Graffiti shifts from urban blight to urban chic

Graffiti shifts from urban blight to urban chic

SKAM sprays the Louis Vuitton store on Bloor Street West in Toronto.

SKAM sprays the Louis Vuitton store on Bloor Street West in Toronto.

Photograph by: Tom Sandler, Canwest News Service

It’s been sprayed on trains and scrawled across skyscrapers. This year, it was even splattered on Louis Vuitton handbags.

When, exactly, did graffiti get so glamorous?

Painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and Keith Haring (1958-1990) first brought graffiti into the avant-garde art world during the ’80s, though both passed away as their careers were launching.

Today, second generation vandals-turned-artists are earning critical respect and commercial success in the worlds of art and fashion in Canada and worldwide, leaving many hooligans with trickster smiles on their faces.

One by the name of Banksy (b. 1974) from the U.K. fetches up to $500,000 for his graffiti-inspired artwork. His pieces include a reproduction of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, but using Kate Moss’s image instead; another piece features a live elephant painted like wallpaper. Despite his successful tongue-in-cheek gallery work, Banksy continues to post his graffiti all over the world in places like New Orleans, London and Israel. He keeps his identity secret to evade police and border patrols.

KAWS, born in 1974 in Jersey City, earned street-status by reworking advertisements, oftentimes in bus shelters, in New York City, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo. Now he’s a full-time artist and toy designer.

KAWS — who still goes by his tag name — is known for replacing his character’s eyes with a skull-and-crossbones-style “x,” typically on popular cartoon figures like The Smurfs and The Simpsons. Dubbed the next Jeff Koons, KAWS’s cartoon-style gallery pieces sell for between $10,000 and $85,000. The artist also boasts collaborations with Nike, Vans and fashion label Comme des Garcon.

Then there’s Shepard Fairey, born in 1970 in Charleston, S.C., a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. His graffiti prestige was established with his Andre the Giant Has a Posse sticker-bombing campaign, which culminated in tens of thousands of his comical stickers posted throughout the eastern U.S. Fairey’s motivation was simply to get a rise out of viewers and to battle for public space with advertisers.

In January, Fairey became a legend when his red, white and blue Obama HOPE poster entered the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, proving to be an iconic image during the presidential candidate’s campaign run. Not afraid to use his real name, Fairey’s artwork is now showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston through Aug. 16. This spring, you can also carry one of his limited-edition shopping bags home from Saks Fifth Avenue in the U.S.

In Canada, too, former vandals are making impressive careers out of their youthful pastime.

Toronto-based SKAM uses his tag name for business purposes. His interlocking letters scrawled around the city earned him underground fame; now he commands $1,000 and up for his graffiti-style commission work.

“I never thought I’d make money off it, but graffiti led to things. It even opened the door to my shop,” SKAM says.

His cult sneaker boutique is part of the Livestock chain of shops. Word of SKAM’s talent made its way to Louis Vuitton, which recruited him to spray-paint a mural during a collection launch at its Bloor Street store in Toronto.

The hip Vuitton collection is a tribute to the designer Stephen Sprouse (1953-2004), who pioneered the graffiti-fashion look during the ‘80s but never achieved financial
success in his lifetime, though he was a frequent collaborator with Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs. The collection consists of purses, scarves and stilettos tagged with Sprouse’s neon signature.

Graffiti gurus are shimmying their way into Canadian galleries as well.

Jean Labourdette, a.k.a. Turf One, is a well-known Parisian graffiti artist now living in Montreal. On the streets, Turf One is recognized for his characters, but his indoor artwork is represented by Yves Laroche Gallery in Old Montreal. It is known for painterly precision and century-old, circus side-show depictions.

“Jean is huge in Europe,” Yves Laroche says. The latest issue of a Paris-based magazine called Graffiti All-Stars has a 10-page spread on the artist. “His signature is very unique. His inner desires are assimilated into his work, and the effects touch people.”

Last December, Labourdette, who signs his artwork with his graffiti name, accompanied Laroche to the exclusive Art Basel Miami Beach show.

The yearly Basel event boasts work from top art and design galleries across the world, featuring pieces by legends and newcomers. For Laroche, the Basel’s invitation marked passage into the global marketplace.

Other Canadian graffiti writers have traded their spray cans for graphic design work. Vancouver-based artist Tim Barnard designs graffiti T-shirts with the Montreal company Evil Bad. Tag-named artist Labrona from Montreal paints graphics on skateboards to help support his artwork, which is carried at the Show & Tell gallery in Toronto.

Graffiti has fought its way to the top.

A symbol of youth and music culture, graffiti is one of the four elements of hip-hop — along with DJing, emceeing and breaking (the form of dance). It first appeared on the New York subways in the 1970s, representing a form of public art, similar to the Mexican murals painted by Diego Rivera or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Except with graffiti no one but the artist is commissioning the work; rather, seizing public space through vandal drawing is the central motivation.

Paul Labonte, a.k.a. Paul 107, a Montreal author of the graffiti book All City: The Book About Taking Space, points out that while “graffiti is vandalism,” most taggers still have standards. Cars, houses, building facades are usually off-limits, while trains and abandoned buildings remain hot spots.

