Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘street art’

11 JUNE, 2014

Shepard Fairey on Capitalism, Freedom, Selling Out, and What Makes Great Art

By:

“I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards.”

In 1989, street artist, graphic designer, and activist Shepard Fairey created his famous Obey Giant sticker campaign, which spread like wildfire to amass a massive following and take on the characteristics of a singular semi-secret subculture. Nearly twenty years later, Fairey’s art reached a critical mass of mainstream awareness when he created the now-iconic Obama “Hope” poster as a tool of grassroots activism, rebelling against a previous administration that betrayed Fairey’s ideas and ideals in just about every imaginable way. At the heart of Fairey’s ethos is a profound commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, which lends his work a new level of resonance today, as debates about net neutrality expose how toxic the intersection of corporate interest and government is for democracy and civic freedom.

Included in the altogether magnificent 2009 monograph OBEY: Supply & Demand (public library), celebrating the 20th anniversary of Fairey’s iconic Obey Giant campaign, is an interview with the artist by the prolific design historian, writer and critic Steven Heller. In it, Fairey discusses capitalism, the deeper ideological unity beneath the seeming dualities of his work, and the question of what it means to “sell out.”

HELLER: How do you reconcile your business, which counts some big corporations as clients, with your wild snipping? Is this the Robin Hood effect?

FAIREY: Yes, I would consider my inside/outside strategy toward corporations somewhat of a Robin Hood effect… I use their money, which becomes my money, to produce stickers, posters, stencils, etc. This strategy was however, the result of my acceptance of the reality of things. One of the most jarring realizations this project has brought about for me is the complete inevitability of supply and demand economics in a capitalist society. I will explain, but I must also emphasize that I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards. When I first started Obey Giant I owned a screen-printing shop and used that equipment to produce my own work as well as doing work for paying customers. Printing is a difficult business and I got frustrated with it. I work as a graphic designer these days which came about because the work I was putting on the street created enough of a buzz that companies began to feel it would resonate enough to be used for marketing. I had created a demand for my style of work that meant that if it was not supplied to the corporations by me, then it would be supplied by other hungry designers. I decided that in doing graphic design I could keep my design skills honed and make enough money to pump even more Obey Giant materials out in public, which I consider truly subversive. This method of financing my campaign also keeps me from having the content of Obey dictated by fine art market forces. Plus, I have been able to convince some of the corporations to invest in the cultures that try to exploit, helping to create a more symbiotic relationship between the creators and harvesters of culture. It’s not an easy game but I’m making the best of life without a trust fund.

Peace Elephant (2008)

Reflecting further on this question of “life without a trust fund” — the complexities of poetry and privilege in the arts, and the often limiting cultural mythology around those — Fairey turns to the question of what “selling out” really means. Coincidentally, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson had given a remarkable commencement address on the subject in 1990, a few months after Fairey created Obey — a character he considers “the counterculture Big Brother.” Fairey tells Heller:

To me selling out is doing things purely for the money without concern for the consequences to integrity. Let’s face it though, money is freedom. For some it is freedom to buy cocaine and cars… for me, my design earnings give me freedom to produce my propaganda work and travel to other cities to put it up. It is also gives me freedom to keep an art gallery that is never profitable open. People often accuse anyone who does not fulfill their image of fine artist as suffering martyr of being a sell-out. After 10 arrests and having been physically assaulted by the cops and deprived of my insulin on several occasions (I’m diabetic), I can tell you that it is very possible to make money and be a suffering martyr!

[…]

I spend the money and take the risks I do because I want to and I don’t feel that anyone owes me anything. I do feel sorry for myself when I’m sitting in jail but overall I feel it is all very worth it. I feel it is worth it because of the positive feedback I have received from people. Many people feel powerless and my goal is to show that one person can have an effect on things even with limited resources.

Tyrant Boot (2008)

The Robin-Hooding of Fairey’s art isn’t directed just at corporations but also at the government, finding in street art and public space the ultimate arena for free speech and anti-censorship activism. He tells Heller:

I became active as a street artist because I felt public space was the only option for free speech and expression without bureaucracy… I also found the whole idea that you could be arrested for stickering or postering as something I wanted to rebel against. In my opinion the taxpayers are the bosses of the government. I’m a taxpayer — why can’t I use public space for my imagery when corporations can use it for theirs? I was baffled by the idea that companies could stick thousands of images in front of people as long as they were paid ads, but that I could not put my work in the street without being told that it is an eyesore or creates a glut. For the most part, I think the merchants and the city governments don’t want the public to realize there can be other images coexisting with advertising. This is the exact example I’m trying to provide.

