By Anne Johnson
NEW YORK CITY – Late at night a man works diligently gluing a colorful poster on a wall between Chrystie and Delancey Street. On the poster a young woman is painted in graphic red and black. The man, artist Shepard Fairey, quickly smoothes out the surface of the poster to secure it to the brick wall behind.
Fairey is widely known for his recent portrait of President Barack Obama that now rests in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. As far as street artists go, Fairey is uncommonly successful. But he does represent a growing underground street artist population.
An increasing number of New York City artists are rejecting conventional gallery spaces and taking to the streets and subway stations in an attempt to confront people with their anti-consumerist messages. The point to all of this? To jar the viewer by threatening the boundaries of public and private space. To interject opinionated works of art into public environments and force people to look, question, and ultimately act out against the materialistic values.
One such artist is Henry Matyjewicz, who goes by Poster Boy. Wearing a mask to conceal his identity, Poster Boy slices and dices subway advertisements to create his own social commentaries with the scraps. An example of his work is a McDonald’s ad featuring Olympian Usain Bolt reworked to read “McDorse the world” portraying Bolt as Ronald McDonald with his signature red hair.
The key, according to artist Caledonia Curry, is to upset “the inertia of people’s passive acceptance of an environment.”
Curry, previously a student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, dropped out to pursue street art. Like Poster Boy, Curry rebels against the cookie-cutter “packaged experience” found in gallery spaces. “So much of the work that I was seeing felt cold and distant and irrelevant,” explains Curry. “I wanted to make something which wasn’t an object and couldn’t belong to anyone.”
A common thread throughout the street art movement is this straight forward, in-your-face anti-consumerism. Graffiti artist Christian Paine said the message in his work is “to remember life is a joke and the punch line is you.”
Paine’s work, such as a portrait of a dog with the eulogy-like caption, “Susy was vindictive”, may not have a clear message, but that’s the point. There is a purposive missing link between the image and the viewer. The viewer is meant to feel like an outsider looking in on Paine’s work.
But with recent arrests of Poster Boy and Fairey, the distinguishing line between this new counter-culture art and outright vandalism grows thinner by the day.
With such unconventional, not to mention illegal, canvases, street artists risk several federal consequences in the name of art. The NYPD “Combating Graffiti” Handbook states, “Graffiti vandalism is a crime punishable by a jail term, monetary fine and/or community service.”
When asked why she would risk a federal conviction for the streets, Curry responded, “Being illegal it’s naturally unregulated and in that way supremely free . . . the only way to be truly free,” she continues, “is to be outside of the limitations of the law; outside of the laws of commerce as well.”
According to the NYPD, Curry and other artist’s ‘freedom’ resulted in a “nationwide epidemic costing billions of dollars each year”. In fact, in 1994 the NYPD created the Anti-Graffiti/City-Wide Vandals Task Force specifically to combat the growing portfolios of street and graffiti artists. (The Task Force declined an interview.)
Their mission states, “Task Force members are dispatched in plainclothes, across the city, to target the areas hardest hit by vandals.” The officers work to compile entries in their “Worst of the Worst” book that includes the worst offenders.
Recognition may be another reason artists are hitting the streets, although they may not admit it. Nancy Deihl, a professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions at New York University, points out, “with the enormous amount of coverage available to people who do any kind of interesting art, working in public is potentially an avenue to great recognition.” These artists build recognition without the need of acceptance from the art community.
Though, the art world is beginning to take notice. Galleries specifically dedicated to street art have sprung up worldwide. The Deitch Gallery in New York has shown multiple exhibitions by street artists including Caledonia (Swoon) Curry.
When asked if these exhibitions contradict the purpose of her street art, Curry claims, “I am still divided about it.” She goes on to explain that offering her work up for sale has allowed her to realize larger artistic goals and support herself in the process. “I’m happy,” she adds.
Another factor is the draw of the inevitable fatality. Fairey’s wheat-paste prints and Poster Boy’s mixed up advertisements, even graffiti will eventually be destroyed. “They are temporal moments of beauty which were more a part of the city itself than a singular object,” describes Curry.
Today, Fairey’s paste up is unrecognizable. Remnants of the red roses that adorned the woman’s body are all that remain. Just as superficial beauty fades; the poster’s “temporal moment” is over.