On May 16th, 2018, advanced copies of my book arrived from NYU Press.
Then a few days later, they started appearing in other people’s hands:
Do you have yours? Send a selfie via Twitter @JustJess_PhD
On May 16th, 2018, advanced copies of my book arrived from NYU Press.
Then a few days later, they started appearing in other people’s hands:
Do you have yours? Send a selfie via Twitter @JustJess_PhD
So I’m in the middle of writing a new chapter for Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora based on two old ones (from my dissertation) and I realized two things: 1) I’m writing about how performances of feminism circulate online and my blog has been woefully neglected (my bad! writing a book, teaching, and momming is incredibly time consuming) and 2) not enough people know about the e-zine (digital zine, digizine, or whatever you want to call it) CatFight: Female Graff Update!
In brief, CatFight was a labor of love for F. Lady in the Netherlands of Bitches in Control crew (BIC). Begun in 2005, F. Lady produced 9 spectacular issues that–except for #6–are still available as free downloadable PDFs.
To make your life easy, here are the links!
[written Summer 2013]
No Somos “Mariposas,” Somos “MariPUSSY”: An Interview with Graffiti Art Activist MISS163 aka Sharon Lee De La Cruz.
Walking through the streets of New York City you are bound to note the graffiti-covered buildings, bridges, and tunnels. You may ask yourself “how,” but have you ever wondered: “why” or “who?” Approximately 28 years of aggressive Broken Window policing has answered the “who and why” with a single, decidedly gendered and racialized, qualifying designation—vandal—effectively denying the art form and the art makers any kind of social legitimacy or political import. No matter, though. Hip Hop graffiti writers have never been that interested in obtaining permission or legitimacy from any kind of governing body. They write on walls for a wide variety of reasons including subcultural infamy, sociopolitical rebellion, and aesthetic expression. Since Hip Hop graffiti appeared on the streets of NYC in the late 1960s/early 1970s, writers have intermittently “flipped” their formerly criminal activity into an income-producing creative practice—exploiting consumer culture’s fetish for niche markets and the gallery system’s taste for the raw energy of the “exotic,” the “other,” the criminal. Some writers have also utilized graffiti art’s quasi-fashionable/quasi-criminal, always public and communicative character for social and political purposes. MISS163 aka Sharon Lee De La Cruz is one such graffitera (female graffiti artist). Currently stretching the boundaries of legal mural artist vs illegal graffiti “bomber,” and capitalist vs radical feminist activist, she exemplifies how contemporary graffiteras are successfully navigating conventional limitations, answering the question of “who” is behind the writing on the wall with a resounding “why.”
MISS163 was born in 1987, raised on 163rd street and Hoe Avenue in the Bronx, and started tagging in 2004. She earned her BFA from The Cooper Union (2008) and was awarded a one-year Fulbright to study experimental filmmaking and mural making in Lima, Peru (2008-2009). In Lima, she advanced from tagging to more intricate pieces and mural painting as a founding member of Maripussy Crew—an international, all-female, feminist, Latina and Latin American graffiti collective. As a hemispheric radical feminist artist, MISS163 focuses her artistic activist energies on women’s issues and youth development in the Bronx and in Lima. Currently, she is an after-school Program Director for ACTION (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood) and WOMEN (Where Our Minds Empower Needs) at The Point Community Development Corporation in the Bronx. In February 2012, she was awarded a “Woman Warrior Award” from Project Reach and the NY Daily News quoted MISS163 stating, “You don’t have to leave your community to live in a better one” (Whitehead, 2012). That same year, she became a Calvin Klein Brand Ambassador designed a four-part assortment of “graffiti glam” make-up under the name CK1 Street Edition (News 12 Bronx, 2013). Described by Vanity Fair reporter Lynden Volpe as a collection with a “girly yet edgy vibe,” the lipstick, nail strips, nail polish, and eye shadow feature the literally brilliant color-palette MISS163 uses in her graffiti art (Volpe 2013). With names like Vandalize, Sketched, Painted, Tagged, and Punked, MISS163’s set exposes and explores the aesthetic lines between the grimy and the beautiful. Starting in Fall 2013, she will begin her Master’s research on temporality and permanence in graffiti art in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.
At 26, MISS163 continues to make quite an impact in both of her chosen communities. She is the epitome of a millennial digital activist. Skillfully managing a dynamic online presence on most, if not all, social media outlets, the public can find her on: Tumblr; YouTube; Facebook; Twitter (@Miss163); Instagram; Myspace; Flickr; Vimeo; and, of course, her own website. Her digital presence amplifies her local community work. We sat down in Pop’s of Brooklyn in Manhattan to discuss her social justice work, her experiences living in Peru, the gender and sexuality politics in graffiti subculture, her role as mentor and leader to the other women in Maripussy, her struggles as a self-identified pansexual AfroLatina, and her solo exhibition at bOb bar & gallery: Wild Thing.
JP: In Hip Hop graffiti subculture, everyone has an alter ego—a kind of stage name referred to as a “tag name,” under which they practice their art form. Tag names tend to refer to something personal like a favorite color, nickname, or the place one was raised. How did you choose yours?