Complement OBEY: Supply & Demand, which features a wealth of Fairey’s most iconic and influential work, as well as more interviews and critical essays by Rob Walker, Henry Rollins and others, with this fantastic short film about Fairey’s art by Brett Novak, commissioned by South Carolina’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art:

The best art … makes the world feel a little bit less terrifying, it makes things feel a little more intertwined…

This idea that a picture can be the thing that hits the viewer in the gut, that makes their head follow their heart, is such an important concept in my work that, no matter what I’m doing, I like the idea that someone can’t resist the visual allure of an image and, even if it doesn’t align with their political predispositions … the image itself will be beckoning at them to mull it over.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

10 MARCH, 2014

A Love Letter to the City

By:

How artist Steve Powers made sign painting the voice of the community and the shared narrative of urban life.

Every city needs a love letter. Some are poetic, some photographic, some cartographic, some illustrated, and some private. But few come close to the beautiful and heartening typographic murals artist Stephen Powers has been painting in cities around the world for over a decade, working closely with the local community to give breathtaking visual voice to a neighborhood’s narrative. As a longtime fan of his work, which I first encountered in the Brain Pickings birthplace of West Philadelphia years ago and which appeared in Sign Painters, I’m thrilled for the release of A Love Letter to the City (public library) — a magnificent monograph from Princeton Architectural Press, in which Powers takes us through the creative process and cultural context of his murals spanning Brooklyn, Syracuse, Coney Island, Philadelphia, Dublin, Belfast, São Paolo, and Johannesburg, based on a combination of Powers’s own ideas and overheard snippets, fragmentary thoughts, and everyday aspirations from members of each local community.

What makes Powers’s work so singular is that it lives at the uncommon intersection of street art and community activism, subverting the conventions of both. It appears where street art ordinarily would, but it isn’t illicitly done under the radar of civic authority — rather, Powers is commissioned by public art organizations or the city itself; it’s the work of a single artist, but he open-sources the creative process to engage the local community in constructing a collaborative point of view.

In the foreword, Peter Eleey, curator of MoMA’s PS1, captures the unusual result beautifully:

His murals humanize the anonymity of urban landscape.

[…]

Powers is a traveling salesman for the social media age, in which the things we can’t find, say, or share online often turn out to be the very goods we need. And so he heads out on foot, knocking on doors, putting up ladders, and rolling out paint. The world’s a big place, but as he would point out, on the road most traveled, there is no reason to ever leave home unless you are making the road better. Look for the man in the yellow raincoat hawking something at the corner of “Above” and “Beyond.”

Steve Powers and his son, Philadelphia

Powers, who came from the world of street art, reflects on how he came into his singular style as he contemplated the challenges of the graffiti genre of urban art in his early twenties:

The problem with graffiti [was that] for all its efforts to communicate, most people don’t understand it, and if people don’t understand, they don’t take ownership.

Aware of this ownership disconnect, Powers found himself longing for a new communication medium that would both honor the traditions of street art and resonate with the community whose walls it graced — walls that would become not barriers but gateways to understanding. He found his answer in Coney Island:

There I found a middle ground between the graffiti I spoke fluently and the painting language I could speak only well enough to order a beer. So I ordered a beer and made paintings that looked like Coney Island signage, except I stripped out the commercial and inlaid emotional content. The resulting art was visually clear and direct, unflinchingly confronting the complexities of love and life in a way I avoided in my everyday living. Coney Island was both sandbox and toolbox, a place where I learned to make effective paintings, perform effective community service, and be an effective carny making cash in the summer sun — all useful skills when it was time to make sign painting the voice of the community, the way Stay High had once made graffiti “The Voice Of The Ghetto.”

At the same time, Powers was noticing that some of Coney Island’s most beautiful hand-painted signs were being replaced by sterile vinyl lettering. So he began offering his services as a sign painter, for free. But even that seemingly simple and altruistic aspiration became a lesson in community context:

In Coney Island, “FREE” means a scam, so I had no takers until Dick Zigun, a mayoral presence in the neighborhood, vouched for me, and I got my first job painting letters on the back of the Eldorado Arcade.

