A Movement Defaced: Queer Street Art Fights for Legitimacy
By Jonathan Curiel
published: June 15, 2011
Jonathan Curiel on A Movement Defaced: Queer Street Art Fights for Legitmacy
Cover photo by Michael Cuffe/Warholian.
Inside his art studio in San Francisco's Bayview District, Jeremy Novy surrounds himself with the stencilwork that has burnished his reputation as a street artist of note. Of course, the koi are there. Even people who don't know his name know his aquatic vertebrates — colorful creatures that can be found on sidewalks across San Francisco, most prominently at Market and Laguna streets, where scores of the fish swirl outside the Orbit Room. In Novy's studio, though, the animals are crowded out by representations of people. Men, mostly. Queer men like the drag queen with the yellow beehive and bright red panties, and the young wrestlers grabbing each other's flesh. Then there's the stencil of a big pink erect phallus.
"That's my cock," Novy says matter-of-factly.
The stylized erection has appeared on walls inside select San Francisco venues like the Stud, a gay South of Market bar at Ninth and Harrison streets, but Novy has a greater mission: to make queer-oriented street art and artists more visible. The mainstream, as it were.
"Queer street art has always been an oppressed art form," he says. "We are not taggers. We're street artists. This is for social change. It's about doing something better."
A sign of Novy's growing influence: A new exhibit he organized and curated received indirect funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the San Francisco Arts Commission. "A History of Queer Street Art," on display through June 25 at SOMArts, features gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, and a few straight street artists from around the world who — like Novy — are plastering public spaces with in-your-face imagery with overt gay or queer themes. The Los Angeles artist Homo Riot, for example, is known for his stencils of kissing bearded men.
These artists — most in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s — claim to be at the forefront of a new street-art movement that is centered in metropolitan areas in Europe and the United States, including San Francisco. Their work, they say, is fighting homophobia.
"I'm really doing it to communicate, predominantly with gay men, that we're out there and we can be bold and we can be visible, and that's okay, and that's a good thing," says Homo Riot, who signs his work with the moniker B A Homo. He also argues that his work carries a message to heterosexuals: "Don't take us for granted. Don't belittle us. We're out here, and we could be on your street corner, and we're about this far from taking to the streets and causing trouble."
"Trouble" is what authorities say these artists are already causing. "The official position of the Arts Commission is that we're against tagging and the placing of artwork on surfaces without the permission of the property owner," says Luis Cancel, the commission's director of cultural affairs and a former director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts. "We don't condone this at all." He says millions of dollars are spent every year to rid city properties of graffiti, tags, and other unwelcome additions.
But the artists in "A History of Queer Street Art" can say their work is both legal and illegal. Novy puts his art legally on some city spaces (such as the Orbit Room) and illegally on other spaces (as a SOMA billboard that months ago was stenciled with Novy's bodybuilders). The artists say their illegal work is necessary to make their message visible to a wider audience.
The show at SOMArts is part of this wider campaign, but the Arts Commission does not necessarily condone Novy's exhibition, whose racier images include a sticker in the style of a street sign showing a man giving a rim job. The Arts Commission awarded monies to San Francisco's Queer Cultural Center for its "Creating Queer Community" campaign; in turn, the center funded Novy's exhibit, which opened June 4 as part of its annual National Queer Arts Festival. The center also supported the exhibition through a portion of a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — an agency with a history of art-funding controversies. Whether "A History of Queer Street Art" will number among these remains to be seen.
Street art is dominated by straight men," says Homo Riot, who came to San Francisco in January to festoon the Haight and Castro districts with stickers of his bearded kissers. "There's a lot of misogynistic stuff that passes for street art. There are images of women in provocative setups; there's tits and ass all over. As a gay man, and even as a young boy, I wanted to see images of men. That's what I was attracted to. But in our culture, we have such taboo surrounding the penis and male sexuality that's not directed at women."
