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Breaking Into the Art World: Graffiti Gets Legit

Spray paint cans in car trunk
Spray paint cans in car trunk

Milwaukee muralist Aisha Valentín vividly remembers the first time she picked up a can of spray paint.

“It was just so fast,” she says, describing how the paint erupted from the can unlike drawing with a pencil or painting with a brush. “It was addictive—and empowering—to see how quickly you could create something with it.”

That discovery came when Valentín was 13 years old. During that summer in 2004, she and an older cousin began taking classes about the history and creation of graffiti through a nonprofit youth program called True Skool on the northside of Milwaukee.

“We learned how to map out a wall, about different letter structures and color,” says the artist, now 30. “I fell in love with how you could manipulate a letter and bend it and twist it.”

After these classes, Valentín and her cousins would compete, filling notebooks with stylized words and short phrases. Soon, she was out at night, tagging her street moniker on buildings, dipping between street lights and painting in short bursts of action beneath the moonlight.

“I did go bombing,” she says, referring to the act of putting one’s name or ‘tag’ on as many surfaces as possible to gain notoriety among other graffiti writers. “Vandalism does not detach from graffiti—it’s about challenging the structure of the space,” she explains. But tagging around town wasn’t enough for her.

An alley of murals on the far eastside of Madison where artists were given permission to paint.“I was more focused on taking my time, doing bigger pieces and mastering the art of the letters,” she continues. It was those large, elaborate and intricate designs that used multiple colors and stretched several feet wide and tall that drew her in, she says. “I really wanted more to embrace the craft of it.”

“I got really into understanding how to make the colors work together, how to make a piece look like it’s popping off the wall, making a piece look 3D,” continues Valentín. She was also drawn to the size and scale of larger pieces.

Spray cans close up“When you’re using a paintbrush, you're just using your wrist, but with a spray can on a big piece, you’re using your entire body—it feels like a martial art,” she says. “If you’re laying down a long line, you have to be really confident and flow with it. It’s like that Bruce Lee quote: ‘Be like water.’”

Over the years, Valentín’s reputation and skills as a street artist have grown to the point where she now gets tapped for big—and legal—art projects. Some of her recent work includes a large mural for the Feeding America–Eastern Wisconsin building last year and, more recently, a mural sponsored by the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a project to foster unity. She’s also done logo adaptations and signage for businesses and painted caricatures of prominent leaders around the city.

She doesn’t lose sight that her success is directly related to her coming up as an artist who learned her craft outside normal channels. “I didn't go to art school but I learned so much doing graffiti,” she explains. “Like color theory and scale and how to manipulate paint effects by how you move your wrist while holding the can to create shading.”

Spray paint can tipsValentín is an example of a new breed of artist breaking into the traditional art world. These graffiti artists-turned-paid professional designers and creators are finding success in new and exciting ways with their tenacity, fresh ideas and seemingly endless energy.

These artists are younger and unencumbered. And in many cases, because of graffiti’s prominence in communities of color, they are also people of color. This has caused some friction in the art world which is not surprising considering that the pool of money available for public art of all kinds in Wisconsin is among the lowest in the nation.

“The politics of public art is very suppressive, especially to young brown and black people,” explains Valentín. “The way that we express ourselves isn't acknowledged. We’re told we need to go by institutional standards or it's not art.”

Still, the graffiti art movement is growing and artists like Valentín are being tapped for larger projects and gallery shows. Their voices are beginning to be heard and their art is being seen at more and more public places all around Wisconsin and the globe.

One undeniable sign of recognition for any movement is when a museum is dedicated to it. For graffiti art, that happened in Miami in 2019. “The Museum of Graffiti opened to celebrate, preserve and elevate the art of graffiti,” says museum co-founder Alan Ket. Located in the Wynwood Art District, an area known for colorful street art and murals, the museum incorporates outdoor murals into its exhibits.

