Artist Highlight: Soten

The world of graffiti has often focused on pictures over words, and that has caused an important part of the industry to die away. The art of graffiti writing is rarely seen beyond tags these days, or as complementary pieces to pictures and murals. But for one Danish street artist, the art of graffiti writing is more than declaring your graduation year. It’s about harnassing something different in the artform and bringing it to the forefront again.

Growing up in Copenhagen, Denmark, Soten was met with adversity when it came to his artform. But despite being a wonderful European city, Copenhagen was notoriously strict about graffiti, and Soten had to get creative about expressing his creativity. But Soten has since seen a shift to more tolerance, and he gives his peers the credit over himself. “Thanks to the big work of a smaller group of writers and today,” he said in an interview with Molotow, “You see more and more big walls in the city and with a increase of halls of fame the general public are getting more and more tolerant towards graffiti.”

But there are a few, he says, that would rather graffiti stays illegal in Copenhagen. Not for the usual reasons, however, but for a taste of the glory days. “The biggest tolerance problem in Copenhagen is these young… [kids] with a closed group of old schoolers who have left the game years ago or maybe do 2-3 pieces a year,” he explains, “[They] try to preach bullsh*t about how graffiti should be kept illegal thing. Instead of letting the whole movement grow they try keep graffiti down for the sake of they can sit and reminisce about when they where the boss.”

Soten thinks, graffiti should be free for anyone to do, and people who want to keep the movement attached to its illegal routes aren’t helping the industry or the artistry. They are, according to Soten, holding the entire medium back.

But Soten’s more than just a political figure for the street art scene in Copenhagen, he’s also a talented graffiti writer who’s travelled the world doing art for all kinds of projects. His writing ranges from scrawls to full 3-dimensional experiences, and they’re probably best described as traditionalist with a hint of the contemporary. Soten’s style is obviously influenced by the brighter colours and effects of the L.A. scene, but he also infuses it with a more recent English minimalism in much of his quieter work.

Soten’s distinct style and love of writing shows a marked change from the usual picture-focused mural work that happens in today’s climate. But that doesn’t mean graffiti writing is inferior, and artists like Soten are proving that everyday. His work reminds us that there is much about street art that’s still misunderstood, and artists need to preserve and forward the more obscure aspects of the craft to renew enthusiasm and keeping the artistry alive.

Shepard Fairey: Wanted by Detroit Police

Legendary graffiti artist Shepard Fairey is currently wanted by Detroit police for work he recently did in the beleaguered city’s downtown core. Fairey, probably most famous for his OBEY and Andre the Giant graffiti in the eighties and of course the iconic HOPE poster from President Obama’s 2008 campaign, was in town to paint the largest legal mural he had ever undertaken. Apparently the Detroit Police Department, famously underworked in the currently booming metropolis of financially stable Detroit, is coming after Fairey for his “extra-curricular” activity.

Detroit police are currently investigating Fairey’s alleged crimes, including two counts of malicious destruction of property, for graffiti that has appeared in downtown Detroit since Fairey arrived in the city. The crimes aren’t too severe, but can lead to jail time and hefty fines, so Fairey is going to have to lawyer up to defend the charges.

Of course, for an artist as famous as Fairey, he could make a couple of unique arguments about his various alleged graffiti activity around town, including the fact a bonafide Fairey original on any piece of property is actually a way to increase a property’s value, not devalue it, as the law requires, and that could lead to some problems on the Detroit police’s side of the case. But either way, Fairey’s original mural is now proudly being displayed in downtown Detroit, and that has many different people taking note, and either complaining or complimenting the artist’s contribution to the city skyline.

Fairey was in Detroit doing the largest legal mural he has ever undertaken in an effort to add some colour to Detroit’s beleaguered downtown core. The city, most famous recently for having to file for bankruptcy, has looked to private companies for ways to rebuild and attract new people to the area. Of course, the various projects, including Fairey’s own mural, has been met with a chorus of both approval and disdain. For Fairey’s work, some praise the initiative as a way of using art to attract young people, while others argue it’s a way to cover up the creeping gentrification of some neighbourhoods. Fairey himself is frustrated by the divisive opinions, telling Animal via email, “I’m either accused of being a vandal or a gentrifier depending on who you ask. Realty has more nuance. I think art is a good thing in public spaces…for the most part.”

