The stencil looks to be the work of Icy and Sot. That would be the second time Icy and Sot have tripped us up this month. We don’t know whether to be mad or to tip our hats.

Tipster Taylor Carman tweeted at us this morning with the image of the stencil showing a child wearing an “I <3 NY” T-shirt.

A tip from a commenter and some Googling revealed that this is a stencil that Icy and Sot have done before in the Bronx.

Here’s our question: Was that stencil there before or after the start of “Better Out Than In”? Our cynical selves are telling us no. Hitching their work to the insane Banksy publicity apparatus is a pretty dastardly — and effective — way to showcase their work. So as raw as we are at being duped (which is partly our fault, anyway), we gotta show some respect to Icy and Sot and their equally engaging street art.

— Raillan Brooks

UPDATE 3: Here’s the actual Day 15 piece:

https://www.instagram.com/p/ffjgFuK-3z/?taken-by=banksy

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DAY 16: Banksy’s Latest Is a Fiberglass Ronald McDonald in the South Bronx

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All City – McDonalds

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Inaugurating the back half of Banksy’s month-long residency in New York is an all-city exhibition of a grotesque Ronald McDonald sculpture. Yes, really.

The fiberglass statue will travel the city for a week, stopping at a different McDonald’s restaurant every day at lunchtime. According to Banksy’s website, the piece will also be accompanied by a boy shining the statue’s shoes.

This is Banksy’s first bit in the Bronx. It’s also the first to be explicitly interactive, or at least contain some element of performance.

The momentary departure from graffiti squares with Banksy’s interview in the Village Voice last week, in which he announced he has taken up sculpture since the 2010 release of his award-winning documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.

Might this piece have something to do with McDonald’s’ recent implication in the debate over living wages for fast food workers? Maybe?

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 17: Bed-Stuy’s Williamsburg’s Very Own Geisha on a Bridge

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Bed Stuy

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Day 17 of “Better Out Than In” takes us to Bed-Stuy south Williamsburg. The scene is silhouettes of women in kimono greeting each other atop a bridge, complete with parasols and a cherry blossom. Despite the wee stumble into stereotype, it’s a pretty inventive use of the streetscape, Runnin’ Scared has to admit.

Today’s polemic targets the media obsession with the residency (which we write without a trace of self-awareness). On his website, Banksy posted this morning’s outrageous New York Post cover story “GET BANKSY!,” which claims “police are going ALL OUT to find him.” True to form, Banksy brushes it off with “I don’t read what i [sic] believe in papers.”

UPDATE: Thanks to closer inspection of a map and some grumpy e-mails, we should clarify that the piece’s location is better described as south Williamsburg. This is the second time Banksy has confused Williamsburg for another Brooklyn neighborhood.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 18: Banksy’s Village Voice Covers With Os Gêmeos Go Up as Paintings in Chelsea

Banksy’s collaborations with Brazilian street artists Os Gêmeos went up in Chelsea today as paintings. The two images, mashups of each graffiti outfits’ iconic styles, were featured as cover art for the Village Voices exclusive interview with Banksy earlier this month.

Two images are inversions of one another. One depicts Os Gêmeos’ characteristic yellow man amid the ranks of Banksy’s riot police. The other shows Banksy’s riot policeman in a crowd of Os Gêmeos’ yellow people.

The space where the paintings are displayed are supposed to mimic an art gallery setting. The lot comes complete with a security guard, a bench, and a cooler full of “non-alcoholic wine” — an abomination, if you ask us.

These are the genuine article, folks. This morning’s bogus Aladdin “Wanted” signs must be the work of a clever Banksy copycat/Arabic calligrapher.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 19: Banksy Goes to Staten Island With a Vaginal Anthill

This morning Banksy posted video of an anthill, saying that it’s in Staten Island, marking his first work on the borough during his monthlong New York “residency.” The hunt has been on for the piece since this morning. You’re not crazy, it looks like a vagina, and it’s not the first time Banksy has mimicked, ahem, anatomy with his work.

We will update when we have the precise location. In the meantime, uh, enjoy?

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 20: Banksy’s on the Upper West Side With a Sledgehammer-Wielding Child

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Upper West Side

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Good morning/nearly afternoon! While you (we) were sleeping off that fifth rum and coke, our good friend and creeping British menace Banksy struck again. After his vaginal foray into the wilds of Staten Island yesterday, he hit the brunch-mobbed Upper West Side with this adorable child intent on destroying a sprinkler system.

It’s probably a commentary on the corrosive nature of class distinction, or a sly dig at how arts education is vanishing in this country, leaving behind hordes of angry, disaffected, budding-arsonist children with no healthy emotional outlet. Or it’s just a kid about to break something. Dunno.

Word is that it’s on 79th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. Just follow the mobs of people taking photos and elbowing each other out of the way.

UPDATE: Guys. We know it’s a reference to one of those “Test Your Strength” deals at a fair. We know. We were being funny, or trying. Thank you nonetheless for all the helpful (and very prompt!) e-mails, tweets and Facebook comments. Art criticism lives!

— Anna Merlan

DAY 21: Banksy Tags the South Bronx: “Ghetto 4 Life”

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South Bronx

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Banksy can’t, and won’t, stop. The latest piece in the artist’s monthlong residency on the streets of New York is located in South Bronx.

We think it’s an homage to Little Lord Fauntleroy. Do you disagree? Argue about it in the comments section!

We’ll update with a location as soon as one is confirmed. Have you spotted it? Send us a tip.

UPDATE: Found! Animal New York reports the piece is located at 465 East 153rd Street.

Tessa Stuart

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DAY 22: Today’s Banksy Is a Sphinx Made of Rocks in Queens

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Queens

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You guys! Banksy made a graffiti! This one’s made of cinderblocks. The harbinger of the encroaching forces of English darkness turned up in Queens today.

“Everything but the kitchen Sphinx,” he puns on his website, horribly. “A 1/36 scale replica of the great Sphinx of Giza made from smashed cinderblocks.You’re advised not to drink the replica Arab spring water.”

Sure, today it’s a tiny sphinx. Tomorrow we’ll all be drinking tea and wearing large, sinister hats. That’s how they get you, the English.

No word yet on just where the piece is, besides Queens, which is a rather large area (and Banksy’s grasp on New York geography is demonstrably not the best. It may be in the Bronx, for all we know.) We’ll let you know when we find it, though.

Share your thoughts on today’s piece in the comments. Or, as some of you have recently begun doing, cordially invite us to “Suck my dick on all this Banksy bullshit.” That’s cool, too. (Though we’ll have to pass.)

UPDATE: Gothamist has kept us entertained all afternoon with the shitshow surrounding Tiny Mr. Sphinx. In short, people are, once again, behaving horrendously, with some dude claiming he “owns” the piece because he saw it first, some other dude getting all up in that dude’s face, and the whole thing ending with First Dude calling a moving truck to cart the sphinx away.

Goodbye, Tiny Mr. Sphinx. You were really great before you came into contact with humanity. Street Art News tracked the piece down to Willets Point. It’s at 35th Avenue and 127th Street, which looks to be a parking area behind Citi Field. Scenic!

— Anna Merlan

DAY 23: Banksy Doesn’t Update Today Because of “Police Activity”

https://www.instagram.com/p/f0Jfw1K-5K/?taken-by=banksy

So this is a first: Banksy announced on his Instagram that there will be no stencil today. In simple black font on a white background, Banksy puts simply: “Today’s art has been cancelled due to police activity.”

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 24: Banksy Stencils the Door Shutters of Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club

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Hell's Kitchen

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Today’s Banksy is in Hell’s Kitchen, slapped on the door shutters of a strip club.

The text on Banksy’s website reads. “Waiting in vain … at the door of the club.”

Far be it from us to interpolate meaning in a Banksy piece, because we know how much it steams your rice, dear readers, but if we may: This is a stencil of a guy with a bouquet of flowers waiting for a stripper to leave the club.

The new piece was incredibly easy to locate just from the visual cues in the photographs. Just read the signs in the images and follow the scent of Larry Flynt’s iniquity to the Hustler Club.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 25: Banksy’s New Piece Is a Bumper-Car-Riding Reaper on the Bowery

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Bowery

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Looks like the Graffiti Marauder is participating in the holiday spirit. Banksy updated his Instagram at 6 p.m. (at some point during the day he pushed back the time by an hour), showing what seems to be a witch sitting on a Delorean? A frocked goat riding a bumper car? Somewhere in between? Spooooooky, etc.

UPDATE 1:Okay, so we were a little off: It’s actually a not-so-Grim Reaper riding a bumper car to the sweet sounds of Blue Öyster Cult’s 1976 hit “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” and it’s located at Houston and Elizabeth streets.

The sculpture will be on display from dusk until midnight, every night until Sunday. Here’s the video Banksy posted earlier this evening:

Reaper from BetterOut on Vimeo.

And some context, courtesy of the audio guide:

Good evening. You’re at Houston Street on the Bowery.

Welcome to the fair — which life isn’t.

Please be aware no flash photography is permitted.

You know, just keep it nice and simple.

This is the dance of death, in which the harvester of souls has been reproduced as accurately as accounts, and the artist’s talents, will allow.

This sculpture perfectly represents death in that it’s a bit…random.

The artist had said that he wanted to make a piece of art that would last forever, about the importance of living in the moment.

Let us pause for a minute and step back. [Car honks] Not that far! Jesus.

