Sunday, February 17, 2008

Guy McKinley's Robot Girls

Last month, I was at Thinkspace's Fight for Flight show and happened to fall in love with a couple of bird drawings by Guy McKinley. His brushwork was simple and assured, yet intricate and expressive at the same time. The birds had a kind of graffiti style with flourishes that reminded me a bit of delicate Arabic calligraphy. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Guy seemed to be achieving a lot with a very minimalist palette and technique.

It turns out that Guy McKinley is an illustrator, muralist and painter from Manchester, England and paints (among other things) a series of robot girls with anti-gravity heads. After discovering that Guy had recently been featured in one of Tristan Manco's terrific collections of street art, Street Sketchbook, I had to check that out as well. Of course, in my typical obsessive fashion, I was even more thrilled by the pages from Guy's sketchbook that were featured, which explored many dynamic and fascinating new aspects of his robot girls, as well as some other interesting characters.

Ultimately, I could not contain my curiosity about the sketches, which led to some e-mail conversations with Mr. McKinley about his robot girls. Guy told me, "There are three types. The Geisha-style bots are the Octopus Tamers, the guardians of the Seas."

"The Rabbit Riders are the guardians of the Earth, the woods,
and so on."

(And the Rabbit Riders are protected by these badass rabbits, who can grow to enormous size and sprout extra limbs when necessary.)

"Lastly, the Bird Keepers, who are obviously the sky guardians."

So I talked Guy into selling me a couple paintings of his robot girls. The first is one of his Rabbit Riders – a little different than his earlier ones, I think, with a lot of that intricate brushwork and some sweet little birdies also riding the wave (click on the photo if you'd like to see more detail)...

...and the playful "Umbrella Weather," in which one of his floaty-head robot girls struggles with her umbrella while wearing a very unusual pair of Wellies. Says Guy, "It's an ode to the lovely weather we have in Manchester, constant bright sunshine – hah!"

Guy says he's always thought of his robot girls as peaceful creatures, but his upcoming work may be trending in a somewhat different direction. He revealed, "I am working on some new characters that are a little bit darker. They are called the Dead Japanese Ghost Girl Warriors and they are my ancient ancestors of the robot girls... These are where I am pushing all those sketches of girls swinging swords and so on."

"The Ghost Girl Warriors also have an affinity with the animals of the world," he continued, "but they are far more violent, though they're brought up with the Samurai values of love, honour, family, a love of the earth and worship of the spirits within that – oh, and a love of Art and the fineries in life. They are dead, though, so they are less smooth, shiny and beautiful than the robot girls. (Though I think they are beautiful, my girlfriend seems to think otherwise.) There are similarities, though – their heads also float and they have the large eyelashes, too!"

I think they're pretty cool. Can't wait to see what's coming up!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Banksy's Rat Appreciation

I've been meaning to write about the recurring use of rats in Banksy's work – the fly-by-night instances of art-for-art's sake (and subversive social critiques) that mysteriously appear on exterior surfaces all over England, to the joy of many and the consternation of a few (of the more humorless and uptight variety).

I can't help considering how many characteristics these nocturnal residents of the underworld share with another night prowler – the graffiti artist. Both rats and graf writers are tough, clever, unloved and impossible-to-eliminate denizens of the abandoned, trash-littered no-man's-lands between our everyday reality and the mechanisms that make its clean, well-lit surfaces possible.

The first street artist who painted rats was probably Blek le Rat, a Parisian who witnessed the beginnings of the graffiti movement on a visit to NYC in 1971 and brought it home. By 1981, he was hitting the streets of Paris with some of the first stencil graffiti. "I began to spray some small rats in the streets of Paris because rats are the only wild animals living in cities, and only rats will survive when the human race disappears and dies out," he said. "I wanted to do a rat invasion. I put thousands all over Paris." Two decades later, following in Blek le Rat's footsteps, Banksy would revive the symbol of the rat with a new element of playful humor and social commentary.

On the off chance that you haven't heard of Banksy before, he is a mysterious British "guerilla artist" who (among other pursuits) stencils subversive social and political messages on the façades of buildings all over England (and, increasingly, the world). "The art to it is not getting picked up for it, and that's the biggest buzz at the end of the day," according to Banksy.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his anonymity, Banksy's popularity among art collectors has grown to the point where a painting he stenciled on the side of a building on Portobello Road recently sold for £208,100 on eBay. (Banksy once claimed that it takes him an average of 35 seconds to paint one of his pieces.) Of course, none of that money goes to Banksy – the owner of the wall lays claim to whatever is painted on it, as well. As a result, Banksy gives away most of his art, and many consider the appearance of one of his pieces in a neighborhood as an act of public service. Others consider it vandalism. In Banksy's view, "Writing graffiti is about the most honest way you can be an artist. It takes no money to do it, you don't need an education to understand it, and there's no admission fee."