Many legal experts have weighed in on Fairey’s current prediciment and, besides having to assess the devaluing of properties to make the case, the Detroit police will also need to prove it was Fairey, and not someone else, who did indeed do the graffiti they’re mentioning. And in a city with a myriad of closures and resource scarcity, and many other things they could be focusing on, retroactively proving a specific person did certain graffiti will be almost impossible. Fairey may never even have to take the stand.

Indecline Renders The World’s Largest Illegal Graffiti

In Nevada, a mannequin in a business suit hangs from the side of a billboard in a classic noose. The billboard reads “Dying for Work” in all-caps. Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the country.

In Utah, a billboard for the National Alliance, a white nationalist, anti-semitic, and white separatist political organization, was vandalized. The original message, “Securing the Future for European Americans,” now reads “for Racist Americans.

Indecline is not the movie production studio that made national news in the early 2000s for its pitted fights between homeless people. Now, it is a loose collective of guerrilla street artists who are messing up billboards across America.

Not much is known about Indecline in terms of their scope, membership, or history. In fact, we don’t even really know that the people who identify themselves as Indecline are in any way related to the video producers of the early 2000s. All we know is they’re, for the most part, white, angry, and well-funded.

That last piece of information comes as a result of their latest stunt: what they are calling “the world’s largest illegal piece of graffiti.” The mural covers an entire landing strip on an abandoned California airbase. It reads “This land was our land” and it cost Indecline, according to an anonymous interview, cost $20,000. The phrase comes from a Woody Guthrie song often sung in American schools and events.

“Most people don’t know the lyrics to it—and we all grow up in America singing the modified version,” the anonymous interviewer said over at Vice, “So there’s a kind of a message behind that, so we wanted to tie that in to the message that we were all given this earth and we’ve let people take it from us.”

The piece took six days and eight people to complete, often working up to 20 hours a day. The closest supply store was a Home Dept located about 90 minutes away, so most of the required materials were taken out in their RV that housed everyone. When they were about 90%, they caught the attention of the Air Force, who circled overhead but ultimately decided not to act. Everyone got away without consequence. Although, there is now a much larger lock on the gate that Indecline broke to get to the landing strip.

Indecline, in many ways, represents the dark side of graffiti and street art, the part that conservatives and opponents use to decry the decay of contemporary culture and the need to police and prosecute such vandals. But they also represent something that is so amazing about street art: its public access, its visibility, its political messages, and its refusal to participate in the dominant systems that are used to control, take up space, and spread messages of consumption. And whether or not you agree with their political commentaries, they are getting heard and seen, and that’s an important aspect of any street art.

Ian Stevenson Bio

People in London have probably been chuckling on their travels for a few years now, and that’s in part thanks to Ian Stevenson. The Leicester-born graffiti artist has been tagging spots all over England with his own unique brand of political protest. But one Londoner in particular has been taken with Stevenson’s art, and that man is Russell Brand.

The actor, comedian, and writer has lately taken to doing The Trews, a news program that regularly critiques mainstream media, first world nations, and global policy. With Ian Stevenson, Brand seems to have found a co-conspirator for exposing the problems they see lying just under the surface of contemporary society.

Ian Stevenson’s work usually combines simple drawings of familiar figures and characters with phrases that play on mottos and slogans. For example, a famous tag he did in London has Mickey Mouse, a common figure in his work, with his arms stretched out for a hug. The phrase above reads “I want your soul.”

Stevenson met Brand “through a tangled web of connections” and the two decided to team up given their similar political leanings. Stevenson started by sending Brand some preliminary drawings and, from there, they collaborated on the project until a final draft was finished. Then, Stevenson set to work drawing the mural. Like his other work, the drawings are minimalistic, not obscuring the message: a Mickey Mouse, prostrate with dollar signs for eyes, lies in front of a television advert. The caption: revolution with the letters spelling love reversed and coloured in read.

