Outlaws. That's what they were considered when they spray-painted walls and bombed subway cars with modern-day hieroglyphics. They worked in alleys and train yards, bridges and tunnels. Now, many of them are being celebrated in a massive warehouse near Los Angeles' Chinatown.
The exhibition "Beyond the Streets" focuses on the studio work street artists created later in their careers. It has more 40,000-square feet of paintings, murals, photos, installations and even old video games. (NPR gave "Beyond the Streets" a small amount of support as a media partner.)
"This is vandalism as contemporary art, or contemporary art as vandalism, depending on how you want to look at it," says curator Roger Gastman, co-author of The History of American Graffiti. "Street art has become such a buzzword, and lot of the motivation for doing a show like this was to show who the true artists respected by people inside the culture are."
The show includes 100 artists, living and deceased; "risk takers," Gastman says, whose work connects with and inspires artists today. There are classic works by Keith Haring, TAKI 183, Jenny Holzer, SWOON, Jean-Michel Basquiat and photographers Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper. There are also newer works by CRASH, FUTURA 2000, LADY PINK and Shepard Fairey.
Artist Kenny Scharf has decked out a Day-Glo, black-lit room for this show, and Lee Quiñones has painted a full-size handball court. Some of L.A.'s legends are here too: street gardener/activist Ron Finley constructed one of his outdoor gardens, and tattoo and graffiti artist Mister Cartoon created his own chapel.
"Our art criticizes the art system"
Then there are the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of artists who hide their faces with gorilla masks. The group formed 33 years ago in New York to protest the lack of women artists in museums and galleries, and the way women are represented in the art world.
They plastered the streets with humorous, in-your-face posters, some of which are on display at "Beyond the Streets." One of their most well-known billboards points out that less than 4 percent of the modern art on display at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was created by women, while 76 percent of the nudes are female. Another huge poster depicts a gorilla head with crazy, spiral zombie eyes. It reads, "If you keep women out, they get resentful."
One of the group's founders goes by the pseudonym Käthe Kollwitz, a name borrowed from a German political artist born in 1867. She says, "Our art criticizes the art system, and we thought this up in the first place because we loved what we saw on the streets of New York: political posters, graffiti, tagging, art on the streets."
Their criticism has gotten their art into major museums around the world. But Kollwitz notes that, ironically, the number of women artists included in "Beyond the Streets" isn't great.
"There have always been issues with women in graffiti art," she says.
Tokyo-born street artist Aiko Nakagawa, who goes by Lady AIKO and AIKO, combines graffiti art techniques with 18th-century Japanese woodblock printing to make large-scale works. For "Beyond the Streets," AIKO created a red-light district room filled with erotic, comic book-like images using layered stencils and spray paint. There are signs and billboards advertising peep shows, hostess dancers and a "rub parlor."
AIKO says her images are reminiscent of the old, X-rated Times Square, and Japanese shunga, or erotic art. "People used to draw really sexy stuff in my country, so I'm making this whole section sexual and pornographic," she says. "But also it's more about women. You see [in the work] more sexual energy from women than men. My red-light district is more about how women want to have good time. We also want to enjoy some sexuality."
AIKO says she had a depressing childhood in Tokyo, and began making art as an escape from being misunderstood. In her 20s, she moved to New York without knowing anyone or speaking English. There, she worked as a studio apprentice for artist Takashi Murakami, and began wheat pasting images of herself all over the city. She helped start the artist collective FAILE and collaborated with the anonymous artist Banksy on his 2010 film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. She even designed for Louis Vuitton.
"Don't get me wrong," she says. "I'm not always doing sex images. This is for a special occasion."
"Writing graffiti is a literal rite of passage"
Since the early 1990s, Claudia Gold, who goes by CLAW and CLAW MONEY, has been spray-painting her nickname and her trademark cartoon paw all over New York City.
She began in her early 20s, at a time when fewer women were doing graffiti and the city was on a mission to eradicate graffiti tags. Bombing subway trains wasn't considered art, she says. "It was more vandalism, and I'm one of the only sort of grimy, early '90s women street bombers. We knew that they wanted to come after you if you painted the trains, so to keep myself safer, I would only do a train here and there. Then you'd ultimately paint over it. You'd try to get a picture of it with a disposable camera from CVS or something, and hope it'd come out. Then you'd paint over it so they wouldn't come knocking on your door."
She says graffiti flourished in that lawless, electric time. Back then, many graffiti writers were black or Puerto Rican and had a hip-hop vibe. But CLAW was white, and she sometimes got grief for that. She says, "I felt very rejected — rejected from hip-hop." So she adopted a rock persona.
Three decades later, her graffiti is still scattered all around New York, but she's also moved on. Now, she uses hand embroidery, silk screening and enamel to design clothing for her brand, CLAW, and she also runs her own boutique on the Lower East Side.
She says, "Writing graffiti is a literal rite of passage of kids growing up in New York City, and the ones that have artistic talents are the ones that shine in the streets; and the ones that shine in the streets are encouraged to continue with their artwork. It blossoms like that."
"A Monet going 80 miles an hour"
In the 1980s, the artist Maripol made some of the most iconic images of New York's street and club scene. She was an underground club kid who had moved to New York from France in 1977 after becoming fascinated with graffiti art.
"I sat in the subway looking at the No. 5 train going by, and it was kind of like looking at an amazing abstract painting," she recalls. "It could have been a Monet going 80 miles an hour."
When her photographer boyfriend gave her her first Polaroid camera, an SX-70, Maripol began photographing friends and downtown legends: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy, Grace Jones, Debbie Harry. They hung out together before, during and after clubbing.
"I had a big downtown loft and it was easy for me to make a party or dinner because I was French and always cooking," she recalls. "New York was bankrupt. And it was dangerous. You couldn't even go to Washington Square Park. Madonna came to me because she wanted somebody to do her style, and then Jean-Michel Basquiat was staying with us. He lived with us, and I co-produced and art directed a movie called Downtown 81 with him. He was 19 when I met him. A lot of time these kids' parents either kicked them out, or, in Madonna's case, her parents were in Michigan. I was kind of like a mother hen."
"Beyond the Streets" features blown-up prints of Maripol's 1980s Polaroids, some of which she has scratched and marked up to create new works of art.
"The new guard"
"Museums don't often embrace this work, or they'll embrace bits and pieces of it," says curator Roger Gastman. He says "Beyond the Streets" was an experiment to see far they could get without a museum's backing.
"We really said, 'You know what? Let's do this outside of a museum. Let's do this on our own. Let's make it work ... and not have to follow the museum rules and create kind of the new guard.' "
"Beyond the Streets" is open through July 6.