“There's a tremendous audience here that visits the neighborhood to see this art, but there was no education about it,” he explains. “So now, we provide that. We dive deep into the history, the people, the culture and different moments in the movement.”

Aisha Valentin and her mural entitled Africa, Milwaukee“Humans have been doing this for thousands of years—we can't seem to stop writing on walls and professing our love for one another or writing about religion or making terrible jokes,” continues Ket, who grew up in Brooklyn. “But the type of graffiti that we're talking about is a bit different—it started happening in the late 1960s and was born out of the desire of children in New York City to create identity.”

Ket notes that around 1971, “these teenagers started writing their names with stylistic intention, designing their names with flourishes and with ornamentation, bending and shaping the letters in ways that were unique to themselves. That’s when it really started to take hold with this design sensibility.”

Soon, crews of artists were competing by putting their names up bigger and higher, in difficult-to-reach but highly-visible places in the city. As the quantity of graffiti exploded, the artistic quality improved as well. “Different styles were developed, like bubble letters and marshmallow letters, and there was the emergence of bar style [lettering] and wildstyle,” Ket explains, referring to complicated graffiti pieces that incorporate interwoven and overlapping letters, shapes and decorative elements.

And it didn’t take long for these late-night artists to find a canvas that moved around the city like a traveling gallery: the NYC subway cars. By the mid-1970s, Ket explains, “there was the introduction of cartoons…and it had a mural connotation to it. And then, the trains became murals themselves.”

From there, graffiti spread around America and the world.  Embraced by Hip-Hop culture in the 1980s, along with breakdancing, beatboxing, rapping and DJ-ing, these new forms of graffiti began appearing with increased frequency around the world in places like London, Paris, and Sydney, Australia.

Ket has mixed feelings when it comes to the commercializing and commodifying of the art.

“Sometimes commercialization is welcome, when it’s something being done by artists from within the movement so they can support themselves and their families,” he says, adding that graffiti artists are infiltrating other creative spaces as well. “They’re in television production and film production and advertising and fashion, just about everywhere.”

“And I love when they go and paint in the alley as well—they can straddle both worlds,” Ket adds. “I love to see people who want to operate in the streets and also in the galleries and everywhere else and want to conquer all kinds of territory.”

 

Another point of validation for graffiti is that businesses are being created to provide equipment and space to foster artist growth, like the Pumpkin Hollow Art Center, which opened late last fall in Wisconsin.

Currently, the center, which is operated by artist and owner Margot Atkinson, sells anti-drip spray paint designed specifically for graffiti as well as markers, aerosol can tips of different sizes and shapes and sketch pads. She’s also created an art gallery within the center.

“We make most of our money through paint sales and art supplies, and then because of those paint sales, we can have the gallery and with the gallery, we can give back money to the artists,” explains Atkinson, who grew up immersed in the graffiti culture of Long Island, New York during the 1990s.

Located in the countryside north of Madison, the center includes a pole barn that Atkinson is transforming into a graffiti school where she and others will teach how-to workshops on creating spray can art and painting murals once the weather warms up.

“It's so hard to get started in this because there’s nowhere to do it,” she says. “In order to learn the skill of spray painting, you need to have instruction. Sure, you can just Google something and look it up, but there's really nothing like one-on-one instruction with someone who knows what they're doing.”

Atkinson says her end goal is to foster the creation of art to beautify drab surroundings.

“This is the art movement of our generation. And as it becomes more widely accepted, we’ll see much better art coming out of it,” she explains. “It's no longer just going to be something that’s considered an eyesore or illegal or connected with gang activity or a bad neighborhood. It's beautifying otherwise ugly spaces. Especially in urban spaces where there aren’t trees or parks, a giant, colorful mural would be better than just buildings and cement.”

Toni Sikes welcomes graffiti into the art world with open arms. As chief executive officer of CODAworx, a Madison-based agency that acts as an international liaison between artists and those seeking to purchase or arrange large art projects, she’s delighted to see graffiti emerge and be validated.

