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Art from the Outside In
Local Graffiti artists bring visual vibrancy to city neighborhoods—and, reflecting a national trend are starting to show their work in museums and galleries

By John Brodeur
Art by Stain
Photos by John Whipple

 

At first glance, Stain looks like a pretty normal guy. He works for a media company, where he is able to put his design and printing expertise to work. His work has shown in a number of prestigious galleries. He’s sought after by bands to do design work for posters or new CD releases. And yet he requested that we not use his real name for this story because he has a certain lifelong hobby that some (read: law enforcement) would consider illegal: graffiti.

“I started doing graffiti when I was about 11 years old—right around 1984—when the movie Beat Street came out,” says Stain. “People in my neighborhood were breakdancing, and that was kind of popular, but the graffiti thing hadn’t caught on yet where I was living.

“A lot of the kids I grew up with were into graffiti. We would all paint together and things like that. Over time, I stuck with it because it wasn’t just something to do anymore. It became a form of art therapy for me to paint—either inside or outside, on canvas or wood or whatever, on a train or on a wall. It became a form of self-expression and therapy, not just something you did for fun.”

Graffiti, also called street art, has become as much a part of the urban landscape as a skyscraper or a one-way street. Since the late ’60s, graffiti artists have been using the streets as a forum for expression, both personal and political. In the early 1980s, when graffiti became popular in mainstream culture through its association with the hiphop movement, a whole generation of artists was born.

While the faces and places may have changed over the years, what drives street artists and taggers—the traditional name- or logo-based graffitists—has remained largely the same. Stain says, “I think the main motivation for anything like that is to get yourself out there, to be known. To tell the world that, yeah, I am somebody. Even though I’m not on TV, I’m not famous, I may not be wealthy, I’m gonna make myself known by doing this.”

For Scout, Stain’s partner in crime, so to speak, the purpose of street art is more communal. “In my mind and in my heart, [I am] trying to add a little touch of color or . . . beauty to a building that is decaying or falling down or otherwise neglected. I’m trying to reclaim those spaces of the city that have been forgotten about, and express the fact that somebody does care about them. I want to give people who live in those areas something pleasant to look at as they walk to work or school.”

Another local artist, who tags under the name Uneek, says, “Graffiti is an addiction, you think about it all day, every day. For me, the graffiti world has been a springboard to explore the worlds of photography, graphic design, and to get out there and explore and appreciate the city you live in. After almost 15 years of writing now my motivation is pretty much the same. I love giving to the street. I love the way the art interacts with the environment, it’s the thought of brightening up somebody’s day with something unexpected.” Whatever the motivation is for the individual artist—careerism, antiauthoritarianism, neighborhood beautification, or an egomaniacal territorial-pissing match—graffiti has gained a certain amount of mainstream acceptance as a honest-to-god art form.

Things came full-circle for Stain around 1998 when he took to stenciling, a style that was used as a form of street communication in his hometown of Baltimore throughout the late 1970s and early ’80s. When he and his family relocated to the Capital Region about three years ago, he quickly hooked up with Scout. “We hit it off right away because we had the same interests—music interests and art interests,” says Stain. “We started going out and painting together. I’d come up with ideas and he’d come up with ideas and we’d just work together.”

Scout did a lot of tagging when he was young, and learned to screen-print in his teens. “Graphically, I was always doing stuff like that,” he says. “Designing record covers and flyers is where I got interested and sort of thinking about things graphically. I had kind of put graffiti on hold and didn’t do anything until I started working with Stain. [Stain] is the one who sort of reawakened me to all of that stuff. He’s just immensely talented and . . . took me under his wing and showed me a lot of things. He was the one who showed me stenciling, and because it is a lot like screen-printing . . . my eyes had already been trained to look at images and see how to separate colors, how to use underlay, how to use black to trap everything.”

Stenciling is a fairly simple process, Stain reveals. “I find an image that I like. I adjust the contrast so it’s easier for me to work from. I lay a piece of clear plastic over the top of it, and I start cutting away. I cut my first outline, my black color first, and I cut all the subsequent colors after that and fill them in one by one.” One of Stain and Scout’s first joint efforts was the Free School Neighborhood Project, during which they stenciled vibrant images of local children onto the plywood-covered windows of abandoned buildings throughout the Mansion neighborhood in downtown Albany. In his book Stencil Pirates, Chicago-based artist Josh MacPhee called their efforts “stenciling as civic duty.”

Scout explains, “I was living down there at the time. [Stain] and I decided to pick this area and try to saturate it; to make an impression, something tangible you could feel as you walked around that neighborhood.” Of the dozen-or-so pieces they created for the project, only six or seven are still visible. While these pieces have fared better than most urban graffiti (the city of Chicago, for instance, typically removes graffiti in less than 48 hours), one wonders why any artists would subject their work to an inherently temporary environment.

