Banksy, Political Art and Trump – a Conversation with Fnnch, Pt. 2

This is the second part of a great conversation I had with Fnnch, a street artist out of San Francisco. Read Part 1 here.

Art by Fnnch – @fnnch

GQ: I know your work has been defaced and also removed, given its outdoor nature and where it’s placed. Does it bother you that it’s something temporary?

Fnnch: Well, I think of it like this: if a dog lives 10 years, we think it had a good life. For a human it’s, what, 75 years? For a honey bear, if it lives two weeks on a mailbox, that’s a good life. If it goes away in a day, I’m a bit disappointed.

Now if I get a legal wall and I paint on it and a 12 year old kid decides to tag it, that’s a first amendment issue. That work is completely legal, I’m expressing free speech and someone else is committing a very serious crime against my work. They’re also violating property rights as well as VARA, which protects the rights of artists and keeps their work from being defaced. So, in that case my work shouldn’t be fucked with.

Also most people get into graffiti at the ages of 10-12 and most people get out at 18 when the charge is a felony and it goes on their permanent record. Probably the people tagging my work are around 16-years-old and they don’t like what’s different. In their eyes, I’m the enemy, something to push against. It’s misdirected and immature but every muralist deals with it. I don’t take it personally and I don’t think it represents a wide spread sentiment. The work of every street artist, even the most legit, gets tagged. And the bigger I get, the more my work will be tagged. Shepard Fairey, for instance, all of his pieces in town were messed up.

GQ: Shepard Fairey’s stuff just disappears! I’ve gone looking for pieces that aren’t even a year old and they’re already gone. Peeled off? Painted over? I don’t even know what.

Fnnch: I think part of that, here at least, is because he’s not from San Francisco. So he’s coming here and doing street art in someone else’s territory. Now I think it’s cool because there aren’t many other people out there doing work like his. And he got spots I didn’t even think about getting. I was like “Holy shit! You can see that from the highway! Why didn’t I get that spot?” But in the graffiti culture, you don’t come to someone else’s town and not play by their rules. Fortunately, I don’t have to play by the graffiti rules because I’m not part of their culture.

GQ: You’re in kind of an in between space.

Fnnch: Yes. Street art is it’s own thing wholly independent of graffiti and murals. I think it overlaps more with murals than it does with the graffiti scene.

Art by Fnnch – @fnnch

GQ: I have a few questions about the artistic effects of the election, which is going to be a bit different for you since there’s not a big community of street artists in your area, but have you noticed any changes in your artistic community? In the type of art of that’s being created or even in the ways that people are treating their artistic careers?

Fnnch: So, the first thing is that if you walk through Clarion Alley, it was already pretty political but now it’s almost every mural. And even I decided to use the pussy hat so I put my toe into the political waters. Also, the naked Trump statue went up here during the election and that was cool. But again, from my perspective this is preaching to the choir. If I wanted to make a political difference, I’d go to Florida and put up art since they’re actually voting for the president, unlike us.

GQ: Except that with social media, art isn’t isolated to area where it’s put up. For instance, you have a zillion followers on Instagram so if you post something, it’s worldwide dissemination instantly.

Art by Aniekan Udofia and Liz Brown – Washington DC

Fnnch: Yes, that’s true. And I’ve gotten flack from friends who tell me that I have a platform and I should use it more. But I’m trying to direct it towards certain goals. I think there’s a rich tradition of artists being active in politics and certainly murals fall under that category.

GQ: Along with that, there’s an idea swirling and bubbling right now, that art can make a difference. During the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, artists were very prominently involved in the change that happened. There were musicians writing protest songs and people whose artwork we can now see made a huge impact. Is the same thing true now? Do we have that same power now?

Art by Shepard Fairey – Cincinnati, OH

Fnnch: Ok, so one of the things I think about, and let me choose my words very carefully, is that Trump is not the Vietnam War. I don’t put those two things on even remotely equal footing. And Trump is not lynching black people in the South. We live an incredibly privileged life that we can focus on this clown.

I think part of the reason for Millennial apathy is that our current problems aren’t on the scale of the problems of the 1960s when people were being drafted and sent into battle to be mowed down. I think if we had something on the scale of the Vietnam War, we’d have a lot more people out in the streets. This is not an endorsement of Trump, this is me trying to rank evil.

But I do think that my peers from school and in San Francisco have become a lot more politically active. And we’re excited about it. It’s like we finally get a chance to sink our teeth into something. We’ve been in a long peacetime and we don’t have the issues they had in 1942. Or in the 1960’s.

One of my favorite art pieces was when John Lennon bought all the billboards in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York and covered them with text that said “War is Over! If you want it.” He paid for these out of pocket, as a person with a platform deciding to be active. Shepard Fairey is very politically active, and certainly Banksy probably does the best of anyone. I mean, look at the Walled Off Hotel in Israel and Palestine.

Banksy takes a very global view and what’s going on in America doesn’t even register on his radar as being one of the worst crises of our time.

GQ: No, obviously not. But you could argue that the populist revolution is worldwide and Trump’s election is definitely a part of that.

Fnnch: Yes, I’m disturbed by the amount of nationalism that’s starting to rear it’s ugly head. But ultimately, who are John Lennon and Bob Dylan except people with platforms? Anyone with a platform can make a difference. And art certainly has a more visceral appeal to it than just words.

