Re:Public

New York Street Art: Alive & Kicking

by Hrag Vartanian on September 9, 2010

One of Roa’s best pieces — even by his own admission — during his Brooklyn sojourn. (click to enlarge)

It’s a perpetual refrain among street art watchers that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to street art but I don’t subscribe to that theory. As soon as the warmer weather hits, New York in general — and Brooklyn in particular — always seems to explode with new visual energy that suggests street art still has a lot of life left in it.

This is my highlights for the year with tons of Flickr and blog links that will take you for a tour around the web.

Best in Show

Adam Wissing, Kenny Komer, and Boris Rasin’s street art poster mashed up the New Museum with the Jeff Koons-designed yacht for Dakis Joannou with the New Museum (click to enlarge)

The most notable contributions this season were the door pieces by Ema and Kid Acne (more here, here, here & here) who worked in unison to saturate the street art scape. Their pieces weren’t very loud or large but they were ubiquitous, diverse, and always well-placed — they proved that quantity doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality.

Another notable player was El Sol 25, whose large scale mash-ups showed a new level of skill that I hadn’t previously noticed in his hand-painted images, but that coupled with their ability to stay up without being disturbed on some major spots (1, 2) made him a force to be reckoned with.

Adam Wissing, Kenny Komer, and Boris Rasin may not really be dedicated “street artists” but they sure made a splash with their creative mash-up of the Jeff Koons-designed yacht for Dakis Joannou with a PR-ready image of the New Museum. They brought a new level of Photoshop expertise to a field that is still dominated — for better or worse — by hand-drawn works. They get a special award because the word on the street is that the trio were contacted by the New Museum who didn’t like that they consciously blurred their luxury brand.

Sometimes there are moments in street art watching when you say to yourself, “I wish I did that!” And last month, TrustCorp was the target of my latest bout of street art jealousy. The group pulled off what I consider the biggest coup of the year with their placement of a very witty “Islam Welcome Here” sign at the site of what has come to be known in the right-wing media as the “Ground Zero mosque,” even though it is really called the Cordoba Center. They struck at the height of the anti-Cordoba hysteria, and their pro-tolerance message even confused Fox News. TrustCorp gets an A+.

Big Boys, Big Problems

In terms of big street art brands, we have to mention that Banksy blew into town during his movie premiere a few months ago and, unfortunately, he seemed to bring his b-game to New York (1, 2, 3, 4 … ) stenciling images that didn’t seem all that worthy of his reputation. Even though his New York street pieces may not have been his best, it was still a little sad that they were quickly covered up by graffiti writer Omar (who is apparently a middle-aged old skool graff’er trying to get back in the game) and others. We shed a tear … but moved on.

Even when Fairey’s mural on Bowery & Houston was covered up it couldn’t catch a break from the graff’ers (photo via Luna Park)

Shepard Fairey was also in New York for Deitch Project’s swan song show titled May Day, and the LA-based artist got in trouble with the city’s Department of Buildings when it wasn’t obvious if the Deitch Wall he plastered with his distinctive manner of collage was an advertisement for his SoHo show or an art work — sorry, dude, you can’t have it both ways.

Fairey’s Houston mural was also a magnet for angry graffiti writers, who did everything possible to mess up his mural — including punching huge holes into it. It almost makes you wonder if Barry McGee’s piece for the same wall was a peace offering to the graff community.

Top, The original Fairey wall piece at the beginning of May, Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn (photo by Jake Dobkin); bottom left, Obey gets graffiti’d up by Poster Boy & others; bottom right, Specter “Law & Order: SUV”-ups the Fairey. (click to enlarge)

Speaking of Fairey, yesterday I noticed that one of his crew’s Williamsburg murals has been altered in such a crafty way that I had to go back to make sure it was in fact not in the original mural image. Props to the street artist remixer, most probably Specter, who, according to The Street Spot, devised similar interventions on pieces by Swoon, Faile, Bast & Skewville. I should also mention that Specter produced a series of fantastic sculptures (another one) that were definitely a high point of the past six months.

The Os Gemeos twins were one of two truly world-renowned global street artists to avoid graffiti haters and their (sanctioned) mural — painted last month — continues to stand tall in Chelsea. Swoon is the other street artist that graff’ers seem to like, and her cut outs continue to wow though there’s nothing really new here.

Certainly Notable

In terms of other noteworthy additions to the streetscape, here are some quick links that give you a taste of the riches that were there to be had.

There were the sanctioned pieces by Belgian street star Roa who was in town for his solo show at Factory Fresh. His monochromatic large-scale animal murals in Astoria, Bushwick, and Williamsburg were beautifully executed and striking.

White Cocoa turned heads with her distinctive drawings, like this one in East Williamsburg.

White Cocoa seemed to come out of nowhere, and her hand-drawn portraits were particularly riveting for their sense of movement (1, 2, 3, 4).