Consider, if you will, the fragility of existence, the thin slice of life afforded to each of us to contribute something to the story of human life on Earth.

Why are we here? What are we doing? Why the accordion music?

Did you know that statistically, one of you present will die tonight?

Oh wait — that’s, “Statistically, one of your phones will die tonight.”

Still pretty tragic, though.

It is often said that the role of art is to remind us of our mortality.

Brainsky’s take on that seems to be mounting an art show that goes on for so long, we all wish we were dead already.

Let us pause to consider these words from the great poet Wikipedia, who once said,

“Beyond this place of wrath and tears,
looms but the horror of the shade,
and yet the menace of the years finds,
and shall find me, unafraid.
It matter not how straight the gate,
how charged with punishment this world.
I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.”

Okay, enough with the accordion music!

Who does this guy think he is, Arcade Fire?

The quote, by the way, is from William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus.” (Thanks Wikipedia!)

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 26: This Morning’s Banksy Asks Who the Asshole Is Here, Really

https://www.instagram.com/p/f7xInWK-x9/?taken-by=banksy

Good morning. Banksy’s still here, and we’re pretty sure he thinks you’re an asshole. The British scourge struck horrifyingly earlier this morning, while your humble bloggers were still caffeinating and thinking up more unkind jokes about the English.

The newest piece is on the back of a truck in Sunset Park. “The grumpier you are, the more assholes you meet,” it proclaims. On his website, Banksy suggests this as an “alternative New York bumper slogan.” Aww. Is someone not getting a warm-enough New York welcome?

No word yet on just where in Sunset Park this grouchy Zen koan of a truck is parked, although Instagram detectives suggest somewhere on Second Avenue. We’ll be looking. In the meantime, someone give Banksy a hug, and maybe get that dude a bagel. He seems to be feeling a little under-appreciated.

UPDATE: The truck is parked in a place! Animal New York reports the truck has been found at 131 47th Street between First and Second avenues. This one appears to be more of a stationary exhibit, unlike that one with the roving screaming animals or the movable jungle.

So head over to Sunset Park and watch a bunch of people with cameras arguing in front of an old truck! In an alley-ish street, no less!

— Anna Merlan

DAY 27: Banksy’s Newest Piece in Greenpoint Is a Response to Rejected Times Column

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Greenpoint

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Good morning, New York. Banksy would like to once again give you a piece of his mind. Today’s entry in the ongoing “Better Out Than In” residency is a simple stencil reading, “This site contains blocked messages,” a response to the censorship the artist feels he has suffered at the hands of one venerable New York publication. And which publication might that be?

According to Banksy, today’s piece was supposed to be a column for the New York Times about One World Trade Center. Specifically, the artist hoped to use the pages of the Grey Lady to let us know exactly how he feels about the nearly completed structure: He hates it, and we should be ashamed we — meaning all New Yorkers — let it get built.

The attacks of September 11th were an attack on all of us and we will live out our lives in their shadow. But it’s also how we react to adversity that defines us. And the response?

104 floors of compromise?

Though the piece could have used some light fact-checking (there were 19 9/11 hijackers, not 10 as he writes) and sometimes veers into slack cliché (“It looks like something they would build in Canada”), it’s not terrible. We have to wonder, was it the polemic Banksy was offering that forced Times editors to leave the piece on the cutting room floor?

See the full text below.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 28: Banksy’s Latest Is a Graffiti Robot on Coney Island

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Coney Island

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It’s the dog days of “Better Out Than In,” and Banksy has decided to step away from his comfort zone in the Lower East Side and inner Brooklyn for his latest work. Today’s piece is out on Coney Island: a robot standing next to a barcode.

The barcode number reads 13274125. We don’t know if it means anything. We’ll update if we find out.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 29: Banksy’s Nazi Officer Taking in the View in Gramercy

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23rd Street

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We’re really not sure what to make of Banksy’s latest installment in “Better Out Than In.” His website describes it as “The banality of the banality of evil, Oil on oil on canvas, 2013″ and “a thrift store painting vandalized then re-donated to the thrift store.” What we see is a beautiful pastoral landscape, except there’s an SS officer on a bench in the foreground.

What exactly is he getting at with “the banality of the banality of evil”? Doing loop-de-loops around Hannah Arendt’s theoretical reckoning of the Nazis’ rise to power isn’t really how we want to spend our afternoon, but we’re guessing it has something to do with Banksy not really caring much about what he’s actually saying.

The piece is hanging in the window display of Housing Works, a thrift shop, bookstore, and HIV/AIDS and homelessness advocacy organization with multiple locations across the city. Judging by the clue on Banksy’s site, the piece is at Housing Works’ Gramercy location.

Housing Works director of public relations Rebecca Edmondson tells Runnin’ Scared that the piece was donated anonymously to the store, but that it has been authenticated as Banksy’s. For all of you who missed out on getting an original Banksy on Central Park earlier this month, Housing Works will open bidding on the piece shortly.

“One hundred percent of the proceeds from the auction will go to Homeless New Yorkers living with and effected by HIV/AIDS,” says Edmondson.

UPDATE 1: The auction for Banksy’s October 29 “Better Out Than In” Nazi installment closes tonight at 8 p.m. The bidding, which opened at $74,000, is up to $310,400. The auction is taking place at the charity website biddingforgood.com and proceeds will benefit the Brooklyn-based HIV/AIDS nonprofit Housing Works.

UPDATE 2: The piece will go up for auction tonight at an unspecified time on Bidding For Good, says Housing Works. This ain’t no penny-ante affair, folks: Bids are to open at a whopping $74,000. Up-to-the-minute updates on the auction will be available at Housing Works’ Twitter, @Hwthrifts.

UPDATE 3: The auction is now live and runs until October 31 at 8 p.m. The current bid stands at $85,200.

— Raillan Brooks

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DAY 30: Banksy’s Graffiti Leopard at Yankee Stadium

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Yankee Stadium

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It was well worth spending the day compulsively refreshing Banksy’s Instagram. The artist’s penultimate showing in “Better Out Than In” is a gorgeous leopard stencil at Yankee Stadium. We don’t know the precise location of the piece, titled Bronx Zoo, but it’s clear that the stencil is on the wall of the stadium.

— Raillan Brooks

DAY 31: Banksy Finishes His NYC Residency With Bubble Letter Balloons in Long Island City (And a Plea to Save 5Pointz)

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Queens

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And it’s all over, folks. Banksy sends us off with one last tag, a bubble-caps collection of balloons somewhere in Queens.

Listening to the audio on Banksy’s homepage, it’s hard not feel just a little bit sad. The narrator assesses the impact of “Better Out Than In,” musing on art as a public good and throwing one last barb at the art world establishment.

Banksy asserts that outside is where art should live, amongst us. And rather than street art being a fad, maybe its the last thousand years of art history that are the blip, when art came inside in service of the church and institutions.

Art’s rightful place on the cave walls of our communities, where it can act as a public serivce, provoke debate, voice concerns, forge identities.

The world we live in today, visually at least, is run by traffic signs, billboards, and planning committees. Is that it? Don’t we want to live in a world made of art, not just decorated by it?

Oh, and one more thing, from his website:

“And that’s it. Thanks for your patience. It’s been fun. Save 5pointz. Bye.”

— Raillan Brooks

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Five Years Ago This Month, Banksy Did a ‘Residency’ in NYC, Including on the Cover of the Village Voice

Was Sotheby’s in on the prank when that aesthetic bomb-thrower Banksy shredded his own work on the auction block this past Friday night? That story will be sorted out in the future — or not, considering that Banksy is a past master at covering his conceptual tracks — but in the meantime we turn the clock back to October of 2013. That month, Banksy gave a series of email interviews to the Voice about his “residency” in New York: Thirty-one street art works in thirty-one days. His publicist had contacted the editors the previous month and said that Banksy wanted to work with the Voice because he felt “an affinity with people who provide quality content for free on street corners.”

“The plan is to live here, react to things, see the sights — and paint on them,” Banksy wrote to Voice contributor Keegan Hamilton. “Some of it will be pretty elaborate, and some will just be a scrawl on a toilet wall.” Banksy also agreed to do the cover for the October 9, 2013, issue of the Voice. Or more exactly, two alternating covers, in collaboration with the Brazilian street art duo OSGESMOS (formerly Os Gêmeos). In that edition of the paper, Hamilton recounts the email exchanges with Banksy as well as the artist’s initial graffiti forays into the five boroughs. In a follow-up for the October 23 issue of that year, Hamilton pounded the pavement to get the lowdown on how local street artists were taking to Banksy’s British invasion. Hamilton had asked Banksy about his vision for “Better Out Than In,” the artist’s name for the monthlong guerrilla project: “There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all.… It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.” Mayor Bloomberg was not impressed, saying that the graffitist’s stencils are “not my definition of art” and “should not be permitted.” Other locals were more ambivalent. “He’s funny and clever, but what is that speaking to?” asked Marshall Weber, curator and director of collection development at the Brooklyn Artists Alliance. “It’s almost like he’s doing work about himself and his place in the art world, which is super-boring right now.”

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One graffiti historian said, “[Banksy’s] using social media and the media in general to promote his agenda, and he’s using graffiti to make it more salacious. He has the posture of this supervillain who engulfs a city and no one knows where he’ll strike next.”

Well, five years on, it seems that the Joker has struck Sotheby’s.

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Bloke and Dagger

Renowned street artist Banksy grants an interview — on his own incomparable terms

A Village Voice Exclusive
October 9, 2013

By Keegan Hamilton

 

“Confidential.”