Art by Banksy – New Orleans, LA

GQ: I find that as I interview street artists, one of the things that everybody says is that they want to create pieces of art that cause a reaction and a discussion. Something that changes the viewer. Banksy’s art is directly political with a definite point of view but he has a really light touch.

Fnnch: Yes, he’s also very funny. Which helps. Stand up comedians can talk about anything. They’re the only people in society who can talk about issues of race and gender in a completely open way. It’s the same for Banksy with politics.

GQ: I think that’s true. Who else would paint the walls of a hotel on the border of Israel and Palestine? That kind of work is not for the faint of heart.

Fnnch: I think his goal is to get 100,000 people to go into Palestine to see his hotel.

GQ: Which would change everything about the economics and visibility of the region. Perhaps even the politics.

Fnnch: Right? I mean how many street vendors there are going to get a lot more money? How many restaurants? How many more hotels? It raises the whole community. If I were in Israel, I’d want to cross the wall to see his hotel. I respect his work immensely.

GQ: As do I. And we’ve come full circle so I only have one more question for you. What’s next? What are you working on?

Fnnch: A lot of things, actually. My most immediate project is that I’m going to repaint the wall where I have the turtle mural.

Art by Fnnch – Fnnch.com

It’s gotten tagged on and off and I used to defend it but at some point I got exhausted, mainly because I made a mistake where I tried to put up an anti-graffiti coating but I did it wrong. And so when I would paint roll the wall to buff out graffiti, that part would look different. And I like my pieces to look really nice and crisp and clean. Eventually it just disheartened me to the point where I didn’t see any option but to repaint the whole thing. This time I’ll protect it in a fashion that’s more effective. I’m also going to do it as a collaboration with an artist who was born and raised in the Mission.

It’s only been since 2015 that I’ve done this seriously and tried to make a real go of it. And only in the last 6 months have I thought I could make a living at making art. It’s very project based. I try to pick the project that’s most impactful and execute it. I’ve got a couple exciting things in the works but I try not to talk about things too far out because for every 10 things that seem really exciting, maybe only one happens. People reach out to me, it seems like a done deal but then for whatever reason it falls through. But I’m playing around with different ways to do fine art and different ways to stencil and trying to have fun with it. Just trying to make people’s lives better.

Art by Fnnch – Fnnch.com

GQ: And trying to change the law. Seriously, I wish you all the luck with that.

Fnnch: Yeah, if the culture goes first, the law will follow. It’s ridiculous to me that graffiti with damages over $400 should be considered on par with rape or murder. It’s a three strike offense just like those crimes. And that’s just wrong. I honestly don’t think I’ll change the law. But maybe we can reach a point where the courts won’t enforce the law.

I mean I don’t like graffiti and I don’t want it in my city. Bombing in particular. I think people wantonly destroying private property and causing a large financial burden on store owners is wrong.

But the way you address the graffiti problem is not with a big stick, putting people in jail for 30 years. Instead go the opposite way, encourage people to make art and give them a space to do it. Make it more legal, not less legal.

GQ: I agree. And maybe you’ll get private funding. It would help to have a big company in your corner. Zappos helped change downtown Las Vegas and Dr. Ian Wilson and Wall/Therapy changed Rochester. It changes the nature of the conversation to have a big public figure support you.

Fnnch: Agreed.

GQ: Thank you so much for talking to me!

Fnnch: Yes, of course.

All the pictures of Fnnch’s art reproduced in this piece were taken from his website and Instagram account with his permission. Check out Fnnch’s work here and follow him on Instagram.

Art by Fnnch – @fnnch

Street Art vs. Graffiti – A Conversation with Fnnch, Pt 1

In my continuing desire to find out how artists around the world are handling the street art revolution and if Trump’s election has affected their choices, Fnnch and I had a long chat about San Francisco.

Fnnch and his honey bear – fnnch.com

Gypsy Queen: Tell me about your name. You pronounce it “Finch,” like the bird? How did you come up with that?

Fnnch: Yes, like the bird. Finch was my nickname in middle school so that was part of the motivation. And my mother’s family makes bird-related artwork. My grandfather carved wooden birds, my aunt made bird related dioramas and things like that. It was a theme that was around since I was a kid. I like the nature aspect of it and it just seemed to be a good name.

GQ: Do you use birds in your artwork?

Fnnch: I do actually. My very first piece was a swan and the second piece was a penguin. And the third was a cardinal, I believe. The only one I painted outdoors was the penguin, which I painted about 2 years ago and it’s still up. At some point I’d like to paint the other birds outside. It’s a theme that I like and I’d like to paint more but it just hasn’t come up. There are a lot of things I’d like to paint more of but I don’t necessarily get that option.

Big Penguin – Art by Fnnch, fnnch.com

GQ: How did you get into graffiti? Though I don’t know if that’s what you call it.

Fnnch: I never use the “G-word,” as it relates to the work that I do. I consider what I do to be street art, which I define as “uncommissioned public artwork.”

For me a mural is commissioned public artwork. Graffiti is uncommissioned non-artwork and advertising and things of that nature are commissioned non-artworks. Now of course these lines are blurry because “what is art?” I define art as anything that an artist says is art and I define an artist as anyone who points at themselves and calls themselves an artist.

To me it’s a matter of intention. I’m trying to do something the general populace will like. That is my goal. The graffiti culture is an aesthetic based on word forms and what I do is quite different in style and intention.