Let us consider Banky's favorite subject, the rat. Robert Sullivan, rat expert and author of Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, had this to say about the battle between
homo sapiens and rattus norvegicus: "Rat-control programs are like diets, in that cities are always trying a new one. In the city, rats and men live in conflict, one side scurrying from the other or destroying the other's habitat – an unending and brutish war. Rat stories are war stories, and they are told in conversation and on the news, in dispatches from the front that is all around us – though mostly underneath." Sounds a bit like the never-ending struggle between graf writers and city governments, doesn't it?

Far from being worthless, the much-maligned rat is in fact a prodigy among animals. Its combination of intelligence, tenacity and survival instinct is arguably unparalleled in nature. A city rat, given enough time, can chew through a concrete wall to get where it needs to go – and in many cities contractors have started adding crushed glass to poured concrete to stop their inevitable tunneling. In the same sense, those who aspire to greatness in the graffiti world must have superhuman drive, cleverness, stubbornness and skill to create art in the face of the dangers and challenges involved in working in a forbidden medium. Throwing up barriers to painting seems only to encourage some graf writers. As Banksy himself noted, "If you are going to damage someone's property, it's good to show some dedication."

City governments have long ignored the fact that poisoning rat populations actually makes them stronger. The surviving rats have more food, so they get bigger, and at the same time their litter sizes increase dramatically, so that the next generation more than replaces the lost members of the previous generation, and within a few months, the population explodes. Experts say the best way to control rats is to eliminate their food source, as rat populations naturally regulate themselves according to the amount of food available.

Similarly, urban law enforcement finds itself in a no-win situation when it cracks down on tagging. Though graffiti may decline for a period, writers will find a way to get their writing on the wall, as it's impossible to control every surface of a city. Though NYC has, on occasion, managed to slow down graffiti, it always came back stronger and more determined for the hiatus, with those who withstood the heat elevated to heroic status.

Better to attack the problem at the source, by giving urban youth other outlets and options, rather than considering them worthless and unredeemable. As Banksy suggested, "A lot of people never use their initiative because nobody told them to." Yet even that unlikely-to-be-implemented solution wouldn't eliminate the problem entirely, because graffiti culture has transcended its roots, and even rich white boys crave respect.

As The Village Voice put it, "The war on graffiti raises the same issues as the war on drugs does. It's not about helping people manage their compulsions, it's about controlling a large population of young men. And as long as politicians are rewarded for their diligence at this unacknowledged task, graffiti will never play the part it can in beautifying schoolyards, abandoned buildings, and other markers of "the pale landscape of the poor." There's a wellspring of talent in these aerosol warriors, but the city is sending them to Rikers to learn about thug life."

In Banksy's philosophy, "If you feel dirty, insignificant or unloved, then rats are a good role model. They exist without permission, they have no respect for the hierarchy of society, and they have sex 50 times a day."

Rat enthusiast Robert Sullivan noted that naturalists treat wild rats as anathema, refusing to believe that they deserve any consideration. "
It is the very ostracism of the rat, its exclusion from the pantheon of natural wonders, that makes it appealing to me, because it begs the question: who are we to decide what is natural and what is not?"

And who are we to decide what is art and what is not?

Rat lovers might tell you that
the rat is us, and we are the rat. We live side by side – rats throng to areas where humans live, and avoid the same areas we avoid. Rats giggle when they're tickled (albeit ultrasonically), they are curious and playful, they love to be touched, they dream much as we do, can be subject to the same addictions (alchohol, nicotine, cocaine), have personality disorders linked to their upbringing, and cooperate with others when they think it will benefit them. A study recently suggested that rats may be the only species outside the primate world that is capable of metacognition, or "
thinking about thinking." Perhaps their most relevant similarity to us is that they consume every resource in their environment unto famine, at which point they are forced to fight, wander or die. Rat expert Robert Sullivan writes, "I think of rats as our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same."

Of course, it's entirely possible that Banksy never intended the rat to symbolize graffiti artists in particular. After all, he once admitted, "I'd been painting rats for three years before someone said, 'That's clever, it's an anagram of art,' and I had to pretend I'd known that all along." Perhaps Banksy's choice of the rat as metaphor wasn't entirely conscious – but rather a more a visceral, instinctual association.