Soon, Powers caught the attention of legendary public arts organization Creative Time — who were also behind Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures — who offered patronage to transform his grassroots Coney Island work into a full-blown collaborative art project. Together with 40 other artists brought in by Creative Time, Powers and the team painted some sixty signs around the neighborhood.

In 2007, Powers received a Fulbright scholarship, which he used to paint signs and murals in neighborhoods around Dublin and Belfast. Arts programmer Ed Carroll reflects on Powers’s work in Ireland:

Steve’s distinctive practice draws out the narratives of street life, its people and places. You see it in the Fulbright work in Francis Street, Dublin, and Shankill Road, Belfast. Call Me, We Need to Talk, Hope This Finds You Well, and Worth Less are all fragments of exchanges among strangers, yet somehow intimate, too. The Fulbright project conceals a longer story from the creative community bench. This story is a testament to friendship and the time it takes to create a local ecology for a little epiphany of beauty.

In Ireland, Powers painted one of his murals on a wall facing a row of houses, which he observed for half an hour looking “for any sign of life” as kids from the local school marched by. At last, as a mother peeked out from one of the houses, Powers asked her what he should paint. “Tell them to play nice,” she answered. And so he did:

But one of Powers’s most charming signs in Ireland, painted at Dublin’s Tivoli Theater, is a wink to the biological factlet that pigeons mate for life and, as Powers puts it, “make sure they pick a partner they can coo with”:

Powers, who had grown up in the rough neighborhood of West Philadelphia himself and returned to the community to paint 25 years later, reflects on working with Jane Golden of the city’s famed Mural Arts Program:

At my first meeting with Mural Arts’ Jane Golden as Pew grantees, I laid out my vision for the look and feel of the project. Jane stopped me and said, “You mean it’s going to be all words? No pictures?” I dug in. “No pictures.” Jane crossed her arms like she was tying her oxfords and, once tight, told me, “You have to sell the idea to the residents of West Philly, one community meeting at a time.” I could feel the fear building in me, but I remained cool and asked, “How many meetings?” We had about nine months before we were to start painting. Jane thought ten meetings would do it. She then assigned me a handler who also had disconnected roots in the community, and together we started planning meetings.

Jane’s methodology is flawless: go into a community, tell people you are going to paint a wall, take suggestions from everybody, work up a sketch, go back to the community, show it to everybody, make changes based on the suggestions, then paint the wall. The art is secondary to bringing the community together and getting everyone to agree on something. The wall stands as testimony to a unified community, even if the artwork is completely boring.

In Syracuse, the project quickly became a testament to the power of process over product, learning ground for improvisation:

A Love Letter to Syracuse is meant to be from Syracuse to Syracuse. We found, as we were painting, that the love letter is also dedicated to industry: to the trains that pass over the bridges, to the act of painting hot steel in the summer, to collaboration, to polite drivers, and, especially, to improvisation. After painting the two West Street bridges, we realized the design I created for one of the sides of the West Fayette Street bridge would be unreadable from most angles and impossible to paint without blocking off traffic completely. So we had to rework it on the spot. We did what any good signwriter would and worked with the architecture of the bridge to make the words fit with grace and ease. The result is different from our original design, but it serves the words and Syracuse well.

One of my favorite murals is a beautiful long poem, which Powers painted in my neighborhood in Brooklyn:

He contemplates how this particular project, painted around an old Macy’s department store in the facade space between the floors, embodies his general approach:

When I go into a community, I try to find visual cues that are already there and introduce them into the work.

Many consider it an homage to or a riff off Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” but Powers says this wasn’t his intention and adds mischievously:

It’s not, but the thought has crossed my mind about ninety-nine times.

The full text of the poem reads:

YOU TAKE ANY TRAIN
MEET ME DOWNTOWN FOR A FEW EVERY STREET CARRIES US HOME
BORN BUSY AS A BROOKLYN BOUND B I AM MADE TO LEAVE
I AM MADE TO RETURN
HOME
ONWARD UPWARD
I WAS NURTURED HERE I COP FUTURES HERE
LIFE IS A FIGHT FOR LIFE AIDAN SEEGER IS HERE
FROM NINETY-NINE TO NINETY-NINE AND FROM NINE TO NINE
WE COULD SHARE NINETY-NINE STARES ENDURE NINETY-NINE CARES
SAY NINETY-NINE SWEARS
AND BE FINE NINETY-NINE PERCENT OF THE TIME
I AM NINETY-NINE PERCENT SURE THIS LOVE WE SHARE IS 99.9999999999999999999% PURE