GQ: I definitely think of graffiti as something that is word and font based. Though I went to a museum in New Orleans where I saw an exhibit on a graffiti crewe called Top Mob.

It was an interesting analysis of what makes graffiti an art form with a lot of technical information about brush strokes and edge work and that kind of thing, all of which are very artistic qualities. But as a category in my mind, if it’s a word without any sort of graphic elements around it, then it falls into the graffiti category.

Fnnch: So, there’s a subset of graffiti called character graffiti, which was utilized even back in the 80s when people would draw characters next to their letters. Some people have abandoned all the letters. And it’s actually my favorite kind of graffiti. There’s a guy here called Zamar who paints squid and there’s a whole crew called Greater than or Equal To. Sad Cloud paints a cloud and Minx paints a mouse with wings, Cyclops paints Cyclops and Paper Crane paints cranes and they all consider themselves to be part of the graffiti culture. They do some tagging with letters, Zamar in particular, though I’m not sure I’ve seen a Sad Cloud tag besides his character.

GQ: So yes, graffiti has a broader definition than it used to have. I agree with that.

Fnnch: But yes, it’s hard to define because it’s like defining what’s Jewish, which is a race, a culture and a religion. It’s the same with graffiti. It’s a style, a culture and it’s a lifestyle. Plus there’s a specific legal definition, which is a very important line. Graffiti with damages of over $400 is a felony in California. So the courts determine in part what is and is not graffiti. It’s complicated and I’m certainly not an expert but I am interfacing with that community in positive and negative ways.

Anyway I got into street art by moving to San Francisco in 2011 and I just didn’t see any new street art coming up. I’m not sure that at that particular moment there were more than 1-2 people active. And now it’s not much better. Maybe 2-3 people.

GQ: Really?! It seems like San Fran is a funky artistic city that would embrace that sort of work.

Fnnch: I think the city does embrace that sort of work. It’s just that there aren’t artists here anymore. There have been waves of people who have come through this city but of the artists in the first Mission School, none are active outdoors anymore. The times change and artists get displaced. There is a mural scene that is still going somewhat strong and if I had to guess I would say there are 20 artists out there actively painting, maybe 1 or more per year. But there are few people out there that are doing art that is illegal. I think the godfather of San Francisco street art is Jeremy Novy.

GQ: The sidewalk koi fish?

Art by Jeremy Novy – New Orleans, LA

Fnnch: Yes, the koi. But by the time I got here, Novy had moved out of town. And there’s a guy named Todd Hanson but he’s not as active these days. So, for me I was excited about Bansky and other artists on line and I didn’t see that much in San Francisco. So I decided to be the change I wanted to see in the world.

GQ: You saw a void and stepped into it.

Fnnch: Exactly. I started small in 2013 and I think I made 10 pieces. Then about 25 pieces in 2014 and by 2015 I think I made 100 or more. I got serious about it and I’ve been serious about it ever since.

GQ: How did you pick the honeybear as your subject?

Fnnch: it’s something that makes me happy. So I painted it. And lo and behold it made a lot of other people happy too. I think it’s a universal symbol of happiness. It’s got nostalgia, it’s got desire because it contained sugar, which is something we deeply wanted as kids, and it’s an all around positive image.

Run DMC Bear – Art by Fnnch, fnnch.com

I painted the first one on a whim, like I paint most things, but then I started to paint more conscientiously on the mailboxes of the Mission in 2015, which were super tagged and getting buffed out every two weeks. I did maybe 100 of them. There’s a lot of fear around graffiti, people think it’s gang related, but nothing in the Mission is gang related, as far as I can tell. But this perception is out there and it’s very wide spread so I wanted to do something so incredibly innocent that it couldn’t possibly be gang related. It’s not like the Sharks and the Jets are out there at night, snapping their fingers and painting honey bears. It doesn’t make any sense.

GQ: So you wanted something non-threatening. And non-political. A moment of brightness.

Fnnch: Yeah exactly. And to show people that we don’t need to give up our mailboxes to an aesthetic that we don’t like. The vast majority of the populace doesn’t like tagging. But we can do so much more than that. There’s a program to put murals on utility boxes in Sacramento and Hayward and San Jose.

But in San Francisco there have been attempts at that program that have failed. So we need to change people’s mind about this. To view these spaces as canvases. I thought the honey bear was a good ambassador for that vision.

Utility box in Sacramento, CA

GQ: Such a good word, “ambassador.” Are these programs something people can vote on, to change the law? Is that what it would require? Or is it a program a private company is trying to institute to turn these boxes into murals?

Fnnch: I’m not exactly sure. I do know that the Castro Community Benefit District made an attempt to get murals on their boxes and the MTA turned them down. The boxes are difficult because they fall under multiple jurisdictions. I’ve been trying to work with the BART to get art in there and I’ve successfully worked with Pacific Gas and Electric to get art on some of their buildings. I’m playing the politics game so I can get public support behind this idea.

Unfortunately, someone at the MTA decided fun isn’t allowed and they haven’t been converted to the idea of street art. But anything that the populace wants enough, they can get it done. We change the hearts and minds first, and then we’ve got the support.

GQ: Yeah, it’s a cultural thing. Definitely. Having been in many cities with a lot of street art, it seems like it’s usually privately funded at the beginning. An organization brings artists in and they base it around a festival or renovation of a neighborhood. Once there are some art pieces, then there can be more. But the initial fight to get the door open so artists can come paint, the murals will stay up and it’s not considered a blight on society, that door is really difficult to open it seems.