That was the beguiling subject of an e-mail seemingly randomly addressed to the Village Voice in mid-September.

“I represent the artist Banksy,” the message began, “and I would like to talk to you at your earliest convenience.” The name and phone number of a British publicist followed. There were no further details or explanation. It was mysterious and intriguing. The secretive graffiti artist had been silent since last year, when his distinctive stencils appeared in London during the Olympics. Because Banksy rarely grants interviews, the cryptic message also felt like the prelude to an elaborate practical joke.

A few minutes of sleuthing confirmed the identity of the publicist, Jo Brooks, who represents several British artists (not to mention Fatboy Slim), and turned up evidence of her professional relationship with the elusive stencil master. A subsequent message from Brooks revealed more: a draft of a press release announcing that Banksy was on the verge of unveiling an audacious new project: The artist intended to create one new piece on the streets of New York each day in October, a “unique kind of art show” titled “Better Out Than In.” Billed with the tagline “an artists [sic] residency on the streets of New York,” the show was to include “elaborate graffiti, large scale street sculpture, video installations, and substandard performance art.”

Brooks promised the Voice an exclusive interview with Banksy, who “feels an affinity with people who provide quality content for free on street corners.”

But, as others have found over the nearly two decades since Banksy’s aerosol first decorated urban landscapes from Britain to the West Bank, New York, and Los Angeles, communicating with the undercover art icon is no simple feat. Through Brooks, he declined requests to speak on the phone or via Skype, presumably on the grounds that anything approaching direct contact risks blowing his meticulously maintained cover. (For the unacquainted, Banksy’s real name has never been confirmed, despite his pop culture stardom; he has said previously that the illegal nature of graffiti demands secrecy and likened unmasking himself to leaving “a signed confession” for his art crimes.) The publicist requested a list of questions to ask Banksy via e-mail — with the caveat that her client would likely ignore several topics entirely.

Several days later, Banksy’s website was scrubbed and replaced with a teaser for “Better Out Than In”: a stenciled image depicting a graffiti tagger placed to look like he’s vomiting a torrent of pink flowers and green foliage sprouting from between two concrete walls. (The title itself is a British colloquialism, a “Gesundheit”-like response to an audible eructation.) When the image began making the rounds on street art forums, commenters pointed out that the silhouette looked similar to an image in the music video for the song “Yonkers” by Tyler, The Creator, leader of the Los Angeles–based hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.

Ignoring the New York reference, Banksyphiles assumed the piece was somewhere in Los Angeles (its actual location has yet to be disclosed) and speculated that Banksy was plotting a sequel to his 2006 exhibit at an L.A. warehouse, in which he famously displayed a live elephant painted to look like pink wallpaper.

Then, on October 1, just as the publicist foretold, Banksy debuted his first work on the streets of New York: a stencil on a building in Chinatown, titled prophetically The Street Is in Play. The work shows two old-fashioned paperboys in overalls and flat caps reaching for a can of spray paint contained in a “Graffiti Is a Crime ” warning sign that had previously been affixed to the wall.

The sign was promptly stolen and the piece painted over — defaced, then erased in less than 24 hours.

How does Banksy feel about his work disappearing almost instantly? Who owns the pieces from “Better Out Than In” once they’re on the street? Does the artist stand to profit from his New York “residency”? The Voice asked those questions and many more in a series of e-mails relayed through Brooks. After more than a week of silence, he wrote back, ignoring (as Brooks predicted) many of the questions we’d posed, including the one that asked, “How do we know this is really Banksy responding to these questions and not some Nigerian prince or a teenage hacker in the Syrian Electronic Army?”

All I Ever Wanted Was a Shoulder to Crayon (midtown Manhattan, October 3, 2013)

On other topics, he was more forthcoming. In answer to our inquiry about his vision for “Better Out Than In,” and how and why the project was conceived, he writes, “There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There’s no gallery show or book or film. It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.”

Asked what he has been doing since his Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, was released in 2010, Banksy says he has “been learning to make big sculptures out of clay — partly because it’s a challenge and partly because after a year in an editing studio I wanted to do something standing up.”

Banksy says he visited New York “a couple of months ago” to scout locations for the October show, but he “returned to find most of the empty lots I planned to use have got condos built on them already.” He is now living in the city — not surprisingly, he won’t reveal where he’s holed up or how long he plans to stay — and he hints at a lack of a formal plan for when and where new pieces will be installed this month.

“The plan is to live here, react to things, see the sights — and paint on them,” he writes. “Some of it will be pretty elaborate, and some will just be a scrawl on a toilet wall.”

Early pieces were scattered across Lower Manhattan. Following The Street Is in Play, he scrawled a squiggly white tag on a steel shutter door in Chelsea that read, “This is my New York accent,” with the words “. . . Normally I write like this” underneath in plainer text. On October 3 in midtown, he stenciled a dog pissing on a fire hydrant, the latter emitting a thought balloon reading, “You complete me . . .” The following day saw a triptych of sorts: existing tags in Brooklyn that read “Playground Mob,” “Occupy,” and “Dirty Underwear,” to which Banksy added the identical script-stenciled tagline “The Musical.”

The Chelsea piece was defaced within hours, and the hydrant stencil painted over with a small silver tag. “Occupy” didn’t eclipse the 90-minute mark before it was eclipsed.

Untitled (Brooklyn, October 7, 2013)

Conspiracy theorists have speculated that Banksy himself is intentionally spoiling the pieces after the fact. The artist flatly dismisses the rumor. “I’m not defacing my own pictures, no,” he says. “I used to think other graffiti writers hated me because I used stencils, but they just hate me.”

The fleeting nature of Banksy’s art is part of its appeal. Brooks says a new piece each day in New York “turns the city into a giant game of treasure hunt.” Each work is a precious commodity that can disappear overnight. He wants them to be discovered in alleys next to dumpsters, not displayed in a sterile museum.

The more permanent element of the works — and the part that helps to confirm their authenticity — is an accompanying toll-free phone number that dials an “audio guide” created by Banksy. The first recording features cheesy elevator music and a stoned-sounding narrator welcoming listeners to Lower Manhattan. The male voice casually warns that the work has “probably been painted over,” and informs listeners, “You’re looking at a type of picture called ‘graffiti,’ from the Latin ‘graffito,’ which means ‘graffiti’ with an O.”

“What exactly is the artist trying to say here?” Banksy’s narrator asks. “Is this a response to the primal urge to take the tools of our oppression and turn them into mere playthings? Or perhaps it is a postmodern comment on how the signifiers of objects have become as real as the objects themselves. Are you kidding me? Who writes this stuff? Anyway . . . you decide. Please do. I have no idea.”

The audio clip continues Banksy’s tradition of wagging a playful middle finger at the mainstream art world, in this case even slyly mocking fans who care to track down his work. Listeners are presumably hearing the spiel while standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk, rather than a wing of MOMA or the Met.

“The audio guide started as a cheap joke, and to be honest that’s how it’s continued, but I’m starting to see more potential in it now,” Banksy explains. “I like how it controls the time you spend looking at an image. I read that researchers at a big museum in London found the average person looked at a painting for eight seconds. So if you put your art at a stoplight you’re already getting better numbers than Rembrandt.”

Asked to elaborate on the two paintings reproduced on this week’s Voice cover — specifically, about how he intends to display the works, both collaborations with the Brazilian graffiti twosome Os Gêmeos (aka identical twins Otávio and Gustavo Pandolfo) — Banksy responds, “To be honest, I’m not sure. I’m figuring a lot of this out as I go along. Which is one way to keep it fresh, I suppose. The idea to make a stencil saying ‘The Musical’ only came up when I saw the ‘Occupy’ graffiti.”

Banksy’s repertoire is not limited to graffiti in the traditional sense of the term. On October 5 in the East Village, he rolled out a grimy, tagged-up 1992 GMC delivery truck with a sculpture installed inside. A virtual paradise, the piece included (as the audio guide describes over the tinkling sound of Hawaiian steel guitar) “a digitally remastered sunset that never sets, a waterfall pumping over 22 gallons of water a minute, and some plastic butterflies duct-taped over a fan that move around a bit.”

The following day, Sunday, Banksy posted a video to his website that shows a pair of insurgents wearing turbans firing a surface-to-air missile from a bazooka-like tube. Their rocket launches into the sky with a streak of gray smoke. The fighters shout, “Allahu Akbar!” as their target plummets toward the ground: Dumbo the flying elephant. The animated Disney character crumples into a smoking heap. A child appears, approaches the dying cartoon, contemplates the scene, then turns and kicks the man with the rocket launcher in the shin.

Random graffiti given a Broadway makeover (Brooklyn, October 4, 2013)

Banksy typically shuns galleries and traditional venues, displaying his work instead in skid row alleys and various off-the-map locales. He has, however, profited handsomely from his art in the past. Celebrities — most notably Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — have paid millions for it, a fact that’s at odds with the creator’s guerrilla ethos. (Before launching “Better Out Than In,” Banksy’s website featured an FAQ with the question “Why are you such a sell out?” followed by the answer “I wish I had a pound for every time someone asked me that.”) His works are generally intended for public display, but they have occasionally been carved out of entire concrete walls and sold at auction.

The disconnect isn’t lost on the artist. He says he “made a mistake” during his last show in New York, a 2008 installation at a storefront in the West Village that featured a variety of satirical animal creations, including hot dogs lounging under heat lamps in glass cages near a phony cash register. He hired a billboard company to paint four murals to promote the fake store.