What Stevenson’s work accomplishes is a return to the politicization of street art, which had it’s contemporary beginnings as a form of political protest. Graffiti in the Second World War was used as a vent for soldiers who missed their homes and pondered the futility of war. After that, street art quickly became associated with the African-American community, mostly by artists who found themselves barred from traditional art galleries. As graffiti headed towards the 1980s, it became associated with hip-hop and, as hip-hop became mainstream, graffiti lost a bit of its edge. Artists like Ian Stevenson remind us that graffiti is a form of protest, a political act with roots in resistance, be it racism, violence, or the political powers that be.

By combining familiar tropes and commercial products, whether its Mickey Mouse, a crucifix, or graffiti’s own Kilroy, Stevenson can tap into a familiarity precisely to make people think and feel uncomfortable. The idea is popular in comics, where visual cues are part of the hidden language of comics, which require people to follow a specific sequence to read the story in order. Often, these visual cues rely on familiar tropes and images that act as a shorthand for what the artist and writer are trying to convey. With Stevenson, the familiar images, often seen with a certain amount of joy or sacredness, are shown to support a large, mechanical profit machine, which is, at the heart of Stevenson’s critique, something that people already know.

Colossal Media and The Commercial Artist: Are Big Advertising Firms Helping or Hurting Street Art?

The difference between art and advertising is often a lot blurrier than people think. Especially as the world gets more transparent, we have better glimpses into the background lives of artists, the influence of producers on movies, songwriting collectives on music, and much more. We sometimes favour the people who haven’t “sold out,” the ones who can now live off their own artistic pursuits without relying on a day job, but this is no longer the type of world we live in. The fact is many artists come out of school eager for work but find very few opportunities, clutching to the romantic ideal of the starving artist is not only silly, it gives you stomach pains.

When we turn this romantic gaze to street art, worrying about the relationship between public art and private business, things get very complicated. Graffiti has an underground feel to it, like the rebellious cousin of art gallery paintings, and graffiti is in turn persecuted for its existence. Governments wash graf off buildings, set increased limits on where and when artists can write, and sponsor professional street artists for beautification pieces around town. This all contributes to an underdog feel of street artists, a persecuted underground community just waiting for their chance in the spotlight. What people forget is modern street art started as advertisements, not tagging, and that street art is literally everywhere, and that is something to celebrate.

You’ve seen evidence of the old street art all around town, on old brick buildings pointing to the local pharmacy and old glass windows with Coca-Cola ads. Street art was a prominent way to advertise. Before massive printed billboards, hand-painted ads on buildings were the easiest way to use some wall space to drum up business. And while many artists are wary of the commercialization of street art, eager to “legitimize” their trade with tags, gallery showings, and by bringing their graf sensibilities to other art forms, the relationship between ads and graffiti has always been around.

So it’s hardly a surprise that companies like Colossal Media exist, advertising companies that specialize in hand-painted ads, and they’re a great place for young artists to get practical experience while getting paid, something difficult for anyone with an Arts degree, especially a Fine Arts degree. As North America’s largest hand-painted advertising company, Colossal is at once a sign of the times and a harkening back to graffiti’s beginnings, skipping the romantic idealism in between to help painters get some practical experience and explore their art in a new way. Sure, they’re told what to paint, but the in-between space between expectation and result is a fun playground for any artist willing to learn and explore.

In a way, Colossal Media is a paragon of the debate on whether constraints encourage art or discourage it. On the one side, we have genre artists, people who find inspiration in re-packaging familiar tropes rather than starting fresh. On the other side, there’s the ideal artist: someone with a unique vision who is recognized for their obvious talent and free to create when and how they want. They push the world forward, exposing new ways of looking at our surroundings for a change. And while it’s easy to put artistic people on opposite ends of a spectrum, rarely are they mutually exclusive.

High Art, Angry Vandalism, and Murals: The Life and Times of Zevs

By the time French street artist was featured in Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop in 2010, he had already done his first solo art show in Hong Kong, defined the French street art scene, and almost been run over by a train. That last incident was how he got his name. After all, it was the Zeus train that nearly hit him while he was painting inside a train tunnel and decided that such a close brush with death should be remembered, and no moment should be wasted. And no one would accuse Zevs of squandering his life. He’s probably one of France’s most important art figures, one that never shies away from the deeply political.