“Graffiti is an example of where the lines are blurring and [it’s] helping to break down the barriers in the hierarchical art world,” she says. And while graffiti’s emergence in the traditional art world may surprise some, Sikes says, “it belongs because it's authentic.”

“It's hard to really define it, aesthetically, but it’s edgy, it's urban. it's young, it's brash,” she explains. “Ten years ago, that did not sit well with the fine art world. But now I think the fine art world has embraced it.”

The CODAworx website, features a number of works related to, inspired by or created by graffiti artists, from the interior designs of graffiti artist Zero (Mohammed Zulkarnaen Othman) for the Singapore restaurant Neon Pigeon to three augmented-reality murals by Los Angeles graffiti legends Ryan “Yanoe” Sarfati and Eric “Zoueh” Skotnes depicting a hummingbird in flight, mythical gods, and a Somali woman wearing a traditional guntiino installed in Columbus, Ohio in 2019. Other pieces include “Lion Pride” —a trio of lions on a vibrant graffitied wall in a fitness center in New Jersey, the “Waterlight Graffiti” interactive installation in France where visitors can ‘paint’ a wall embedded with thousands of LEDs which light up when they’re touched by water and the “120 Clay 3D Graffiti Art” project in Portland, Oregon where over 300 hand-blown glass pieces secured to the ceiling cast graffiti-like shadows on the wall.

Sikes says she’s noticed an increase in graffiti artists’ work or graffiti-inspired commissioned work over the past 7 years.  Also, most recently, she says, graffiti has played a visible role during the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice protests of last summer.

In cities like Madison, Milwaukee, and others across the country, graffiti artists and muralists were sought out to create art that spoke directly to the BLM movement on the plywood used to board up businesses during protests. “From a very difficult and sad situation, they were brought in to help us heal,” Sikes says. “And that’s pretty special.”

She adds that the resurgence she’s seen of murals is key to graffiti’s growth and acceptance.

“The art world, like everything else in life, has its trends and things become hot,” she explains. “Today, murals are huge, just like in the 1980s. We get lots and lots and lots [of requests] for mural art. Cities are recognizing that every surface is available to be painted on and that people love it. And they're using a lot of local artists to do it, which is exciting.”

“And a lot of those murals are being created by artists who do graffiti art,” she adds.

She expects to see the growth of graffiti to continue. “It's already happening—it’s becoming accepted and championed by the traditional art world, by museums, galleries and the big art fairs,” continues Sikes. “And when that happens, the money starts to become very real. And that's when graffiti will become an accepted part of the establishment.”

Train car painted by Ras Terms, Madison

But it’s not just art fairs, museums and galleries that are validating graffiti as an art—it’s also happening on the individual level with art dealers and private collectors. And that’s where people like the husband-and-wife team of Scott and Shawn Smith, who operate the Wisconsin-based Art Elementals artist agency, come in. Through his deep dives into Reggae music and culture, Scott Smith noticed that he “kept seeing a similar image pop up—maybe it would be on an album cover or I would see it on a wall somewhere,” he explains. “After a while I started to put all the pieces together and I realized it's this artist Ras Terms, who does these angelic characters and was working a lot with the Reggae community in San Francisco. I just became fascinated with it.”

After Smith reached out to Ras Terms to see if he would design a tattoo for him, the two got to know each other. “I realized that he and his circle of street artist friends didn’t really have anyone helping them. They had no gallery presence,” Smith continues. “Their art wasn't even viewed necessarily as something you would pay money for. But at the same time, I’m looking at these pieces, thinking, ‘People need this in their life.’”

In 2017, after a number of years as a tax attorney and then as an agent for professional football players, Smith founded Art Elementals. “Our goal was to help street artists get exposure and sell art,” he says. “So that’s what we did and we began selling art to folks who have probably never owned art before.”

Most of Art Elementals’ sales come from online and social media interactions. “Instagram has been a huge way for street artists to get exposure and sell their art,” he says.

