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September 1, 2009

The Art of the Question

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , , , — Alex Rawls @ 8:49 am

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Recently, The Times-Picayune’s Doug MacCash recorded a video that considered the questions posed by the “READ” graffiti that has popped up recently around town. The open-ended nature of graffiti is part of what makes it so provocative and controversial. Is a mark on a wall a private expression, a threat to others, or something else entirely? What does a stenciled angry cat or pope mean when it shows up on a wall? Does it mean anything, or is it a form of urban surrealism, throwing a visual non-sequitur into an otherwise-defined environment?

One of the things I find most engaging about graffiti is its designed impermanence. The artist/tagger – I don’t assume all graffiti-makers are artists – has to know the work won’t last, and that they’re a temporary part of an environment. Earlier this summer, someone pasted up what looked like a Charles Burns portrait of Elton John on a Tchoupitoulas warehouse, and its stark, graphic look and logo – “icon” – gave a banal urban space a note of whimsy and low-grade mystery. Before a month was out, it had been scraped off. When Banksy came to town after Hurricane Gustav, much of his work was gone within the month, painted over by property owners, marred by other graffiti artists, and perhaps painted over by Fred Radke (though Radke may have been framed in the partially successful paint-over of the piece across Clio Street from the Big Top). Some, however, remain.

My current favorite is already in danger. Someone has pasted up pages with the lyrics to Big Star’s “Thirteen” on a Tchoupitoulas Street warehouse a few blocks Uptown from the convention center. The poster-maker ran together part of the first verse and part of the second, but the series of signs is a charming mystery. Why Big Star in 2009? Why “Thirteen” – hardly a song charged with some sort of subterranean buzz? In fact, the song’s evocation of youth and young love seems even sweeter posted on a wall as a series of signs you can sing along to. But even the signs come with an additional mystery. Next to them is a stenciled woman. Was she put there by the same person? Or did someone see the Big Star lyrics and think that a more mature, grim presence might add some needed gravity? Whatever the case, a long white wall that was once a banal part of an industrial roadway is now alive with possibilities, and it’s only made more interesting by the realization that those possibilities won’t be there forever. You’ve got to see them before rain or do-gooders wash them away.

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June 13, 2009

Back to Banksy

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 1:05 pm

A few of the works of British artist Banksy remain on display here – the real Bart Simpson, the Gray Ghost vs. a Stick Figure and the girl dealing with acid rain to name a few – but he now has a gallery show in England with the same lacerating sense of humor. Here’s the story.

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October 2, 2008

The Trouble with Banksy

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 10:15 am

There are three Banksy pieces done in New Orleans that are little discussed because few saw them – a silhouette of a child playing a trumpet on the side of a house, a rat and a turtle in a helmet painted on a door. Likely, the door and the segments of wall were taken down to preserve the pieces. Though Banksy’s gallery work sells for five and six figures, selling his graffiti work has been harder because he refuses to authenticate graffiti work. The New York Times quotes a representative as saying:

“Banksy prefers street work to remain in situ, and building owners tend to become irate when their doors go missing because of a stencil.”

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Another Banksy Down

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 7:29 am

Graffiti/public artist Banksy hit the city with a series of works with, as his Web site says, the purpose of confronting Fred Radke, “The Gray Ghost,” who is known for painting over graffiti in battleship gray paint. Radke doesn’t appear to have been responsible for any of the pieces that have been removed so far. The newest piece to go down through other hands is the painting of the National Guard looting a building at the corner of Elysian Fields and Decatur. The piece was considered wrongheaded by many who objected to his depiction of the Guard as looters, and it looks like one of those people has scrubbed out the guardsmen, leaving the shopping cart filled with electronics untouched.

If you want haven’t seen them yet, here’s how.

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September 24, 2008

Banksy update

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 5:20 am

In the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about the Banksy pieces on display around town. See them while you can because they won’t be there forever. Another one has bitten the dust, though it doesn’t look like Fred Radke’s responsible. The child flying a refrigerator like a kite on St. Claude has been whitewashed over, returning that wall to its pre-Banksy state.

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September 19, 2008

More Banksy: Why See Them?