Many of the artists we’ve featured here at MuralForm have gone from tagging trains or walls to art galleries and Zevs is no exception. Bridging the gap between the “high” art world and the “low,” street-level art, some would argue, has been accomplished. Banksy sells pieces in galleries for small fortunes. Shepard Fairey has turned his most iconic pieces into gallery art, and subsequently turned them into recognizable and profitable pieces seen everywhere for backpacks to campaign posters. Some even crossed over to advertising for some of the biggest companies in the world. But Zevs, he’s happier discrediting the corporate world while still pushing the boundaries of street art.

Zevs started out in Paris in the 1990s tagging anywhere he could, but two ongoing projects in particular caught the attention of the public. One, called Shadows, painted fixed shadows of various objects on the ground. Everything from park benches to wastebaskets were given permanent(ish) imprints on the ground or nearby walls. The work showed that street art wasn’t limited to walls, but could traverse other surfaces as well, a point Banksy would pick up in a few short years. His other major project, Visual Attacks, targets billboards in France, to this day spraking a debate on whether he’s a vandal or artist. Zevs would write alternate slogans on the advertisements and paint bloodied eyes on the models, disrupting the marketing with disturbing images and words. Visual attacks attacks commercialism exactly where it’s most prominently seen: advertising billboards.

Zevs continued to target commercialism and major corporations in the mid-2000s with Liquidated Logos. The project takes corporate logos and drips paint from them, giving the illusion that these logos are dissolving. The project speaks to the ever-presence of logos but their non-tangible existence, undermining their constant appearance in the street, on the screen, and at home.

Zevs art continually challenges the distinction between vandalism, street, and high art, incorporating postmodern styles and aesthetics into his artwork to push these boundaries even further. While most would condemn much of his street-level artwork for its intrusion, the very openness of Zevs’ art speaks to the constant intrusion of marketing as being unnecessarily encouraged and sanctioned by the government. His politics and prominence in Europe has let him move to art galleries, but Zevs seems continually uncomfortable with the art we’re forced to consume everyday.

That’s Right, this is Legal Graff in NYC

New York, while not as aggressive as L.A. in its anti-graffiti laws, has made it purposefully difficult for people to make street art and have it stay. NYC has set up an anti-graffiti taskforce whose sole job is to go around the Five Boroughs and paint over street art. Sure, some of that may need to be removed, either because it’s unwelcome or offensive, but many of NYC’s greatest street artists have their great work eradicated before people can really appreciate it.
That’s why this street mural is such a curiosity. To the average person with little to no knowledge of the New York graffiti scene, this mural on Allen and Division Streets in Chinatown is just another instance of tagging. Another place where people with spray cans have vandalized a piece of property with territorial markings. But for someone who knows the New York street art scene, this is a pretty cool collaborative effort, and perhaps the beginning of something new.

First, you may notice some pretty famous names on here: Remo, SP, Joz, Easy, Mey, Cinik, Sev, Giz, 17, Chino, Veefer, and Trap are all represented in the tags. These aren’t just some guys with spray paint, these are respected artists. And the end result looks like normal graffiti, the usual tagging people sometimes simply tolerate in their neighbourhoods, but speaks to the history and importance of street art in a city’s aesthetic and visual history.

The other important part of this piece is it’s legal status, in other words, the fact that it isn’t vandalism next of the chopping block for buffing out. Nope, this is fully legal street art, created in partnership with the City of New York. The graffiti collective Animal previously managed to get a mural done in Chinatown, but it took three years of paperwork and the help of a community affairs officer in the 5th precinct to get it done. Here, we expect the same process happened, but this is less overtly a pice of mural art and more a collection of names. Either way, things seem to be changing in NYC for graffiti artists. They are certainly changing elsewhere in the country.

Take, for example, Saber and Zeser’s L.A. mural. For a town with actual legislation against murals, their legal mural for a downtown artstore is an accomplishment simply by its existence. But it’s materials is even more interesting: it uses materials that are used to buff and eradicate mural art. Rollers, fire extinguishers, and other items used that are either directly used or simulate the poor quality paint used to erase graffiti are all used. The result is a stunning visual piece that speaks to the importance of mural art while using the very procedures that keep it somewhat concealed or censored. Even its height, only using the top half of the building, speak to the NYC taskforce’s limited resources in removing higher street art.

