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.
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.
The mass-buffing was Blu’s response to an exhibition that has put the remains of one of his street pieces on display. Rather than allow his murals to be ripped from walls and displayed in what he considers an inappropriate context, Blu decided to remove all of his murals from the city. One major criticism that has been leveled at Blu, unfairly I think, is that buffing his own art was a spiteful response to the exhibition, depriving the public of popular murals. Hopefully, the critics who might have seen Blu’s protest as childish can appreciate dozens of Italian street artists coming together to make new street art in solidarity with Blu’s action.
Last week, we covered Blu‘s protest in Bologna, where he and a team of helpers buffed out all of his murals in the city (and some now face legal issues as a result). They were protesting an exhibition, Street Art – Banksy & Co., which includes murals by Blu that were removed off the streets of Bologna and are being exhibited against his wishes. I called on people to boycott the exhibition. However, the response from the street art community has been more mixed, with many supporting Blu, and others suggesting that Blu has acted like a petulant child. The exhibition opens today, so we’ll soon see how the public responds, and (as the show’s lead curator Christian Omodeo insists we hold our breath for) what the controversial mural remnants look like in the museum.
In the meantime, John Fekner, whose work is included in Banksy & Co. (as is the work of his long-time collaborator Don Leicht), reached out and shared his reactions with Vandalog. Fekner is a key historical figure in street art, a pioneer as a stencil artist with an unimpeachable record as a political artist and an artist’s artist.
Whether you stole a pencil from your schoolmate, or a lover from your best friend, or a stapler from work, the cold-hearted facts remain: everyone steals. We exist in a confusing and twisted reality of unscrupulous financial gain and artistic theft.
If you create rock, punk, rap or any other type of music, there’s no way of stopping some Muzak elevator-friendly dispirited interpretation of your original rebellious music.
If you originally aspired to be an underground artist; then just stay underground. Similarly, if you’re a musician, don’t get pissed off if a fan asks you to sign a copy of your cutout vinyl album that they bought for a buck or less.
In the 80s, low brow thieves literally ripped Keith Haring’s chalk drawings from subway advertising spaces and entrepreneurial high brow scoundrels ripped off New York City urban kids’ graffiti sketches for pennies.
The bottom line is: what’s done in public-doesn’t remain in public. There’s no protection for artists who trespass. It’s the chance one take outdoors.
If you create illegal art murals, street rules are always in effect:
1) You can’t stop a drunk in the middle of the night from pissing on your wall.
2) You can’t stop a bulldozer from razing your work.
3) You can’t stop a neighborhood anti-graffiti squad from painting over your work.
4) You can’t stop a well-dressed thief in a suit, or their hired slug with a chisel, from removing your wall work and hauling it off to their lair, garage, museum or art market.
Under any circumstances, don’t immediately and irrationally react. If your original aspirations were to be an artist- then just do what you were meant to do: be an artist. Don’t double shift and be a night watchman patrolling the streets to try and thwart thieves of your work. Unique temporary outdoor creations engendered a public conversation that includes everyone: art lovers and art haters, lowbrow and highbrow, and everyone who interacts with your public work.
If you analyze and then destroy your creations; that’s an overreaction. Courageous? Yes. But it goes beyond your original spirit, freedom and joy of creating your work. It might potentially backfire and flame unquenchable desires for something else: more acceptance, more branding, more visibility, more publicity, more interviews, more legendary status, etc. It’s tricky.
The rip-off and resale of an artist’s artwork continues long after the artist is gone. If the artist doesn’t erase it in his/her lifetime, there’s a good chance that the corrupt art world of bankers, developers, board of directors, scholars, academicians, curators or art history itself, will erase you.
Because Bologna’s wealthiest citizens and the powers-that-be cannot be trusted with street art, Blu and a crew of volunteers are in the process of buffing all of his murals in Bologna, Italy. Next week, a detestable exhibition opens in Bologna that will include chopped up murals by Blu and other street artists. The artists did not consent to the removal of their work, and, at least in Blu’s case, they are not happy about having it mangled and exhibited out of context. It also doesn’t help that the exhibition is backed by a large bank and shady Bologna power-brokers. In response, Blu has organized a mass buffing to remove all of his work, 20 years worth, from Bologna’s streets.