“I totally overlooked how important it was to do it myself,” the artist says. “Graffiti is an art form where the gesture is at least as important as the result, if not more so. I read how a critic described Jackson Pollock as a performance artist who happened to use paint, and the same could be said for graffiti writers — performance artists who happen to use paint. And trespass.”

Banksy also reveals concerns about his ongoing struggle to strike a balance between commercial success and artistic integrity. He hints at the possibility of abandoning galleries entirely and permanently returning to his roots as a street artist.

“I started painting on the street because it was the only venue that would give me a show,” he writes. “Now I have to keep painting on the street to prove to myself it wasn’t a cynical plan. Plus it saves money on having to buy canvases.

“But there’s no way round it — commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist. We’re not supposed to be embraced in that way. When you look at how society rewards so many of the wrong people, it’s hard not to view financial reimbursement as a badge of self-serving mediocrity.”

He realizes, though, that his early triumphs and the resulting bounty put him in a unique position to dictate how his work is displayed. Starving artists aren’t afforded the same luxury.

“Obviously people need to get paid — otherwise you’d only get vandalism made by part-timers and trust-fund kids,” Banksy says. “But it’s complicated, it feels like as soon as you profit from an image you’ve put on the street, it magically transforms that piece into advertising. When graffiti isn’t criminal, it loses most of its innocence.”

“It seems to me the best way to make money out of art is not to even try,” he adds in a subsequent exchange. “It doesn’t take much to be a successful artist — all you need to do is dedicate your entire life to it. The thing people most admired about Picasso wasn’t his work/life balance.”

Of course, for Banksy, the concept of devoting one’s entire life to his art takes on an added layer of meaning.

Does the burden of all the cloak-and-dagger shit ever seem like too much to carry?

Did you ever envision it going on this long without cracking somewhere?

Has it gotten easier to operate this way, or harder?

How many people can you trust?

How do you decide?

At press time, the Voice was still waiting for answers to those questions (to name just a few).

A secretive persona and self-perpetuated anonymity are now part of the package — an element that has become increasingly improbable with the passage of time, especially in light of recent National Security Administration spying revelations and the ongoing debate over online privacy. Trumpeting his presence in New York and producing new works daily on the streets poses a daunting challenge to Banksy’s incognito act, but, he says, the prospect of cementing his legacy in the city proved too tempting to resist.

“New York calls to graffiti writers like a dirty old lighthouse. We all want to prove ourselves here,” Banksy writes. “I chose it for the high foot traffic and the amount of hiding places. Maybe I should be somewhere more relevant, like Beijing or Moscow, but the pizza isn’t as good.”

 

Banksy of New York: Local Street Artists Assess the Iconic Brit’s Empire State of Mind

October 23, 2013

By Keegan Hamilton

Many among the crowd that gathered around a patch of graffiti on the corner of a vacant, crumbling building in Tribeca earlier this month had no clue why they stopped to stare. They simply reckoned whatever was beyond the wall of people had to be worth seeing. A tourist toting a bulky digital camera nudged through to snap a photo. A young blonde in a stylish fall outfit stopped in her tracks. After a few minutes, she turned and asked an older woman lingering on the edge of the group: “What’s everyone looking at?”

“An artist called Banksy put a spray painting here,” the onlooker replied with a shrug. “I’ve never heard of him, but my kids have. Apparently people come from all over the world to see his things.”

The piece attracting all the attention was a black silhouette of the old Manhattan skyline with an orange chrysanthemum in full bloom protruding from one of the Twin Towers like an explosion of color. In a museum, it would likely be a somber scene treated with humble reverence. Here, a mother had no qualms plopping her toddler beside it for a photo.

Similar scenes have unfolded across the city on a daily basis since October 1, when Banksy announced a monthlong “residency” on the streets of New York, titled “Better Out Than In.” As the elusive street-art icon posts tongue-in-cheek “audio guides” and reveals the general location of new creations via his website, crowds rush to catch a glimpse before the works are defaced, erased, or relocated (the latter being the case for a pair of installations contained in trucks that roam the city, as well as a fiberglass Ronald McDonald sculpture making the rounds of New York’s golden arches). The media churn out dozens of stories each day, speculating about the anonymous artist’s true identity and chronicling every exploit. Not since Warhol teamed up with Basquiat has street-influenced art received this much attention.

Asked about his vision for “Better Out Than In” in an exclusive interview with the Village Voice earlier this month, Banksy replied, “There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. . . . It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.”

What, then, is the meaning of “Better Out Than In”? What influence will it have, and how does it affect Banksy’s legacy? The Voice reached out to several members of New York’s street-art community to share their thoughts on the topic and received a broad range of responses. Some say Banksy is brilliant, one of the most important artists of our time. Others call his new work overrated and shallow.

“He’s funny and clever, but what is that speaking to?” asks Marshall Weber, curator and director of collection development at the Brooklyn Artists Alliance. “It’s almost like he’s doing work about himself and his place in the art world, which is super-boring right now.”

Weber is referring specifically to Banksy’s October 12 stunt in Central Park. The artist rented a sidewalk booth and sold “authentic original signed Banksy canvases” — each worth thousands — for $60 apiece. New Yorkers had the opportunity to score the bargain of a lifetime, but because the sale was entirely unannounced, it was largely ignored. A video posted on his website puts the day’s total take at $420.

“I thought it was the most amazing commentary on people buying art based on the brand name rather than what it looks like,” says Molly Crabapple, whose May Day poster for Occupy Wall Street was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. “I thought it was astounding and completely clever. And, as somebody who has sold art on the street and had friends do it, I thought he did it in a very respectful way.”

Dan Witz, a street art pioneer from Brooklyn whose work appears in Banksy’s 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, appreciated the subversive art sale, too. “I think it’s awesome, I think it’s amazing, I think it’s hilarious,” Witz says. “I think it’s definitely making a comment on the way street art isn’t seditious anymore. I think it’s fairly brilliant.”

Brooklyn-based artists Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller, known collectively as FAILE, have collaborated on murals and street art projects around the globe and recently had an installation commissioned by the New York City Ballet. They’ve been impressed by the overall scope of “Better Out Than In.”

“The premise for the show is brilliant,” McNeil and Miller explain via e-mail. “The ability to use social media to broadcast a show on a global scale is remarkable. It’s great to see the range from painted pieces to installation, video, and sculptural works. We also appreciate the art of spectacle and its use in creating the show.”

“Better Out Than In” has veered between lighthearted (a stencil of a beaver in East New York strategically placed to make it look as though the critter had toppled a street sign) and dead serious. An elaborate piece painted on two dingy vehicles behind a chain-link fence on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side shows thrashing horses wearing night-vision goggles above a figure gazing upward and targeted by green crosshairs. The audio guide is an excerpt from the WikiLeaks video “Collateral Murder,” which revealed a 2010 Baghdad air strike that killed journalists and civilians.

Some critics dislike the casual blend of whimsy and gravitas. Andrew Castrucci, co-founder of the Bullet Space urban arts collective, says other longtime New York street artists such as John Fekner, whose early work dealt with urban decay in the Bronx, are more deserving of praise.

“It’s too literal, it’s too easy — there’s no mystery behind his work,” Castrucci says of Banksy. “He’s like the new hot stock. It’s like the market: [The media] has created a bubble. I don’t think his work is strong enough to fetch that type of press. It’s hype to me.”

Weber agrees, expressing admiration and respect for Banksy while saying the artist is at risk of “becoming appropriated by the very pop culture he critiques.”

“I’m kind of issuing a challenge to Banksy,” Weber says. “When do you step into the real world? When does a piece of art change policy or catalyze social awareness or social action at this point? Again, I’d like to see him work on a topic that will raise some ruckus. The only reason I want more is because I know Banksy can deliver. He’s a great artist.”

TrustoCorp, an anonymous street artist (or perhaps a group) who creates satirical street signs, posted two pieces recently that skewer Banksy. One looks like a Citibank sign and reads, “Bad artists imitate, great artists get really rich.” The other tweaks the Bank of America logo to read “Banksy of America,” and imparts, “Laugh now but someday I’ll be so rich I can do graffiti wherever I want.”

Mayor Bloomberg isn’t a fan. He said at an October 16 press conference that Banksy’s stencils are “not my definition of art” and “should not be permitted.” Quoting an anonymous source, the New York Post reported that the New York Police Department’s Citywide Vandals Task Force is hunting the elusive artist, to which Banksy responded on his website, “I don’t read what i [sic] believe in the papers.” (The Daily News, predictably, refuted the story.)

Others bristle at classifying Banksy’s work as graffiti. New York graffiti historian Sacha Jenkins says Banksy “has found a way to leverage the quote-unquote ‘danger’ associated with graffiti” for his own purposes.

“He’s using social media and the media in general to promote his agenda, and he’s using graffiti to make it more salacious,” Jenkins says. “He has the posture of this supervillain who engulfs a city and no one knows where he’ll strike next.”

Banksy admirers dismiss the art semantics and emphasize the fact that his work is engaging audiences and sparking a dialogue about art and the nature of public spaces.

“We don’t even really know what defines a ‘graffiti artist’ anymore, let alone a ‘street artist,'” write McNeil and Miller. “Is it someone who spray-paints their name on a wall? Or is it someone that provokes people through the content they create in the public sphere?”