Both of these murals stand as testaments to the importance of street art and its gradual reclamation of acceptance and recognition. Both of these cities at one time were almost defined by their graffiti and street art, for better or worse, and both cities have actively attempted to erase that part of their visual history and aesthetic. But with these two murals, that aspect of history is both reclaimed and deemed by the higher authorities as appropriate and necessary. That counts as a win for both.

Does Graffiti-Free NYC Work?

In a world that has a hard time differentiating between vandalism and public art, New York is just one of many cities that have decided to turn muralists into the enemy in a War on Graffiti. While a kid painting a middle finger on a bridge seems like a long ways away from artists like Saber or Seen, the line isn’t as blurry or the difference so large.

To address the issue, New York started up Graffiti-Free NYC, a government agency that responds to graffiti complaints with a free removal service for all five boroughs. Some neighbourhoods have had over 400 complaints per year. Naturally a homeowner shouldn’t have to pay to have their door repainted if it’s been graffitied against their will or without their knowledge, so the program’s free aspect can help people who are essentially victims in a thoughtless crime.

Obviously unwanted graffiti should be removed, but NYC’s specific motivations are somewhat hazardous, perhaps even dangerous to the city and its residents. In their mission statement, Graffiti-Free NYC argues they “enhance overall neighborhood aesthetics to improve the business climate, increase property values and create goodwill throughout New York City’s local communities.” And while the program also helps “create challenging and skill-enhancing jobs for low-to-moderate income residents,” the reasons for the program seem to only encourage the gentrification of New York that’s harming many different communities. By wanting to “improve the business climate” and “increase property value” isn’t simply hurting many residents faced with impossible rent increases, it also maintains the idea that “art” and “business” exist as polar opposites with a clear winner: commerce.

While New York claims on their website that “it is the current policy of Graffiti-Free NYC not to remove murals,” for a program that has removed upwards of 170 million square feet of street art, I find it hard to believe that all murals have survived the program on top of the program’s clear goals of making NYC a public art-free institution, unless of course the public art somehow encourages or reflects how commerce is helping the city.

Artists are finding solutions, ways to avoid the Graffiti Squad, but these may actually be making the art more dangerous. If a city is meant to protect and serve its citizens, the Graffiti Squad is a perfect example of how legislation can do more harm than good. In one article at Animal New York, artists recommend going high, to hard to reach places where it creates a safety concern for the people paid to remove the piece. Currently, cleaners can only reach about 35 feet in the air. Above that, artists can still have a clear canvas.

Graffiti-Free NYC represents a good idea that needs serious re-evaluation. The program is necessary, a means for victims of vandalism to get the support they need. But the program also puts graffiti artists at risk and perpetuates ideas that are harming New Yorkers, like driving up property values to push out low and middle income families. A compromise needs to happen between muralists and street artists who do good work outside a corporate structure and people’s desire to live in a beautiful city without vandalism.

Artist Bio: Saber

Graffiti and mural art are a part of a city, it’s culture and visual aesthetic, no matter how its citizens feel about it. Public art like murals and graffiti document the times, celebrate communities, and demarcate neighbourhoods. For artists like Saber, it’s something to be treasured and respected, an art style that is important because it moves in and out of public space. Saber in particular knows the importance of preserving mural art, having creating some of L.A.’s most famous and widely seen murals, but he also knows that it can’t simply stay on the street. It needs to be in galleries, in homes, in places where people want to go and look at art. Saber also knows that graffiti can challenge convention, and that’s exactly where his art likes to be.

Saber’s Rise to Prominence

Saber first rose to prominence in 1997, when his massive mural on the banks of the L.A. river began getting international attention. The mural measured 55’ high and over 250’ in length and reportedly took over 95 gallons of paint and 35 days to complete. Highly visible from the East L.A. Interchange, Saber’s piece was seen by millions and stayed up for an astounding 12 years before it was buffed by the US military. In his signature eloquence, Saber said it was quite the “way to go out” before noting that the government could probably be spending their money better. “The Army uses millions of federal funds to help fuel the LA war on graffiti, painting out layers of raw history in the armpit of the city,” Saber said in an interview, “While schools have no books and hospitals are closing.” This commentary on America and its priorities has been a focal point of Saber’s work his entire career.