Dodging police and inventing code-names is part of the fun. Writing your name in wacky and daring places earns “fame” in graffiti-speak.

Labonte explains that the act of vandalism “is a rite of passage for, like, 11- to 17-year- olds.” Though, he says, some people, like Banksy, still practise in adulthood. “Older New York graffiti books call it ‘a youthful tradition passed on from one generation to another’ — that’s basically what it is.”

Labonte explains that graffiti is about the love of typography — the way the letters look side-by-side. “It takes 10 seconds to execute, but what people don’t realize is that it took the kid — I can’t even begin to count — how may hours of writing his name on a piece of paper until he figures out how the letters are going to interlock,” he says.

Since the ’80s, graffiti has become a pastime for youths across the world, in cities and in suburbs. The triumph of hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Jay-Z have also helped to bolster the image of graffiti artists: If emcees and DJs can earn bling, driving around in Rolls-Royces and chartering private jets, why not their painterly crew members, too?

SKAM is one of those diehards who still practises graffiti as an adult, watching the dollars roll in. Devoted to the sub-culture, SKAM used to be part of a b-boy dance crew called Bag of Trix.

“In ’94-’95, I went to New York and painted all over there — in Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens. They thought I was from there,” he says.

Now living in Toronto, SKAM was honoured to be contacted by Vuitton. “I have no idea how they heard about me. They might have just Googled me. It was amazing.”

Labonte says that nowadays, fashion companies like Nike and Vuitton, which regularly reach out to youth culture, tend to know true graffiti talent from amateurs. “SKAM does all those MuchMusic RapCity backgrounds. He’s a real graffiti guy.”

SKAM’s elaborate neon murals have also earned him commissions with Hugo Boss, MAC Cosmetics, Coors Light, Miller Lite, MCA Records, EMI Records, Adidas, Reebok and Nike. Because of his sneaker boutique Livestock, he’s hired by a lot of footwear companies.

“Now I’m doing a SKAM bathroom for someone. I’ve done it all, basically. There’s nothing I haven’t done.”

Indeed, SKAM will not only paint on-ramps neon, but he’ll make any room in your home look like a lost subway car — for a price.

Yet, SKAM remains true to his vandal roots.

“KAWS used to do graffiti, but now he does galleries,” SKAM says, comparing himself to the now-famous x-eye toy designer. “He takes his images from the street and puts them on canvases. But he’s not a graffiti artist anymore. I still go under bridges and do graffiti. I still use spray paint. It’s not the same thing.”

Like KAWS, many graffiti artists have moved beyond the sub-culture.

A Quebecer named Zilon was the first graffiti-style artist gallery owner Yves LaRoche took under his wing in 1998.

Renowned mostly in Quebec, Zilon’s gory gesture portraits have been bought by local bigwigs, including Cirque du Soleil executives and Grand-Prix racers.

“It was Zilon who helped me, personally, work with this genre of artist,” says Laroche.

Today, the gallery represents several Pop Surrealist artists — part of a new art movement dubbed “Lowbrow” by hipster art magazines like Juxtapoz and Hi Fructose. Boasting underground spray paint, hip-hop, tattoo and comic-book sensibility at its core, the Yves Laroche gallery also sells prints, literature and collectible toys that go along with the movement.

In 2008, Laroche was asked to be part of an exhibition at the Art Basel Miami Beach. He brought a few artists along, including his younger Pop Surrealist painter Turf One. In-the-know Basel buyers were interested.

Laroche says that while Turf One’s prices are still around $5,500 for an original, in two years that figure should double, minimum. Maximum? “Sky’s the limit,” he beams, acknowledging that the economic crisis could delay that rise.

Today, vandal-turned-artist Jean Labourdette works in his studio six days a week. He explains his graffiti-inspired abandoned-spaces technique: “Around ’93, I went to abandoned houses and painted life-size characters, playing with the architecture,” he says.

To tell a story, he used the old walls, the rotten wood. “Then gradually, I wanted to bring those places to my space and I started collecting them. Then I started painting on them.”

Old doors, window frames and abandoned objects soon became Labourdette’s uniquely shaped canvasses.

Turf One has stuck with acrylic paint (same as spray) throughout the years, managing to convey oil-like details in his somber yet tongue-in-cheek circus side-show depictions.

A recent self-portrait work titled Jean qui rit, Jean qui pleure, is painted on wooden shutters pried open, with a midget with two heads placed on a surface in the centre.
One head looks up, smiling and releasing a white bird; the other has his hand pressed against his forehead, saddened at the sight of the dead bird. At the top of the frame is a third eye, observing the scene.

Another Turf One work, Nail Here also depicts a dark, sombre and slightly hilarious freak show through the glimpse of a window frame. In this one, a wistful bearded midget character in a suit is prying open his jacket to reveal a heart-shaped tattoo on his chest — presumably where the nail in the title is supposed to go.

Labourdette has been compared to the Dutch greats such as Rembrandt for his attention to detail.

His lucid dreamlike subject matter is reminiscent of Surrealists like Max Ernst (1891-1976).

Canwest News Service