MISS163: My name is Sharon De La Cruz, aka MISS163, aka uno seis tres (one, six, three), aka Charo—that’s what my family calls me. I started painting “Charo” at 18 years old, but that was small tags here and there until I realized “if my momma sees this on a wall, it ain’t gonna be too cute,” haha. I was raised on 163rd street and Hoe Avenue, so I changed it to 163. I wanted to be old school so I crowned myself “Miss 163”.
JP: So after painting sola (alone) for a couple of years, while you were getting your BFA, you spent some time in Peru on a Fulbright and that’s where you founded Maripussy?
MISS163: At Cooper, I took a course on Urban Experience in Latin America and it was based on the history of Mexico and Peru, and focused on the psychology of urban planning. I knew I wanted to travel to Latin America after school and my homeboy told me to check out this thing called a Fulbright. I applied thinking that I wasn’t gonna get it. Turns out, I was wrong.
JP: Can you briefly explain your project?
MISS163: I was doing experimental filmmaking with high school kids. Originally, I wanted to do stop-motion graffiti, but my advisor “advised” me not to do that; haha. I understood why. The Fulbright is the US Government, so they want nothing that has to do with illegality. I kind of masked the project and said “we will do movie projections.” We were basically experimenting with late-night humor, like Jay Leno style. It was really hard to get the students involved. They were natural at it, but they learned that it was bad. I even had teachers that were concerned about what I was teaching. In Peru, people disappeared after using humor against the government. Silly little me wanted to do that, but it was something that was frowned upon. It was very interesting. I learned so much from those kids!
JP: And it was in your first trip to Peru, during your Fulbright year, that you met the other ladies of your now-international graffiti crew right?
MISS163: Yes. While I was in Lima, I met up with tons of local artists and we started painting walls. It was great. That’s where I met Nemiye. She’s the one that does all these crazy Q’s. It’s just so interesting that we grew up in two totally different hemispheres, but the politics of growing up as a Latina are so similar…it’s also disgusting. The first time we painted together was in March 2009 for International Women’s Day. That’s when we knew that we had to keep painting with each other because the chemistry was flawless. We had the same humor, politics, and view on life. Being a crew was a joke at first, and then I told them my story about what my mother called my vagina, which is mariposa (butterfly). And then our friend said, “You should call yourself ‘Las Mariposas’.” The four of us—Mishap, Bronik, Nemiye, and myselfhat mariposa wasn’t strong enough. We wanted a PUNCH. So I asked, “What about MariPUSSY crew?” Maripussy is a super feminist collective, and with our graffiti we tell stories about the effects of patriarchy in relationship to women’s health. We were originally based in Lima, but now we’re also in Paris (Nemiye), Barcelona (Bronik), and New York (yours truly). There are seven of us now: six graffiteras (Mishap, Nemiye, Perez, Monica Miros, Biarck, and myself) and one rapper (Blue). I was so happy to find a group of women to whom I didn’t have to explain everything. I didn’t have to explain sexism or racism. I didn’t have to explain how oppression affects how we love, live, and make art. Before then, my dream of being a part of a sorority, or a women’s crew, seemed like it was far-gone. I always dreamt of having what I call “sister friends”—this unbroken bond between women. But it never happened because I went to art school with no sorority clubs. I didn’t have any friends who wrote [graffiti], nonetheless any women. And if I knew about women writers, they were older; there wasn’t anyone in my age bracket. So I knew graffiteras who were geographically close, but for whatever reason they were either inaccessible or it felt less natural to form a crew. Especially because I didn’t learn how to paint walls in the US, most of my murals were in Peru and that’s where I learned narrative and colors on a large scale. In Peru, I finally found women my age and they had vagina politics.
JP: It’s interesting that you keep pointing to the similarities in the “vagina politics” that you’ve experienced in the US and that they’ve experienced in Peru. What are “vagina politics” anyway?
MISS163: When we came together and shared our stories, they were similar despite happening in two different hemispheres. I lived in both places and I spoke with a lot of women, and it’s the same fundamental concept of being a “woman,” particularly a graffiti artist, in a patriarchal world. We call it “vagina politics” because as a result of having vaginas we’ve gotten to this…place. When I talk about this “place,” I mean we’ve become who we are because we’ve self-reflected about our experiences. We listened to our gut feelings about sexism and feminism. We understand that the stereotypes of women being emotional and crazy came from a sexist place. We’ve listened to ourselves. We’ve paid attention to what was going on around us, and we chose this thing called graffiti painting in order to express ourselves. To explore and flesh out our ideas about vagina politics, while opening the conversation up to complete strangers. We feel it is important to continue to initiate these conversations beyond our crew—and that’s what’s so fun, and ironic, about art! Once you create it, it no longer needs you to continue to carry out your intention.
JP: And the intention of forming Maripussy was to build a support system of like-minded women artists. Doing so reminds you that you’re not alone. It’s much more productive to have a network, right?