Fnnch: So I was up in Wynwood, Miami 1-2 years ago and not only did art galleries and restaurants have art on them, so did the banks and the storage facilities. It was a culture of participation where all the business owners thought it was really cool and wanted to be a part of it. That is not the case in San Francisco. I’ve walked in places and asked to paint on their walls and gotten responses as bad as people who won’t even talk to me. They just shake their head as I talk to them and I eventually leave.

GQ: I find that so short sighted. In my experience, street art draws foot traffic and visitors and centers the neighborhood around something beautiful. Putting a big mural on the side of a building increases the value of the neighborhood, not only to people who live there but to visitors who want to use it as a destination to see something amazing and picture-worthy.

Fnnch: This seems incredibly obvious to me.

Honey Bear Show – Art by Fnnch, fnnch.com

GQ: So just recently there was a graffiti artist named Hotboxmuni  who, when asked about you and your art, said “Graffiti isn’t supposed to be logical and apologetic. Police are killing people and folks are losing their homes. Honey bears are irrelevant [when] there’s a class war out here.” What do you think about that?

Fnnch: I think I am fighting the class war directly. The medium here is the message. By painting something on a mailbox, I am risking felony charges in an attempt to bring art to the masses instead of putting it in an art museum. That is directly addressing class issues.

Art is not for some select elite of hoity toity rich people. That is not what I believe. I believe that art is for everybody. And more than anyone else in San Francisco at this moment, I am attempting to bring art to everyone.

Because of that, I don’t want divisive messages to jeopardize that goal. There are only so many battles I can fight. If I’m trying to fight a very political battle to open up public and private space to art by lobbying institutions directly and by trying to change the general sentiment of the people, I can’t go and paint public penises. It’s going to jeopardize my goals.

Part of the reason I do street art is to fulfill an obligation. I want 50% or more of people to think that my art is additive. If I pick a message that at least 50% people won’t like, I’m already on my back foot. If one more person decides they don’t like it, I’ve already failed at my goal. So I don’t pick the truly divisive issues.

However, there is piece I did recently where I put a pink pussy hat on a honeybear.

Pussy Hat Honey Bear – Art by Fnnch

And I thought about that for a while because that’s a statement that’s getting into mainstream politics. But in San Francisco, this is not a divisive political statement. For instance, this is not the city to bash on Trump. His support here is at about 25%, if I were to guess. This isn’t the conflict zone where that kind of artistic statement will change opinions and there’s already a very masturbatory proclivity of artists to make political statements that everyone agrees with.

But the reason I like the pink pussy hat is because I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind. I’m standing in solidarity with San Francisco. I’m saying that if you’re out there and you’re part of Uber and you feel like you’re getting harassed, or if you’re a woman getting paid 85 cents to the dollar the man next to you is making, then I want to shine a light on you. I want to say “Hey, I hear you. I see the problem.” I’m drawing some attention so you don’t feel alone. In the same way that if you see a honey bear on a mailbox, you know that someone is out there risking their own safety and wellbeing to bring you something beautiful.

California Poppies – Art by Fnnch

Part 2 of this conversation will go up later this week.

All pieces of Fnnch’s artwork in this piece are used with his permission.

Find Fnnch online and follow him on Instagram.

A Conversation with Kelsey Montague about #WhatLiftsYou

Taylor Swift in front of Kelsey Montague Wings – @taylorswift

Kelsey Montague toiled in the artistic trenches for years before this moment. In an interview for Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Kelsey spoke about rejections from art gallery after art gallery and how she finally decided to create her own artistic path. Like many of us, she avidly followed the dark political work of artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey but Kelsey wanted to make her own statement, something positive and uplifting.

Kelsey painted her first set of wings on a New York City corner in Nolita and added the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou. Taylor Swift took the above picture and posted it to her Instagram account. A day later people stood in lines down the block to take their own winged pictures. Just like that, Kelsey Montague was on the map. And while obviously Taylor Swift has massive influence and social media frenzies create viral sensations, I like to think it’s also an instance of artists reaching out and helping each other up.

Because now Kelsey and her wings are a worldwide phenomenon.

Art by Kelsey Montague – Nashville, TN

I caught up with Kelsey a few weeks ago to ask her some questions.

Gypsy Queen: You’ve spoken before about your public street murals and how your wings were inspired in part by your grandfather’s artwork and his connection to birds. But how did you come up with the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou?

Kelsey Montague: I wanted to give people the opportunity to reflect on what is most important to them and that is how the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou was born. I also wanted to encourage people to post something positive on social media. There is an epidemic of cyber bullying online and I wanted my work to counter that.

GQ: Knowing that your public street art could disappear over time, does it matter to you that what you create won’t survive?

KM: I want it to survive long enough that it makes an impact in the community but I also kind of like the transient nature of street art. I think the fact it will eventually disappear gives it a kind of specialness.

Art by Kelsey Montague – San Diego, CA

 

GQ: Your #WhatLiftsYou interactive wings are very inspirational in a time that feels very emotionally charged, politically and socially. Do you feel that street art has the power to make positive changes right now, even in the face of all this turmoil?

KM: Absolutely. Again I think that street art should get us to ask important questions of ourselves and our world. What Lifts You really is about constantly reflecting on what is truly important in your life and escaping, for a moment, the negativity that surrounds us.