I GREW UP IN YOUR ARMS, RAISED TO TAKE FLIGHTS OWNING THE GROUND I HELD STEEPED IN YOUR STORIES
I AM UP WAITING FOR YOU

DOLLAR HERE DOLLAR THERE

HUNDRED HUSTLERS HUSTLE FOR HUNDREDS
SLEEPLESS ENTREPRENEUR TURNS A BUCK INTO FOUR
BARKERS CALL ME TO SHOP AT STORES SOME ARE SELLING ROCKETS
SOME ARE CHECKING POCKETS
SOME ARE ON THE DOCKET
I WALK UP THE BLOCK, MONEY IN SOCK PAST PITFALLS THAT FACE ME
TO BUY CLOTHES AT MACY’S
Dave at The End of Sixth Grade c. 1980

TURN TO ME
I SEE ETERNITY

EUPHORIA
IS YOU FOR ME

Another Powers gem in my neighborhood, across from The New York Transit Museum, titled Train to Always:

A Love Letter to the City is impossibly moving in its entirety, at once a rare glimpse into the mind of an artist with an uncommon point of a view and gripping testament to the power of art as a common language that brings a community together. Complement it with the bittersweet Sign Painters, where Powers’s work appears, and with Candy Chang’s Before I Die, one of the best art books of 2013, which explores a different facet of the same immutable longing for blending the public and the private in urban space.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

24 MAY, 2012

Women Are Heroes: A Global Portrait of Strength in Hardship by French Guerrilla Artist-Activist JR

By:

Poignant and powerful portraits of physical and emotional survival amidst atrocity.

Last year, French guerrilla street artist JR won the $100,000 TED Prize for his Inside Out project — a global participatory project seeking to inspire civic engagement through art. But JR’s arguably most provocative project dates back to 2008, when he embarked on an ambitious quest to document the dignity of women in conflict zones and violent environments in his mural-sized portraits, exhibited both as lo-fi public space installations in the local communities whose spirit they capture and in glossy galleries around the world — “a project with many images and few words.” Women Are Heroes, a beautiful addition to these 7 favorite books on street art, collects several dozen of JR’s poignant portraits of women from Brazil, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, India, and Cambodia, each accompanied by a moving personal story.

To be sure, this isn’t some fluffy feel-good after-school art project. The stories these women relay — repeated rape, children slain before their eyes, extreme domestic abuse, property devastation — are utterly heart-wrenching. Told in simple, honest words, often tragically matter-of-factly in a way that bespeaks the raw reality these women have had to accept as daily life, they reach for the deepest heartstrings of your empathy and speak to our most unguarded shared humanity. And yet, though at first blush these stories might appear hopeless, wretched, resigned by virtue of their sheer severity, they’re underpinned by the quiet dignity, optimism even, that makes these strong women not victims of their circumstances but champions of survival, emotional and psychological, in the face of odds that make one question how this universe could possibly be benevolent.

Juxtaposed with JR’s stunning portraits — sometimes wistful, often optimistic, always expressive and celebratory of their strong subjects — these women’s stories come to life with remarkable power and respect.

Editor Marco Berrebi observes this parallel in the introduction:

Each of JR’s photographs is an ‘autonomous’ work. It exists through its own aesthetic, with no need to be ‘explained.’ But the narrative gives it its emotional power.

Jessie Jon, Liberia

'I am around ninety years old. I had a happy life. A good husband. I tattooed his initials on my chest. Unfortunately, he died in 1976.

The worst day of my life is still buried deep inside my soul. I had two daughters before the war. But then the war started here and my daughter got pregnant. We started running away. But the belly of my daughter was very big and we had to rest. They asked: 'Is it a girl? Is it a boy?' They opened the belly and took the baby out of the stomach. They threw the baby in the water and they killed my daughter.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Benedita Florencio Monteiro, Brazil

'I'm sixty-eight years old. I was born in Fortaleza, and I wasn't even twenty when I arrived here. I got married, then became a widow after my husband died when I was thirty-five. I've been all alone ever since. I had five children, all of them married.

There was that tragedy when my grandson died. They killed him. He was living with me. He was twenty-four years old. The army was on the square when he came back from the funk dance, and they asked him to lift up his shirt. When he refused, they grabbed him and took him away with two others to the Mineira favela, which is controlled by rival dealers.