As for Banksy’s legacy, several artists speculate that the magnitude of and public interest in “Better Out Than In” will force a generation of street artists to adapt and react, a phenomenon Witz calls “the Picasso syndrome.”

“People try to take him down, but it’s really hard to do after this,” Witz says. “I respect him. I’m in a weird place, because I’ve been doing this for so long and I should resent him for being rich and famous. But I’m enjoying the hell out of it.”

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Uncategorized

How Rammellzee Turned Graffiti Into Urban Mythology

Even back then, they didn’t know what to make of Rammellzee.

At the dawn of the Eighties, in that magic moment when the uptown scene met the downtown scene and hip-hop spun out from its roots among the b-boys, mobile DJs, and graffiti writers of the South Bronx and began its takeover of global culture, Rammellzee, though a central figure in this scene, was — even to true heads — a mysterious quantity.

Born in 1960 in Far Rockaway, Queens, Rammellzee — or to use his preferred orthography, RAMMΣLLZΣΣ — began tagging at fourteen, under various identities such as Maestro and Hyte. He took part in the birth of wild style, which turned the forthright act of spray-painting your name into a pageant of colors and extravagantly shaped letters, bulbous or jagged or shooting out arrows, melted into one another to the point of illegibility. For him, this was not just art but ideology. His theory of history, which he synthesized in a series of esoteric writings, focused on the struggle to liberate the letters of the alphabet from the shackles of words and sentences. (He called it Gothic Futurism and Ikonoklast Panzerism, and believed himself in the lineage of the medieval monks who inked illuminated manuscripts.)

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He put up some large pieces, including on subway cars — the paramount graffiti-art display surface of the time — but he was not one of the ubiquitous whole-car artists, like his contemporaries Iz the Wiz, Dondi, or Seen. Instead he shifted to drawings, paintings on canvas, and sculptural forms. But unlike many other “gallery writers” who began making portable (and sellable) pieces, his graf esthetic gave way to a weirder practice in which he used trash and discarded materials to enact his idiosyncratic theories.

“Fresco Love Letter: Scavenger, Bill of Fat” (1988)

Thus, beginning in the Nineties, he built Letter Racers, sculptures that he imagined represented individual letters, formed of junk mounted onto roller-skates or skateboards, suspended from wires, swooping like a vengeful armada. He also made Garbage Gods, whole-body costumes with names like Alpha Positive, Panmaximus Magus, or Destiny, each with particular powers and weaponry. When he left the Battle Station, his loft on Laight Street in Tribeca, it was often clad in one of these outfits. Usually he received visitors at home, surrounded by these creatures, drinking Olde English 800 and discoursing on esoteric subjects.

By the time Rammellzee died, in 2010 — of cardiovascular disease, likely resulting in part from the alcohol and unprotected exposure spray paint and epoxy — he was something of a mythic figure, an oddity who emerged from hip-hop’s foundational stew and had a moment of art-world prominence yet moved away from both, preferring not to compromise his stubborn habits and his quasi-impenetrable system of knowledge.

Exhibition view

“Rammellzee’s influence and mythology is ensconced in folklore and hearsay,” says Max Wolf, chief curator at Red Bull Arts New York. The two-level space in Chelsea, a gallery sponsored by the energy drink, has organized the most comprehensive survey of Ramm’s life and art, complete with evocative extras that transport the visitor into his world. There are big-screen videos of early hip-hop shows where Ramm, a proficient rapper, expounds in his nasal, sing-song style; footage of interviews and performance-art events, Ramm clad in body armor; and a rich oral history, accessed via phone-booth handsets — another retro reference — at wall-mounted listening stations that dot the exhibition space.

A merit of the current exhibition is that it fleshes out the story of Rammellzee the working artist. The lower floor of the gallery is largely given over to a spectacular display of Garbage Gods, who lurk like an occult army in the darkened space. A flotilla of Letter Racers hangs in the stairwell, as if frozen in interstellar space. This is the wild, science-fiction Rammellzee, and it’s exciting to see all these inventions in one place. But there is also, on the upper floor, a substantial selection of Ramm’s prior work, much of it on loan from museums and private collectors, particularly in Europe, where he found many of his buyers and patrons during his art-world phase in the mid-Eighties.

“Maestro” (1979)

The earliest gallery pieces here were made while Ramm was still in his teens. They transpose a pure graffiti ethos onto cardboard or canvas; some incorporate his street tags. Maestro (1979) is a drawing, with architectural precision, that alternates lines of train cars with lines of graffiti lettering. Several pieces are long rectangles, emblazoned with lettering, aerodynamic lines, and other geometric shapes, as if they were models for whole-car pieces. By 1982 to ’83 the subway references decrease: Works such as Jams (1982) and The Knowledge of the A (1982) are large canvas squares that evoke a busy section of wall where taggers have put up letters, dollar signs, abstract shapes, and chicken-scratch scrawl.

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In this period, Ramm was close to Jean-Michel Basquiat, also born in 1960. They were rivals and mutual inspirations; in one oral-history segment, the gallerist Barbara Braathen calls them “frenemies.” In another, the musician Nick Taylor recalls long sessions with Basquiat, in thrall to Ramm. “It was like talking to Malcolm X on acid,” he says. “It was a little threatening. He went beyond Afrocentrism and talked about arming and militarism on a cosmic scale.” The graffiti writer Toxic sums it up: “Ramm was like a general. Ramm wanted to destroy everything.”

Exhibition view with “Gulf War” (1991)

This sense of imminent conflagration grew as Ramm’s canvases gained relief through epoxy additions or assorted glued objects, and surfaced in their titles. Ransom Note of the Infinium Sirpiereule (1984) is a “resin fresco,” in which a video camera, splashed with green paint and angled downward like a surveillance apparatus, is glued onto the canvas along with collaged drawings, Gothic lettering, and assorted plastic bric-à-brac, all set against an eerie reddish-brown background that feels vaguely post-apocalyptic. It comes with Rammellzee’s notes, presented as wall text: “Specifics: Your death, a Planet’s death, the death of your Ego, Super-ego, or Id. A Galaxy or womb’s death and any kidnapping worth the mechanic’s crime.” Letter M Explosion (1991) is an iridescent purple and green phantasmagoric in which what may be some kind of battleship seems engaged in combat with a weaponized M shape (spacecraft design, jagged edges) amid a field of cosmic projectiles. Ramm clearly had a military obsession; yet the sculpture Gulf War (1991), a highlight of the exhibition, and distinct in that it references an actual conflict taking place at the time, reads in that context as pacifist critique. It involves a found Gulf gas-station sign split down the middle and stuffed with random items — a bicycle, a train set, a record player, caps and hats, plastic toys, a gas mask, other flotsam — and marks the turn to recycling that would sustain the rest of Ramm’s career.

Detail from the exhibition

Rammellzee’s is a New York story, with many classic features of the form. It involves a hard-knock upbringing that his brother, identified as K.P., describes on one of the listening stations: their mother was a Black woman from South Carolina, their Italian-American father ditched the family, and a stern policeman stepfather raised them. There is a plunge into street knowledge and esoterica: As a detailed wall timeline in the exhibition explains, Ramm received his name from Jamel-Z, a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths (or “Five Percenters”) he knew as a teen. (Rammellzee changed his name legally, too, in 1979; in accordance with his wishes, those who know his prior identity keep it secret.) Later, gentrification plays a part: A few years before he died, the Laight Street building was sold for condo conversion, and Ramm had to put his works in storage and move to a more conventional setting — an apartment in Battery Park City.

Detail from exhibition

He died, however, back in Far Rockaway, where it all began. Perhaps his lifelong outsider instinct stemmed from his roots in this distant outpost of the city, with its high density of housing projects way at the end of the A train. The art, oral histories, videos, and ephemera in “Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder” can’t help but summon nostalgia for a time when the city was rougher, more raw, its public culture infused with outer-borough grassroots brilliance and improvisational futurism instead of corporate programming. But you can’t wallow with Rammellzee. He was always looking ahead, formulating the next theory, plotting his next surprise attack on conventional thinking, setting the letters free.

‘Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder’ 
Red Bull Arts New York
220 West 18th Street
redbullartsnewyork.com
Through August 26

Exhibition view of “RAMMΣLLZΣΣ: Racing for Thunder”
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Living NYC ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Meet the Straphanger Who Talked Back to Those Damn Fiverr Ads

You have seen the ads — oh, God, have you seen them. Ever since the cheap-ass labor provision company Fiverr (“Freelance Services Marketplace for the Lean Entrepreneur”) started plastering New York City subway cars with its “In Doers We Trust” ad campaign early last year, straphangers have been complaining about their Tony Robbins-on-meth taglines: If “Thinking big is still just thinking,” does that mean Fiverr — whose business model is built on having freelancers post tasks they’re willing to do for as little as $5 — wants us all to leap into self-starterdom before we look? Is “Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice” an attempt to compliment hard workers, or a call to work yourself to death? It all felt like, as Jia Tolentino wrote for the New Yorker, being hit each morning with a firehose of jargon “through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic.”

Sometime in the last few days, one subway rider decided to strike back using the oldest of urban protest tools: the magic marker. Over one image of a millennial in a hijab with the slogan “Nothing like a safe, reliable paycheck. To crush your soul,” they wrote, “That’s why ‘Fiverr’ only wants to pay freelancers five dollars per task!” On a neighboring ad reading “Somewhere, someone is planning a meeting about taking immediate action” — meant, presumably, to chide overly comfortable wage earners who refuse to drop everything and start their own Fiverr-staffed animation studio, via comparisons to the People’s Front of Judea — the unnamed penperson scrawled: “In West Virginia, teachers went on strike and won higher pay. Is that immediate enough for ya?”