For now, the Smiths are building their exclusive collection, which includes dozens of individually-painted, old boomboxes and skateboard decks as well as a couple thousand more traditional paintings and drawings from some 30 different street and graffiti artists. “A lot of the work we have is just because we love it so much,” says Smith.

Smith has also been curating a collection of NFTs—one-of-a-kind digital prints known as non-fungible tokens—with Ras Terms.

These NFTs pose to be quite beneficial for artists. “When they sell an NFT they don't have to ship it, it can't get damaged. It doesn't need to be framed. It's 100% authenticated,” explains Smith. “And when it resells on the secondary market, the artist gets a 10% royalty every time it's resold. That doesn't happen in the real world.”

Smith acknowledges that there’s been a huge jump in the acceptance of graffiti into mainstream culture.

“There was a consciousness shift globally, in terms of what this art can do. Go back a few years and you ask people about graffiti and they think of it as just vandalism,” he explains. “But now, aided in part by the Black Lives Matter movement murals, folks stepped back and gave themselves a minute to see what street art really is. It’s what art is intended to be, which is to be seen by the community, to tell a story about what's happening in that community—it goes all the way back to hieroglyphs.”

James Monk—aka Ras Terms—fell in love with graffiti when he was 11 years old. Growing up in Miami during the early 1980s, he was drawn to graffiti and quickly became a student of it, absorbing “the music and the movies like “Breakin’” and “Beat Street” and the book “Subway Art,” he says. “And there were the guys who would come from New York and paint, so I saw what they could do firsthand and that all influenced me.”

Into his teen years, the craft of it consumed him. “It was graffiti all day, everyday,” he remembers. “I was writing and drawing in people’s notebooks and skipping school to go into abandoned buildings and under bridges to paint.”

His growth as an artist paralleled his spiritual exploration. “I was also listening to a lot of Reggae, so the Rastafari movement definitely became an important aspect of my creativity,” he continues. That’s when he began developing the trademark character that’s been the foundation of much of his work over the decades. “That’s when I started drawing these Ethiopian-style angels mixed with graffiti.”

A few years later, after moving to the Bay Area of California, Ras Terms joined a graffiti crew and continued to do small commission work like music album covers. Slowly, over time, he began painting not just on walls but also on canvas and soon, his work was being shown in galleries like the Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art and as part of the "Discovering Rastafari" exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution.

“We are starting to be accepted,” he says. “People were starting to wake up to it.”

After connecting with Art Elementals, Ras Terms moved to Madison a couple of years ago. In Wisconsin, he did a few commission pieces, such as a large rendering of his ‘Street Angel’ at the Jiggy Jamz record store on the northside of Madison.

He also continued to do canvas work as well as paint a few trains here and there. “I like the aspect of [graffiti] being illegal,” he says. “But I also like the aspect of people being able to live off it.”

In 2019, Ras Terms painted a train car a couple of hours north of Madison with a huge yellow angel character. He expected the train to sit there in the country and be seen by few, if any people. Then, the train car rolled into downtown Madison last spring where it remains parked on the east end of the UW campus, behind the Kohl Center. The decorated train car caught the eye of passersby, many of whom began posting photos of it to social media.

“Maybe someone from the train company likes my work,” says Ras Terms with a laugh. “I don’t know why it got moved but I’m glad it’s being seen.”

For Ras Terms, whose commercial success as an artist has taken him around the world to paint murals and who has had his work printed on t-shirts and even made into a coloring book, paying respect to those who came before him is important.

“Graffiti was started in the Bronx by kids who didn’t have anything,” he says. “It’s deeper than just a word, it’s deeper than just a script. This gave those kids an identity. There’s emotional energy attached to it.”

Anthony 'YNOT' Denaro and his 'S' chair

While it may seem like a natural progression, not every graffiti artist who’s looking to develop their craft wants to paint murals. Case in point: Anthony ‘YNOT’ Denaro. He’s designed furniture and even cutlery based on the design skills he honed with markers and spray paint on the streets of New York and Philadelphia. Seeing so many varied styles of graffiti in those East Coast cities as a teen inspired him to push boundaries and create across multiple mediums. “Wood, paint, metal, charcoal, digital—I want to do it all,” he says.

