Visual Arts


Mention the word "graffiti" and most people will go ballistic. What scrolls up on the average man-on-the-street's mental monitor are visions of once-virgin buildings, fences and even freeway overpass signs scarred by the unsightly spray-can "tagging" of godless vandals. Tucson's Sixth Congress Gallery's current show, "Spraycan Art," gives us a very different look at graffiti, and a positive one at that. The show features spray-can paintings, as well as photographic documentation by photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfont, of the early work of five legendary graffiti artists who grew up with this still-controversial art form in New York City. The real focal point of the show, however, is an enormous exterior mural these artists have executed in collaboration with young, Arizona-based artists they hand-picked to help them.

One of the artists chosen was 24-year-old Noe Baez, a well-known graffiti artist or "writer" from Guadalupe, who was born and raised in Phoenix. Noe vibrates like a tuning fork when he talks about "graf," as graffiti is called by hard-core practitioners of the art. The young writer prefers to be referred to by his tag, Such One--Such, for short. A "tag" is the assumed name painted by a graffiti writer to protect his real identity from ever-watchful authorities. But Such makes it clear that he's a writer, not a tagger, meaning that he has moved beyond illegal name writing on buildings and now paints murals. "I'm not into tagging," he says. "In fact, my tagging is horrible. Tagging was the embryo form of aerosol art, and I respect that, but they're not producing art. They need to hook up with heads [skillful writers] who know what they're doing."

The Sixth Congress Gallery exhibition was kicked off by a symposium at Pima Community College and a spray-can mural workshop, which drew more than 350 kids packing portfolios and sketchbooks.

Such made the Tucson trek to the Sixth Congress Gallery's symposium with a black leather portfolio in hand, and his wife, Annette, and 2-year-old, hip-hop-garbed son (whose nickname is Champ) in tow. The entire family checked in to a motel for a week, while the young writer attended the symposium and workshop.

For Such, meeting and working with these premier spray-can artists was the fulfillment of a lifelong fantasy. "What David Wright and Andy Bernard did in bringing these writers from New York--they made my dream come true," says the writer, referring to the owners of the Sixth Congress Gallery.

Such's work is well-known in the Valley. One of his latest productions is a mural of drooling, vine-draped dinosaurs on the north side of the Guadalupe Teen Center. Inspired by Jurassic Park, the writer calls his prehistoric subjects "Such-A-Sauruses." The mural has remained untouched by competing writers, much to his relief. "It's like there's an invisible moat around the Guadalupe mural. To be honest, I'm destroyed when someone goes over my pieces."

@body:New York's inner city is the birthplace and still supreme hub of graffiti art. And art is what Futura 2000, Lee, Lady Pink, Chico and Stash make. These are the tags of, respectively, Lenny McGurr, Lee Quiones, Sandra Fabara, Antonio Garcia and Josh Franklin. These writers, all self-taught spray-can artists, are almost mythological figures in an upstart art movement that began in earnest in the late 1960s and has since spread across the country and throughout the world.

A crucial component of contemporary hip-hop culture, the aerosol art movement was launched by simple tagging in spray paint or Magic Marker in public places. Primitive tagging for territorial and identification purposes has evolved into the production of an incredible variety of "pieces," short for masterpieces. These appear on the sides of subway cars and building walls, often with complex narratives, unique styles and distinctive execution of the writer's tag.

To the consternation of some, the graffiti art movement continues unabated, growing in popularity and credibility. Many writers, including those whose work appears in the "Spraycan Art" show, have chalked up gallery and museum credentials, earning hard-won legitimacy for this art form, which is traditionally most attractive to high-school-age kids. But graffiti art has its detractors, who equate all graffiti with illegal gang vandalism. And it may spell the demise of Sixth Congress Gallery, which opened two years ago as an alternative space for Tucson artists. "We call ourselves a community gallery," says David Wright. "We're very open to new forms of art."

It was partner Andy Bernard's New York contacts that inspired the present show. During a sojourn in New York where he spends six months a year, Bernard met Futura 2000. The young man was one of the first major writers to appear on the graf scene in the early 1970s. "When we first got the idea to show spray-can art back in August of 1992," Wright recalls, "we called the Tucson Police Department, who referred us to their gang unit. The cops helped by picking up writers and bringing them to the gallery. We paid the kids to paint murals on panels here."

Wright laughs as he recalls the tough time he and Bernard had convincing the kids that they weren't a sting operation for the police department.

But certain police bureaucrats didn't support the gallery's project. "In Tucson, graffiti is a major political issue," says Wright. "The acting police chief hated us and what we were doing. The gallery became a negative focal point downtown. We would have meetings here with local writers and would invite members of the police department and local politicians to join us, but they never came. We invited them to our opening, but they never showed. It made the whole project very controversial."