Saber in The Media Spotlight

Take, for instance, the time he was accused of desecrating the American flag. By this time, Saber was travelling the world to show off his fine art, popping up in galleries in from his hometown in L.A. to Europe. He had become a renowned fine artist, someone who bridged the gap between street art and fine art while still making ammazing contributions in both worlds. But in 2010, Saber once again came into the media spotlight for his work using the American flag, a mixed media piece he was experimenting with that discussed his lifelong struggle with epilepsy. Being accused of flag desecration seemed to be another instance of backwards priorities, this time by America’s citizens instead of it’s government. In response to the controversy, Saber said his intention was to “show it [the flag] as a living, breathing, changing organism, that represents me as an American trying to manage this lifelong disease without health care.”

Defending His Artwork

Throughout his career, Saber has been first to defend the arts in all their forms, going as far as to hire planes to skywrite “Mitt Romney hates arts” in L.A. Since murals were outlawed in his hometown, Saber found another way to fight against America’s war on art. At the Huffington Post, he argued the state of art in America is under threat. “You have candidates like Mr. Mitt Romney saying that he would completely eliminate funding for The National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and NPR if elected, claiming they’re a ‘budgetary nuisance,’ he said, “These things cost .003% of the budget, and Romney says it’s a fucking budgetary nuisance! And so art is nuisance now in America.”

Always on the fringe and never one to stand idly by, Saber is a voice for street artists and the arts in general, unafraid to get political and fight for what he believes in.

Os Gêmeos Bio

Brazil today is internationally renowned for its grafitti and street art scene, intensified recently by the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The whole country embraces their street art scene more than many other countries, with some municipalities passing laws to encourage street art. The city of São Paulo, for example, has banned public advertising like billboards, freeing up more space for street artists to create and display their talents.

Perhaps one of the reasons São Paulo has laws to encourage street art is because they are the birthplace of one, or rightly two, of Brazil’s most important and influential street artists. Born Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, these identical twins are better known as Os Gêmeos, the Portuguese word for twins. But even those who don’t know their name would know their work in Brazil, it has come to dominate and guide the country’s street art aesthetics.

The twins were born in 1974 and grew up just as hip-hop began its swift movement through Central and South America. The familiar beats and youthful energy captured the attention of Brazil’s youth, including Otavio and Gustavo. They started out as breakdancers, but soon graffiti became their favourite activity.

At the time, the New York street art scene was the most prevalent and famous in the world and the twins began tagging and reproducing the style that could be seen all over NYC. They weren’t interested in their own style at the time and, much like the early adoption of any artistic practice, reproduction was vastly more interesting than creating something entirely new. Os Gêmeos, as we all know now, quickly became disinterested in mere reproduction, and a definitive style that incorporated Brazilian aesthetic, folklore, and culture began showing up in their work.

A chance encounter with Barry McGee, then known as Twist, gave the twins their first direct contact with an American graffiti artist. McGee was in Brazil for several months for school and provided local artists with examples of the New York scene as it was happening. McGee also put Os Gêmeos in contact with other artists and street art professionals, giving them a way to advertise themselves outside Brazil.

Os Gêmeos began experimenting with their style and giving their work a distinctive Brazilian flavour, including differing colour palettes, subjects, and approaches from their New York influences. A trademark for their work now, the yellow skin of many of their characters actually comes from dreams they have both had that feature people with yellow skin. They started making overt political statements as well, focused on local issues of poverty and infrastructure in their homeland.

Nowadays, Os Gêmeos’ work can be seen all over the world, from Europe to North America to all over their native land. Special commissions include art festivals around the world and, surprisingly, local transit systems in Brazil, who are famously against street art on their trains. Mural painting and graffiti have become part of Brazil’s cultural makeup, individual expressions that together help a local and national identity, and two artists working under one name are a large part of this continuing mode of expression and internationally renowned scene. Their name is Os Gêmeos.