In 2017, I curated the We The People series for Mural Arts Philadelphia, a series of six murals by some of my favorite artists. I probably should have been writing about We The People on here regularly since July, but here’s a very belated update from Philly.
Before we get into We the People, a bit of context. The last year has seen the floodgates open in the USA, with national conversations on crises that have been festering under-reported for years, like sexual harassment and racism. The arts community has added their voices to the mix through projects like the Amplifier Foundation, Not Surprised, and the Whitney’s An Incomplete History of Protest.
It’s in a similar spirit to all of those projects that we tried a little experiment in Philadelphia with We The People. When Mural Arts invited me to curate a series of walls for them, I figured it had to be of the moment, and with artists that they weren’t already doing a lot of work with. So we invited Molly Crabapple, Chris “Daze” Ellis, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Dennis McNett, NTEL, and Jess X. Snow to create work celebrating the best of the American spirit right now, while also reflecting current national concerns. Plus, it was a continuation of Mural Arts’ years-long effort to work with more street artists. There was little community engagement beyond what I and the project manager did while hunting for walls, but I think that by being careful about sites, artists, and content, we brought to life some strong, timely, and site-responsive work.
Who doesn’t love popsicles? You? If you don’t love popsicles, maybe you work at JCDecaux (and even if you do work at JCDecaux and claim they aren’t your thing… we all know you still love popsicles).
Well, I love popsicles, and it seems that my friend Vlady is also a normal popsicle-loving person. For JCDecaux Ice Lolly, he covered up a series of JCDecaux’s ad spaces in Turku, Finland. This particular kind of outdoor ad, where the ad just pops up out of the ground, unattached to a pay phone, bus shelter, or any other public amenity, is sometimes referred to as a lollipop, for obvious reasons. So, Vlady took the hint and turned all of these annoying lollipop ad kiosks into summer treats.
It’s a wonderfully simple intervention, one that doesn’t even require a key to open to ad kiosks, since Vlady just paints right over them. I’ve been thinking about how New Yorkers could do something similar with the LinkNYC towers that have been popping up everywhere… Maybe white sheets that turn the towers into ghosts for Halloween? But the popsicle idea is just perfect. Turn something hated into something everyone can enjoy.
Here’s one more:
Thanks Vlady! This series really made my day. Certainly the best street art I’ve seen all week (although Banksy at the Barbican is pretty great too), and something that anyone who feels inspired can replicate or adapt to their own environment.
To my readers: enjoy the last bits of summer. And remember: There’s no better way to enjoy the nice weather than a bit of vandalism for the public good!
Escif and Blu just wrapped up two murals each at Errekaleor, a self-managed neighborhood in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain that’s been around since 2013. The Errekaleor community is currently fighting against eviction, and has transitioned to renewable energy via solar panels after the city cut them off from the grid.
I’m not usually one for glow-in-the-dark murals, but I love this one from Escif. On his blog, Escif wrote (translated here by Google and me), “The city cut the light without thinking that night belongs to the residents, and they were given, unknowingly, the possibility of making the darkness a little clearer. They say cats can see at night. So we painted the eyes of this great black cat with fluorescent paint so that he too can be self-sufficient.”
And this Blu mural is an instant classic, and hopefully an inspiration to the residents of Errekaleor who are resisting eviction and development.
Been slow on updating Vandalog lately, and I’m realizing it’s because I’ve spent so much of this year focused on curating and project management, and that’s meant that writing has taken a backseat. Still, sometimes I come across something great that doesn’t need much additional commentary.
Today, that was this piece by Rub Kandy and Andrea Nolè, which you can find in Potenza, Italy. Aliens are welcome became immigrants are welcome. Aliens are welcome because sometimes it feels like my country is so messed up right now that it couldn’t possibly get any worse with aliens in charge (although I guess that’s the sort of logic that got us into this mess…). Aliens are welcome because if you’re gonna write something on a wall, it might as well be a greeting to a stranger. Aliens are welcome because why not.