MISS163: Especially in the game called painting or writing, it’s all about support. It’s dark and you’re alone and my instincts say: no, don’t go into the dark! Painting sometimes goes against my instincts, but I keep doing it. I call the women in Maripussy my sister-friends, and to me sister-friends are really important. They keep you grounded. Even though Maripussy isn’t always with me physically, they can still say to me: “Sharon, you’re not painting!” And I’m like, “How do you know?!” We share all our stuff on the internet, so if nothing new has been posted someone like Mishap will know that I haven’t been painting. I also know that people depend on me in this weird way—we need to keep our name alive. I have a tattoo on my chest that says Maripussy. I don’t want another little Sharon growing up saying she doesn’t have a mentor or a network. I take feminist community building very seriously, especially with young women.
JP: Your visibility is really important for young women looking for mentors, for established pathways into the subculture. How has your position as brand ambassador for CK1, and your community work with the Point, elevated your visibility and altered how you feel as a woman in a numerically male-dominated subculture?
MISS163: It’s overwhelming because I feel like I have to represent all women, which is ridiculous because every woman is different and those differences are complicated. BUT, it’s also sweet because I get to give a voice to a lot of women and I get to exercise my power in a sustainable, fruitful way. I can model what being a “voice” looks like, how to be comfortable in your own skin, and how to be fulfilled without compromising your politics. The politics are so intense. I don’t paint with certain people because of the politics. Feeling like you have to prove yourself because you are a woman is not fun. I transform the negative energy, in regards to proving yourself, and turn that into “proving” how conscious, creative, and inspiring women can be. Yes, every time I hold a spray can I am “proving” something on an artistic level and as a woman. I have many limitations, but I refuse to let my gender be one of them. You just gotta keep doing it.
JP: Does that sense of having to prove yourself as a woman in a “man’s world” subside when you paint with Maripussy?
MISS163: When I paint with Maripussy it is fun. I feel like I’m on clouds. We’ve come to the point now, where we don’t have to talk about a piece—we just paint it out. We’re always dancing and laughing. We joke throughout the whole thing because we’re chillin with our girls.
JP: After meeting with two all-female crews in Chile, I started thinking about the production of feminist community by graffiteras who do not identify as “feminist.” I never would have written that chapter if I’d focused on New York City, or the States in general for that matter. All-female crews seem to be the social-subcultural norm in Latin America, whereas in the States they are few and far between. Initially, I thought it had something to do with the kind of “gray space” of legality that some Latin American writers work within—with more visibility on the street as you paint, you might be more likely to paint together, etc. Is graffiti art in Lima quasi-legal, like in Santiago and Rio?
MISS163: Yea, it depends. Walls are less idolized because of the money it takes to keep them up. So if a landlord can get a free “paint” job then why not? Graffiti artists take advantage of the situation and find more creative ways to send a visual political message. In Peru, I can’t just paint a “pro-choice” wall because it is a very conservative place, but I can mask it with characters and the use of colors. It challenges you to become a better artist, I think. My boyfriend pointed this out and I thought it was really interesting. He asked: “Why do the girls in Hip Hop in Peru look so masculine?” I didn’t realize until he pointed it out, but I was like: “Well, because that’s Hip Hop.” I feel like there’s less room to play with being girly and hardcore. You just gotta be hardcore. One of my Maripussy friends is in Bogota now with her girlfriend.
JP: Isn’t it interesting that we went from the “masculinity in Hip Hop” to the Maripussy crew member who is a lesbian? The subconscious word association “masculine woman=lesbian” is frequently uttered, regardless of the speaker’s politics. And is a really great example of why graffiteras tend to keep their sexuality to themselves. They might come out to me, but they don’t want to feed into the heterosexist rumor mill that uses their sexuality against their subcultural credibility (i.e. women writers are “dykes” or “whores”).
MISS163: I consider myself pansexual. If you’re attractive, you’re attractive. Our fascination with gender is corrupt. We are more focused on the gender of folks, than the partnership that they are building. Not only are we fighting because we’re women and feminists, but also how and who we love. Those things are
JP: One of the reasons I started writing about gender politics in graffiti was because of the notion that graffiti transcends all systems of identity-based oppression. Since graffiti is an anonymous act (mostly), the idea is that anyone can do graffiti. But the thing is: you can do it, but will you be supported or mentored in any way that enables you to keep doing it?
MISS163: The guys who showed me how to paint a mural were actually three of the high school boys I was teaching in Lima. I was showing them that I could draw and I did graffiti and they were like: “You wanna paint a wall?” I was like, “YEAH”! Imagine. These young men had more privilege to go out and seek these walls and show me this life! year old me was like, “Wow. Okay, this is crazy.” To be in certain parts of Lima to paint a wall, I had to be accompanied by three high school boys.
JP: You said that your graffiti takes a specifically feminist stance to illustrate particular narratives regarding vagina politics; how do you incorporate the politics of race and colorism into those narratives?
MISS163: The last piece I painted on my first visit to Peru was about “Doña Papa.” Doña Papa is basically what Aunt Jemima is in the U.S; but instead of syrup, she sells candy. She’s a slave woman with the hair wrap and all of that. I painted her vomiting all the candies. Mishap said “all these Black guys and girls are going wild over your piece.” They loved it because Doña Papa was finally doing something—she was the actor, not the acted upon. That’s when I learned how to mess with politics in another country. I like to twist pop culture images so they tell a more complex story.
JP: You’re working on a series for your solo show at bOb bar & gallery, right?