Like many graffiti artists, Banksy prefers the life of the shadows, the ratlike scuttle along dark, cluttered alleys, over rooftops and through abandoned lots. "I have no interest in ever coming out," he once said. "I figure there are enough self-opinionated assholes trying to get their ugly little faces in front of you as it is. You ask a lot of kids today what they want to be when they grow up, and they say, 'I want to be famous.' You ask them, 'For what reason?' and they don't know or care. I think Andy Warhol got it wrong – in the future, so many people are going to become famous that one day everybody will end up being anonymous for 15 minutes."

All of this talk of rats has brought to mind Gunter Grass' novel The Rat, which I haven't read in about 20 years. In The Rat, mankind has finally succeeded in destroying itself, and rats have inherited the devastation left behind. The rat narrator, acknowledging her kind's penchant for fleeing sinking ships, laments, "When Earth became the ship, there was no other planet to move to... Where man had been, in every place he left, garbage remained. Even in his pursuit of the ultimate truth and quest for his God, he produced garbage. By his garbage, which lay stratum upon stratum, he could always be known, for more long-lived than man is his refuse. Garbage alone lives after him."

Certainly this only becomes more obvious the longer we continue, ratlike, to consume our resources unchecked – the crap we leave behind us every day will outlast not only our civilization, but the human race itself. Archaeologists a billion years hence will know us by our garbage. With that scale in mind, what's a little extra paint on the wall?

Ever philosophical, Banksy had this to say about the commercial detritus of the modern world: "Twisted little people go out every day and deface this great city. Leaving their idiotic little scribblings, invading communities and making people feel dirty and used. They just take, take, take and they don't put anything back. They're mean and selfish and they make the world an ugly place to be. We call them advertising agencies and town planners."

Despite the stupendous prices his pieces are fetching in the art market,
Banksy has a well-publicized disdain for the "indoor" art world – and even the term "art" itself. "Bus stops are far more interesting and useful places to have art than in museums," he said. "Graffiti has more chance of meaning something or changing stuff than anything indoors. Graffiti has been used to start revolutions, stop wars, and generally is the voice of people who aren't listened to. Graffiti is one of those few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don't come up with a picture to cure world poverty, you can make somebody smile while they're having a piss."

"Some people want to make the world a better place," Banksy says. "I just wanna make the world a better-looking place. If you don't like it, you can paint over it!"

We can all agree that not all graffiti is lovely or meaningful (and that a great deal of it is really quite sloppy and pointless), yet occasionally it can be worthy of attention and appreciation. I'll leave the last word on the subject to Banksy:
"People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish... but that's only if it's done properly."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Fairey's Obama Campaign

What Hollywood resident doesn't know Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous Obey Giant? I feel as if I've been feeling that monolithic face glowering at me all my life. I even saw it stenciled on a concrete barricade in Hong Kong a few months ago. Like it or not, Shepard Fairey has become a master of artcrime propaganda, a branding genius and a booming industry, all in one.

If you watched the Los Angeles Democratic debates last week, you might have seen this poster, which Fairey produced without consulting the Obama campaign.

I guess Fairey is as inspired by Barack Obama as I am finding myself to be. I watched Obama's speech after the South Carolina primary and found myself sobbing – both with grief for what this country has become, and with yearning for what we could achieve. I have always believed that in order to fix the wrongs that our government has done to our people and to the people of the world, we would need a visionary leader who is both honest and empathetic, and I am stunned to discover that there is actually a person of that caliber who is willing to lower himself into the sewer of presidential politics.

I am so proud of our country for its embrace of Barack Obama.
It gives me real hope for our future.

I'll leave you with a few apropos words from one of my favorite street poets, Everlast:

If it ain't from the heart, then it can't be art
If you ain't got proof, then it can't be truth
If it ain't got legs, then it cannot run
If it ain't never started, then it can't be done.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Art Appreciation: Graffiti

I live in an east Los Angeles neighborhood where pretty much any smooth exterior surface is cluttered with various scribblings, mostly incomprehensible to myself, although I imagine they're all quite meaningful to someone – a kind of secret language or code. More recently, gorgeous pieces of street art have appeared, blanketing the walls of vacant lots and retaining walls, and also gracing the façades of stores and auto body shops – most likely commissioned by merchants weary of painting over the cryptic messages that spring up on their walls in the night.

