In the beginning there was tagging, the stylized writing of names on the New York City subway system that became a signifier for urban decay in the 1960s and '70s. Practitioners were mainly people of color, but some were white, like Steve Kesoglides (SJK171) and Mike Hughes (MIKE171), both from Washington Heights, who used to run with Henry Medina (Henry161) when they were founding members of United Graffiti Artists, one of the genre's first crews.
Today, most of the biggest names in street art are white men like Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Invader, Kenny Scharf — just a few of the 100-plus artists featured in “Beyond the Streets.” It's a comprehensive show spanning some 50 years, from the early graffiti of New York City to current studio practices of those who have moved, well, beyond the streets.
“I won't deny that the art world is mostly run by white males,” Fairey tells L.A. Weekly. “I can't help that I was born white, but I was attracted to that world in large part because it was so refreshing that it wasn't all white! In the world of graffiti and street art, being white is not a guaranteed ticket out of poverty at all. The first 10 years of my career I was pissing off either a landlord, the credit card company, the oil and gas company or someone. It's not a real smart career choice to earn a living. Even though it's more viable now, it's still not.”
In a familiar pattern, what was once marginalized as “Negro” music became rock & roll when it was whitened by artists like Elvis Presley. What was once called marijuana, in an effort to link it with a supposedly seedy Latino element, now in its mainstreaming has become cannabis. And so graffiti, once considered a symbol of tough economic times and urban blight, and the province of people of color, became more upmarket, commercially viable and whiter.
“Where you see graffiti was a formal no-no, now street art has become a safer term,” curator Roger Gastman explains. He not only advised on the Oscar-nominated Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop but co-curated MOCA's popular “Art in the Streets” show in 2011. “People will take pictures of it and it will make the neighborhood look a little bit prettier and then maybe we can get a coffee shop and then we can get some other buildings. X, Y, Z, it's a formula.”
According to “Wicked” Gary Fritz, co-founder of the 1960s Brooklyn-based crew Ex Vandals, they were just letting out a primal roar in protest of the Vietnam War, personal problems or tough economic times. In the 1970s, New York's demimonde grew hip to graffiti. United Graffiti Artists painted backdrops for the Joffrey Ballet Company and Twyla Tharp Dance in '73, and their work was shown in galleries, a movement that fizzled out in the cash-strapped era to come but regained momentum in the '80s with figures like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (both included in “Beyond the Streets”).
“The money changed it, because young people joined to do it to just get the money. So you have people who do it who aren't associated with the culture, who never rode in trains or never got down on the track or experienced the same things,” Fritz explains about street art's transition in the early 1980s. “When the press finally found their great white hope, he went with it and he's now an international legend and still making money year after year — Keith Haring will always be a name and make lots of money because they gave him that spot. … There's a lot of deserving people who are not as well known because they didn't have that opportunity and they didn't get that press that he got, but who are a lot more talented and are actually part of the culture and not a part of the opportunity. He was a part of the opportunity. … Not taking away his creativity, but to associate him with graffiti when he never rode on a train?…”
Another byproduct of money, of course, is financial security for artists, but only if they show in galleries. Street art can earn an artist a reputation but not always money, since once a piece is removed from its context (on salvaged walls and the like) it ceases being street art and its provenance falls into doubt. Therefore, in order to maintain a career, many in the “BTS” exhibition also have cultivated a healthy studio practice.
“Capitalism has a tendency to put people through the grinder. But if you're smart and you can navigate it, and you weren't greedy in the first place, it actually can give you more freedom,” says Fairey, who learned his craft at Rhode Island School of Design, focusing on printmaking. Today, his artwork decorates alleys and overpasses as it has since the 1990s, but also T-shirts, skateboards, hats, posters and commissioned murals on the sides of buildings — as well as many a protected interior wall space.
While most of the biggest names in the A-list echelons of the street art world are white, “Beyond the Streets” represents a rainbow of artists and styles. Though he hasn't worked on the streets, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami's massive canvas painted on both sides, hung as a cylinder in the middle of the floor, is directly inspired by street art. Patrick Martinez, who started as a wall writer, makes neon art spelling out messages such as “America is for Dreamers” in English, Spanish and Chinese.
What you won't see is a lot of work by women. The curators did prioritize inclusivity, and works from AIKO, Martha Cooper, Jenny Holzer and several others are highlights of the show. But the fact remains that the street-art world is largely male. There are several pieces by the iconic Guerilla Girls, including a billboard out back that comments on the lack of female voices in mainstream cultural institutions, asking, “Tienen que estar desnudas las mujeres para entrar en el Met?” (Does a woman have to be nude to enter the Met?)
On the other side of the billboard, inside the warehouse, the husband-wife duo DabsMyla, who famously designed the whimsical cartoon characters at the 2015 MTV Movie Awards, have installed a trio of colorful pop murals surrounded by hundreds of artificial flowers. From Melbourne, Australia, they moved to L.A. nine years ago and have mostly stayed off the streets, with the exception of sanctioned commissions, for fear of being arrested and jeopardizing their citizenship.
“I was 25 years old, and no one starts painting graffiti when they're 25,” Myla recalls about getting her start with her future husband, Dabs, when the two met as classmates. “These guys were amazing and so super helpful and taught me all of this cool stuff. I just started painting every weekend with all these guys.”
Growing up in Astoria, Queens, Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara) is one of the first female taggers. A year after she started, in 1979, she founded the all-female tagging crew Ladies of the Arts (LOTA), but she gave up working on the streets in 1985. “I grew up,” Fabara explains. “You have to make that decision. I was living with someone who didn't care for me sneaking out with a bunch of handsome young men in the middle of the night. You have to earn a living. You have to put that childish stuff aside.”
She still works as an artist, teaching and exhibiting in galleries as she has since the age of 16. Her husband, a graffiti artist, works as her assistant. “As the decades have gone on, the minorities are no longer doing it as much. And now the majority, 80 percent, are young white males in their 20s from the suburbs somewhere,” Fabara says.
“I think it's because the expense of the medium is beyond most minorities. You have to steal the spray paint and some of the materials. It's beyond their finances. The spray paint is behind cases, behind the counter. It's locked up. It's a great risk. It's just harder for minorities to go through the system. They get locked up for much longer. It's just shifted the demographics and regions. It's not in ghettos as much as it is in suburbs.”
Gastman is proud of the show mostly because it was assembled with the permission of the artists, not acquired or loaned through third parties without their say-so. It's an important gesture of respect to street artists rarely put forth by the art establishment.
“Let's not worry about what the museum world is going to say,” Gastman says with a wave of his hand. “The system used to be you go to school, you get a portfolio, you take slides of that portfolio and you start sending that to galleries with a nice little cover letter that shows the last couple of college shows you have. Maybe a gallery will like you and write you back, maybe they won't. All of a sudden street art becomes more and more popular and you have an instant audience on the street. Everyone's watching, everyone's looking, everyone's talking about it.”
“Beyond the Streets” is on view through Aug. 26 at Werkartz in downtown L.A.; beyondthestreets.com.