Richard ‘Seen’ Mirando in Paris

Seen Bio

For Seen, the worst thing that happened to graffiti was going mainstream in the 80s. That’s when it lost it’s edge.

Right around that time, Seen had already made a name for himself in New York and around the world. The Bronx native had taken to ‘bombing’ entire train cars. At one point, people said there was more art by Seen in NYC than billboards.

But by then, when ‘graf,’ as he calls it, had started its decline, Seen had caught the attention of 20th Century Fox. Seen did a mural on one of their building, got paid “decently,” and caught the attention of another major company. “I asked them if they wanted raw graffiti or commercial graffiti,” Seen said in an interview with IGN, “And they tell me the want the real thing. I knew they wanted commercial graffiti but I give them the raw graffiti.” This distinction between “raw” and “commercial” graf is important for Seen, and one of the reasons he ended up leaving street art mostly behind.

Seen started in the mid 70s with a group collectively called United Artists (UA). Together, they started tagging trains, becoming increasingly ambitious in their graffiti pieces. Soon, entire trains were being bombed, from top to bottom, and UA became known throughout the city, especially anyone taking the 2, 5, or 6 lines. Seen and his crew were regularly bombing trains well into the 80s, but by then Seen had noticed changes in the industry.

When Seen started in the late 70s, graffiti was illegal. Bombing wasn’t allowed in any capacity and artists had think about how they were going to get their art up and not get caught. As graffiti became more mainstream, however, it simultaneously got harder and easier. Permissive spaces started popping up, places where you could paint without fear of fines or jail. But permissive spaces also meant tightening restrictions on other spaces. Graf, an artistic style created by people who couldn’t get into the fine art galleries—and so made their own—was both accepted and rejected, easier and more difficult.

So Seen headed out of graf, into tattoos and, ironically enough, art galleries. Starting in the early 80s, he held gallery openings of his art with the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and fellow graffiti artists DONDI, and Lee Quiñones. He also opened Tattoo SEEN, which quickly became one of the most successful studios in the world. His most recent work uses the iconic images of superheroes that remind some of Lichtenstein, but with a decisive graffiti element. His other work incorporates complex and repetitive patterns for larger pieces.

For graf artists these days, thinking about an audience is arguably more integral than Seen’s trains in the late 70s. After all, commercial graf is an important part of our world, comes in many forms, and can be used to advertise and sell products while adding to an artistic space. The distinction between raw and commercial these days, like in so many other industries, is too blurry to be so decisive.

banksy eavesdropping mural

Banksy Admits to Eavesdropping Mural

He’s struck again. After a few months in New York, selling his wares anonymously (and for almost no money) in Central Park and painting anywhere he wanted, Banksy has left the Big Apple and headed home.

Known for his political graffiti, Banksy’s latest mural targets the British government’s increasingly invasive strategies for information. “Eavesdropping,” as the mural has been called, confronts this directly, with jacketed figures all standing around a phone booth with various devices for listening in. I guess some people will think twice before using that pay-phone for any illicit calls.

Banksy admitted to the painting in a Q&A on his website. The artist is notoriously guarded about his identity, despite a large number of people knowing who he is and refusing to tell, and will communicate with people only through email. This time, someone asked him directly: “Did you paint the spies in Cheltenham?” Banksy’s replay was a simple “Yes.”

In the same Q&A, Banksy mentioned the advantages of street art in general, that having to make all your mistakes in public is the best and worst part of his job. The last question was in a response to the controversial Banksy: The Unauthorized Retrospective, a curated art exhibit and auction by Banksy’s former agent, photographer, and assistant Steven Lazarides. The art was sold without Banksy’s consent and Lazarides mentioned to The Guardian that “I emailed his people, they know. Not pleased.”

“As a kid I always dreamed of growing up to be a character in Robin Hood,” Banksy said about the gallery and auction, “I never realised I’d end up playing one of the gold coins.”

“Eavesdropping” was discovered by Karen Smith, the owner of the house that Banksy painted, who awoke early in the morning to men packing up a white tarpaulin. “I thought it might be something to do with the police, like when a crime happens,” Smith told the Gloucestershire Echo, “I heard people talking all night and couldn’t sleep, but I didn’t look out, as you get used to people out there all the time.”

Smith’s personal opinion of the piece is that it “livens up the street a bit,” which is modest praise for art by one of the most famous artists in the world.

Since the revelation, the piece has been sold to private collector Sky Grimes for an undisclosed amount and his scaffolding company has been set to carefully remove “Eavesdropping” and make any necessary repairs to the home. Before it goes into Grimes’ private collection, it will be shown in a London gallery for a month while a special frame is made. All in all, the accidental owner of a Banksy piece just found themselves a great payday.

The street artist still is a bit like Robin Hood.

worlds tallest mural

Toronto’s Home the World’s Tallest Mural and a Sign of Local Regrowth

What started as a devastating housing project fire is now a giant piece of art, a sign of a neighbourhood on the rise, and a World Record.