GQ: You’ve created a new hashtag, #WhatUnitesUs. What kind of subject matter do you plan to use for these murals?

KM: I want to focus on love as a superpower. My first #WhatUnitesUs mural features hearts coming from a person’s hands. I want people to reflect on our similarities instead of our differences and our power to spread love.

GQ: Did Trump’s election have an effect on your art? Or your artistic choices?

KM: I launched the #WhatUnitesUs campaign to give people a chance to reflect on our similarities instead of our differences, in response to such a divisive election.

Art by Kelsey Montague – San Diego, CA

GQ: Have you noticed a change in the art community since the election?

KM: I think the street art movement has continued to grow and gain steam in the wake of the election. I think that communities are even more open to street art because the need for beauty and comfort in our communities is so strong right now!

GQ: If you could send a message to the nation right now, what would it be?

KM: Let’s unite around our similarities, instead of fighting about our differences.

GQ: What’s next for you?

KM: I’m working on continuing to spread the #WhatUnitesUs and the #WhatLiftsYou message around the world this year! I’m also working on some cool projects and interesting products.

Thank you so much for your time, Kelsey!

If you’re want to track down Kelsey’s murals you can see a list here on her website. You can also follow her on Instagram.

If you’re in India, South Africa, Los Angeles, Miami or San Francisco, Kelsey will be coming to town to paint murals somewhere near you. Just look for the wings!

Art by Kelsey Montague – Nashville, TN

Nick Walker and the Problem of Vandalism

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Had you asked me two months ago to pick an American city with a thriving arts community, I never would have picked Indianapolis.

In fact, if you’d asked me for my general impressions of Indiana I would have said “Midwest, corn… something about cars?” Maybe also sports??? The Pacers ring a bell. Art would never have crossed my mind, but that’s why the company CityWay exists —to change our minds about what Indianapolis has to offer.

Much like WALL/THERAPY in Rochester, NY, CityWay in Indianapolis uses art and charity to bring diverse communities together. Once a year it hosts IndyDoDay, a day where they to encourage the people of Indianapolis to get out and get involved in a project in their neighborhood so they can “get to know their neighbors, take ownership of their neighborhoods, and take care of one another.” They also partner with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, commissioning artists and bringing art to public spaces.

CityWay worked with The Alexander, a hotel in downtown Indianapolis, to curate the hotel’s art collection. They filled the hotel with the kind of edgy-but-tasteful contemporary art pieces that edgy-but-tasteful people adore and put together a gorgeous lobby bar designed by Jorge Pardo.

All of the hotel art was well received but then they invited the British artist Nick Walker to tag the hotel’s parking garage. For some reason, this was a bridge too far.

Now admittedly, it’s unusual to pay an artist lots of money to intentionally create a space that looks graffitied.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

However, this is what Nick Walker does. He came up in the same British graffiti movement as Banksy, the most (in)famous graffiti artist there ever was. Walker has the same irreverent approach with his stencils, although his work is much less political than Banksy.

Walker’s main character is a formally dressed bowler hat-wearing character called Vandal. And most of Walker’s murals focus around the act of creating art.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Here’s the Vandal with his paint can

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

And his paint dusting plane

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this chica with her spray paint missiles

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

And I love it. I love the artwork, the themes, the color scheme, and that it’s in a parking garage next to a high end hotel. It’s an unusual place to put commissioned artwork and moreover, it’s a clever way to put the gallery artist crowd and the street art appreciators in proximity and give them exposure to each other’s art.

Except not everyone agrees with me. I found the public response puzzling, to say the least.

In an article I can only describe as snarky, Katherine Brooks, the senior arts & culture editor for the Huffington Post, described Walker as “Banksy-esque,”  which no one would argue considering they were influenced by the same graffiti school. Despite that connection, somehow she makes it sound like Walker is simply an imitator. And then Brooks calls Walker’s work “lowbrow basement art.”

Oh snap!

This article in the Indy alternative newspaper NUVO is generally more positive, but also notes the irony of an highly-paid street artist whose main character is a Vandal “co-opting [the] graffiti culture.”

And that seems more to the point, doesn’t it?

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

However, Walker isn’t coopting the graffiti culture, he is a graffiti artist. Back in the 80’s he painted buildings illegally, just like all the other graffiti artists of that era. Walker’s work still references street art politics and vandalism and he still paints on public buildings but now he’s also a big deal art guy selling prints and paintings for thousands of dollars and he gets invited to tag up shi-shi hotel parking garages. Apparently that’s not ok? Apparently he’s only allowed to be an illegal vandalizing graffiti artist wherein he can paint whatever he wants or he’s allowed to be a big deal gallery artist but then he has to change his style and subject matter to suit the venue.

Walker is clearly aware that his artwork gets people’s knickers in a twist. He says:

“At the end of the day, ‘vandal’ is a taboo word…It’s a word everyone associates with graffiti. Everyone says if you paint graffiti it’s vandalism, or they used to before it became more of an acceptable art form.”

Therein lies the crux of the dilemma, right?

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Graffiti used to be considered vandalism. It was cool because it was an art form created by outsiders and rebels and revolutionaries who flouted the law.

Graffiti artists were braver and crazier than the rest of us and their work was even more precious and fleeting because of the government’s power to eradicate it immediately and jail the artist. Anyone who believed in their art form strongly enough to risk imprisonment was inspiring.

