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Writing on the wall
From politically charged commentary to aesthetic explorations, street artists are making their mark

ON the smirched surfaces of aluminum utility boxes, along the blank backs of metallic signs, across concrete walls and plywood construction-site fixtures, thereís an ongoing conversation being conducted in the visual language of unlawful iconography. Itís a diagrammatic dialogue among strangers who wouldnít recognize each other if they passed on the sidewalk, but have communicated through sequences of ciphers ó through boarded-up windows inexplicably painted with Xís and Oís, fluorescent-orange Bruce Lee faces stenciled onto wood, thick Sharpie marker scrawls on HELLO MY NAME IS stickers. Most folks are oblivious to the discourse, trained by corporate advertising to ignore unfamiliar imagery. But others ó in fact, a whole lot of people ó watch the cityscapeís façades very closely. They spy ghostly faces spray-painted on the sidewalk and run for their cameras. They saunter down streets to eye the backs of signs. They stop to scrutinize poles covered with stickers and fliers. And lots of them add their own ornate artwork to the discussion.

To the law, this visual exchange is vandalism. To the art world, however, itís a lesser-known genre called "street art" ó a guerrilla movement thatís been labeled "post-graffiti," since it too relies on illegal use of the cityscape as a venue, but expands its toolbox beyond spray paint to include cheap, readily available materials such as wheat paste (a glue-like, difficult-to-remove mixture typically made of wheat flour, rice flour, cornstarch, and water), stencils, stickers, and silk-screens. Street-art culture has been growing all over the world, catalogued on countless Web sites and documented in recently released books like Josh MacPheeís Stencil Pirates (Soft Skull) and Tristan Mancoís Street Logos (Thames & Hudson). Itís even crept into the mainstream: "The Interventionalists" is on display at Mass MoCA, featuring a "graffiti wall" of work by street artists brought together because they "intervene" in public space. Even the New York Times ran a piece about street art just last week.

"Itís about making the city partially yours," says "Darkclouds," the 24-year-old whoís swiped nearly 70 street signs, repainted them with rain clouds, and bolted them into signposts all over the area. "I like the concept of being an entity in your city and having people have no idea where itís coming from." He pauses. "That mystery is half the fun."

Street art is not graffiti. In artistic terms, "graffiti" refers only to stylized tag names written in spray paint, preferably stolen cans of it, on othersí property. The form thrives on destruction, ego, and "getting up" ó marking your tag name as big, colorfully, and prolifically as possible ó and the riskier the location, the more impressive. Decades before New York kids started breaking into rat-infested train stations and writing on subway cars in the middle of the night ó an ephemeral moment in the early í80s captured in Henry Chalfant and Tony Silverís 1983 documentary Style Wars ó American soldiers were scribbling KILROY WAS HERE throughout conquered foreign lands. In both cases, the essential claim was the same: I came. I saw. I conquered.

"Itís like a dog marking territory," says Misternever, a former graffiti writer who describes his present work as "street art with fine art and graphic design with graffiti."

Street art, with its expanded materials, evolved out of graffiti. Cost and Revs, a team of legendary graf writers from New York, moved beyond graffiti in the í80s and í90s, tagging buildings with white paint and basic lettering, challenging the notion that pieces had to be vibrant, stylized, and complex; in the í90s, they turned to wheat paste. San FranciscoĖbased graffiti artist Barry McGee (a/k/a Twist), whose solo installation at Brandeisís Rose Art Museum is up until July 25, repeatedly gets referenced as one of the first graf writers to use his own style of iconic figures and paintings as tags ó baggy-eyed, fish-lipped bums and giant screws ó which led to the prevalence of iconography in post-graffiti. Then, in the early í90s, Rhode Island School of Design student Shepard Fairey retrofitted agit-prop tactics, DIY fliers, and the conceptual structure of graffiti for his OBEY Giant street campaign ó first plastering Providence and Boston with the surly mug of a freakish dead wrestler. Faireyís rassliní symbol held no meaning; it was an advertisement for itself. And, by extension, for the medium.

Like graffiti, street art is illegal, fleeting, and stealthy. Some of it, like spray-painted stencils, inevitably does damage. Nearly everyone working in the streets goes by an alias, primarily to avoid criminal prosecution. Street artís only unifying factor is that itís unsanctioned, so pieces take many forms: the existentialist phrase SIGNIFYING NOTHING sprayed on a DO NOT ENTER sign; a disembodied Gary Coleman head wheat-pasted onto a wall; plastic disposable cups inserted into a chain-link fence spelling YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL; a pyramid-like display of stuffed animals on a grassy knoll. It can be stickers of Magmo the Destroyer, an activist-minded superhero with a molar for a head. Or it can be "culture jamming" ó people defacing corporate ads.

"For me, the form is all about the idea youíre trying to communicate," says Stencil Pirates author Josh MacPhee, a political stencilist originally from Holliston who has hand-cut thousands of templates. "The goal of putting something in the street is to communicate an idea to an audience you canít reach anywhere else. If Iím trying to communicate an idea thatís best communicated through traditional free-hand graffiti, I would use that. If itís something that really works well in a stencil, I would use that. If itís something thatís really complicated, and I want to put out a 10-page treatise, then I would wheat-paste it."

"The whole Ďstreetí thing thatís grown up is as diverse as art itself," e-mails Mouffiko, a Boston-area collage artist who leaves his intricate creations around Allston. "Just think: there are artists who are tickled pink at the prospect of refiguring the urban landscape; others just like sneaking around with a backpack, dressed in black; some who figure the only appropriate place to use a spray can is on a wall; others who are addicted to markers and canít contain themselves; others just like to see their names up everywhere; some who want to be famous; some who used to be artists but whose bodies have been taken over by marketing and advertising companies, who want to get a piece of the street demographic by making their ads look like art; and so on. There are as many types of street art as there are artists."

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Issue Date: July 16 - 22, 2004
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