December 13, 2006 News & Features » Cover Story


Expanded Critiques 


For the sake of argument, let's just say it's art. How are various Richmond taggers stacking up? We asked artists Ed Trask and Heide Trepanier, along with KS, a local graf writer we agreed not to identify, to weigh in. All our panel members stress that they are hardly experts, but here's what they had to say.

Ed Trask -- local painter, drummer, waiter and dad

There are many questions that come to mind when people ask me about graffiti and its harmful existence. One question is how can something illegal and destructive be so important to our culture today?

Well, just ask the art director who uses graffiti in ads for cornflakes, sneakers, cars, fast food, sporting goods, lunch meat; or the designer who is trying to appeal to some kind of crazy amalgamation consisting of hip-hop kids, punks, skaters, gangsters, couriers, track bike riders, athletes, entertainers, artists, the list goes on and on. You can or could have asked Barry McGee, Banksy, Basquiat, Dalek, Keith Haring, Famous, Zephyr, Unit One or Margaret Killgallen how they have made a lasting impact on the art world and future art produced.

The fact is, that in this world of omnipresent media, graffiti is firmly imbedded, like it or not, in our culture and the daily lives of our youth. For every mailbox my generation destroyed with M-80s or baseball bats, there are 50 walls with someone's scribbled tag on it. Youthful rebellion and destruction certainly are not going anywhere, especially now.

Graffiti represents the ideal form of destructive yet creative rebellion. The majority of the graffiti artists, taggers, stencil artists, etc., will not become rich and famous in the mainstream art world, but they will obtain respect among their peers and many times be energized by the secret fame until either their egos or carelessness get them caught. I certainly don't think all graffiti is wonderful and should be legal. Nor do I feel we need to slap felonies on kids and think that these tough (broken window) style actions will scare others away. I think we just have to re-examine its role in our society today.

I think it is important to let readers know that any thoughts I give concerning certain graffiti pieces are those of a painter who has a deep-rooted respect for graffiti and its importance in our culture today. But the fact is I'm not a graffiti writer and I'm very naive concerning the stylistic qualities that other graffiti writers might deem important. I know what I like and I know why certain art speaks to me; so with that in mind, here are some thoughts on some graffiti pieces.

Heide Trepanier -- local painter who shows internationally, VCU painting instructor

We have had greasers and beatniks, hippies, bikers, surfers, punk rock, slackers, rap and hip-hop, skaters, gangs…so on and so forth. Each youth and subculture responds to the constraints of the society, and graffiti is no exception. Our tendency is to vilify youth culture or subculture that misbehaves. If we are aware of these subculture constantly forming, shouldn't we instead look to subcultures for a message about the world, instead of only draining them of meaning by co-opting their clothes and music and discarding the essence of their purpose? Now some aspects of graffiti, like train-car works, are actually made into collectable toys, the epitome of pop-culture materialism. (I hope, at least, the artists make some money from it.)

Graffiti is about the opposition to materialism. Although more than a handful of really big graf artists have made it into galleries and museum exhibitions, and magazines and blogs promote these artists. The artists working predominantly outdoors do not have to deal with the art climate in galleries. In graffiti it is about fewer complexities, mainly the talent of the style and the gustiness of the placement. Even though there are icons in this art world, like Shep Fairey and Banksy, anyone can be a part of it, anyone who is willing to risk a felony that is.

How is it that we have decided that extra-large billboards of geckos selling us insurance are somehow OK taking up our entire field of vision? How come we can be sold all-you-can-eat buffet breakfasts and seductive diamonds, but we make criminals of those who desire to decorate a plain, ugly train car. Perhaps it is because we value even abandoned property over creativity as a culture. Or perhaps we have decided as a culture that the corporation is more important than the individual. Regardless, from what I understand, the balance of legality with graffiti keeps the artist population low and the competition high, so I would never advocate its legality, only milder understanding, or perhaps to look at some good graffiti in a different way.

Let me say this: I can't stand bad tags -- why bother? They are not appreciated, why spend the time, money and risk just to put quick, poorly done initials on some poor guy's fence? Invest the time money and risk in something worth looking at.

I really feel kind of silly and unqualified to do this, and the only way I can really approach it is from the mildly academic and aesthetic approach I would use when faced with any artwork. In a way I want to apologize for my naiveté with graffiti, but I also want to treat it as I would any other art form so…here it goes.