MISS163: Yes. I’ve been researching how women of color are used as community-organizing tools and I’m basing the series on Ruby Bridges as “Max” from Where The Wild Things Are. Bridges is the perfect example of why being Black and a woman is political from the start. Imagine: you’re seven years old, and you’re brought in as a political tool. Her parents were approached by the NAACP because she got the highest GPA in her all-Black elementary school and once the government ordered integration she was chosen. The NAACP specifically chose young Black girls. They could not be boys because little Black boys grow up to be educated Black men and that ain’t flyin’. But because she was a young female, the perception of her femininity as fragile, inferior, and most importantly less threatening positioned her as the perfect transitional subject in a larger movement for equality and integration. Her story is mind-blowing. I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it. Using women so strategically…and I think that’s a larger metaphor. Have you read Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry? That book is killer. It’s about carrying, not only your race, but your sex, on your back. I think Bridges is a perfect example of this. Putting the two together in this way makes too much sense to me.
JP: Obviously your Wild Things series critiques a particular moment in history, but, do you think that it “makes too much sense to you” because you identify with the difficulties of race and gender politics in a particular way?
MISS163: Oh yea, totally. In New York, I’m Dominican. In Florida, I was half-Black and half-white. Then, when I went to Peru, I was gringa (white girl). Then I was “chinch,” which is Black in Peru. It’s like, “Okay…whatever you see.” When I’m in the States I tell people I’m Afro-Latina, but when I go to Peru that doesn’t mean anything. I told one of my girls that I was Afro-Latina and she laughed at me. I was like, “what are you laughing at?” I’m not Latina to her. My parents are from the Caribbean and they speak Spanish, but that doesn’t make me Latina to her. My brother makes a lot of racist remarks about Black women, and I’m like: “Hey I’m your sister!” But he sees me as Dominican and Puerto Rican.
JP: Your work communicates an ethic of resistance in regards to a variety of social messages while being attentive to aesthetics, to style. I see no separation between your art and your activism, but rather a kind of reproductive feedback loop.
MISS163: Graffiti is consciousness; it is the visualization of “thinkers” and “questioners.” For example, making sure that there is a “Female Flava” wall, a wall dedicated to women in The South Bronx. Making sure that you create spaces to tell a story that has been marginalized and normalized simultaneously. We want to create art that questions social conditions, that celebrates women and generates fruitful discussion. Both my graffiti art and my activism are about organizing and energizing women.
News 12 Bronx. 2013. “Bronx Graffiti Artist Sharon De La Cruz Teams up with Calvin Klein for Street Edition Cosmetics Line,” April 16. (http://bronx.news12.com/news/bronx-graffiti-artist-sharon-de-la-cruz-teams-up-with-calvin-klein-for-street-edition-cosmetics-line-1.5083018), accessed on June 6, 2013.
Volpe, Lynden. 2013. “CK One Goes Street for Spring.” Vanity Fair Blogs, March 11. (http://www.vanityfair.com/online/beauty/2013/03/CK-One-Goes-Street-for-Spring), accessed on June 6, 2013.
Whitehead, Kim. 2012. “Sharon De La Cruz, Artist and Activist from The POINT, Honored for Community Work in the Bronx.” NY Daily News, February 23. (www.nydailynews.com/new-york/bronx/sharon-de-la-cruz-artist-activist-point-honored-community-work-bronx-article-1.1026377), accessed on June 6, 2013.
WYSK. 2013. “Women Talk: 10 Questions With Miss 163, Art Meets Activism -WYSK.” (http://www.womenyoushouldknow.net/women-talk-10-questions-with-miss-163-art-meets-activism/), accessed on June 6, 2013.
 Graffiti’s eradication has been a central component of “Broken Windows” policing since Glazer’s 1979 Public Interest article and expanded by Kelling and Wilson’s 1982 eponymous piece in The Atlantic Monthly. In 1985, the NYC Transit Authority hired Kelling to consult on the implementation of Broken Windows theory.
 Female Flava is an annual South Bronx event organized by De La Cruz that focuses on women. The 2013 theme is “No Means No, An End to Violence Against Women.” See http://www.facebook.com/events/526315694099978/?fref=ts.
Art Basel is America’s largest art fair which happens during the first week of December each year in Miami, Florida, gathering thousands from around the world to view the spectacle.
Few & Far needs your help to make this happen!!
Each year we have gone out and painted, each time with a larger and more prominent wall than before. Thousands of people from all over the world see these walls and its an amazing way for each of us to grow as artists and collectively show the world what we are about: A crew of women mural painters from around the world. This is our largest wall to date, 30′ tall and over 90′ wide.
This year, as always, we are mainly paying out of pocket for our flights and accommodations for this giant project, the time we spend painting is voluntary, but we have accounted for that… what we now have to come up with is the huge cost of materials, the paint, rollers, ladders, lift rentals, porto potty rental (yes, we’ll need that too!)… and so we are asking our friends, businesses and communities to help sponsor us.. Thank you in advance to those that can give to this project. Few and Far loves you!
