Go here for original article (with photos)
Reyhan Harmanci, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
A small, unexpected movement from atop a power line might catch your eye as you wait for a light to change on your morning commute or as you join the hordes scurrying through the downtown area of a major city. It can take a moment to figure out what you're looking at: an arrow, suspended from a utility wire, twirling to reveal pairs of words. The pairings, like "rise" and "above" or "swim" and "suit" or "bada" and "bing," are clever and irreverent, often bringing a smile and providing a measure of relief from the relentless motion of urban life.
It's the street artist Above's gift to his audience -- his reward to those who look up.
The Northern California native, 26, has been on an extended "Sign Language" tour. In addition to doing painting and graffiti work, he has been hanging 18-inch arrow signs on power lines, the side of buildings, anything that would support them.
He has made and personally distributed hundreds, perhaps thousands of the pieces. On his last 2006 tour, he visited 26 countries, shipping 40 to 50 arrows to himself at a time for a total of 352 hangings. He estimates that he hung 300 signs in 2004 alone. But the act of hanging an arrow is fraught, for as joyous and whimsical as his work can be, he takes what he does seriously. He works anonymously and frequently illegally. His commitment to global practice means that he is always on the move, lacking a permanent address, and he supports himself with restaurant work, not through his art. He doesn't show in any galleries and he doesn't do online auctions. You can write him an e-mail, but be prepared to answer some questions before proffering your wallet.
He is a good example of the new breed of street artist, working in a form that is both commodified and defined by its opposition to commodification. Street art is a mess of contradictions, and Above knows it. All artists deal with questions of art and commerce, but street art seems especially prone to calls of selling out.
Integrity may be, as Above observes, subjective, but it is crucial.
"I question a lot of people's motives," he says in a phone interview (he would prefer not to say from where), insulating his statements with caveats and careful to not name names. "A lot of people got into the scene because it's trendy or hot or cool.
"There's money behind it, and money f -- everything up."
To upend the conventional exchange between buyer and seller, for instance, Above sends potential sign owners a test. "As I've been doing these tours, people write me because they want to buy the arrows," Above says. "I've made a questionnaire of 25 questions about knowing who they are. I ask, where do you live, what are your childhood dreams, if you had six months to live, what would you do. I try to break someone down over the course of the e-mail -- I want to know that my artwork is a fit, that the person is someone with whom I can maintain a connection. It's more personal that way."
"Above got his start in the California skateboard scene, hanging out in train stations, tagging trains as a teenager. He credits hippie parents for reassuring him that "there's no wrong way to draw."
"My dad used to bring home all these art books when I was 12 or 13, and I saw that all these paintings came from Paris, wow," Above says. "I associated Paris with art and famous creative artists who made it."
After a relationship with a French girl when he was 15, Above's fate was sealed: He must go to Paris. He worked in restaurants through high school and bought a plane ticket when he was 19, in 2001.
He got a job as an au pair, shepherding two girls back and forth to school. This is when he got a taste for the double life of a graffiti artist: In his backpack, as he took the girls to and from school, were spray paint cans. "I would scope out different locations, and then come home and wash paint off my hands," he says, laughing a little.
Above says that he finds Europe to be more of a home to him than the United States, and that his stay in Paris was pivotal to developing his current arrow style. He says he's closer to the dominant European graffiti style, figures as opposed to lettering. "That platform did more for me than I could have ever imagined," he says, speaking of his first trip to Europe. "Every artist has their lift-off point."
When he came back to the States in 2003, he was working with the icon of an arrow, and he knew he needed to keep moving. He began a North American tour, hanging his arrows and paintings along the way. In 2004, with the help of new friends who could contact him through his Web site, he was able to return to Europe and start documenting his Sign Language tour with photos and video.
To hang all those signs, organization is required. He spent two months in Barcelona making the signs, deciding which words to go in what city (he did 15 in French, for instance), and then arranged for friends to mail him the signs as he went. The tour continued through 2005 (where he went to 14 countries), and through 2006 (he estimates 26).
"Above is one of the most ambitious and tenacious people I've ever met in my entire life," says Marc Schiller, co-founder of the street-art-enthusiast Wooster Collective in New York. "This guy is a driven individual." The Wooster Collective's Web site has been putting up Above's YouTube videos from his tour, which is currently one of the top-ranked links on the group's site.
As "street art" -- a term Above says didn't exist for him even five years ago -- has exploded across the global art scene, the mores of the formerly underground practice of repurposing public spaces for tagging, graffiti painting and the like have become a heated topic. Over the past few years, Sprite commissioned Shephard Fairey to use his "Andre the Giant" style for them; the New York Times hired ESPO to tag its trademark T's; everyone has designed a sneaker.
People have rebelled against the corporate interests and moneyed collectors who try to buy into the inherently cool nature of graffiti art. Over the past few months, for instance, in New York, the Splasher has emerged -- a collective devoted to throwing paint across certain artists' works. The collective's mission is to confront "a content of commodity recuperation behind the facade of pseudo opposition." In June, people lobbed stink bombs inside exhibition openings by Fairey and the Faile collective, inciting an outcry about the destructive methods and haphazard recipients of Splasher-type protests.
Although he's had offers, Above doesn't show his work in galleries. He's not particularly preachy about his choice -- "I can say for sure 'no' now, because I'm not ready but that could change" -- but he doesn't hide his distaste for certain "feeble" individuals who choose fast money at the expense of interesting work.
Wooster Collective's Schiller is supportive of street artists showing their work in galleries and museums, saying that "artists evolve in different ways."
"When artists don't have an opportunity in the gallery world, they'll go to the street -- it gives them an audience, an ability to show without being controlled by a third party," Schiller says. "I don't think artists normally would turn down those opportunities (for gallery work), but they have to figure out how to do those things on their own terms."
"For someone like Above, he's still in the middle of a pursuit, of incorporating experience into what he does."
Rene Guzman, curator for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which has shown local street artists such as Barry McGee (a.k.a. Twist) and Chris Johanson and provided a venue for the "Beautiful Losers" show, says that it is "interesting and important" to work with artists outside the traditional academic art world, although this is not without pitfalls. He points to the artists' sense of him or herself as the reason why someone like Above would shrink from a gallery show at this juncture.
"I think it's about identity, who he or she identifies with," Guzman says. "In the worst definition of the art world, it's a marketplace. Even museums participate with the marketplace, and the artist would therefore be identifying with a different kind of community in that space." Not everyone wants that.
For now, then, Above continues to work out the contents of his head on the street. He's keeping his identity a secret because he treasures the freedom to try on multiple selves -- "I love the idea of coming to a new city and I can whoever I want to be."
Starting in October, he'll be headed to South America to try out new painting techniques, using rollers and avoiding arrows for a while.
"I wanted to dive right into whole word play experience, and I scratched that itch," Above says. "I was walking down the street recently, and looking at the walls, and I was like, man, I miss having this untapped material."
But for an artist this committed to the evolution of his craft, doesn't it bother him that his work is always getting erased or taken down? Above laughs off the question. No, he says, that's what he digs about it.
"It constantly provokes me to want to keep active," he says. "What would happen if the world didn't cleanse itself? What if the tree's leaves didn't fall off? I love when my artwork goes through that cycle, when it gets faded or someone tags on it. I enjoy that, it makes me want to go back, get involved again."