“Albany is a hard city to keep artwork up in,” says Uneek. “They do a good job keeping this ‘All America City’ clean; we just try to pick neighborhoods that might appreciate our contribution.”

Life is temporary,” says Stain. “No matter what you do or where it’s at, it’s gonna go eventually, sooner or later. Sometimes it goes quicker than other things, and sometimes [it] lasts a really long time. Even though there’s a risk involved, there’s really a risk involved in everything you do, and if your heart is really into something, it doesn’t matter how long it lasts. The act of creativity is more important than the longevity of the product that you put out.”

But the fact of the matter is that their product is graffiti, and graffiti equals vandalism in the eyes of the law, regardless of artistic merit or social relevance. Like Stain, Scout is a family man, so avoiding the authorities is extremely important for him. “We sort of have to be extra cautious at our advanced stages . . . because I certainly know that cops wouldn’t take kindly to a couple of 30-year-old men with children [doing graffiti],” he says. But he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. “If it was all permissible, I don’t think it would be as appealing.” He also points out that by painting on plywood, as they did for the Free School project, “if somebody really did have a problem with it, it could be removed fairly easily.”

Stain (who’s been arrested twice, the first time at age 11) and Scout (never arrested, at least not for graffiti) also continue to practice in other forms of street art, including wheat pasting—in which flyers or photographs are almost literally wallpapered to a target object—to keep their palate broad. “Stencils are somewhat limited graphically, using aerosol or other paints, but wheat paste can really be anything,” says Scout. “I actually do topography and letter forms. I don’t do any wild-style graffiti pieces, but I still do paint a lot on the street with what we call roll-downs, just straight-letter text that I use rollers and foam brushes for. I still do a lot of that down here on train tracks or bridges.”

Stain adds, “I do the stenciling and tagging and stuff still. One thing that’s changed is people are doing more wheat pasting and roll-downs and things like that. It’s not what is considered ‘traditional’ graffiti. . . . I think it’s kind of branched out more, and that’s why there are so many more people into it now. It’s not just a spray can and lettering. Now people are wheat pasting and stenciling, gluing shit up, bolting signs to signposts.”

They both mention several local artists, including Slack and Uneek, as well as New York City artist Swoon, as some of their favorites. “[Swoon] really kind of combined stenciling and wheat pasting,” says Scout. “She will make these really elaborate, intricate paper cutouts that kind of look like stencils, but she will then wheat paste these cutouts onto walls. . . . Whatever background is on the wall [shows up] through the holes. She is one artist that has in a lot of ways started this new technique that nobody was doing before, and her images are beautiful.”

As authorities have stepped up anti-graffiti measures in many urban centers, many artists have found new forums for their craft, and networks have formed around and between the artists. Web sites like www.graffitinet.com, www.bomb ingscience.com and www.stencilarchive.org offer extensive archives of photography, while sites like www.wildartmedia.com and www.puregraffiti.com sell supplies like specialized spray-can nozzles, markers, and paints.

Stain and Scout have had their work featured in several graffiti-themed books, including the aforementioned Stencil Pirates, Tristan Manco’s Stencil Graffiti and the upcoming 376-page hard-bound Graffiti World by Nicholas Ganz (with help from Manco), which is expected to be one of the most comprehensive collections of street art ever. Even more impressively, their work has been shown in large-scale gallery exhibitions like last year’s anti-death-penalty-themed Artists’ Reflections on Crime and Punishment at Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum, and the current MASS MoCA show titled The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere. They also have had a number of showings at smaller galleries as far away as Germany and Australia.

Jean-Michel Basquiat first gained recognition through New York’s late-1970s graffiti scene—could a legitimate, full-scale gallery career be far behind for Stain and Scout?

“I’ve sold quite a bit of stuff, and I think that is the nature of the work, because it is so graphically oriented,” Scout says, then adds, “I don’t really have any aspiration to do any design work or corporate work. I’ve done a few little things, but I like the purity of just creating these paintings and putting them out in public, and not having any pressures regarding design aesthetics. I kind of like it being what it is for me.”

Stain has a similar take. “I am always humbled at the fact that people would pay hard-earned money for my work. There’s a lot of great work out there for free, but there’s no telling how long it will last, so I guess there’s some benefit to showing in galleries. I have a family and car payments and a mortgage payment, so I can’t swing it yet as a full-time artist, but whatever I bring in on the side has been very helpful.”

jbrodeur@metroland.net


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