But now… it’s different. Today street artists are invited to paint. They’re paid and often paid well, and their work is coveted by private collectors. Formerly repudiated artists now show their work in posh galleries and museums and their work is chiseled off of public walls and sold at auction for a zillion dollars.

So where does that leave us?

Is street art still a form of rebellious expression?

Is graffiti still outsider art if it’s supported by big companies and museums?

And more importantly, if street art no longer is outsider art, does it lose its impact?

I don’t have answers for these questions. Yet.

However, hear this: Nick Walker worked long and hard to get here and he outlasted thousands of other graffiti artists in the process. Moreover, his artwork is badass and if people pay him a zillion dollars for it, then good on him.

We should all be so lucky.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Tigers, Trump and the Internet – A Conversation with Dustin Spagnola

Art by Dustin Spagnola and Ishmael – Detroit, MI

I first saw Dustin Spagnola’s work in the Grand River Creative Corridor of Detroit. Ever since Trump was elected in November, I’ve been increasingly interested in the reactions of the artistic community to our newly charged political and social atmosphere. I reached out to Dustin Spagnola to get his thoughts on the current climate and he took some time out to talk to me.

The conversation below has been edited for length.

Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

3/11/17

Gypsy Queen: It seems that the piece that you’re best known for is the mural of Bush holding the mask of Obama. And then I saw different one you made of Hitler holding a mask of Trump. A reviewer said these two pieces look like “old boss same as the new boss.” Is that fair?

Dustin Spagnola: Yep.

GQ: And in that case, what’s the point if all we’re doing is repeating ourselves?

Spagnola: That’s a really good question. I mean, I don’t know. I can tell you about those images, which might be an easier way to understand what I think about that kind of stuff.

GQ: Yes, please.

Spagnola: So those images are based off a piece of poster art created in 1968 in Paris, France during the student uprising at the Sorbonne. The students took over their art department and printing room and they made a bunch of political art and someone made a print that was an image of Hitler holding a mask of de Gaulle, the French president.

When Obama got elected, I decided to make an image of Bush holding an Obama mask, which was really signifying “same shit, different day” but also, I felt it was a much softer critique of the system than comparing the president to Hitler, whom we universally view not as a person but as a monster.

I was really surprised at the kick-back that got because a lot of people were really upset about it. And I voted for Obama twice. Obama was a president who did a lot of good things and a lot of bad things and he was a leftist and a talking head, a visionary. And there’s also a cult of personality attached to him. So a lot of people got really upset about me comparing Obama to Bush, which I found very interesting personally. I feel that as a free thinker and someone who tries to have an open mind about things, comparing one president to the next is not exactly a big jump, to say the least. It’s kind of a logical linear progression.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

So when Trump got elected, a bunch of people around me were obviously very upset and I thought “Well, it’s a great time to make some political art”, which is one of the things that I really love to do. So I decided to just recreate the poster that I based the Bush Obama image on. I replaced de Gaulle’s face with Trump’s face and I literally used the exact original image of Hitler to pay homage to that original image.

Art by Atelier Populaire (left) and Dustin Spagnola (right)

And maybe to answer your bigger question about what the artists think, I have to say that most artists are leftists, and a lot of them are leftists who actually fall very far on the left end of the spectrum, like me and a lot of people that I know who are really more like radicals or anarchists. And we look at the two party system and it looks like business as usual and we think “Well this shit doesn’t work for anyone, except for the people in charge.” I think most of the population doesn’t really have as extreme or radical of views as we do but I think that’s the root of our problem. I think there’s a hierarchy in place that is very very unfair, to say the least.

GQ: So when you paint something that’s very pointedly political, especially when you’re recreating something or paying homage to it, are you looking for a particular reaction? Or just a reaction? In your ideal world, what do people do when they see your artwork?

Spagnola: I can’t really speak for anyone else but for me it’s about contributing to a dialogue and making images that resonate with people. We live in the United States and I’m allowed to think whatever way I want to and I’m allowed to say whatever I want and I’m allowed to paint pictures of whatever I want. For me the conversation that I’m interested in having is just throwing that shit out there and letting other people talk about it.

Sometimes I make things that aren’t political and I hope that those things affect people also. I hope they make people feel a certain way, that it makes someone’s day better or gives them an opportunity to stop for a moment and take a picture. Or maybe it inspires someone to paint something of their own.

I would hope that on some level the images spur conversation and dialogue between people that I don’t know. That I’ll never even meet.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

GQ: You paint street art, which I use as a very broad umbrella term for painted public art outside, but then you also show in galleries and museums and you have fine art canvases for sale. Do you prefer one mode of expression to another?

Spagnola: It’s a good thing to have art, whether it’s on a canvas or on a wall. And for me, I enjoy traveling and I like painting pictures and murals, I like seeing murals, I enjoy street art and graffiti. But I also really enjoy canvases and galleries and museums. I like showing in them and I feel like they’re kinda two sides of the same coin. Galleries and museums are certainly not the be-all-end-all of the art world. I think in a lot of ways street art and the internet surpass them.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

Street art fits in a different context and reaches more people and people engage with it differently. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to lead a life style where I can choose to get in my vehicle and go to another state and paint a wall and meet people there who paint or organize events around painting. I’ve personally really been welcomed into a lot of communities that I don’t think I would have met otherwise and I’ve made great friends. And there’s something really awesome about that.