Blu has buffed his own work before, when property developers in Berlin were using his mural to sell condos. That was one mural. This time, it’s every one of his murals in an entire city. And it makes sense. Blu’s murals art anti-state, anti-bank, environmentalist, anti-capitalist, pro-activist… certainly not made to make bankers and career politicians look good. To remove these murals and exhibit them in this exhibition is to completely upend their meaning and importance. It’s a disgrace.
The must-read full story of what’s happening in Bologna, as well as the political context of the mural and the exhibition, including the can be found here. A few choice quotes from that article:
This exhibition will embellish and legitimise the hoarding of art taken off the street, which is only going to please unscrupled collectors and merchants.
This “street art” exhibition is representative of a model of urban space that we must fight, a model based on private accumulation which commodifies life and creativity for the profits of the usual few people.
After having denounced and criminalised graffiti as vandalism, after having oppressed the youth culture that created them, after having evacuated the places which functioned as laboratories for those artists, now Bologna’s powers-that-be pose as the saviours of street art.
The people who take this action don’t accept that yet another shared asset is appropriated, they don’t want yet another enclosure and a ticket to buy.
On his blog, Blu has written a brief statement about the buffing: “In Bologna, there is no more Blu, and there will be no more while the tycoons speculate [on street art]. For acknowledgments or complaints, you know who to contact.”
Online, the international street art community has largely been echoing Blu’s statement and supporting the mass buffing:
Andreco, who helped buff Blu’s murals, said, “Deciding which wall to paint or not paint has always been one of our free choice. This operation, to uncork the walls and move them elsewhere, oversteps this freedom.”
Living Walls’ Mónica Campana said, “It’s been a fun ride y’all, but this is over.”
Nuart’s Martyn Reed said, “Go Blu,” and called the action “one of Street’s Art’s most audacious and important moves in recent times.”
Blu’s mass-buffing is unfortunate, but admirable and necessary. The murals will be missed, but his action helps ensure that Bologna’s public spaces are for the people of Bologna, not the profit of Bologna’s elite. Bologna’s curators and elites deserve only grey walls. Bologna’s people deserve this massive reset button, which returns public space to the public and creates an opportunity for the next generation counter-cultural content.
As fans, the only respectable action is to support Blu and the people of Bologna by boycotting the Museo della Storia di Bologna’s “street art exhibition.”
Two of the most provocative murals painted in New York this summer come from Nemo’s, an Italian street artist on his first visit to NYC. Both pieces can be found in Williamsburg, a neighborhood where murals function as billboards and billboards masquerade as murals.
First came 1 Gram (which happens to be the weight of a dollar bill). Brooklyn Street Art notes that the piece faced a bit of censorship, in that the wall owner didn’t like the penis on Nemo’s character and the artist agreed to remove it. But it seems a bit silly to quibble over castration when the penis was a relatively minor component of the mural and it’s overall message is already so bold and potentially controversial.
Nemo’s followed that up with Stocks – Pillory. At first, the mural might seem a bit cliché: Another critique of the TV entertaining us with the public shaming our latest victim. Except that it’s not quite so simple and cliché. The victim isn’t trapped. The key is just around the corner, and the “prisoner” could probably reach it if he tried. Or, better yet, he could just back right out of his prison. The hole of the pillory are much larger than his head and his hands. But instead of slipping out to freedom, he maintains his clearly painful television existence. And we watch on. Entertained.
Actually, in both murals, the men are there by choice. In Stocks – Pillory, the man rests in the faux-pillory, and in 1 Gram, he feeds himself into the meat slicer. All it would take to stop the agony would be for them to take a step back to examine their lives. But we all know that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. And so the torture of contemporary society continues.
No matter how you read them, neither mural is decorative, the dominant trend in “street art muralism” lately. You’d be hard-pressed to find many street artists painting such provocative murals, especially in New York City. Unless of course, the mural is actually just an ad. When street artists are judged by their murals and those murals get them gallery shows and print releases and larger murals and corporate-commissioned murals, when “street art muralism” is a career path, decorative sells. Why mess with that?
So many street artists are like Nemo’s men: seeing no viable alternative, they sacrifice themselves to the entertainment, advertising, and real estate industries. But the biggest names in Italian street art buck the trend. Nemo’s follows in the tradition of Blu, Ericailcane, and Ozmo, as well as the notoriously rebellious attitude of FAME Festival.