Three years ago, a fire ripped through 200 Wellesley Street East in St. James Town, leaving residents homeless and in an already troubled neighbourhood with yet another problem. The residents banded together in those times of need, but they decided to go one step further. Now, thanks to community involvement and some dedicated muralists, St. James Town is home to the world’s tallest mural, one that shows off their indomitable spirit.

At nearly 30 storeys tall, the St. James Town mural is three times higher than the world’s largest mural, the famous Berlin painting created by French company CitéCréation. That mural, a stunning 20,000 feet in size, takes otherwise drab city housing projects and gives them new life, just like the mural here in Toronto. But where Berlin’s mural incorporates trees and nature to blend the concrete into a nearby park and zoo, the St. James Town mural doesn’t blend in or try to be natural. Instead, it heads to mythical majesty, and a powerful metaphor.

The mural depicts a large Phoenix rising from the ashes, a fitting metaphor for the building’s history and a signal to St. James Town’s future. Phoenixes are known for being born from fire, for rising from a tragedy as something more powerful and beautiful than what came before, and certainly this Phoenix is a symbol for rebirth and rebuilding in the distinctive and hardy Toronto neighbourhood. This part of town has known hard times, from poverty to overcrowding, but from tragedies like the building fire is an opportunity to rise, to fly.

And while the Berlin mural was the work of a private company, this mural is the combined efforts of and local artists, excited citizens, and some help from the STEPS Artivist program, led by Toronto artists Jason Rouleau, Ryan Dineen, and Sean Martindale. The mural is just one of the STEPS (Sustainable Thinking and Expression on Public Space) Initiative’s projects, but certainly their largest to date. The initiative was started to employ artists and local citizens in using Toronto’s ample public space for more, brightening and demonstrating the important role artists can play in helping neighbourhoods through public space projects. Previous work includes pop bottle planters and construction site painting, smaller projects making public spaces more usable and beautiful.

But when STEPS decided on doing something in St. James Town after the fire, the neighbourhood started throwing ideas out for how to bring a positive message of regrowth to the area, and the show everyone the St. James Town’s positive message of growth. Once the mural was decided on, certainly not the strangest of ideas tossed around, STEPS contacted local and internationally-renowned artist Sean Martindale for design and organization. With Martindale’s leadership, STEPS and local muralist company Toronto Muralists were able to convert the fire tragedy into something making people notice St. James Town’s spirit.

And while the Phoenix certainly represents this sentiment, the base of the mural shows the diversity and local participation of St. James Town residents. All along the base, young and aspiring artists from the neighbourhood were encouraged to add their own  stories, creating a mosaic of smaller paintings at the mural’s base that culminate in the larger Phoenix higher up which, for obvious reasons, couldn’t be completed by untrained professionals. Toronto Muralists, Jason Rouleau and Ryan Dineen handled the mural’s higher portions, using a bright and distinct colour palette to increase the project’s visibility.

To put the project is perspective, America’s tallest mural is located in Atlanta stands at 15 storeys. Asia’s tallest mural stands at 20 storeys tall, making Wellesley’s glowing Phoenix uses 29 of its social modernist housing project’s 32 storeys. At a full 10 storeys taller than its closest competition, 200 Wellesley is the tallest and brightest of each of these murals.

The mural was officially unveiled in September and St. James Town residents noticed a change in the neighbourhood almost immediately. Because of its location, St. James Town experiences a lot of traffic but few stops. Despite its high density population, St. James Town remains a thoroughfare, not a destination, until recently. The mural was unveiled at the St. James Town festival, a fitting celebration of the neighbourhood, and a chance to show their spirit. Now, the mural turns heads, attracts curious onlookers, and is helping St. James Town be less of a necessary road and more a place to stop and enjoy.

The Phoenix, it seems, is already doing its job.

cave paintings ancient murals

Sign Painting, Truly A Dying Art Form?

The relationship between the painting of murals and signage is very close. It’s possible to trace murals back to the dawning of mankind, to a time when cave dwellers used pigment from berries and crushed beetles to portray relevant and historical events on the otherwise barren rock walls of their homes. The art of sign painting for advertising purposes is almost as ancient as these events. While the Chinese and Japenese used complex logographic characters and Egyptians had used hieroglyphics as far back as 4,000 years ago, hand lettering only had it’s origins near the time that the Roman alphabet was first created.

The Long History of Sign Painting

Much like in previous times, the art form known as sign painting is still a learned craft. In previous years, painters with natural talents were often self-taught, and others were set to complete apprenticeships working under highly skilled masters of the craft. In our modern times, those who have the heart to pursue sign painting professionally generally attend art college of some form and may luck out finding work while completing their study. There is some fairly heated debate amongst artistic circles as to whether the standard of sign painting, in our modern days, is as high-quality as it may have been in earlier years. While this is the case, there is still a fairly broad acceptance that overall the majority of sign painters simply don’t possess the same skills and talents that were common-place in yester years.