That taboo is evident when Homo Riot puts up his stencils in popular L.A. street-art spaces and within hours sees his work violently defaced. He says the attacks happen to a small but significant portion of his work. The men's faces get Xed out or scratched off — which is hard to do, since he uses a special paste that adheres the work tightly. Still, he says, some straight street artists have given him "support and encouragement," even lauding his kissing figures, who go by the name Homo Duo.
Other queer street art is less confrontational — and less noticed. The San Francisco artist known as Pixelstud has a series of works centered on pill bottles. One work has a bottle containing a buff male body next to wrappers of Juicy Fruit gum. Another has a bottle containing yellow and gold pills over the word "Bareback," a reference to unprotected anal intercourse. Ten days ago, these stickers were all over the Castro — on news racks (including one of SF Weekly's), fire hydrants, and street signs. Three weeks ago, when he was in the Castro Street Muni station during morning-commute hours, he took out one of these stickers and — in full view of other riders — slapped it on a billboard, he says. It didn't stick the first time, so Pixelstud (again in full view of other riders) had to redo the attachment. "I rubbed my back up against it," he says, laughing. "I haven't had anyone come up to me [during my street-art postings] or even smirk or smile. Either people are oblivious or they don't really care."
Street art has reached the point where we almost take it for granted. Almost. Banksy, JR (who won the 2011 TED prize of $100,000), and others have proven that it can pull people in. Queer street art is part of a tradition of work forced on the public. It's work that tries to be outlandish and is often illegal, frequently overlooked, repeatedly scorned, and just as repeatedly praised. Street art is being recognized by major museums, including the Smithsonian. And even queer street art has now found a kind of side entrance to official recognition.
The NEA grant that partially supported Novy's exhibition was an Access to Artistic Excellence award, which "encourages and supports artistic creativity, preserves (the United States') diverse cultural heritage, and makes the arts more widely available in communities throughout the country."
"Heritage" is a designation Novy and the Queer Cultural Center would apply to the work in "A History of Queer Street Art." The exhibit, they say, is the first of its kind in the world — the first to document a street-art practice that stretches back to at least the late 1980s, when gay activist groups such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) began turning public spaces into canvases for their stickers and posters. For these groups, street art became a powerful way to encourage pressure against the federal government to be more active in fighting AIDS. Stickers reading "Silence = Death" began appearing on doorways and walls everywhere.
Another series of stickers produced by the San Francisco affiliate of the national group Queer Nation read "Cock Sucking Faggot" — a mantra that used loaded words to express pride in being gay and sexual.
After the California Supreme Court ruled in June 2008 that same-sex marriages were legal, street artist Eddie Colla created a poster of two young seminaked lesbians kissing under a giant red scrawl that read "Just Married." With the debate around Proposition 8, a measure that negated same-sex marriage, he reworked his poster into protest art. Same image, added headline: "Vote No on Prop 8. Equality for All."
"If I'm only going to defend things that pertain to me, and I'm in the minority, then [my cause] is not going to win," he says. "If only the LGBT people stand up, they're always going to be in the minority. If you look back at the civil rights movement, it's much the same thing. If black people were the only ones protesting, it would never have happened."
In his Bayview studio, Novy stacks his bookshelf with everything he can find on street art, including Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art, published last year to great acclaim but that he dismisses as woefully incomplete. It fails to mention queer or gay street art, and the work of Keith Haring — a founding father of gay street art — is limited to two photos and a handful of words that describe the location of his street work (New York City) and little else. Nothing in Trespass tells readers that Haring was openly gay. In fact, his frank sexual doings and his more extreme art — the work that shows penises, anuses, and oral sex — is often absent from mainstream renditions of his career.
This kind of whitewashing, Novy says, is another example of how queer street art is shunted to the margins of the art world. Haring was so involved as an activist — especially after being diagnosed with AIDS — that in 1988, he participated in an ACT-UP AIDS protest by lying in the street and getting arrested. He died from the disease in 1990.
"Keith Haring is never talked about in terms of the male eroticism stuff that he did," Novy says. "The books will say he died of AIDS, but they don't say he was gay or talk about his relationships or actually show any of the imagery that is queer orientated. We [gay street artists] don't get recognition. It's crazy."