But that’s just a negotiating tactic. It doesn’t explain why other street artists stick to decoration, or why mural festivals tend to work with those artists. So maybe they shouldn’t. The alternative isn’t an impossibility. Take a page of Nemo’s book. You can step back from the pillory and you can stop slicing off your face.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post from the anonymous artist/activist collective RexisteMX. I want to thank RexisteMX for drawing attention to and providing this local perspective on a recent case of censorship in Mexico City. – RJ Rushmore
Everything started on a February evening when a bucket of black paint and a roller met a wall in Mexico City, a wall that had just been painted by a well-known artist as part of a local gallery’s street art festival. That evening, the festival succumbed to fear, a deep fear that runs through the veins of this country, permeating citizens’ hearts and souls.
#ManifiestoMX is a street art festival organized by FIFTY24MX, a gallery of “young art”. For the festival, they invited artists such as Blu, Swoon, Ericailcane, JAZ, Bastardilla and Saner to create murals around Mexico City. The goal, in their own words, was to create murals that “pointed out themes about the protest and the awareness of the contemporary situation in Mexico. Using art as a social tool to complain, debate and propose.” The artists were there “to express, through murals, their opinion.”
At first, this project awakened a great interest among local artists and fans of street art. For the first time, we would be able to see international icons of critical art and resistance creating murals in our neighborhoods.
One of the #ManifiestoMX artists best known for critical and politically charged muralism, as well as the resistance to the commercialization of art, is Ericailcane. It was his mural that sparked a controversy at #ManifiestoMX and brought the deep-seed fears of so many Mexican citizens to light.
Ericailcane’s mural was a critique of Enrique Peña Nieto, “President” of Mexico, pictured as a circus monkey who dances to the tune of applause and clanging pesos. Powerful, right? Perhaps because that’s the truth about a man who found his way into government thanks to the applause of television and the power of the money, buying the votes of the poor; maybe because it is the reality of a Mexico governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has worked hard to dismantle the country’s democracy and kill indigenous people to steal their natural resources, all the while feigning a war against drugs that leaves thousands of civilians dead while the drugs are still running and reaching the United States. It was an honest mural. Too honest for a Mexico where the government has made its people fear that anyone who thinks differently from the PRI might be silenced or disappeared, just like the 43 students from Ayotzinapa.
On the morning of February 22nd, we went to photograph Ericailcane’s mural, but we were surprised that instead of the tricolor band shown in FIFTY24MX’s photo, which was how the mural made clear reference to Enrique Peña Nieto, there was a thin black line around the monkey’s neck. We tweeted at the organizers and asked why there had been censorship, but the only thing we got was silence. Silence and more censorship. Later, we noticed that the comments addressing the mural’s censorship were being deleted from FIFTY24MX’s Facebook page. The pressure on the gallery intensified as the question echoed across social networks: Why was there censorship at ManifiestoMX?
Only after continued pressure on social media did the organizers of ManifiestoMX at FIFTY24MX respondbrieflyto say, “The owners of the building asked for the colors of the strip to be changed so the piece would not be taken down,” and “they are people of another generation who are accustomed to living in fear, and you have to respect that.”
Case solved, right? As long as the government didn’t paint out the mural, what does it matter? But PRI has been in power forever. This censorship only proves that the PRI are not a political party; they are now a way of life. It’s a daily terror, so why worry?
That fearful February evening, the owner of a wall, the gallery, and the artist accepted self-censorship. With a bucket of black paint and the fear to question or be critical, an artwork was painted out. Why? Because fear is natural and respectable; because urban art is cool; because it’s “in”; because being critical is good so long as it keeps selling, so long as it doesn’t cross the imaginary lines drawn by the state; because in Mexico art is only supposed to be a hollow shell without content, something pretty that doesn’t say anything.
Contradictory to his gallery’s practice of deleting comments reacting to the censorship on FIFTY24MX’s social media pages, Emilio Ocampo from FIFTY24MX told the Huffington Post, “They wanted us to change the colors to black. But you know what? We like that censorship, and the reactions it produced. That also means that the message bothered someone. We love both images: with the tricolored ribbon and now with black.”
And what about us, the spectators? Do we like censorship? Is censorship good now? Do we reproduce it? Do we accept it? In the face of censorship, do we protest, or we do remain silent? Is it that censorship is not so bad? Is it just part of our daily lives now, so we have to accept it? And what if we, like FIFTY24MX, like censorship? How do we express our “Manifesto”? Do we self-censor and paint nothing? Do we paint something controversial and then censor it? Or is that anti-censorship? We’re lost now.