Signs of Paleolithic Times

In paleolithic periods, signage was used to advertise good resting spots for nomadic people, dangers of rival tribes, and the presence of good hunting. During this period, life in North America largely depended upon finding shelter and food. In an effort to aid each other, people would paint signs providing aid to those who might find these signs and be in need. Generally, these signs were pictorial showcasing scenes the painters had witnessed.

Hand Lettering

In July of 2001, the Hanover, New Hampshire Hood Museum of Art hosted an exhibition detailing a collection of early American inn and tavern signs. During this event, the museum showcased 24 of the most eye-catching 18th and 19th century signage, primarily these signs were colourful wooden signboards featuring patriotic eagles and proud lions to show travelers designed to show travelers where to go and provide them with pertinent information.

The Technological Age

In our modern day world, with the advent of computers and powerful graphics software, both hand lettering and sign painting have become a dying artform. Computer software programs can generate pixel perfect signage in the tiniest fraction of time that was required of even the most skilled artists. This has significantly reduced the cost of signage and thus pushed out a large portion of the need for sign painters. It is paradoxical that this might be a good thing for sign painting, marking a rebirth of sign painting and hand lettering as forms of art rather than put to use for commercial purposes. When artists are free to produce signage that does not conform to strict advertising requirements, perhaps they will be able to go back to producing information creative works of art, allowing our cities to be filled with colourful, eye-catching paintings.

sign painters movie sign

With Sign Painters, The Weird And Wonderful Comes Out

At the beginning of Sign Painters, just as a nondescript keyboard plays over disjointed interviews, we see a man on a scaffold. It’s morning, he’s happy in his paint-covered clothes, “This is my favourite part,” he says, “this is my city.”

In a lot of ways, this sign painter is completely true. Signs are a large part of any city’s aesthetic, they are an instant way to separate yourself from others, and a art with a long, strong, and obvious history. It’s around all of us everyday. Sign Painters is a documentary about the craft itself, but more about the people who passionately dedicate their lives to putting letters to the canvas.

That man on the scaffold who owns his city is exactly the type of painter Sign Painters wants you to know. He’s quirky, messy, visibly unwilling to fit into the suits and ties of the people on the sidewalks below. He works where others can’t, an artist whose work and labour are both obvious and ignored. Many people will see his sign, certainly more than any of the art galleries around, but little to none will think of him, the thought that went into it. As another painer says later, “Signs are everywhere, but [no one] thinks about who made them.”

But Sign Painters’ directors Faythe Levine and Sam Macon want to show the people behind the signs, hoping beautiful shots of the creators and their work will speak to the craft. For the most part, the strategy works. A younger sign painter says early in the film that older painters say “You will spend your life impersonating the older painters.” In a way, the film does exactly this, the rich colours and distanced narrative relies on the painters themselves, the film just replicates what good sign painters are trying to do. Perhaps it’s fitting that the most visible of invisible art now has a documentary that actively tries to be invisible for the sake of their subject.

Levine and Macon are interested in exposing these painters as artists, as professionals in a fringe science, as it were. They are like chefs, their work is out of public view but whose products are enjoyed by everyone, and sign painters they are equally technical in their trade. A small section of the film’s natural progression is the under appreciated technicalities about the trade, the difference between typography and lettering, hand-painted signs and the vinyl that threatens to replace them.

It is after this discussion, between shots of smaller signs we take for granted like “Please keep your dog on a leash,” that Levine and Macon switch to how sign painting has gone from a necessity to a commodity. The classic “computers have changed everything” observation, which has impacted sign painters as much as anyone else.

And perhaps most significantly, it is also at this point that their cross-America tour takes them from San Francisco, the home of Google, to a small town in Minnesota. In San Fran, we meet two painters, a graphic designer that enjoys the work as an extension of his graphic design degree, the use of old techniques with new technologies, the other is from New Bohemia Designs, a classic sign painter. He utters a critical phrase, one that sums up Sign Painters entire purpose and theme: “There does seem to be some section of the population who want it hand painted and are excited someone is still doing this.”

“Still.”

And then we move to Minnesota to a man that has fully embraced this idea of still. He drives an old-timey truck, has a classic moustache, and describes his town as “old-fashioned.” His work is nostalgic, working against the easier, cheaper signs we see everyday printed out on vinyl. As the documentary moves us through the history of sign painting, the major movements and critical celebrities, watching the influence of technology becomes, as one puts it, “heart breaking.” Levine and Macon treat sign painting as an artistic style, one worthy of study and history.

What Sign Painters accomplishes is a respectful look at a trade and art that we all take for granted, and the true artists who are dedicated to making signs for people, not just businesses, but the people who get to enjoy them. While many businesses are content to not use painted signs, but there are the designers who make places stand out, whose artistry actively contributes to the aesthetic of the world we take in everyday.

Sign painters are here to stay. Still.