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."