The moment I walked away from painting this piece, I knew it was going to be defaced. I just didn’t know how soon. I made this piece as a prayer to the queer body—in a world where LGBTQ people are thrown into the margins. When home does not exist for us in this world, where can we discover home other than within the beauty of our own bodies? Sometimes that home-making looks like masturbation. This piece, resting at the top of the Lanikai Pillbox Hike in Kailua, Hawaii, lasted barely two days before the word “queer” was crossed out, and a penis was spray painted between the hands. This leaves me wondering: is queer street art/graffiti perpetually destined to be short-lived? What does that have to say about the safety of queer people of color in America and the world?
When queer people of color have no safe havens, religions, or churches in this society, we must turn to our own bodies for safety. In the same way a lover’s touch across a chest can calm the fiercest of storms, when I touch myself, I become my own queer lover. For one moment, all the forces that marginalize me cease to exist.
When I wrote this poem and birthed it into public space, I was thinking about what it could mean for queer people to happen upon acknowledgement of their own survival at the top of a long hike. I was thinking about queer immigrant children whose identities are rejected by homophobic parents and the complicated push and pull of duty and desire when you still love your family but also love yourself enough to know some identities run deeper than bone and cannot be unlearned. I was thinking about the dancers who lost their lives in the Pulse nightclub shooting, and all the queer bars and clubs across this world that have learned to operate underground. I was thinking about the late Chinese photographer Ren Hang, and queer and transgender warriors who were already living in a future so brilliant, this world was not ready for them. I was thinking about all the times where the violences of this world collapsed in on me and I too didn’t know how much longer I could stay in this world, but somehow, by touching myself, or making a piece of art, I rooted my body back into the Earth and found the resilience within me to live another morning.
Birthing queer poems and murals often feels akin to what I imagine it would be like to be a mother to queer children. I imagine bracing them for the violence of this society, preparing them for a never-ending war—where they will be bullied, forced into a closet, or pressured to camouflage with their heteronormative surroundings. Yet no violence or silencing will stop me from giving queer art the beautiful life and care that it deserves. Body bent over the wall, for once in my life, I was able to share the intimate experience of my survival in public space and make a poem out of it. These words were sacred to me, and when they appeared as a monumental prayer, surrounded by the roaring Pacific, it felt as if there were not one but thousands of mornings left for me to live.
The erasure of the word “queer” and the painting of a penis on top of a queer woman’s art is a reflection of the patriarchal and homophobic world we live in. If queer survival and masturbation is so threatening to this society, then I suppose it must be some type of magic. If our words are to be feared, crossed out and set to fire, let them burn bright like a meteorite and blind those who cannot acknowledge the beauty of queer survival. What the homophobic and transphobic world doesn’t understand is that no matter how many times our identities are crossed out, there is an impenetrable home within our bodies, which we can always return to.
This resilience is ancestral. Like the genderless leopard slugs that hang upside down from trees and mutually penetrate, or polyamorous lesbian bonobo monkeys who resolve conflict through sex, queerness and sexual diversity has existed since the dawning of life on Earth. It is the construct of heteronormativity that has been short-lived.
I will continue to put queer joy and self-love into public space regardless of those it provokes because I believe in a queer future. I believe in a world where young queers can finally be affirmed by their own secrets on the streets and at the tops of buildings—whether they are just coming out, or have long celebrated their queer crushes, or are learning the beauty of self-pleasure for the first time. We have been invisibilized, burned, and marginalized long enough. Most importantly, I believe the truths that keep us living and in love must be made public.
Note: Thank you to queer multi-disciplinary artist, Jocelyn Ng and Hawaiian artist Ittai Wong for making this piece possible and uplifting me and the beautiful communities that surround you. A few of the themes brought up in this article came from “Toward a Queer Eco Feminism” by Greta Gard.
Thank you Ocean Vuong, and his poem “Ode To Masturbation” for giving me the courage to bring these thoughts to poetry. Thank you Tatyana Fazlalizadeh for giving me the courage to bring my poetry to the streets.
Thank you Ren Hang (March 30, 1987-February 24, 2017) wherever you are, I hope there is no censorship, or borders, only joy.