The Voice managed to track down the mad scribbler, who agreed to speak about their actions on the condition of anonymity. (The MTA tends to get sue-ey over billboard liberation.)

Upon first seeing the ads, the writer said they thought, “This is bullshit.”

“I don’t know which got me more: the lie that everybody who’s got a shitty job can liberate themselves by starting their own company? Or that the name is built into a price structure of five dollars per task” — actually less, once Fiverr’s commission and PayPal fees are taken into account — “so the key to your success is screwing over as many freelancers as possible?”

It took several trips underground before this particular rider found themselves on a Fiverr-bedecked car with Sharpie convenient: “I had the inspiration, I just didn’t have the means of production.” Adding one’s own tags to a subway ad campaign, it turns out, isn’t that difficult, or even particularly risky. “This one guy from Denmark was taking a picture of it,” says the graffitist. “I do this a lot, and I’ve never been busted for it. ‘Don’t do it in front of a uniformed cop’ is about the extent of my caution, and I’ve never had a problem. New Yorkers don’t mind — they either have the subway face on and they’re not reacting, or they love it.”

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Billboard liberation, as the term of art goes, has a long and gloried history, arguably peaking in the 1980s after such modifications as the famous “If this lady was a car she’d run you down” image went the 20th-century version of viral. The practice may have suffered setbacks with the advent of graffiti-proof subway cars and the general chill that fell over public protest under the post–9-11 security state, but it never entirely went away, notes Fiverr’s antagonist.

“I see some pretty cool stuff,” they say. “There were some stickers repurposing the MTA’s ‘a crowded train is not an excuse for harassment’ to be aimed at Trump. Sometimes on ads for the School of Practical Philosophy, which has an anti-gay background, I see people adding just the word ‘cult.’ A little buyer beware, that’s all it takes.”

All of this is important, says our correspondent, not just to tweak ad buyers for their cynical posturing, but to provide regular folks a say in what’s left of the public sphere, even if it’s just scrawling the URL (or a bit.ly) of an article providing a dissenting view. (The Village Voice neither endorses nor condones vandalism, but if you, dear reader, did happen to arrive here via Sharpie-media outreach, hi!) “What is free speech today in a world that’s run by plutocrats’ money?” says the subway scribbler. “I don’t have a lot of money. Do I not have a right to express my views on the subway just because I don’t have venture capitalists pouring money into my pockets like Fiverr does?”

The Fiverr ad modifications are likely still out there somewhere, at least until the next MTA cleaning crew discovers them. But the person behind them has no intention of stopping now: “I look on it as fact-checking.”

Correction: This article initially misstated the details of Fiverr’s business model. Freelancers post their services on Fiverr for vendors to purchase, rather than the other way around.

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Banksy’s Back in New York City

The last time he made work in New York City, Banksy, the famous street artist, had trouble finding locations. “Most of the empty lots I planned to use have got condos built on them already,” the elusive British stencil maestro told the Voice in a rare interview in October 2013. That month, he put up one new piece per day, fomenting a scavenger-hunt energy as droves of fans quested around the city to spot and photograph the latest piece before the elements — or vandals — could damage it.

No scouting difficulty this time. Banksy’s first work in the city in five years is on the Bowery Wall, the seventy-foot surface at Houston Street and Bowery where Keith Haring once put a mural in the 1970s. Now a curated space, courtesy of the property owner, it has recently shown David Choe, Ron English, Brazil’s Os Gêmeos, Spain’s Pichi & Avo, and more.

Passersby take in Banksy’s piece at the Bowery Mural in Mahattan

On Thursday, a masked figure cloaked in white spacesuit-like overalls was observed standing on a lift, making black vertical tally marks in clusters of five on the white wall. A press release went out. The work is a collaboration between Banksy and the American street artist Borf, it explained. It is a tribute to the jailed Turkish artist Zehra Doğan.

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Doğan, a member of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, is one year into a nearly three-year sentence in Turkey. Her crime was to make a watercolor depicting a town in Turkish Kurdistan in ruins after combat between the army and Kurdish rebels. Perversely, the painting was based on a photograph the Turkish military itself had circulated. But its appropriation by Doğan, who is a progressive journalist as well as an artist, was not to the liking of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BgXSA__Dn4N/?hl=en&taken-by=banksy

“I really feel for her,” Banksy said in a brief statement to the New York Times. “I’ve painted things much more worthy of a custodial sentence.”

By Saturday afternoon, some 48 hours into its display, the work was in conversation with the city — for better or worse. Clusters of pilgrims gathered on the sidewalk and in the median traffic island facing it to snap the best views. A group of students from St. John’s University listened to a guide extol the site’s importance in art history. On the second-highest of the work’s four long rows of tally marks, Doğan’s face looked out over the scene, in a clever and attractive design: the vertical marks now prison bars, and the last one tapered to represent a sharpened pencil. Down near the sidewalk, the inscription FREE ZEHRA DOGAN beckoned passersby to remember her name.

The vandals, too, had shown up. Between the third and fourth row, an interloper had scrawled his identity in red spray paint nine times over — damage that would require a fresh paint job to remedy, which would no doubt invite recidivism. Such is the city.

Detail from the mural of Dogan, who was jailed by Turkish authorities in March 2017 for painting the ruins of a Kurdish town destroyed at the hands of Turkey’s military.

The work remains elegant, if no longer pure. Its simple geometry contrasts with Banksy’s more common use of stencils — representing humans, dogs, rats, butterflies, flowers, fire hydrants, shopping carts — and the stark pathos of its appeal on behalf of a prisoner of conscience is a welcome moral improvement over the massive hoardings for fashion labels or alcohol brands that pollute whole walls in this part of the city.

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It will pass, of course — street art is transient by nature, and thus also, at least in some measure, by design. In her actual prison cell, Doğan can only make her own tally marks to count the days; her release comes in principle in December 2019. According to the press release, she has yet to learn of this venture. A campaign by PEN America invites the public to write U.S. authorities to urge them to demand her release.

Banksy’s piece at the corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue is a rat running while trapped inside a clock at a disused bank.

A second Banksy has popped up a mile or so away, this one more in keeping with his brand, furtive and sly. A large stenciled rat — one of his fetish animals, and sadly fitting for New York City — has appeared on the face of a stopped clock on a derelict former bank building on the northwest corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.

The hour hand of the clock is stalled above the rat’s rump, seeming to push it up the clock face in a futile circular motion. Here, too, street-art pilgrims and gawkers stand on the corner looking up and snapping pictures. Beneath the clock, homeless individuals sit with their belongings in the condemned doorway. All parties appear supremely oblivious to one another. Prisons, distress, exclusion, futility: The dots connect and the metaphors write themselves as shoppers stream past and an open-topped tourist bus chugs by.

A detail of Banksy’s rat at 14th Street and 6th Avenue

UPDATE 3/17/18 1:00 p.m.: No confirmation on his Instagram yet, but Banksy seems to have struck again, this time in Brooklyn.

A new Banksy tag near a long-closed gas station in Midwood, Brooklyn near the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Avenue I.

UPDATE 3/18/18 2:00 p.m.: And we have confirmation.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bgg6OuzDoVH/?hl=en&taken-by=banksy

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5Pointz Verdict a Mixed Blessing for Graffiti Artists

Five years after developer Jerry Wolkoff painted over the iconic 5Pointz graffiti murals en route to building a pair of bland, beige luxury high-rises, a federal judge ruled Monday in favor of a lawsuit brought by 21 street artists against Wolkoff. In a blistering decision, Judge Frederic Block called the literal whitewashing of 5Pointz “an act of pure pique and revenge,” and ordered Wolkoff to pay the creators a whopping $6,750,000 in damages.

“The graffiti artists are elated by the court’s decision in this case,” Eric Baum, attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Voice following the decision. “All of the artists at 5Pointz, led by their curator Jonathan Cohen, are professional artists who have spent their lives mastering the techniques necessary to create this art. Their art should be cherished, not destroyed.”

The decision follows a protracted, high-profile legal battle, and marks the first-ever instance of a court determining whether exterior aerosol art is worthy of legal protection. It comes four years after the demolition of the 5Pointz complex, which street artists had used as a sort of open-air gallery, with Wolkoff’s permission, beginning in the early Nineties. When word got out that Wolkoff was planning to replace the warehouse with high-rise condos, the artists mounted a public campaign to save the building, and Cohen, the site’s de facto leader, petitioned the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for landmark status.

But despite the public pressure, and even a call from Banksy to “save 5Pointz,” the preservation effort was unsuccessful. As a last-ditch effort, the artists filed a preliminary injunction with the court under the Visual Artists Rights Act — a seldom-used federal statute intended to safeguard public art of “recognized stature.” But before the court could issue an opinion, Wolkoff had the walls covered in white paint under the cover of night. That decision, the artists argued, was a direct violation of their VARA rights.

Wolkoff’s legal team, meanwhile, contended that artists should have known that the industrial space would eventually evolve — in this case, to a set of glass and stone towers branded with a deeply unfortunate graffiti logo. The ephemeral nature of street art, they argued, meant that 5Pointz was beyond the scope of VARA. (Wolkoff’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.)