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 4:40 am

If you haven’t taken the Banksy driving tour yet, you’ve already missed a piece, but not to Fred Radke unless he has drastically changed his style. Someone spraypainted over the boy swinging in the life preserver at Claiborne and Reynes in the Lower Ninth Ward. That’s unfortunate, but it also underlines part of the excitement of public art – it’s temporary nature. Time, the weather, mischievous hands or other forces will likely claim all of his work here eventually.

His work is not only worth seeing because it’s a cool moment in New Orleans cultural history, but because his pieces do what smart graffiti does; it reanimates an otherwise mundane public space. Gang-related graffiti and tagging – if you assume taggers are connected to gangs – do so in a negative way, putting a sign of possible danger in an otherwise neutral space. There is a stenciler whose work has been intriguing, as he/she has stenciled Pee Wee Herman on the Tchoupitoulas Street flood wall, an angry cat in a party hat on Frenchmen Street, and the Pope on a power line pole. His/her work makes spaces more mysterious, asking passersby to figure out the relationship between the work and the space. Radke has eradicated much of the stenciler’s work, but recently, he/she has started stenciling Radke’s likeness on walls with a voice balloon. Why the voice balloon? Is it to suggest that Radke don’t say nuthin’, he just keeps on rollin’ along, or is it a space left for other graffiti artists to fill in the blanks? 

Banksy also makes his works with stencils, but they’re more sophisticated, allowing for multiple colors, and he has more technique. The painter on Clio and Carondelet is stenciled on the wall, but the illusion of wrinkles in his cover-alls is created by zigzagging white paint horizontally down his torso. His work also has a clear agenda. Unlike the stenciler whose working in a dada style, throwing incongruous images in public spaces, Banksy is clearly sympathetic to the underclass and suspicious of authority. The best of his work uses images, not slogans, to politicize public spaces. Because they went up seemingly overnight, they also gave us pause to reconsider our relationships to those spaces. How long have they been here? Has this been here a while and I just missed it? That was certainly my reaction to the looting National Guardsmen at Elysian Fields and Decatur near the OffBeat offices. 

But if all that doesn’t speak to you, then the pieces are simply resonant as works of art. They’re clever, provocative and well-executed. When I see the silhouetted pieces, they bring to mind silhouettes left after another manmade disaster – those left on the walls of Hiroshima after the H-Bomb was dropped. Whether he intended that reference or not doesn’t matter; the works speak intelligently and echo in a lot of directions. 

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September 15, 2008

Banksy Driving Tour

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , — Alex Rawls @ 6:37 am

Doug MacCash’s story on the public/graffiti artist Banksy’s New Orleans works is now up at the Times-Picayune Web site and the locations of the pieces are in the paper and on the Web site. Here’s a driving tour to see all of the ones highlighted in the paper and one that isn’t.

1. Cross the Claiborne Ave bridge into the Lower Ninth Ward. Once you cross, look to your left for an abandoned tire store and a green building on Reynes Street. There’s a boy on a life preserver swing on the side of the green building.
2. Take Reynes toward the river to St. Claude, then turn left to Forstall St. Look for an old guy in the rocker on a moldy green-colored building.
3. Take St. Claude toward the Quarter. At the point after St. Roch when the road veers left, there’s a large white wall in front of you with the boy flying the fridge/kite.
4. Continue to Kerlerec and turn left. On the corner is a girl with rain coming from under her umbrella.
5. Go down Kerlerec to a street you can take left back to Elysian Fields. Take E. Fields toward the river, then loop around to Decatur to the lakebound lane and find the looting National Guardsmen on the corner.
6. Go back to Rampart heading toward Canal St. Once you pass Armstrong Park, turn toward Basin Street and follow it lakebound as it becomes Orleans. Turn right on the first street after Armstrong Park, and on the left side of the street on a damaged wall is a girl afraid of rat. You have to get out to see that the rat is partially composed of a damaged spot on the wall.
7. Take the next left to Claiborne, then turn right on Claiborne and go to St. Bernard, where you turn right. Look to the lakebound side of the street once you turn the corner and you’ll see the real life Bart Simpson on the side street. It’s on a one-way the wrong way, so you have to go around the block to get next to it.
8. From there, get back to Claiborne heading toward Canal St. Turn right on Orleans and get on the I-10 West, then get off at the Canal St. exit. The offramp will bring you face to face with homeless Abe Lincoln.
9. From there, take whatever route you like through the CBD and Warehouse District to get St. Charles and Clio. Turn right at Clio and once you pass the Big Top/3 Ring Circus on the left, look right for a painter painting over sunflowers. This one has been defaced with a gray blotch covering what was once a sunflower. The work of Radke? Seems unlikely since he doesn’t tend to leave jobs half-done. The work of Banksy? Possible, but since he has brown patches that simulate roller marks, it seems odd that he’d also do a gray-out job in the Radke style. More likely someone trying to frame Radke, I suspect. Or, maybe that gray patch was already there – the only hint of the sunflower is a flower pot and a small, uncovered petal – and Banksy painted to it.  