Visit their GoFundMe page: http://www.gofundme.com/fewandfarartbasel
About 3 weeks ago I was back in New York City for a handful of days, thoroughly enjoying the dark skies, slushy snow, and freezing wind. What can I say? I’m a winter baby. I had a short list of critical TO DO’s for my visit: 1. eat any and all Latin American food (things like tostones y arroz con habichuela don’t exist here in Abu Dhabi, neither do proper burritos); 2. eat all the pizza you can get your hands on; 3. eat a burger smothered in dill pickles; 4. stock up on all the things you take for granted (like unscented soap for sensitive skin); 5. walk through the village; 6. visit 5pointz and witness the disgraceful remains of the whitewashing; and finally, go see City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection. My priorities revolved around food and graffiti…but, considering where I was and what I do, that probably makes a lot of sense.
I didn’t know it, but I have been waiting for something like City as Canvas for almost four years.
I first learned about Wong—the East Village Chinese American artist/advocate/collector who died from AIDS related causes in 1999—in 2009. The Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University hosted a panel discussion and organized an exhibition highlighting the cultural context of 80s and 90s NYC within which Wong and his friends lived and worked called Art, Archives, and Activism: Martin Wong’s Downtown Crossings. The exhibition was created with works drawn from the Fales library, memorabilia from friends (like Lee, Charlie Ahearn), Semaphore Gallery, and PPOW Gallery. Sitting on the panel, Lady Pink and Hugo Martinez described him and his commitment to their work and graffiti subculture in the 80s/90s culture wars and amidst yet another push for NYC’s “urban renewal.” I remember thinking how his apartment must have been an extraordinary place, an intimate, precious, and unique vault of moments in NYC graffiti’s early history. I wanted to see it ALL.
The works in City as Canvas are also from the 80s, but the 70s are present as well. Turns out, in 1993/1994 Wong donated the “treasure trove” that was his apartment to the City Museum; he had been collecting since 1982. Viewers can watch clips of Wong talking to friends on the phone about his decision; there is also a short video (by Ahearn) of writers like Lee and Daze talking about Wong, looking at the memorabilia, and explaining the context of the work. Described by Felicia Lee in the New York Times, as the “remnants of the schism between the outlaw art form and mainstream institutions,” on view are: blackbooks—so many blackbooks—encased in glass just asking to be thumbed through (that part is a tad torturous); giant pieces of scrap plywood painted by Futura 2000 and Zephyr; a bust of Jesus altered by LAII’s markings; a too cool wooden grid of tags collected by Wicked Gary; framed Martha Cooper originals, including the infamous Dondi photo; a video of painted trains passing by; and spray-painted jean jackets (this photoblog has a nice bit of images). For certain writers, you can see the original piece that you’ve only seen in books. You can also see really early sketches and works on canvas, where space, color, line, depth, and medium were being tested and innovated. It’s impossible to process everything at once. I gotta go back.
New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” placed City as Canvas right at the intersection of highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, and despicable (technically in the highbrow and brilliant square)—a fitting spot for a show on graffiti art in a city that has always had a love/hate, consume/reject, celebrate/criminalize bipolar relationship with the movement.
Basically, my message here is simple: IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET, GO. You have until August. You can purchase the exhibition book at the museum gift shop along with all kinds of goodies, like this mug that I simply had to have.
Support the important cultural work this show is doing for graffiti subculture, the writers, the aficionados, and the advocates. If you have not been to a museum since high school, or think all museums are places of “high art” snobbery…take thee to this exhibition. This is your history NYC; part of a movement born on your streets that speaks to those beyond those streets and thrives in cities around the world. Like Wong, we must recognize the worth in a genre of art making labeled criminal or aesthetically displeasing. In a capitalist world drowning in the proper, the conventional, the luxurious, and the mainstream (pop culture), we must support the despicable, the alternative, and the lowbrow popular cultures—the cultures of the people.
When you grow up in Boston and then live in New York City (or any number of urban centers where graff rules everything around you), you get spoiled. I sometimes forget that “street art,” in general, is not always part of everyone’s everyday experience. Heck, ART (in general) is not always part of everyone’s everyday experience. I won’t go so far as to say “art” is a new thing happening here in the UAE–that’s just ignorant–but I will say this: Street Art is a new happening. Those of us here to witness have the extremely unique opportunity to watch it develop: how, why, when, where, etc. (I’m sure I will write an essay or two about it when I have time to reflect.) So when The National announced that Maria Urrutia was organizing “Street Art Night” to “appeal to people who don’t normally go to galleries and museums and get them interested in art” and to “promote the cause of street art to the people and the authorities”…I literally jumped up and down.
Consider this: “The project hopes to one day persuade authorities to open up whole swaths of the industrial zone, including factories, labour camps and other buildings, for street artists to freely use as a canvas.”
In the wake of the whitewashing of 5Pointz, for me anyway, the idea that community organizers here in the Emirates are working to create spaces for street artists is particularly poignant. And fascinating. And curios. Street Art Night was an event that brought artists of all kinds together to foster appreciation and build a temporary community around a love for public arts. Alongside the Deep Crates Cartel (Dubai’s pre-eminent hip hop crew), there were kids painting at a pop up studio hosted by the jamjar, canvas artists using oil, acrylics, markers, and stencils…to paint on buses and temporary wooden boards. There were also b-boys breakin’ to the best of oldschool hip hop beats (a personal highlight of the evening). We had a great time and hope to see more events just like it! Here are some snapshots:
My fieldwork is wonderful because every moment is a possible encounter with a new work or a new artist. The streets are good like that, full of potential.