The developer’s argument did little to persuade a jury, which advised Judge Block on his decision back in November (the result of an odd legal arrangement, in which both parties agreed mid-trial that the jury’s decision should be taken as a recommendation). In addition to finding that aerosol art does qualify for protection under VARA, both the judge and jury considered Wolkoff’s method of destruction so irresponsible as to warrant the maximum penalties.

“If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed,” Block wrote in his decision. “If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the Court would not have found that he had acted willfully.” In other words, Wolkoff was within his rights to destroy the artwork, but doing so in the midst of a court injunction, and seemingly out of spite, weighed heavily against his case.

“The shame of it all is that since 5Pointz was a prominent tourist attraction, the public would undoubtedly have thronged to say its goodbyes during those 10 months and gaze at the formidable works of aerosol art for the last time,” the judge added. “It would have been a wonderful tribute for the artists that they richly deserved.”

Beyond the steep fine, Monday’s decision could have far-reaching consequences for local graffiti artists working on private property. Because so few cases involving VARA have made it to court, the statute’s definition of what constitutes work of “recognized stature” is hardly clear. In Baum’s view, the ruling is a “precedent-setting case,” offering “a clear indication that aerosol art is in the same category of any other fine art, equally worthy of the protections of the federal law.”

But other legal experts say that graffiti’s status as true art was never in question, and instead wonder if the expansive ruling could complicate the relationship between artists and building owners, who may now be more wary of inviting muralists to contribute work on their properties. There’s also the issue of VARA waivers — the unusual, potentially problematic clause in the 1990 legislation allowing artists to sign away their rights to protection. “If I’m a landlord who reads this, the first thing I’m now doing is getting artists to waive VARA, which in the end run could hurt artists and the power of VARA,” warned Philippa Loengard, deputy director at the Center for Law, Media and the Arts at Columbia Law School.

“Developers who commission art have their eyes wide open now,” echoed Barry Werbin, a copyright expert and attorney with Herrick, Feinstein LLP. “It’s definitely a hard lesson for them.” On the other hand, Werbin predicted that aerosol artists might be able to use the precedent as a sort of bargaining chip, extracting cash or other concessions from building owners in exchange for signing away their VARA rights.

Those who followed the case say it’s hard to immediately gauge its effect, if any, on how graffiti artists will assert rights over their work in the future. For now, the ruling offers real, unexpectedly high compensation to artists whose prized pieces were erased overnight, and a bit of schadenfreude for the rest us who never got to say goodbye. As Jonathan Cohen, known at 5Pointz as Meres One, testified during the trial, “Respect in our game is everything, and if you don’t have respect then you don’t get respect.”

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In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below

In Praise of Graffiti: The Fire Down Below
December 24–30, 1980

John Lindsay hated graffiti. He vowed to wipe it off the face of the IRT, and allocated $10 million to its obliteration. But the application of vast resources is no match for disciplined determination, as we should have learned in Vietnam. Graf­fiti survived Lindsay’s defoliation plan, and it has thrived on every subsequent attempt to curb its spread.

In 1973, there may have been a few hundred ghetto kids writing in a few definable styles. Now thousands call themselves “writers.” They come from ev­ery social stratum and range in age from nine to 25. Their signatures — called “tags” — have transformed the subway into what the Times calls “some godawful forest.” And now that the perpetrators have moved above ground, trucks and elevators, monuments and vacant walls look as if they have suddenly sprouted vines.

It is, says Claes Oldenburg, “a big bouquet from Latin America.” It is, says Rich­ard Ravitch of the MTA, “a symbol that we have lost control.”

***

 

The great debate over graffiti, and what ought to be done about it rests on the assumption that its intention is to defile. “It’s the feeling that an antisocial element has been in the system and had its way,” says an MTA spokesman, defending his department’s annual $6.5 million an­ti-graffiti budget — money, after all, that might otherwise be used for repairs. The Times has rounded up the usual assort­ment of social workers and shrinks to bolster its contention that graffiti is “an effort to deal with deep feelings of fear by seeking out an experience that involves facing that fear.” Psychologists who treat these incipient felons “believe their pa­tients, virtually all of whom have less­-than-perfect relationships with their fathers, are intent on defacing his car, the car of authority.”

The casual rider might conclude that perp and victim share an inability to con­trol the danger in their lives. Says the indefatigable Ali, who, like many graffiti writers, has a ready capacity to articulate the ideas behind his work: “Graffiti takes away the placenta, and reminds people of how violent the subway is. The real van­dalism is what you’d see if you scraped the windows clean.”

The debate over graffiti has been con­ducted by people who are unwilling to decipher the message it conveys. Once you learn to interpret the medium, it becomes clear that no single intention is involved. Some kids do write to deface — to “bomb” a car, as they say; but the wholesale ob­struction of windows and maps is a sure way to perpetuate your status as a novice, what serious writers call “a toy.”

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Entering a graffiti zone — and these now include schoolyards, stairwells, and selected intersections — is like reading a newspaper. A writer can tell who has been there, which parts of the city are repre­sented, how long since the site has been buffed, and whether there are any star­tling innovations — “isms” — he wishes to incorporate. This communicative func­tion, says Ali, puts graffiti in “the griot tradition” of African storytelling — whether or not you grew up close to your dad.

But tagging is only the most elemen­tary form of graffiti, and the insides of cars are a practice zone in which aspiring writers fashion the techniques they will need to do “a piece” — i.e., masterpiece. The idea is to impose yourself on an entire car, to move from “a throw-up” to the carefully delineated blend of tints and lines graffiti writers call “a fade.” This riotous effect can be achieved on the car while the paint is wet, or in midair, when a writer sprays two cans at once to see the fade as it forms in the mist.

From the time a surface is sighted — ­usually a train laid up on the center track — it can take 12 hours to complete a piece. Often working from sketches prepared in advance, a writer and his “crew” may spend a weekend in tunnel light, drinking, smoking, listening to the radio. Most writers return with cameras to document their work, since the TA’s buffing ma­chines can reduce the most ambitious ef­fort to a swampy blur. In graffiti, the dimensions of space and time are beyond control. All things must pass, usually within a month.

There are two ways to look at this stuff. From the platform, mammoth letters roll by like frames in a stereopticon. Seen a block from the el, bands of color undulate like the tail of a kite: At that speed and distance, one becomes aware of how im­portant motion is to the spirit of graffiti. A willful transformation occurs as the rav­ished train is forced to boogie. The harder trick is to throw something up that looks good standing still.

Among writers, Lee is regarded as a master of freehand rendering, perhaps the first to execute a top-to-bottom, full-car design. But on the Lower East Side, where some graffiti aficionados are too young to frequent the subways, Lee is regarded as a prophet. He works anonymously, in the dead of night, covering handball courts with apocalyptic messages and monu­mental imagery. If you want to glimpse the future of this form, run right down to the playground on Madison Street, off Clinton. A bilious dragon awaits you, hov­ering over a skyline on the verge of erup­tion. Talk about Gulley Jimson: This vision was executed by a teenager with a ladder and a little paint.

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Iconography has figured in graffiti since the early ’70s, when Stay High pilfered the stick figure logo from The Saint and appended it to his tag. But a growing segment of this movement would like to see graffiti abandon representation for an open assault of color, a fauvism-on-wheels. Futura 2000, who took his name from a Ford, serves up a fade that resembles cosmic soup. Within this Day-Glo cauldron, triangles glide by — the edges carefully defined with the aid of masking tape — and clusters of circles that clearly suggest Kandinsky, perhaps because that’s where Futura first encountered these shapes.

Graffiti draws from every form of pictorial information that has entered the ghetto over the past 20 years: billboards, supergraphics, wall murals, underground comics, and custom car design. Sci-fi il­lustration — especially the lurid roman­ticism of Frank Frazetta and Vaughn Bode — was an early source of inspiration, but now that the most ambitious writers are taking classes in drafting and going to museums, there is a deliberate attempt to work in references to artists who command respect. Lost to the buffers now is Blade’s rendition of Edvard Munch’s scream, and Fred’s assemblage of Campbell’s soup cans. It is possible to imagine a car decked out to resemble something Jackson Pollack dreamt (although, to accomplish that, a writer would have to overcome the traditional graffiti disdain for drips). Or figures out of Klee riding shotgun on the IRT. These artists share with graffiti an interest in what Kandinsky called “the effect of inner harmony” in a childish line.

A writer appropriates an image made famous by an artist the way he in­corporates another writer’s line. It’s all out there, like cans of paint waiting to be “racked.” But image-theft is not the only reason writers raid the museums. A subway Munch raises the heady possibility that art can happen anywhere. Like conceptual art and Pop, graffiti questions the context in which art is appreciated. It renews the dream of work for its own sake, the idea of creation as a democratic process — in short, radical humanism. Ali speaks of “taking responsibility for your environ­ment” by creating a surface on a subway train. “The production of art,” wrote Jean Dubuffet in 1947, “can only be conceived as individual, personal, and done by all.”

There’s a lot of positive mythology floating around what some writers call “the graffiti community.” Aspiration runs high when you’re living in a project on Columbus Avenue, 10 blocks north of the gentry line. You walk into Fiorucci and mutter, I can draw like that. At the same time, there’s a feeling that graffiti is some sort of revolutionary act. A writer hauls out a book of Soviet art to show me photos of what he calls “a propaganda train.” These cars rumbled across the coun­tryside, decked out in heroic iconography designed by artists who were committed to the revolution. The graffiti writer is clear­ly impressed by one tableau, featuring a rising sun. “Look at that fade,” he sighs.