“We think this incident is a reflection of the self-censorship that we decide to live in,” FIFTY24MX’s co-director Liliana Carpinteyro told the Huffington Post. But others, like us, believe that the normalization of censorship is a reflection of a country that we do not choose to live in. We cannot produce art that reveals or pushes boundaries at the same time that we follow the rules of a government that is keeping us silent, disappearing us, killing us. To start making critical art in Mexico, we must expel the tendency towards self-censorship that the PRI has instilled in all of us.
We should paint in a country where we do not accept silence about censorship, whether imposed directly by the government or self censorship out of fear. We can’t let another bucket of black paint cover another mural that we all know speaks the truth and points towards our shared dream of freedom. Ericailcane’s mural cannot stand as a monument to self-censorship. It has to be a starting point for discussion and debate. Its desecration will not silence us from further reflection or action. We must continue using critical art to transform our reality.
Last week, Blu shocked Berlin by orchestrating the removal of two of his own iconic murals, including a mural that was at one point a collaboration with JR. The murals were located in the city’s famous Kreuzberg neighborhood, which was once home to squatters and artists, but is now undergoing significant and swift gentrification.
The squatters in the buildings Blu had painted were recently evicted, and a real estate developer is about to build on the empty lot in front of the murals. Apparently, the new condos would have had a great view of the murals. So, one night last week, a team with two lifts painted the walls black, and they did it with Blu’s support.
Blu commented, “After witnessing the changes happening in the surrounding area during the last years, we felt it was time to erase both walls.”
Even though I’m not sure I entirely agree with his actions, I definitely say bravo to Blu for sticking to his principles. I’m sad to see these murals go, but their removal is one of the greatest statements made about street art this year. Blu’s street art is highly political, as was this act. Blu decided what to do with his murals before that right could be taken away from him or the murals could be co-opted by a property developer. He took control of a space, just as he did when he first painted the murals in 2007 and 2008. These pieces were painted for old Kreuzberg, not yuppie Kreuzberg, and the yuppies can’t have them.
Finally, of course, here’s what the murals used to look like (after JR’s wheatpastes had decayed and Blu painted goggles in their place):
Michael Beerens is a a Parisian artist. He started doing graffiti in the late ’90s but transitioned to more illustrative work in 2007, after a serious motorcycle incident which left him in a hospital bed for nearly 6 months. “I realized that graffiti, the way I practiced it, was a completely selfish act and limited in time, jail was always around the corner,” Beerens states in his bio. “Gradually I started using painting as my forum, a way of conveying a message, an idea.” It’s not clear if his transition from ‘graffiti’ to ‘street art’ was also a transition from working illegally to doing more commissioned walls, however he implies that doing street art, to whatever degree, is a lesser risk of arrest than graffiti. I know this is a commonly accepted idea now but I’ve never seen it in an artist statement.
Beerens work is heavily symbolic, often using animals to depict metaphors for struggle, subversion and the daily grind. The combination of his selective use of color, the detailed conglomerations of human-objects to construct larger objects (i.e. the bird’s nest above) are quite reminiscent of Blu.
Blu recently finished two murals in Niscemi, Italy, where residents are protesting the US Navy’s installation of communications satellites which will be integral to controlling the next generation of military drones.
The above piece is one of my favorites from Blu in quite a while. The drones slowly transform into crosses at a graveyard, and the multitudes of Niscemi stand up and resist against the military monster. Besides the ethical concerns about drones, residents are also worried about the electromagnetic waves that the communications satellites will emit. Check out the No MUOS website for more information about the protests.
While the idea of satellite dishes as visual pollution would probably come up anywhere, it’s especially relevant in Niscemi, which looks like an absolutely beautiful place. Just have a look at the spectacular view just next to this mural.
And I also want to give major props to Blu for continuing his mission as a mural painter on his terms, even when he could certainly be making a living by painting at mural festivals around the world and selling his work indoors. Instead, he gets to paint what he wants, where he wants, when he wants, but he doesn’t have the easiest time of it. Any other muralist of Blu’s fame and talent would have a scaffolding or a lift to get help him paint, but all Blu had for these murals was a ladder and an extendable pole…