An NYUAD colleague and I loaded up a bus of students, faculty, and staff to go to Quoz, a day of art, design, music, and film in Dubai yesterday morning. Let’s just say things are happening, the art scene is bubbling up and public art is part of that bubbling. Quoz Day was truly spectacular, if you are in the area next year make it a priority.
After a yummy lunch at a cafe called The Lime Tree, we wondered into the Alkersal Avenue industrial art/auto area in Al Quoz and low and behold…Ironlak cans on the ground, giant board, scaffolding…and face masks. What? Live Painting! This wasn’t on the program. #happydance
That’s where I met Steffi Bow, a British expat now living and working in Dubai. As far as we know, she is the only girl doing aerosol art in the area so it was really nice to connect. Check out her Tumblr!
I basically sat there watching them paint for the rest of the day, but I did manage to pop in and out to see other shows, my favorites included (pasted from programme):
The Courtyard Gallery exhibition ‘Women in Art IX’, a celebration of female creativity in the UAE.
‘APPROACHING ENTROPY’ at GALLERY ISABELLE VAN DEN EYNDE. View entirely new works by Hassan Sharif, including meticulously rendered works on paper and assemblages of mass produced materials governed by chance and order.
NABIL NAHAS SOLO EXHIBITION at LAWRIE SHABIBI. Head to Lawrie Shabibi and experience a collection of sumptuous 3D paintings by Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas, from his series ‘Fractals’ and ‘Galactic’.
DANCE PERFORMANCE AND LECTURE at THE FRIDGE. Join The Fridge for a unique contemporary dance performance and lecture titled ‘I Laban You’ by Monica Antezana, inspired by a lighthearted curiosity for words.
The shows had just opened so definitely pop through!!
Just before 7PM on Tuesday November 19th (Abu Dhabi time), I glanced down at my phone to get my social networking “fix” before class. I scanned the latest tweets and status updates. And there it was:
Rage. Disbelief. Shock. Sadness. I went through each “stage of mourning” in about 60 seconds. Trying to explain to my students why I was mumbling crazy things at my phone (but the rally was just a few days ago, why am I not in NYC?!, what about the landmark petition), I asked if they made it to 5Pointz during their semester “on the square” (this is what NYU Abu Dhabi-ers call NYU’s NYC campus). Some of them had, but none of them had the kind of visceral response I was having. After class, I had a lot of little red notifications to read through. My friends and colleagues had messaged links to articles, emailed blog posts, and tagged me in memes and photos. It took a while to get to sleep that night. I told Facebook: “I’ve been trying to come up with something smart to say about 5Pointz being whitewashed, but really all I can do is be angry, swear, and cry a little. Clearly, I’ve got to do some real processing before I can blog about the larger cultural consequences of this spiteful, truly heinous, and ultimately unnecessarily hateful act.”
I spent the next day gutted and totally confused about why I was so deeply affected by the news. I was taking it personally; I’m still taking it personally. I keep asking myself why it bothers me so much. I’m not a graffiti writer. I wasn’t around for the court dates or protest (I participated by paying attention to the internet). The whitewashing of 5ptz doesn’t signal the end of graffiti art. And finally, despite all of the hard work Jonathon Meres Cohen and Marie Cecile Flaguel did to Save 5 Pointz, we know once the city council and the federal judge ruled against the preservation of the building that it would be destroyed. So, why the shock? And why am I waiting for news of some kind of massive retaliation? (Some kids tried to write on the memorial wall and were arrested for using markers on the poster boards attached to the building. Meres himself said, “People, do not write messages on 5 pointz ..undercovers are posted up waiting to arrest people.”) I mean, Wolkoff hired security for the building but NYC has many more walls. I kind of expected writers to cover the city in graff…but that didn’t happen, not yet anyway. So that’s another question: what’s up with that? Maybe I am missing something because I’m on the other side of the world, but it seems we’re all in a state of shock.
As the news stories and blog posts proliferated this week, I actively neglected this blog. I was trying to avoid the kind of rambling I am no doubt subjecting you to right now. Also, while I am positive that there is something “smart” to write about in regards to “saving”…it doesn’t exist here, not yet (and more than likely it will appear in my book’s chapter on how the internet is shifting cultural practices). I’m glad people are taking an interest in thinking through what’s happened, and the best I can do here is share some of my thoughts on what’s been written thus far.
1) While it is great fun to call the Wolkoff family evil, and for some actually cursing them for choosing money over culture, I think the issue is how art is valued and preserved in almost direct correlation to things like class and ethnicity when it comes to “improving” cities. Wolkoff and his family are just the latest figureheads representing the total whitewashing of NYC. I think at the end of the day Wolkoff is the scapegoat, but what people are really angry about is neoliberal capitalism. And if Wolkoff really did cry that morning, I’m curious why…and how he thinks about the value of art versus the value of condos.
2) Gentrification is not inevitable. The relationship between art/culture, place, and the contemporary city was the topic of this year’s Creative Time Summit (definitely worth checking out). I for one refuse to throw up my hands and accept as “inevitable” that the people will continue to be disenfranchised, given no choice in how their cities are built.