GQ: I feel that the internet has had a lot to do with the rise of what I call the street art revolution, which is the current outpouring of public painted art everywhere all over the world, because the internet has extended the reach of the average person. For instance, I can see things in Moscow without ever going there.

Spagnola: Right. The internet makes everything more accessible to the common viewer. But remember that graffiti and murals and street art all existed prior to the internet. And people have been fans of it for a long time, even pre-internet. But with the rise of the internet and cell phones that are computers with cameras in your pocket, now people can engage in and regurgitate “the spectacle”, as Guy Debord would say.

We see it and we want to understand it, and we want to be a part of it and interact with it but then really we just take a picture of it and put it on Instagram.

It makes us feel like we’re doing something because we get positive feed back from our peers. And that’s cool. But it’s like I was saying before, I hope that one of the other things that happens is that people talk. That they consider the images and then decide to make their own.

Art by Dustin Spagnola and Ishmael – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

GQ: When you’ve been invited to paint, have you ever had people put parameters on your subject matter?

Spagnola: All the time. People love to say “no sex, no violence, no politics.” All the time.

GQ: Do you abide by that?

Spagnola: Yeah, usually. That’s why a lot of my public work isn’t political. I painted a lot of tigers because I was trying to find a subject that was interesting to me. And tigers are beautiful and interesting but I probably would have been painting pictures of cops shooting black people or something. Because that’s the reality.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

GQ: When did you get started painting publicly?

Spagnola: Maybe around 2009 or 2011? I went down to Miami to do a gallery show, and I saw a lot of murals and that got me excited about painting murals. Just seeing the scale that people were working on. You can paint things that are 30’ high and 60’ wide and immerse the viewer and it really changes the experience of the viewer. Because if it were a 2’ x 4’ painting, it might be a really nice painting but it’s just not going to do the same thing.

GQ: Like the difference between seeing a painting in a museum and seeing a replica in a book. Even if the replica is perfect, the scale makes all the difference.

Spagnola: yeah, scale is really important.

GQ: You use your real name, Dustin Spagnola, to tag your street art murals. Have you ever felt you needed anonymity or wanted to choose a name that wasn’t your name?

Spagnola: No. I thought about it but it just seemed kind of fake to me. I’m not a graffiti kid and that’s what graffiti kids do. I’m not out breaking the law. I don’t like cops so I give them no reasons to talk to me. In general, I paint in spots where I have permission. And I know it’s not romantic or cool in the eyes of a lot of people who enjoy graffiti but that’s pretty ok. I’m just a normal person who is realistic about shit.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

GQ: You live in Asheville NC. Is there a good-sized artistic community there?

Spagnola: Oh yes. Most people here are artists, of different stripes, and this town is rapidly gentrifying. There are a lot of people moving here who aren’t artists and property values changing drastically. But this community has largely been shaped by the people who are artists. It’s a good place to paint. You can get a wall here pretty easily if you want.

GQ: What’s next for you?

Spagnola: I’m in the middle of learning to make films right now. I’m actually working on a short film at the moment and I’m going out to do some filming next week. Not that I’m giving anything else up but I’m learning a new medium. Because I want to.

Thanks so much for talking to me, Dustin. It was a pleasure and you gave me some interesting things to think about.

If you would like to know more about Dustin Spagnola and his work, you can find him on his website and follow him on Instagram.

Follow Your Heart – Dustin Spagnola, http://www.dustinspagnola.com

Unless otherwise noted, all the pictures used in this piece were borrowed from Dustin Spagnola’s website with his permission.

WALL/THERAPY in Rochester, NY

Art by Icy and Sot – Rochester, NY

Believing in the healing power of pictures, Dr. Ian Wilson, a radiologist and former graffiti artist from Brooklyn, in 2011 initiated the WALL/THERAPY project in Rochester, NY.

“The idea behind the project last year was to inspire the youth in the community to believe in something, anything,” Wilson said in a 2012 interview with Rochester’s City Newspaper “Because so many really don’t have any belief in anything, whether it’s the value of their own life, or their future….I wanted to produce something that spoke to them specifically, to charge them to believe in something.”

Art by Omen – Rochester, NY

Untitled (Chained Eagle) by Liqen – Rochester, NY

An international, all-star group of artists accepted Wilson’s invitation to come paint, and all of the buildings involved in the WALL/THERAPY project donated their walls. The public reception was so positive that the WALL/THERAPY project has grown every year since 2011, bringing over 100 murals to this modest sized city.

Fight Club by Conor Harrington – Rochester, NY

Art by Joe Guy Allard and Matthew Roberts – Rochester, NY

And then it actually worked.

In a 2015 In-Training article depicting some of the social challenges unique to Rochester, editor-in-chief Ria Pal says, “The murals proved to be an organic way to desegregate the city, bring new customers to small businesses, create dialogue, encourage residents from different areas to take pride in their neighborhoods and rediscover the city… No one would call WALL\THERAPY a panacea, but it does seem to be one successful way to mobilize once-stagnant neighborhoods and foster stewardship.”

Art by Mr PRVRT – Rochester, NY

 

“Color creates energy, energy creates inspiration, inspiration creates change.”

– WALL/THERAPY

 

While the public art is stunning, the WALL/THERAPY project goes deeper than the surface of the beautiful murals themselves. Wilson partnered the artistic endeavor with his other business—the Synthesis Collaborative, a company dedicated to providing radiology services and equipment to the developing world.