KS -- local tagger

Hi, Richmond. My friends over at DayByDay productions said that Style was doing an article about graffiti and wanted some input from someone "in the know," as they say, and asked me if I was game. I was game as always. After a few e-mails, this nice lady sent me some pictures of graffiti that she and some others had gone to look at and critique. These are my humble opinions of the things she sent.


1. Drainage ditch, Church Hill

Trask: One of my favorite things to do is be the first car to get stuck at a railroad crossing and be able to relax and watch a mobile gallery float past me with crappy tags, large, skillfully planned out pieces, old monikers, stencils and faded railroad logos all intertwined in a perfect transitory gallery on wheels. If I had a boat, I would float down the drainage ditch to get the same feel, for there is a perfect variety of work represented here.

Down in the ditch, Ghost and Moki have a piece together that stands out. I have a hard time finding Usefull, Unbalanced or Ghost in any of the unbalanced lettering to the left. I like the color and shadow work, but I'm just not really that taken by Moki's lettering or the structure of the piece as a whole. Moki can blend color well, but I get the feeling this is early work for them and that they have probably done some nice work other places. The stencil I love for its overly literal use of words and its retro graphic (remember I'm old).

Trepanier: The critical essayist Marshall McLuhan said in his famous book Understanding Media, that "the medium is the message." This writing was his response to a somewhat generational change in his students, only five years his junior. Basically what he meant is that the technology of the time becomes a part of or an extension of the communication used by the youth affected. In the case of graffiti, I would say the lack of technology and the sedentary passivity inherent in technology are part of the message in graffiti. It is counter to technology and is almost aggressive in its statement of individuality.

I am amazed at the variety of the work in this area. There are stencils, wheat paste; old faded tags with the grain of the concrete showing the weathered remnants of the older styles. It is really quite beautiful, like an outdoor gallery. There is really nothing like being outside on a beautiful day, roaming around in the ditches and ruins of this great city, looking at work that does not need a white cube to justify it.

As we make our first stop at the "Usefull," tag (which contains tags of Ghost and Moki), you notice the character in the center, looking kind of dopey and useless, demanding its importance by the ascribed title. Ghost and Moki flank the character; each is done in a different independent style, not too tight, and the colors are vibrant, loose and fluid. I prefer work that is free-form when the spirals and marks emanating from the work add to the complexity. This is one of the largest and brightest of the works here. I can't help but notice next to it is a stencil, also by "Usefull," of a 50s-style mom stating, "You can't count things that aren't there." This exemplifies "Usefull's" skill at not only mixing stylistic mediums but also of making profound statements.

KS: What is this crap? I'm not much for stencils, but if you're going to do something that takes 30 seconds to execute and took you hours to make, do it in a high-profile spot where the public can actually see it, not in a ditch on the east side.

2. 14th Street Bridge

Trask "Hell yes!" is the first thing that comes to mind. Not only is it a daunting feat to walk this railroad bridge and hang over off the ledge while one-arming your work, but it is also pretty out in the open. The words Kuma and Youth are placed perfectly in front of a backdrop of city redevelopment and condos that these kids (and the majority of us all) will never own.

The letters are tight but nothing extravagant; though I don't think the letters are the real purpose behind the piece. Years ago there appeared on a building in midtown a giant "Dirty Ol' South" that looked over the whole city. How someone could have scaled that building and produced graphically perfect letters right out in the open just seemed so over the top. But what really moved me was how this piece affected everyone, whether you were cursing this damn kid or you were thinking to yourself, "Yeah, this city is full of old Southern conservative families pushing their incestuous dirty old Southern ways upon us," it really got people thinking and talking.

Like some of the work done by Expert, Goest, Refuse and others I'm just awe-struck at the near-death chances these kids will take to get their names up, and I think that is what makes them monumental -- illegal or not.

Trepanier: This is by far the gutsiest of the work. The risk putting this tag up was pretty high, and the logistics of the suspension needed to do it are kind of scary to imagine. I of course would like to appreciate the aesthetics of the work as much as I appreciate the tenacity of the artist(s), but it's not quite there. Thumbs up for effort.

KS: In case you citizens were wondering, there's no special, magical spy-hunter way they did this. What you see is what you get. They climbed out there like a couple of crazy death-defying bastards and made a mess on that poor bridge. No ropes or ladders or anything like that, but I hear that Youth carries a laser.