[Oct. 2 Note: Today I found a photo of this piece on flickr.com that shows a pre-defaced version. It looks like Banksy grayed out part of one sunflower Radke style, but the second sunflower marked out with a tan paint was done by someone else.]
10. Take a right then a right and head for Tchopitoulas. On Tchop, go to Jackson and turn right. In the second or third block, look at the riverbound side of the street for the side of an abandoned fire house at 512 Jackson. On the river side of the building, a painter is painting over a horrified stick figure. 

Banksy’s Web site shows a few that aren’t included in this tour because no one I know has found them. It also includes a marching band playing in gas masks. That one was on Oretha Castle Haley, but the building’s caretaker painted over it.

When he wrote of coming here to challenge “the Gray Ghost” – Fred Radke’s nickname – that struck me as dramatic and a little silly, but this project demonstrates how largely Radke’s anti-graffiti efforts loom in the consciousness of the underground arts community. A British artist knows of his efforts, and anyone I talked to about the pieces feared that Radke would get to them. In MacCash’s video accompanying his story online, an interviewed subject wouldn’t mention where he was when admiring the girl with the umbrella for fear of giving away its location to Radke. My suspicion is that if these are defaced or disappear, it won’t be at Radke’s hand. They’re more likely to be marked up by those who want to discredit Radke’s efforts, or they’ll be painted over at an owner’s request – though many but not all of the buildings are abandoned – or someone’s going to try to figure out how to preserve the pieces and get them off the walls because Banksy’s art sells. Still, time and exposure means these are impermanent pieces even if Radke never gets to them, so see them while you can.

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September 13, 2008

The Best Art Show Not Behind Walls

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , — Alex Rawls @ 1:41 pm

Shortly before Hurricane Gustav, British street artist Banksy came to New Orleans to do a series of graffiti/public art pieces (you pick your name for them & I’ll pick mine) with the themes of Katrina, poverty and Fred Radke, who has made a name for himself putting blocks of battleship gray paint over graffiti in the city. The works are elaborate stencils, which gives them a level of precision most graffiti artists could only dream of, and part of the aesthetic is that the works are made be stumbled across, adding a new, unpredictable and inexplicable element to urban landscapes. If you’d rather stumble across them but want to know what you’re looking for, you can go to Banksy’s Web site. They’re not all pictured, but most are. At The Times-Picayune, Doug MacCash has been tracking the Banksy story and drama (start reading at the September 5 entry).

Part of the drama has been what will happen to the pieces. One on Elysian Fields has been boarded over – to save it, perhaps? – but one has already been painted over, though not by Radke, who Banksy set out to challenge with his work. “I came to New Orleans to do battle with the Gray Ghost, a notorious vigilante who’s been systematically painting over any graffiti he can find with the same shade of grey paint since 1997,” he writes on his Web site. “Consequently he’s done more damage to the culture of the city than any section five hurricane could ever hope to achieve.” Two pieces specifically target Radke, depicting a man painting over a horrified stick figure at one location and painting over a sunflower in another. That one, incidentally, does have some gray obscuring one of the sunflowers, but since the rest of the work is untouched, my suspicion is that the gray paint is the work of a Radke-hater trying to frame him for defacing the work. Many of the pieces are so large and so obviously crafted, it’s hard to imagine Radke taking them on. In one case, it would almost require him to repaint the wall.

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