Overunder took care to place his striking pieces (1, 2, 3, 4) on color backgrounds to give them a sense of vibrancy.

Aakash Nihalani pulled off a geometric intervention on a stop sign in DUMBO that even bent looked pretty arresting.

Dan Witz is a veteran of street art but he hasn’t been slowing down. This year he is back at his super-realist hijinx that are often overlooked by the uniniated (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … ).

The big (street art nerd) news of the season is that the inevitable has happened and some anonymous talent in Greenpoint grew tired of the Dick Chicken and Pussy Ham’s mating ritual and decided to take matters into their own hands to consummate the very public courting and turn them into Chicken Ham.

Various & Gould of Germany had a show at Brooklynite earlier this year and during that period they made sure to give the citizens of New York a taste of their colorful creativity, which included (I think) jugglers, plumbers, and composite figures that I can’t even pretend to characterize.

Other visitors of note were Brits Sweet Toof and Nick Walker, Paris-based Jef Aerosol, French artist Ludo (1, 2, 3), Dolk from Norway, and Melbourne-based Miso was also in town with her Art Deco-inspired wheatpastes (1, 2).

Primo at the Lorimer L stop. (click to enlarge)

A few talents that pulled off a few eye-catching pieces were Veng of Robots Will Kill, Alison Corrie, Dude Company, Elbowtoe, and Primo (1, 2).

Showta was everywhere this year but the quality of his work oscillates between pretty damn good to meh.

Paul Richard has been up to his conceptual street art antics again, and his signs near various unsanctioned works have been getting funnier and funnier.

Sometimes I come across things that I can’t figure out, and this sculpture on Driggs Avenue back in April was short-lived but pretty impressive in that it explored a whole new direction for street art sculpture. Kudos to whoever it was by.

I also want to mention that Brooklyn-based Faile, who has been pretty dull in the last few years, up’d their game recently and I started noticing them again. Though, if you ask me they really need to shake things up a bit (1, 2, 3, 4).

One last thing, Mr. Brainwash arrived in the spring for his vanity gallery show in the Meatpacking District, but thankfully TrustCorp let him know that his brand of shlocky street art isn’t really welcome in them these parts.

Politics on the Street

Who knew Che & Mussolini worked so well together. (click to enlarge)

I was rather sad that there was only one really good New York street art response to the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but thankfully it was rather clever (if not perfectly executed) — it was also anonymous.

In terms of politics, there was no one more provocative that an artist whose name I don’t know. Whoever he is (and I’ve been told it is a he), he combined the figures of Che Guevara with Benito Mussolini to create a few memorable images (separate, combined).

Unfortunately, someone told me that the regular street art peeps don’t like him very much (“he looks like a cop,” someone mentioned) and his stuff got covered up in some nasty ways — though the intensity of the splash on his piece on Roebling Avenue makes me wonder if there isn’t some anti-communist or anti-fascist anger involved in the vandalism of the vandalism.

Originality Award

This octopus is obviously a New Yorker (click to enlarge)

And now finally, the hands down winner of the unofficial Hyperallergic Street Art Originality award goes to a brand new anonymous piece by MRtoll [thanks Luna Park for the tip!] that I’ve been obsessed with since Hyperallergic publisher Veken Gueyikian spotted it last Sunday morning. It depicts a blue octopus eating a slice of extra cheese pizza — how’s that for excellence in subject matter.

The small piece, which is glued in place on a quiet stretch of North 8th Street in Williamsburg, has a marvelous Futurama meets Rosemarie Fiore feel to it. Sure, it’s hilarious, absurd, and doesn’t have a chance in hell of surviving the streets of New York (I give it two weeks), but it’s one of those unusual finds that makes you fall in love with street art … yet again.

It just goes to prove that it’s never dull in New York and everyone fits in.

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  • http://twitter.com/j_d_hastings The_real_jd_hastings

    Aha- This is perfect timing for me. I was just speaking to a friend about street art and informal public art engagement (similar to what’s discussed here http://www.artfagcity.com/2010/09/09/img-mgmt-what-relational-aesthetics-can-learn-from-4chan/) with a friend as maybe being the most important movement of the last few decades in art. Taking it from the formal contexts of traditional gallery/museum spaces into the greater world where communal aesthetics can play out. While aware that many of the artists tag their creations, have recognizable styles and are credited in some form or other, I also think that relinquishing themselves of explicit reward (if not engaging in outright outright anonymity) is a big development from the 20th century and earlier where the cult of the Artist was very much a driving force.

    Right now I just have a lot of questions, as this is somewhat new to my brain, but I welcome these kind of larger reviews to help me focus my thoughts on the issue. Other people contributing to my thoughts on this are Heartsasarenas on tumblr and these http://www.flickr.com/photos/toni_tiller/sets/72157623202056632/ .

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