3. EYE

Trask: Not really much to say about this. I just bet this kid has a good hand, because it just looks like it's placed well and confident, but it's not really my thing.

Trepanier: "EYE" or "ELYE" or "EYLE." Um, I do not understand and am particularly bored by this tag, especially having it on every corner in this small area. What if it is a gang tag in loving memory of the talented Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez, from TLC? A group of teen girls respecting Left Eye's tenacity and skill at arson memorialized her untimely death by naming their gang after her. I can't believe I wasted my time thinking about this.

KS: I see this and think, "Hey buddy, yeah, I'm walking around too. What's that? No, I just ate, but we should get some Vietnamese later or meet up for drinks." Kind of like a stop'n'chat, but with a tag.

4. Heaven/Hell

Trask: This is just the amazing work of graffiti artists who have been perfecting their craft and can make a spray can do whatever they want and are perfectly aware of the artistic foundations that make a piece of art stand firm. These walls should be seen by everyone. I really like the lettering and color work of Sign or Sigh (I'm not real sure) and

Arek. They stand out for me.

Trepanier: Bainbridge Road's Sistine Chapel. I know this one was "legit" and the artists were given time and a budget, and what a difference it makes. This thing is huge -- I am guessing 70 feet on either side of the building. One side references hell and the other heaven. I can only make out a few names, but it doesn't matter. I am glad to have this work in my city; the backgrounds are unique and uniform, the tags are all different in size and tone while staying within a similar hue. (I especially enjoy the Danzig nod on the hell side). I watched this go up and found the process amazing. It is dizzying when I drive by it, like trying to look at the tags on the tunnel walls of the el when I lived in Chicago. I spent some time with it, when it was complete and can really appreciate artists given the opportunity to do what they do best, with high skill levels for their media. The caverns are really well-painted and do not rely on outline and graphic qualities to illustrate the perception of space.

KS: This was a legal wall that some guys came in from all over the East Coast to come paint. It's very good. The idea was that one side would be heaven and the other side, hell. This is a shot of the heaven side. Note Flanders chilling in the Con piece. The Omega piece takes the cake on this side I think. [On the Hell side], Sigh killed it (did a superb job) and took up lots of space. The Rcade piece on this side is also awesome, kudos my good man, well played.

5. El Kamino

Trask: This piece of art is a wonderful example of what I believe to be the perfect production piece. This work not only gives stunning graphic appeasement, but it

keeps you enthralled and challenged to decide what the letters actually say and where they belong.

The background is started in a brilliant sky blue and is accented with lighter tones of blue to create a perfect smoky, bubbly cloudlike layer for the letters to jump off of. The letters which are that of two different artists intertwine to create a wonderful tension and rhythm that keeps the eye moving from front to back. This piece has great balance and draftsmanlike qualities ... geometric shapes collide with organic lines to create perfect structural and natural flow. The colors of the letters are bright red and orange and are spayed in a lush painterly manner. From the first rolled layer of blue to the Florissant green outline of the letters, it is obvious these people know how to paint. The writers El Kamino and Aestwo have created something very innovative and fresh and are obviously artists that have become brilliant craftsman.

Trepanier: Emerson said "Good men must not obey the laws too well," maybe it was this thought that encouraged Shephard Fairey's ubiquitous and cultlike OBEY project. In part, due to his fan base and his own travels, Shep has managed to spread Andre the Giant's menacing mug to just about every metropolitan area. His work and work by similar artists has the capacity to raise the bar for graffiti. It becomes more than just a tag, a name on the wall, and an act of defiance, it becomes part of social consciousness. When Banksey paints a Latino housekeeper sweeping dirt form the street "under the building" he makes a statement about who we are, whom we are having do our "dirty work," and how we handle problems. I would really like to see more work like this in the city.

Fortunately I was able to witness "El Kamino and Aestwo" in true form. Another large and vibrant piece, filled with references to closed doors and watchful eyes. These two artists hit it well and by the cover of an overpass, managed to complete a pretty amazing bomb. I am not sure, is it called a bomb? It kind of sounds dumb when I say it, like a grandma saying "sweet" instead of "nice dear." Another skillful, layered piece with a bold use of complementary blues and oranges.

KS: These guys did a great job on this wall; the leapfrog idea came out really well. This is when two or more writers alternate letters between one another. Aest and El Kamino are pretty much the most technical writers in Richmond.

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