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Graffiti art pops up in an unlikely place

click to enlarge Sonny Wong's "Street Space #2"

Sonny Wong's "Street Space #2"

Who the hell allowed this to happen? Graffiti art? At the Humboldt County Airport?

Well, yes and no. Bands of masked graffiti writers did not invade the airport and spray paint the planes. But four well-known artists from the Humboldt graffiti scene have installed a show that, while leaning toward street art, still holds tight to graffiti roots.

"Street Art Today" is the latest exhibit to grace our local landing strip. Past features have highlighted the wonders of the native landscape and our plethora of provincial painters, but this installation takes a decidedly different turn. Graffiti-based artists have proudly taken up a six-month residence thanks to the efforts of airport art curator Rachel Schlueter, Redwood Art Association representative Bob Haynes and local artist Thomas "Sonny Wong" Atwood. Wong's aerosol letters grace the walls along with works from Sam Kagan, Christopher Dmise and Ananda Oliveri.

It may seem strange for this anti-establishment art form to blossom in such an official institutional location, and that contrast is exactly what Schlueter was looking for. Many people have a knee-jerk reaction to graffiti and street art, and it's easy to discredit the genre. Some folks might never look past graffiti's illegal status to see the social messages and artistic vibrancy inherent to this art form, which severely restricts the artistic credit that many writers deserve. Schlueter, however, sees things differently. By putting graffiti-inspired art at the airport, she hopes to validate such work and spark a dialogue about graffiti's status in our society.

What's the distinction between graffiti and street art? Graffiti started with young writers (those who write graffiti regularly) in the late '70s. Using new spray paint technology, they exploited trains, billboards and other public spaces to promote themselves and earn the respect of other writers. Forty years later, graffiti is now a worldwide phenomenon and recognized as an important social art form despite its continued and widespread illegality.

Writers, therefore, are a secretive and exclusive bunch. They manipulate the Roman alphabet into distinct and original artworks that express their individuality and creative impulses. Like any art form, graffiti doesn't happen in a vacuum. It is the writers' deliberate decision to focus their artistic energy in this way and they face extreme risks for doing so.

Street art, in contrast, is more widely accepted and has a different goal. While graffiti writers intend, primarily, to impress each other, street artists seek a broader recognition. Their artistic roots lie in the foundation created by graffiti writers, yet street artists employ a more graphic, image-based aesthetic, rather than sticking strictly to letters. The result is a hybrid of graffiti and fine art. Sometimes it's done without permission on the street, other times it finds its way into galleries and art shows.

Schlueter sought permission to bring a show to the airport and tapped Wong to gather a group of artists from the local scene. Working together with Haynes, they developed the idea over nearly a year. Wong, presuming that hard-core graffiti-letter art might ruffle some institutional feathers, directed the artists to create works that were more closely aligned with street art.

Still, the artists' graffiti aesthetic shines through. Even though they are no longer active writers, years of involvement in the graffiti scene have shaped their skills with spray-painted images. Some of the paintings are more abstract, with layers of aerosol paint and twisted letters announcing the foundation of the artists' influences. One of the strongest graffiti-style paintings by Wong, "Street Space #2," hangs directly in front of the TSA checkpoint. Its rich surface drips with layers of spray paint, and the allusions to illegal graffiti stand in sharp juxtaposition to the officers, metal-detectors, and X-ray equipment only a few steps away.

In keeping with the spirit of dialogue between styles, Dmise's "Warbler Party" pulls viewers in with pleasing color harmonies, succulent, star-shaped patterns and masterful spray-can skills. For Schlueter, having graffiti-style work in the context of the airport is an opportunity to educate people about this misunderstood art form. In this venue, street art becomes sanctioned and viewers have permission to think about it differently. "It gives them the opportunity to reexamine their own feelings about graffiti," Schlueter says, "and maybe change their minds about it or reorient their understanding."

Such forced exposure harkens back to the roots of graffiti, when commuters and travelers in New York were faced with a stream of subway cars swathed with spray paint. "We're bombarded all the time with things that we don't have a choice to look at," says Wong, who states that this show is a chance to show Humboldt County that "it's not just vandalism." The inclusion of other forms of graffiti-inspired art further demonstrates the artistic continuum on which graffiti artists find themselves.

"I think no matter what kind of art you're talking about, people are going to have an opinion and agree or disagree, and that discussion is exciting," remarks Schlueter. Bob Haynes claims a show like this "expands the vision as to what is acceptable" in the art world and in our society. Like it or not, graffiti and its spin-offs are here to stay and "Street Art Today" is a critical reminder of the diversity in artistic expressions. It's now up to you, Humboldt, to weigh in on the discussion.

Check out Ken Weiderman's Master's thesis, Illicit literacy and legitimate learning: examining the situated learning experiences of graffiti writers in a small, northern California town, can be found here.

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Ken Weiderman

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