They did it out of sheer meanness. He used to go by there every day on his way to school, and everyone here knew him. Everyone who was on the square saw it. They betrayed them for sixty reais. Then they killed them down there. They cut them up in pieces and threw them into the trash bin. They vandalized them. They not only cut them up, but they also shot my grandson in the face five times. He was studying. He was about to get his degree.

I want peace and justice here. My dream is to buy a house somewhere else and leave this place.

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Ebby Kadenyi, Kenya

'I am fifty years old and am suffering very much with many problems in my life at the moment. I worked as a housemaid for over thirty years, and then three years ago I was fired and have not been able to find any more work. I come from a very large family (my mother had thirteen children, and when you include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there are around fifty of us), and when I was working I looked after many of my family members, as most of my brothers and sisters are jobless.

I helped to educate four of my siblings because my parents did not have jobs and could not afford to educate us all. One of my brothers now has a good job as a teacher, but sadly he has become a drunkard and has forgotten about his family. If we go to him to ask for help, he just shouts at us and tells us to go away.

I would like to buy my own land so that I can care for my family.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Salete De Franca De Lima, Brazil

'I'm sixty-nine years old. I was born in Manaus and came here when I was a year old. I've lived here my whole life. I have eight children, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. I've got a big family. I wouldn't change this place for anywhere, because I like it here. I grew up here and raised my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

When I was a little girl, it was horrible here, because there was no electricity or water. I used to get up at four in the morning to fetch the water. It was from four to six. There was only water between four and six. So I had to be there at the tap at four o'clock… I'd fill five barrels of water and four buckets.

When I got married, a married woman couldn't work. You had to stay at home. So I made a deal with him that I would never work during my life, but he had to pay me a salary every month. He agreed and still pays me very month. A deal's a deal.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Praveen Mazahar, India

'My problems began after my marriage. My husband beat me because of difficulties over money. He spent his days playing cards and drinking. Then I had children and life became even more difficult. I ran up debts here and there.

I am now working near the dargah, for an association that educates and cares for children. I lost everything, but my trials, every argument with my husband and his brutality, convinced me I was right. Even though he himself was incapable of feeding us, my husband used to tell me every night that I was good for nothing, that as a woman I couldn't do anything. Now I am looking after my children and educating them!

My daughters now know that women, too, can be very independent, that they have the same rights as men. Even if I marry them off, I will not give them a dowry. If they wish to choose their own husbands, I will let them. If they don't want to get married, I will accept that, too.

They can read and write; they are very knowledgeable. At least, we try to be well informed. I say to my girls, 'Learn, learn everything you can, to cope with any situation. You never know what life has in store.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Shaha Jaham, India

'I founded an association that I called the Women's Association Against Dowries. My work enabled me to create a network of acquaintances among associations… My dream was to set up a refuge for women and children, and this dream has come true. We had to teach women who had fled their homes, or had been thrown out, how to live alone, work, and bring up their children.

My work was difficult; I had to fight constantly, among other things against society, the administration, and the police. A woman's life is like a rose: her body is surrounded by thorns. You see the rose, but no one sees the thorns. Even today my struggle continues.

In India, a woman's life is one long struggle. So struggle has become a woman's second nature. All I have endured in the past -- my sons and daughters now have their own families -- but there is one thing I can never forget: my daughter was burned alive. I sometimes think they will kill me, too, because of my militancy, but I am not afraid, because my work with associations has enabled me to regain my self-confidence.

I have brought up my children in a spirit of tolerance. When my son was married, I warned him he must treat his wife with respect, never mention the rape of which she had been the victim, and he accepted this… My granddaughter wanted to choose her own husband, but no one wanted her to. 'Why?' I asked, 'If she wants to marry a boy she loves, let her marry him.' And in a fortnight, I had organized her wedding.

My work brings its rewards every day.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

The true power of JR’s project, however, lies not in the lavish, enormous, beautiful Women Are Heroes tome but in the impact his work is having on the very communities from whence it is sourced. The Guardian recounts the story of one onlooker in Monrovia, who didn’t know what an art exhibition was and received the following explanation from another:

You have been here for a moment looking at the portraits, asking questions, trying to understand. During that time, you haven’t thought about what you will eat tomorrow. This is art.

Images © JR courtesy of Abrams Books

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.