But Haring's life offers a lesson of the power of openness about sexuality. Around 1980, he came out to one of his close straight friends, the graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy, who later became a rapper and MTV host. When Freddy realized Haring was gay, "It was a revelation," he told an interviewer. "I remember thinking, 'This guy and I are really good friends, we're buddies, and he's telling me he's gay, and that's cool.' I had to respect Keith, as did all the others in graffiti who eventually found out he was gay. Nobody dissed him. It was [a] sign that we were on a new playing field."
The playing field has changed dramatically because Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other sites allow street artists from around the globe to instantly share their work. In the past four months, Homo Riot e-mailed images of his bearded kissers to Paul Le Chien, a European artist in the "History of Queer Street Art" exhibit, who posted them on the streets of Paris and London. Two weeks ago, he sent them to an activist and performance artist in Greece, who was planning to sticker streets there. Wall Kandi, a street artist from Ireland who is also featured in the exhibit, says people have contacted him through Facebook to congratulate him on his array of public works — most notably his recent painting Our Lady of Equality, which shows a figure in a Virgin Mary outfit holding a gay pride flag; on the person's chest is a heart that reads "Jesus Loves You."
"It's basically a painting of Sinead O'Connor as Mary," he says. "I adapted it into a poster. It's to counteract religious groups that say, 'God hates gays.' It's to show that the groups are crackpots, and that God doesn't hate you."
This Easter, Wall Kandi put up one of the posters near some Dublin churches. It was removed within a day, he says, but this inspired him: It meant someone was touched by the work, even if that person was touched by a fit of anger. "You reach a much wider audience with street art," he says. "Young people wouldn't go into galleries. Galleries can be a little bit elitist. The street is for everyone."
But the exhibition at SOMArts points to one of the dichotomies of queer street art: The street may be theirs, but many practitioners still seek out galleries for affirmation, exposure, and critical recognition. Being collected by museums can elevate a street artist's career like nothing else.
This marriage of street art and high art is what's happening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which is holding an exhibition, "Art in the Streets," that it's calling the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art. The works of big names are represented: Banksy (who in 2004 did a stencilwork of two male police officers kissing), Keith Haring, Jean-Michael Basquiat, Shepard Fairey, and the French artist Invader. For street artists, queer or otherwise, it's the best of times and the worst of times.
In April, Colla lampooned "Art in the Streets" when it opened by going to Los Angeles and stenciling "The problem with vandalism is that it eventually attracts unwanted museum exhibitions" on a street-level billboard nearby. Those in the know recognized his signature tag right away. He spoke to the people who gathered to marvel at his audacity. One asked, "Are you Banksy?"
This is not Novy's first high-culture recognition. In 2009, Prestel Publishing (which bills itself as "one of the world's leading publishers in the fields of art, architecture, photography, and design") issued a book, San Francisco Street Art, that featured a page devoted to his koi. In 2007, an arts organization in Milwaukee (where Novy attended college) featured him in a video about a commission to beautify an empty storefront. In a window display that heralded Milwaukee as the birthplace of the typewriter, Novy created a 6-foot-tall piece that transformed a nondescript space into something worth noticing. That's what Novy says he does with his art, and what other gay street artists are doing in San Francisco and elsewhere: covering spaces that need artistic help.
Novy's fellow street artists will often put their work on walls, windows, and billboards that are already full of graffiti tags. In San Francisco, Glama-Rama!, a hair salon on Valencia near 14th Street, recently commissioned him to stencil a series of drag-queen heads on its sidewalk, and Cafe Flore (at Market and Noe streets), Lone Star Saloon (Harrison near Ninth Street), and several others have invited him to paint koi on their properties. Novy says he may soon be an artist of greater renown ("There are people who think I'm the next big thing"), and that years from now, the exhibition at SOMArts may be considered a historic event that heralded the arrival of gay, queer, and queer-friendly street artists.
So far, though, the reaction has been mixed. At the June 4 opening at SOMArts, I heard one gallerygoer complain that the work was disappointing and tame. "It doesn't have a lot of shock value," the man said, suggesting that the Internet age has upped the ante for outrageousness.