Who doesn’t like something a bit weird and surprising on the street? Who doesn’t want to see something strange? This week, two such interventions landed in my inbox, while a fundamentally unimaginative attempt has been going viral and clogging my social media and blog feeds. I’m not even sure that these two successful pieces have much in common with each other, except that they are both new, made me think about all the imaginative ways to mess with public space, and compare favorably to what’s been going viral.
Resurrection, a collaboration between Biancoshock and Elfo, is a commentary on the Italian village of Bussana Vecchia. The town was devastated by a deadly earthquake, which led to to be abandoned as a ghost town. Over half a century later, it was resettled by artists, and has been an artist colony since the 1950’s. The duo write that the work reflects, “the impossibility of reconstructing [the village] except through the artistic ability and will.” So here you have a really beautiful piece, relatively simple, in a unique location, and certainly something that would be a surprise to come upon if you were exploring the ruins of Bussana Vecchia.
Brake, by Dosjotas, imagines a world with the physics of Mario Kart or Batman, with a car slamming on its breaks climbing up the wall of a building rather than crashing through it. Very fun, and a nice use of multiple surfaces. It was painted for Unfinished Museum of Urban Art in Fanzara, Spain.
As for the work that’s been frustrating me every time I see a tweet about it… no need to link or name names, but maybe you’ve seen it. The work in question shows that the artist actually has a great eye for placement. However, this piece is basically an advertisement designed to go viral. If you need to paint the entrance of a posh restaurant with someone else’s cartoon character while bringing no new concepts to that character, what you’re doing is closer to an ad campaign for the restaurant than muralism or street art. Arguably, for the artist, that’s fine. Get paid. But us bloggers should know better than to help something like that go viral when truly strange things are happening every day.
I just want to take a moment to applaud Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Jessica Sabogal, and Melinda James for their When Women Disrupt tour, where Tatyana and Jessica traveled through California, Arizona, New Mexico installing a series of bold murals (with Melinda documenting the process). The tour wrapped up this week, and these three women pulled no punches in their work. Here’s some more about the tour from The Root:
New Yorkers have been seeing a fresh influx of work by GATS this past week. He’s one of my favorite Oakland writers/artists, so it was exciting to see him in town to work with my friends at Spoke Art NYC and The L.I.S.A. Project NYC.
GATS provided a fresh update to one of my favorite rotating walls along Mulberry Street for The L.I.S.A. Project NYC (see above). Not an easy wall to photograph, so it’s especially worth checking out in person.
A hand-painted ad takeover also appeared in Brooklyn. Maybe it’s still there? Let’s hope so, but the lifespan on these things doesn’t tend to be all that long.
And of course there’s the project that brought GATS to town: Against The Grain, his solo show at Spoke Art. Great use of found materials, and as well as techniques like pyrography. Against The Grain is open through June 25th at Spoke’s location on the Lower East Side.
As much I’ve enjoyed the anti-Trump stickers that have been making up a healthy portion of my Instagram posts lately, they’re pretty basic: Trump sucks. We get it. New York agrees (except for maybe that one asshole putting up Infowars stickers in my neighborhood). I enjoy those stickers, but what I’d love to see some work that goes a bit deeper into the issues that Trump represents.
Luckily, there’s Alexandra Bell. Her new series of posters smacks you in the face, highlighting the everyday racism that was hiding in plain sight even before the age of “Trump’s America.” Bell has been putting her journalism degree to work critiquing articles from The New York Times to highlight the implicit bias in their stories, headlines, and page layout.
She starts with a real page layout from The New York Times, and redacts, critiques, or remakes the page to remove or highlight the paper’s implicit racial bias. Would Michael Brown have been referred to as “A Teenager Grappling with Problems and Promise” if he were white? Why was a major article about Brown given equal billing as an article about his killer? Why was Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s photo used below and article about the four white American swimmers who got caught vandalizing a Rio gas station?
Bell’s posters have been appearing across NYC, in the subways and on the street, and they’ve provoked differentreactions. At first look, they may be confusing, and that’s also why they’re so powerful. These alternative versions of the Times give a glimpse into a different reality, and in doing so highlight the racism still present in ours, even in supposedly liberal and culturally sensitive publications like The New York Times. It’s some of the best street art I’ve seen all year.