Got that?

One lone guy from Brooklyn simultaneously is providing colorful inspiration to kids and communities in Rochester, stimulating imaginations, and providing them with hope and a sense of what’s possible, while he also facilitates X-ray images of sick people in the developing world to help provide diagnostics, health, hope, and thus a longer life.

By this equation one could say pictures + hope = possibility.

Sleeping Bears by ROA – Rochester, NY

I was born white and English-speaking in America. I have a college education and a good job and I see a lot of art, so I thought I knew what I was looking at. But after Rochester and my experience reading, researching and experiencing WALL/THERAPY, I’ll never look at public art in the same way again.

Where I once simply saw beautiful pictures, I now always will wonder about the kids walking by these murals and dreaming of a better lives, lives they always will be able to link back to a mural and their first artistic taste of a wider world, beyond the limits of their own neighborhood.

Rhapsody by Faith47 – Rochester, NY

The Street Art Revolution

Art by Guido Van Helten - Reykjavik, Iceland

Art by Guido Van Helten – Reykjavik, Iceland

Not long ago I had dinner with close college friends so we could bemoan the election results. All my friends were sure we were in for four years of bullshit, but I shared an idea that only recently had occurred to me:

What if the next four years also brings an explosion of incredible art?

As protest. As a means of speaking truth to power. As a vehicle for rage and outrage, solidarity and organizing, grief and hope and persistence.

Historically art has thrived under oppression. When artists have to scrape and work and struggle, art acquires depth and context. It becomes a sounding board for expression that becomes urgent and relevant. Give artists something to fight for or against—boundaries to exceed, trespass, or transgress—and we get better art.

For the last nine years, I’ve been working as a wardrobe supervisor on tour with Broadway musicals. I’m on the road 52 weeks a year and I don’t have a home. I live in hotel rooms and when I’m not working, I travel for fun.

For the first couple years of my touring life, I was a tourist. I made an effort to visit all the must-see places in every city. I ate at the hot restaurants and experienced the tourist attractions that made each city unique. This is “been there, done that” traveling—experiencing a city as a microcosm.

But nearly a decade on, I’m looking for a different kind of traveling. I want to see the world in a broader context. I want to find the things that unite us, particularly now when my home country feels so fractured, practically pulsating with outrage.

The great Paul Bowles says this: “I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see and one should know as much about it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”

Untethered, perpetually homeless and belonging nowhere grants me an unusual perspective. I see a lot of the world. More than most people. And because of that, I notice and pay attention to things that most locals no longer see.

For the last two years I’ve been noticing, documenting, and contemplating the rise of street art across the nation and around the world. In every city I visit, I see huge, beautiful murals on public buildings, often funded by governments and massive corporations.

Art by Charley Harper - Cincinnati, OH

Art by Charley Harper – Cincinnati, OH

It feels like, rather suddenly, everywhere I look there are street art expos and fairs and celebrations and paintings and other forms of street art such as wheat paste, stencils, and stickers. It’s as if there were a cultural earthquake and myriad new public works of art are the aftershocks.

I grew up in an age when public (spray) painted art was called “graffiti”—a dirty word. Graffiti was found on buildings in “dangerous” neighborhoods, signifying gang territory. Municipal governments bonded together, seemingly unified in their hatred of graffiti art and its artists, labeling them vandals and passing legislation aimed at eliminating such defiant forms of artistic public expression.

These days, however, I see street artists everywhere expressing themselves publicly in staggeringly beautiful, powerful ways. And cities throughout the world are protecting, promoting, and funding their efforts, turning public, urban art into a boon rather than a bane.

Street art is ephemeral. It’s exposed to the elements and it fades and chips. People paint over it and build things that block it or demolish the buildings where the art lives. I love the transient aspect of this art form. For all the times that street art is a public roar of defiance and a statement of intent, it’s also quite delicate and disappears quickly.

Wheat paste Stick-Up - Chicago, IL

Wheat paste Stick-Up – Chicago, IL

I’m in a different city every week, and I’ve realized of late what an unusual lens this street art revolution affords me. Every city promotes different kinds of art and displays that art in a unique way. Some of the artwork is explicitly political in nature and some of it is utterly mystifying, yet each city contains street art treasures that say much about the spirit of the people who live there. In all my years of travel, street art is one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever discovered to experience a city.

Here’s an important caveat: I am never on the crest of the wave when it comes to trends or trendspotting. I’m late to every party in life and in the virtual world, so I am very aware that the artistic revolution I perceive has been happening for much longer than I’ve realized.

But I see it now.

It’s February and we’re more than a month into a new presidential administration and a commander-in-chief nobody knows how to handle. No one knows how much to protest and how much to sit tight and wait. And yet, there are many artists who have made up their minds, decided what to say and how to say it and art is exploding.

Everywhere.

Paul Bowles also says, “Before there can be change there must be discontent.”

Well, we’ve arrived. I can’t remember an age of discontent quite like this one. But with it has come change. Massive colorful powerful artistic change.

I want to explore these works of street art, document them, think about them, and remember them for posterity. I want to be a repository for this artistic roar and watch the echoes change the world long after the edifices on which they were created have crumbled and the artwork itself physically has disappeared.

Street art is changing the world as we know it. I’m going to start writing about the revolution here.

More to come.

Art by Natalia Rak - Providence, RI

Art by Natalia Rak – Providence, RI