While his S-shaped chair is certainly distinct and different, Denaro says his creations begin like any work of graffiti. “The process started on paper and went from paper to the computer and from the computer to the wood cutter and now you have something in physical space.”

Denaro, a dance instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee specializing in breakdancing, says the expansion of graffiti from back alleys to art galleries shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“All art movements do come from the street in some sort of way,” he explains. “It's no different than any other high art movement that I've seen.”

Like other artists, Denaro notes that it’s important to recognize the contributions of the pioneers who blazed the trails for the current generation of younger graffiti artists who are getting commissioned projects and having art gallery shows today.

“All of us are learning and trying to do it ourselves, yet some of the people who have really helped usher this thing in are still around,” he says, noting that he’s studied graffiti writers who are still creating like (Carlos) Mare, and others who have passed, like Rammellzee. “How I got to this point is by picking up where so many [graffiti] artists left off. Their ideology is living on and eventually, we're gonna pass it on to somebody else.”

Another sign that an art movement is expanding beyond its base is when it begins appearing in rural areas like the Village of Elk Mound in northwestern Wisconsin. Elk Mound, outside of Eau Claire, is where Jaden Flores—an artist known as JayFlo—first caught a glimpse of graffiti on train cars.

“There’s a rail line that goes right through the center of town,” he says. “We would just watch the [graffiti] pieces come through. I didn’t understand the culture behind it back then—we were only 11 or 12—but I knew it was creative expression and that’s what drew me to it.”

JayFlo working on a mural in downtown Eau Claire

Like others, Flores got heavily into graffiti as a teen, but given his rural locale, there wasn’t an abundance of places to practice. Over the years, he’s used social media to connect with other graffiti artists elsewhere for inspiration and fellowship.

“I’ve been in contact with artists from all over America, Mexico and Canada,” explains Flores, now 22. He’s taken thousands of pictures of graffiti on trains that have come through Elk Mound and his current home of Altoona and has shared those with the artists who painted them. “They love to see that their work has gone as far as Wisconsin.”

Over the years, Flores has taken every bit of paid work he can get in the Eau Claire area, including murals at a skateboard shop and a mechanic’s garage. He’s also been tapped to paint in the annual downtown Eau Claire mural project known as “Color Block.”

Flores appreciates that he’s had to pay his dues over the years and hopes opportunities continue to grow as his skills and experience expand.

“I had to do graffiti for a few years to get my skills up to where I feel confident with it,” he explains. “Then I had to do a year of doing free murals to get a portfolio together to have enough work behind me to show people so I could then get paid for them.”

Murals and commission work are a chance for graffiti artists to contribute to the neighborhoods they’re in, says Flores.

“It makes a place truly feel like a neighborhood. The people who live there are vibrant, the people are colorful. So, [those painted walls] can be a reflection of the community’s creativity instead of just a gray piece of infrastructure,” he says.

But with these new opportunities for formerly underground artists—whether they’re art gallery shows or big commission projects—it’s important to note that the newfound acceptance would not exist without the decades of technical skill-sharpening and originality laid down by earlier artists.

Artists like Valentín appreciate that. “Intent is everything,” says. “And having respect for the art form and its origins is really important. Some of my favorite graffiti artists have been able to show the world why graffiti needs to be understood and respected as a legitimate art form.”

It’s through a combination of the groundbreaking work done by those pioneers and the creativity of newer artists that graffiti is gaining ground as a new force in the art world.

Contributors

Steven Potter has been a reporter in Wisconsin for more than 20 years, covering everything from crime and education to art and entertainment for magazines and newspapers throughout the state. He earned his master’s degree in journalism last spring and works as a public radio producer in his hometown of Madison.

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