Nevertheless, I had never really thought much about graffiti until the day I browsed a shockingly great website called The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit. I'd really never thought much about Detroit before that, either – I only visited the site because I liked its name. Since then, I've had many, many thoughts about Detroit, and also about graffiti. Apparently the post-apocalyptic decay of Detroit gave rise to a renaissance of street art sometime in the early '90s. Some of those graf guys have even gone on to legitimate art careers. (See A.J. Fosik, a self-described "scumbag" from Detroit who made good in the NY art world.)

This was the anonymous image – from the website's Art Among the Ruins chapter – that sort of opened the floodgates of my fascination with street art.

I'm not quite sure what it was about this piece. Perhaps I'd never seen clandestine street art that obviously aspired to something greater than just leaving one's mark. It feels to me like a portrait done by flashlight in a dark, scary place – melancholy, haunting and tragic.

That photo led me into a deranged, obsessive internet search and the perusal of thousands and thousands of paintings made in the dark of the night in spooky, dangerous, abandoned areas under the threat of police intimidation, arrest and imprisonment – and potentially the danger of being raped, pillaged and murdered by the desperate denizens of the dark. (That probably seems a little hyperbolic, but I don't think it's so far from the truth.) Perhaps the jeopardy involved in this largely clandestine nocturnal activity is what lends graffiti art some undefinable frisson that a canvas painted in a studio could never achieve. Some graf writers pride themselves on hitting the heavens, the most precarious and death-defying places, partly for the adrenaline rush and also because hard-to-reach spots don't get painted over as quickly. In fact, what makes graffiti even more interesting is that this ubiquitous phenomenon is truly "art for art's sake" – there is no financial gain involved, many artists paint in places that hardly anyone ever sees, and often a piece that took days to plan and a night or more to paint will be painted over almost immediately.

I discovered that there's some really captivating work out there, overlooked, on the walls of abandoned buildings...

...on subway cars and on freight trains, which can carry a piece all over the world...

...and in the secret world that exists underneath our daytime reality, in tunnels, beneath bridges and on riverbank retaining walls.

Once I was able to tear myself away from my Google graffiti search, I discovered that own 'hood is a great place to check out graffiti...

Though the U.S. seems to have been the birthplace of graffiti – Latino gang placas were being painted in Los Angeles as early as the 1930s, Philadelphia lays claim to starting the tagging movement in the late '60s, and New York witnessed graffiti's expansion into a real art form in the '70s – you can find it all over the world, these days. Some of my favorite artists are from Serbia, which seems to have a curiously playful approach to graffiti for such a troubled country...

Brazil has its own form of tagging called Pichação, with which pichadores cover the sides of tall buildings. It also has some really talented artists, with totally unique styles...

My favorite graffiti is the type that improves the appearance of the area in a clever way. Most folks would tell you that graffiti is a blight, an eyesore, a crime. Yet no one could claim that this piece of waste land isn't improved by Banksy's whimsical wet dog...

I love to check out the late-night burning runs the Seventh Letter Crew makes upon the billboards of Melrose Ave. Personally, I think their graffiti highlights the ads. I spent a lot more time looking at Bruce Willis' phiz than I would have without Augor's tasteful enhancement. And I saw the movie twice, if you can believe it.

However, it did occur to me that the 20th Century-Fox marketing department might not appreciate the graffiti quite as much as I did. Not so, apparently, when Augor and Revok reinterpreted this Melrose billboard for the big Murakami exhibit at MOCA. The billboard was taken down only two days after the Seventh Letter Crew hit it – reportedly because Murakami himself just had to have it shipped to Japan to add to his collection!

Lately, the graffiti world has come to a place where some artists are not only beautifying their blighted urban canvases, but in fact doing nothing more "destructive" than cleaning them. Quite literally just washing the wall...

...and who could object to that?

Graffiti Credits: Detroit face - unknown; Connecticut wall - Brat; "Break" NY subway car - Futura 2000; Green freight - Fokis; Detroit green bridge - Teader; L.A. river - Gushe, Ewso, Ruets and Zoueh; L.A. many-colored wall - Reyes; L.A. chickens wall - Cache; L.A. purple wall - Asylm and Ruets; Serbian pool - Lemon; Belgrade school dog - unknown; Belgrade Chaos – NME; Brazil bird wall - Kboco; Brazilian sewer - Zezão; Brazilian hungry wall - Vitché; UK wet dog wall - Banksy; Live Free or Die Hard billboard - Augor; Murakami billboard - Augor and Revok; Leeds, Go Gently - Moose.
(Thanks to all the original photographers and artists!)