3) 5 pointz was not deemed a “graffiti mecca” because writers thought they would gain subcultural fame, or street cred, by painting there. Writers from all over the world came to paint because it was a legal space in a city run by people who hate graffiti, and have been trying to eliminate it since its inception. The notion that “legal aerosol art” isn’t “real graffiti” misses the point of a genre that is now 40 years old; it also perpetuates a false binary, which proposes that if we have legal spaces “legit” writers will stop bombing. False. People have been writing on surfaces since we figured out dried clay leaves a mark; there is no danger that this will stop anytime soon. Thinking like this just helps the ant-graffiti heads, as we divide and conquer ourselves. We have to allow art forms to grow, change, and adapt, that’s what art does! Graffiti art takes so many different forms and lives on in so many different ways, all one has to do is look to the diaspora beyond NYC. Actually, all we have to do is look to the writers making a living selling their style to Louis Vuitton, Ugg, Calvin Klein, and Urban Outfitters (and so, so many more). And shouldn’t they be able to? Also, let’s take a moment and think about the mass exodus to Basel in December….lots of people scoffing at 5 pointz have no problem going down to Miami to paint with permission at an international arts festival in Wynwood. #realtalk #justsayin For the record I LOVE Basel, I love writers getting paid for their work, and I firmly believe in graffiti’s diversity of forms. It’s all valid. It’s all expression. It all serves a different purpose.
4) Re: graffiti is ephemeral: When you get up somewhere without permission, yes you expect to get buffed by the property owner or by another writer—but that’s not what happened here. Wolkoff spent 20k in one night and hired non-union workers to cover over 1500 works with a thin coat of white paint that didn’t even match the color of the building (pet peeve). This is a different act entirely: these weren’t the marks of peeps who randomly caught tags, they were carefully curated works in a space dedicated to their preservation that were systemically and rather crudely obscured. It’s not something to brush off just because illegal graf plays with the boundaries of presence. Context is everything.
I emailed my people in the graf world and asked “how it makes writers/people in graf culture feel that 5 Pointz went out like this.” A few responses have trickled in:
Meme, Few & Far, CBS; USA
I cant recall the year but I was roughly 20 yrs. old, and such a toy, when I went to upstate NY to work with friends that got a good job gutting out houses. I had been there for 3 months and had to head back to California in a week. So I got on a bus to New York City by myself. Since I started writing graffiti seeing NYC was a goal of mine. NYC is legendary to the rich history of graffiti; it was my destiny to see where the roots of an art form that had taken over my life had begun. With my skateboard and cheap crappy paint I got off the bus in Times Square. I had never seen so many people in one place ever in my life. Growing up in a small town off a dirt road, I was a bit closed off from cities or graffiti culture. I had heard of this place that sounded like heaven from friends: a huge building with walls people could paint on legally. I had no idea that there was a such thing as legal graffiti. I had friends that had painted 5 points and gave me the address. I never had seen a subway before…the numbers and colors were extremely confusing, with people pushing and rushing to catch the train. I get on the train and these guys get on with a boom box and start clapping, rapping and doing tricks for money. It was like I was in Style wars or some shit. This blew my mind! So, I got off the train in Queens and skated down many streets. Then it starts to rain. I was starting to get nervous because the neighborhood didn’t look that good. I was alone and my phone had died. I called Meres from a pay phone and told him I was there but couldn’t find 5 points. He was very nice and told me to how to get there. I walked around the building, soaked, and finally saw the colors and the letters—my blood was rushing cause I was so excited. I was looking at a Toofly character; I had seen photos of her work in magazines but actually being able to touch it and study it was a different feeling. I looked around and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t know spray paint could even produce such clean clear images and how colorful everything was. I find Meres and we chatted a bit and he asked me if I wanted to paint. I was like damn, really?? I told him I wasn’t that good and never painted a legal wall—he laugh and showed me where I could paint. Meres looked at my paint and was like “wow whats that?” pointing at my paint (it was some cheap no name shit I found in a hardware store upstate). I had $50 bucks, a joint and a bus ticket with nowhere to stay. I came to 5 points alone in search of something, but I didn’t know what. It was the sense of community, it was the idea that we can help each other out without knowing one another. Meres gave me a couch to crash on with his nice friends who also gave me food to eat. My solo adventure to 5 points will never be forgotten.”