***

Graffiti is a setting from which art may emerge, as was rock ‘n’ roll back when ev­eryone on my block sang doo wop with an absurd intensity, and some of us got respect for it. Mourning John Lennon, it is hard to remember that rock musicians were once commonly regarded as delin­quents, or if you were liberal, rebels without a cause. The music didn’t cover up subway maps, but there was aggression to burn among its staunchest fans. Alan Freed was arrested after a riot at one of his shows, and charged with incitement to anarchy. Ten years later, the music inspired a more visionary insurrection.

SE3, a/k/a Haze looks a bit like Buddy Holly, black hair spilling over his brow — ­but neatly. The son of a West Side analyst, he took to the Bronx at an im­pressionable age, commuting to hang out. But to get over, he had to earn respect in the subway yards, swimming upstream with all the other toys. One night, SE3 was busted in the South Bronx. “We have your son on a graffiti charge,” said the cop at 4 a.m. The ride home from the station house was silent — like an iceberg — but the fric­tion it produced sent SE3 into exile at a school in Massachusetts. He was forced to pass up acceptances from the high schools of Art and Design, Music and Art, and Brooklyn Tech. In New England, he repressed his interest in graffiti, studied architecture, worked in oils; but once back on the pavement, SE3 returned to hanging out. He renewed the old connections — ­with Dondi, Crash, Zephyr, Futura, Ali­ — and began incorporating his fine-arts training into graffiti. This was like Buddy Holly playing the Apollo. SE3 had become what Zephyr calls “a pioneering white boy.”

The big lie is that graffiti is confined to “antisocial elements.” Increasingly, it is the best and brightest who write on sub­way walls, tenement halls. They travel in bands with names like Crazy Inside Art­ists (CIA), Children Invading the Yards (CITY), Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW), Out to Bomb (OTB). Unlike the news­paper that has called for their demise, these bands are racially integrated, which gives writers access to the same cross-­cultural energy that animates rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, the graffiti sensibility has a musi­cal equivalent in “rap records” — another rigid, indecipherable form that can sus­tain great complexity. I’m sure Ali would agree that rap records are also part of the griot tradition.

For me, the real mystery about graffiti is why this generation has chosen to ex­press its ambitions in pictorial terms. The answer may lie in the changing nature of prestige in New York. This has become a visual city, with photography, video, and graphic design emerging as hip cultural forms, and with Soho replacing Greenwich Village as the paradigmatic neighborhood. Thousands of visual artists migrated to New York in the ’70s, many settling in high-graffiti neighborhoods. There is an unvoiced connection between these groups, as there was in the ’60s between bohemians and rock musicians. With little formal training or access to galleries, how does one get in on the art action? One shows on the subway.

***

“I sold a piece tonight. For $200.”

Futura is dressed in downtown formals — a white Lacoste over baggy black slacks and clean white sneakers. He’s accom­panied by his father, his cousin, and his girlfriend Rennie. They’re standing before a monumental fresco in a spray paint, bearing the unimpeachable Futura logo. The crowd is in a pre-Christmas, buying mood.

Sígame,” says 16-year-old Lady Pink, one of the few female writers to have earned respect. She leads her father, who is holding an Instamatic, by the hand. She wants him to take a picture of her piece­ — fluorescent orchids — which hangs next to one in which Ali has borrowed Stay High’s stick figure and placed it on a Dali cross. These canvases suggest the sentimentality graffiti is prone to when it tries to go imagistic, but also the extraordinary use of color, and that “effect of inner harmony” — is it in the paint, the way it’s applied? The secret is safe with Ali, who roams through the gallery in the baggiest of slacks, the floppiest of jackets, a chino rainhat, and wrap-around silver-slitted specs, cruising girls who could be Debbie Harry.

Clearly, this is not a typical opening at the New Museum, the visual extension of the New School annex, where you might expect to find an enigma in aluminum and sand but not an original Lee. Through January 8, however, the New Museum is throwing open its doors to Fashion Moda, an international art conspiracy located in the South Bronx. The resulting show is unlikely to strike Hilton Kramer as having anything to do with art. But New Wave is about cross-cultural referencing, if it is about anything. With its ghetto rep and its eclectic eye, graffiti is an authentic element in New Wave aesthetics. Says one artist, “It’s our reggae.”

The point of departure for “graffiti as an alternative to standard art” was pro­vided by a New Wave musician named Jean-Michel Basquiat, who joined forces with two friends a few years ago to tag Soho and the Village with phrases like the one above. Samo, as this crew called itself, combined rants against consumerism with assertions about textual ambiguity — all of it copyrighted. It’s unclear whether con­ceptual artists began picking up on Samo’s strategy, or whether Samo bor­rowed its m.o. from conceptual art. At any rate, a number of young artists are under­taking phantom installations that can only be called graffiti. Keith Haring began by drawing crawling people and dogs in black marker; lately, he has taken to em­bellishing Johnny Walker ads with flying saucers. Last summer, when Ronald Rea­gan spoke in the South Bronx, he pointed to a wall that said BROKEN PROMISES, and expounded at length on what could have driven the residents to write such a thing. The actual perpetrator was John Fekner, a conceptual artist who transfers phrases onto abandoned autos and tene­ment walls.

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When asked to comment on graffiti, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers were unavailable, but Andy Warhol con­fided, “I like it.” Curatorial types were also queried. “I have no feelings about it, one way or another,” said Thomas Hoving. “I really don’t know enough to make a statement,” added Alicia Legg at the Museum of Modern Art. When a photo from the series that accompanies this piece was submitted by MOMA’s publications department for use as a Christmas card, Kathleen Westin, co-chairman of the museum’s Junior Council, put her foot down. “I thought it was the most revolting idea that ever came up,” she volunteered. “The people who do graffiti ought to be shot at dawn.”

But a number of galleries — the Razor, the O.K. Harris, the 112 Workshop — have shown work by writers, and the movement may soon make its debut in Paris and on 57th Street, under the aegis of the Pierre Cardin galleries. There are at least three graffiti documentaries making the rounds of distributors, and New Wave filmmaker Charles Ahearn is now working on a film with Fred. Fred and Lee are stalwarts of the Fabulous Five, a group that writes on the number five line of the Lexington Avenue IRT. When I caught up with Fred, this 24-year-old veteran expressionist was en route to Milan, for a show at the Paolo Seno gallery. This is his second Italian exhibition; the first was warmly received by Unita, the Communist Party paper, which suggested that the Fabulous Five be hired to paint the Victor Emmanuel mon­ument (built by Mussolini and contemptuously known as “the wedding cake”).

“My art is like an artifact,” Fred says. “Like, the paintings I do, I want people to look at them as an art based on graffiti.” He has started reading Artforum. He has developed a fondness for Dada. He has cut a rap record. “With a little time and paint,” Fred says, “anything is possible.”

***

The Soul Artists, an amalgam of 21 writers, including many of the best to have surfaced underground, want the MTA to give them carte blanche on the outsides of cars. In exchange, they propose to regulate what goes on inside and to impose a ban on writing over windows and maps. Pas­sengers might welcome such a compromise — assuming it could be enforced, since graffiti inspires a lot of very independent toys. Imagine a contest in which the best artists select the most original designs submitted by graffiti writers, creating a new emblem for New York, attracting tourists from all over the world, and freeing millions of dollars now used to buff the stuff.

With or without the MTA’s coopera­tion, we may soon be inundated with graf­fiti, as the Soul Artists attempt to trans­pose the form onto fabric, video, posters. Writers are beginning to regard graffiti as something you can do on paper, or in a book. A lot of these kids carry “piece books,” the kind you used to whip out in high school for autographs at the end of the year. At special events like the New Museum opening, they stand around tag­ging each other — but not the walls. The best writers copyright their major pieces. Many carry portfolios; a few have even begun to buy their paint.

Though some writers would agree with Fred that “graffiti dies when it’s legal­ized,” the possibility of a career in fashion, graphic design, or even art is making in­roads into traditional assumptions about what graffiti is. Or might be. Graffiti may enter the commercial mainstream and bestow itself on haberdashery, like punk. Or its simultaneous discovery by artists and kids at large could change the way we think of public space. Imagine workshops dotting the ghettos, and in the quiche districts, thousands of otherwise benumbed adults taking to the streaks.

You can collect graffiti, wear graffiti, make graffiti. It’s not a form, but an attitude toward form. “Thunderism,” Fred calls it. Imagine! ■

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Where To See Graffiti

Given the MTA’s churlishness (a John Lennon memorial car, executed last week, has already been buffed), the best way to evaluate the potential of graffiti is to seek it out on walls. “Monumental graffiti works” by Lee are viewable on handball courts scat­tered across the Lower East Side: on Madison Street between Clinton and Montgomery, Cherry between Clinton and Montgomery, and Cherry between Pike and Market streets. The Bronx Graffiti Disco, on 204th Street and Jerome Avenue, features a facade by Crash, Medi, Mitch, and Noc. Con­nie’s Supermarket, at 148th Street and Brook Avenue (near Fashion Moda), has been embellished by Crash. Closer to quiche, Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway near Bleecker has a piece by Lee. And a half-dozen graffiti can­vases are at the New Museum, Fifth Avenue corner La Catorce. (If you’re driving home to — or past — Ohio stop at the Canton Art Institute, for an audio-visual graffiti spectacular, fea­turing photos by Henry Chalfant and a rap-tape by Fred.) R.G.