Continues Wright, "The PD thinks that all taggers are gang members, which is not true. The whole community is scared to death of these kids. Not all of them are bad; you just can't lump them all together. The cops were out front in a van while our exterior mural was being painted, videotaping the kids, so that they could match the kids with their tags."

The local writers were very impressed by the New York City artists, who are akin to gods in the eyes of younger graffiti practitioners. "These New York writers are role models to these kids," Wright says. "During the symposium and workshop, they talked about the writers' responsibility to the community and stressed that it's better to show the owner of a building your portfolio and ask to do a mural legally. This was the first time that the 'crews'--individual groups of kids that paint together--actually came together in this town."

Despite the clearly positive results of the symposium and exhibition, there has been a serious downside for Sixth Congress Gallery in having undertaken the spray-can show.

"The show became so controversial that some of our important funding sources dried up," says Wright. "We're completely out of money at this point. It's going to force us to close."
He adds sadly, "Maybe we were just ahead of our time."

@body:Aerosol art may be a rebellious urban folk art romanticized by the likes of writer Norman Mailer, but graffiti itself is as old as the hills, dating back as far as ancient Egyptian times. Graffiti reflects man's primordial urge to leave his mark, not unlike a dog instinctively lifting its leg to mark the boundaries of its territory.

The term originally comes from the Italian word meaning scratchings or scribblings; some of the most famous early graffiti, interestingly enough, is found in the Roman catacombs. The Tower of London, medieval English alehouses, turn-of-the-century American frontier outhouses, even the Great Wall of China--all sport their fair share of messages carved by bored prisoners or would-be wits.

Even the walls of Pompeii demonstrate that graffiti was alive and well in 79 A.D., celebrating life, love, hate, sex and politics. In more recent times, the notorious Kilroy of "Kilroy was here" fame appeared during World War II in various unlikely places.

With the advent of the aerosol spray can and the permanent marking pen in the early 1970s came the dawn of real graffiti art, which quickly spread throughout all of New York's boroughs. Simple territorial tagging or "throw ups" were written to communicate with friends in the neighborhood or enemies from the outside.

Taki 183, a kid from Manhattan's Washington Heights who left his tag on subway cars as he traveled as a messenger throughout New York, was tracked down by a reporter for the New York Times in 1971 and achieved instant media stardom when he became the subject of an article. Thousands of kids from every borough began to take up the marker or spray can, intent on spreading their tags beyond their neighborhood and attaining star status by "getting up" on a subway train or wall. In 1973, New York magazine got into the act by giving out Taki Awards for the best graffiti.

For writers--so called because the movement started out with painting simple names sans other visual elements--fame was, and still is, the name of the game. There was fierce skirmishing to "get up" and be a "king" by creating "a burner"--an outrageously fabulous piece. Fast as a speeding subway car, kids added other wildly colorful ingredients to their names, developing complicated, interlocking, at times almost undecipherable, lettering for their tags called "wildstyle." Highlights, star bursts and three-dimensional shadings created the illusion of depth.

As competition for space grew, so did the size and complexity of writers' pieces, until entire subway cars were being covered, windows included, in the dead of night by crews with such rococo names as Out Ta Bomb, the Nation's Top, Crazy Inside Artists and the Vamp Squad. Building walls were also being covered, although according to Henry Chalfont, who, along with Martha Cooper, is one of the preeminent documentarians of the art movement and co-author of Subway Art and Spraycan Art, "New York writers have an almost mystical attachment to the trains, the giant worms, arteries in the belly of the beast." Imagery from the mass media, especially cartoons, started showing up, as well as original characters created as logos, holiday greetings, political statements and memorial pieces. Originality was and continues to be highly prized, and sloppy spray drips disdained. Not even the aggressive "buffing" or chemical washing of subway cars by New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority could dissolve the resolve of determined writers committed to their art form. As future writers from other cities in the United States and foreign countries visited New York, and films such as Wild Style, Style Wars and Hollywood's Beat Street circulated, the graffiti culture was imported to other locations virtually intact. However, writers outside New York have, for the most part, stuck to painting walls.

The "gallerization" of graffiti art, according to art critic Lucy Lippard, began in October of 1972, when graffiti supporter and promotor Hugo Martinez linked up a number of writers with New York City College's art department. In 1975, an exhibition of the United Graffiti Artists at Artists Space in New York was mounted. The movement hit its apex in the early 1980s, when the sanctified New York art scene, mesmerized by these street kids from working-class backgrounds, began to take serious notice of graffiti art, which was showcased in the now-famous Times Square Show held in 1980. Fueled by the economic insanity of the Eighties, art dealers and collectors furiously gobbled up the work, like piranhas in a feeding frenzy.