Meanwhile, Novy is facing legal issues. Last month, Jim Provenzano, an arts editor with the Bay Area Reporter, the city's most established gay-oriented newspaper, filed papers with San Francisco Superior Court alleging that Novy threatened him after he told Novy to stop pasting posters on the paper's outside walls. The two got into an argument on the set of a cable TV show, Ten Percent, after which, Provenzano alleges, Novy spray-painted a door at the paper with a threat that alluded to Provenzano's past as a member of ACT-UP's New York affiliate. Novy has been served with a restraining order, says Provenzano, who dismisses his art as that of an "appropriationist" and says, "I'm not the only person who fears him. I find it ironic that he's curating an exhibition that claims to fight homophobia when he's attacking gay people."
Novy refuses to discuss the charges, and says any attention on the exhibition should focus on the art and the social issues surrounding it — not on the artists' personal lives, which remain well guarded. Novy doesn't like to reveal his face in media photographs. Nor do many other artists in the exhibition. Like Wall Kandi and Pixelstud, many of them use made-up names. Gay or straight, hiding behind a different identity — being partly in the closet, as it were — can be necessary to avoid attention from authorities. In San Francisco, the Department of Public Works urges people to call 911 to "report graffiti in progress," and asks people to e-mail photos of spray-painted or stenciled walls, which it then passes on to police. SFPD warns graffiti artists they may face fines of $50,000 and three-year prison terms.
For someone accused of attacking other gays, Novy has assembled a wide array of gay street artists for the exhibition, including Daryl Vocat, who puts his entire life — including his Toronto address — online for people to see and judge. Lots of people judge Vocat, especially over his drawing of two Boy Scouts embracing each other under the headline "Children Be Gay." A poster of the image has appeared on lampposts and other public spaces in Canada, alongside a T-shirt version.
Children Be Gay first surfaced around 2002. "That image has made the rounds," says Vocat, who was a Boy Scout as a kid. "It was specifically intended to be more in-your-face, more obvious in its agitational content. I originally thought of it as a poster that people could have on their walls. I was basically giving them away for the cost of postage to anyone who wanted them."
Pixelstud also mined his own life for his art. As a child, he was an avid user of Lego blocks, which he now paints with, using their ridged edges as a kind of brush to help create the dotted effects in his art.
In the end, "queer street art" is a label that — like any label, including "art" — only hints at the depth and diversity underneath it. Some of the images in the exhibit or on its Facebook page are clichéd and even sophomoric. The outline of a penis spray-painted on a wall, or a similar image on a sidewalk? While Novy says they make a social statement ("It's not necessarily a cock as much as it is a male image"), the phalluses seem inconsequential. But an image of gay priests necking under the words "Opus Gay" — the name of a gay rights group in Spain that put up the work — challenges passersby to confront their feelings about a host of issues, including homosexuality and the celibacy of the clergy. The image may not persuade people to change their minds on the subject, but the artists in "A History of Queer Street Art" say challenging people's views is all they can ask for.
"People walk around and they're inundated with all kinds of imagery — predominantly advertising," Colla says. "By posting something in the street, maybe two people are walking, and instead of one of them saying, 'Hey, you seen the new iPhone?,' they see the poster and they talk about Proposition 8. I don't think the poster changes minds. I think the conversation can."
At the June 4 opening, people drank wine, ate hors d'oeuvres, and walked up to Novy to congratulate him. Wearing a ski mask that hid his face, he told gallerygoers about the three years' work that went into "A History of Queer Street Art." He says it will travel to Los Angeles and London after it concludes its run at SOMArts on June 25. Plastic sleeves cover the most valuable art, in case someone tries to deface the work. That's how it is in the world of queer street art. Like other street art, it's susceptible to altering by strangers. On the street, it often disappears overnight — stolen, covered by competing art, or simply painted over. Behind a gallery's doors, it can live forever, legal and legitimate. But is its ability to shock and move diluted when people are directed to the work rather than having it take them by total surprise?