Shape, Crazis Crew, Chile (pretty sure Shape used Google translate, but her message is still clear)
I come to find this, I think it is very sad news … I also feel that it is disrespectful to the years of history that has that icon in graffiti. I think also that the massification of capitalism is destroying many things one of those was 5pointz and I think the saga continues for me personally and without physically meet 5pointz is shocking to hear the news because that place is part of the origin, that place within school stages and learning generated an absolute place, unique in the world like no other… diversity, color, techniques and there were many who were fortunate enough to be there … any graffiti writer 5pointz want to know if there was an important part of the history of graffiti ! ! this action could serve to cause excessive more … or you could turn the page and continue seeking and creating elsewhere 5pointz what was at the time but never be equaled , by the context and all that remained in those walls under the white paint … 5pointz goodbye. Kisses
Susan Farrell, Art Crimes
We were incredibly lucky to have 5Pointz for so long. It’s been threatened almost the whole time it’s been in use as a public art venue. I’m grateful to the owners and the caretakers, especially Meres, for all their efforts. Someone suggested it was buffed to prevent an 11th-hour landmark complication, which seems plausible, but I don’t know anything about that. If they are going to tear it down, it makes some sense symbolically to kill it first, I suppose. For me, it’s a little easier to watch it go that way, as if were in a shroud. I’ll always remember the view from the roof and the train, the many happy afternoons and wonderful artwork. We’ve got the art well documented as a community, and it’s well represented online, so I’m content that we have not lost the history even though we’ve lost the community space. Let’s make more.
The ephemeral nature of graffiti art doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be invested in preserving it if we can; it actually means the opposite: archiving is that much more crucial. The obsessive collecting and saving of pictures and tags in black books (which has all gone digital now) tells us a lot about how graffiti culture deals with the inescapability of the form’s ephemerality through excessive documentation, and always has.
I made my first Storify post to “save” the reactions from that morning and the few days that followed (19th-22nd). It is fascinating to trace the news as it spread over the digitally connected globe via social networking. I searched Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for #Save5Pointz and #5Pointz and compiled 38 “pages” of images, links, comments, statuses, and tweets. And unless I am mistaken, it only pulls public posts—so there are undoubtedly hundreds of private posts, in addition to posts without hashtags, and commentary that lives on other digital platforms. As you’ll see, scanning through the various posts and images, we are all trying to come to terms with our strong affective responses. 5Pointz wasn’t just about history, it was about connections; the whitewashing of 5Pointz, in turn, produced a collective desire to save what we could; memories are being exchanged between strangers, rivals, old school heads, and tourists. We may not be able to save the building, but we are already “saving” 5Pointz.
October 9, 2013
Dear Wolkoff Family,
I perused my Facebook newsfeed while drinking my coffee this morning (as per my morning ritual), and came across Nir’s and Bagli’s piece from yesterday’s Times. I sighed and thought, “let’s see what the latest news is.” Sometimes, being in the “future” is a very strange thing indeed. You see, I’m writing from Abu Dhabi where it is already Wednesday morning, when you would be sitting at a City Council meeting anxiously waiting for a decision about the fate of a place you truly underestimate and undervalue.
And I’m sure this open letter, destined for my blog, will not reach you (literally or resolutely), but I just had to do something…say something, anything. I’m positive that folks have already told you this, but what you are about to destroy is much more valuable than you realize.
Under the careful curatorial and caretaking efforts of Meres1 (aka Jonathan Cohen), the space of a meaningless warehouse at Jackson and Crane became a cultural place called 5Pointz—meaning people have invested emotionally, socially, and meaningfully in a space that is now, quite literally, the mecca for graffiti writers internationally. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, the people who have, through their labors of love and commitment, transformed that space into a place are not (by and large) people who have the capital—financial or cultural—to “save” it from extinction. And yet, they are determined to do so.
Since news of the proposed demolition of your 200k sq. ft. building went public, there have been petitions, videos (…so many videos), newspaper articles, TV news stories, and social networking campaigns to “Save5PTZ.” In one of those videos, you state “we love it, we think it’s terrific…but unfortunately times change.” And now I’m sitting here, thinking about the complicated relationship graffiti art has (and the writers who practice the form have) with the notion of “saving” and the carnivorous capitalistic desire for “changing” cities under contemporary urban planning practices (more often than not leading to gentrification and displacement).
Graffiti art breaks all the rules about “saving,” and for this reason the proposed demolition of 5Pointz is in a lot of ways the ultimate irony; and the desire to save it, a profound shift in the cultural habitus of the greatest contemporary public art form of the late 20th century that we’d be amiss to ignore.
5Pointz is called a “graffiti museum,” but I think that’s not just a misnomer, but an underestimation of its significance. 5Pointz is not just a museum, or a tourist destination. Sure, random tourists visit 5Pointz and enjoy the tours, but when writers (from the US and abroad) come to NYC, 5PTZ is always a primary destination—it’s a kind of rite of passage. But it is not like other tourist sites, where people visit and passively experience what is offered. They come to 5Pointz and contribute to its significance as a place, a cultural meeting point. They add their stories to the walls and windows of the building in a way that is cumulative, improvisational—a visual and vigorous call and response between writers who’ve painted that spot before and writers who will paint those same spots after. If 5Pointz was a person, she would be hailed as a living archive bursting with Hip Hop’s oral history. Each time a graffiti artist comes to her and offers an untold story through colors and composition, she records that narrative and whispers it to the next artist who approaches.
Demolishing 5Pointz will erase those stories, and that part of Hip Hop graffiti’s history—silencing a multitude of voices that otherwise would not be heard. And for what? Condos? Housing that the majority of Queens’ residents can not afford? Story-less towers, affectively empty spaces.
We ask that you withdraw your petition to construct those towers, knowing you probably won’t because cash rules everything around us. But I had to say something, anything, in the hopes that my call elicits some kind of response.
Please save 5Pointz.
Dr. Jessica Pabón