Lee and Fab Five Freddie found themselves exhibiting their paintings at Claudio Bruni's Galleria Medusa in Rome. In 1983, Dutch art dealer Yaki Kornblit organized a major graf show at the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, which included Futura 2000 and Lady Pink. Even New York's revered, blue-chip Sidney Janis Gallery got into the act and mounted its now-famous Post-Graffiti exhibition. It helped create the rage for graffiti-inspired art by professionally trained artists such as Keith Haring and art's Warhol-approved wild child, Jean-Michel Basquiat, a former writer whose tag was Samo (Same Old Shit").

There was mixed reaction to graffiti art from critics. Time magazine's Robert Hughes dismissed most of graffiti as "paint-pissing." Multicultural champion Susie Gablik felt that inner-city kids were being exploited by a voracious art scene that would toss the artists aside when its jaded thirst for the new and unusual was slaked. Peter Schjeldahl of the Village Voice proclaimed that graffiti art, because of its "gratuitous egoism," had a "certain purity that no popular art can claim."

When the smoke cleared from the Eighties, most writers had disappeared from the gallery scene, although some, like Lee, continued to explore other artistic avenues. Lady Pink's work has taken a more political and socially conscious turn. Futura 2000 and Stash have designed successful lines of hip-hop clothing. Chico specializes in memorial walls, created to commemorate kids who have died in the streets. Most writers have gone back to what they liked doing best--painting on large walls. Only this time, armed with their newly acquired badges of celebrity, they have been able to get commissions for large-scale murals in clubs, restaurants, theatres and public buildings. Like the rest of us, they have discovered that, while fame is fine, money still pays the bills.

@body:Local graffiti writer Such is still buoyant from his week in Tucson, where he worked side by side with the New York artists the Sixth Congress Gallery brought in for its exhibition. "All the heads were paired up with heads like their own personality," he explains. "Physe from Mesa was working with Stash, Lex with Futura 2000 and Madcap with Lee. I still can't believe that I was working with Lady Pink, who was really mellow, and right alongside Lee, who's my hero.

"Lee Quiones is a legend; he intrigued and sparked me. And I love the heads in Tucson. The heads are very cool there," Such says solemnly.

A veteran who first started by painting on cardboard, Such has been getting up since he was 14 years old, although now he only works legally. "There were only two other artists in Phoenix who were doing graf when I started," Such says.

A well-known writer from San Francisco, Crayone, whom Such tracked down when he came to town, taught Such advanced aerosol techniques. Los Angeles-based Tacks, who was recently commissioned to do a mural for Kodak in New York and was featured in the April 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, provided additional inspiration.

In the old days, Such admits, he did illegal pieces, "mostly seasonal, like 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy Easter,' and political stuff. But I never got busted--I got chased, but never busted. One time we were chased away while we were doing an antidrug piece," he laughs. In 1984, he hooked up with a crew called PCP Bombers; PCP stood for Phase Craze Posse, "but we weren't a gang," he quickly adds, "just a group of artists. Most crews are not gang members, just artists. We were young and arrogant--and I wanted to be king. I used to call myself Arizona's aerosol pioneer."

Such started other crews, including COMA (Creators of Modern Art) and NWMA (New Wave Modern Artists), but he mostly works alone now: "I run solo. There's less drama, less soap opera, no compromise. I sometimes work with Lyfe, a homeboy of mine whose real name is Armando Aos, though. He's a genius; he makes special spray-can tips for special effects."

At the ripe old age of 18, Such decided he had to stop getting up illegally because, strangely enough, he wanted to be a cop. He attended Mesa Community College for a while, but rapidly got bored. He talked a local nightclub owner into letting him paint a wall of the club and ended being hired to paint murals on the rest of the walls. Such has since been commissioned by both the Tempe and Mesa school districts to paint both interior and exterior walls of school buildings, including gyms and cafeterias. "It spread like wildfire," he says. Such has taught aerosol art at the Tempe YMCA and has had well-attended shows at ASU Art Museum's Experimental Gallery at Matthews Center and MARS Gallery in downtown Phoenix. According to him, "the graf movement's exploding right now; the scene is hitting and I'm hitting, too."

Such waxes philosophical about controlling tagging. A savvy spray-can statesman, he feels that a summit meeting between a city task force and taggers could go a long way toward creating dtente between the two factions.

"If you can channel the energy that goes into tagging into making art," he says, "you'd be able to eradicate vandalism. The city of Phoenix needs to sit down and discuss the problem with the taggers face to face, then something could be done to solve the problem. Give them legal walls, give them free paint--then you won't have the problem.

"Countries have meetings like that," he adds, "so why can't we?

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Kathleen Vanesian