Street art pops like gun powder
I was standing outside smoking a cigarette when I heard the gunshots. My friend and I were talking about the break dance battle that just ended when a black car rolled by, its passenger-side window slowly rolling down. An arm holding a pistol snaked out of the window, and four bright sparks immediately followed a PAH-PAH-PAH-PAH. The car roared into the darkness.
An obligatory moment of shocked silence passed until a guy to my right yelled, “What the fuck?!”
Other people standing in the parking lot ask, “Was that a gun? That was a gun?”
I began to walk back inside, but as I stood outside, my feeling vulnerablity made me shiver enough to accidentally ash my cigarette. I suddenly remembered a conversation I had with MC Statik in downtown Birmingham, Alabama.
“I can rap, and I can DJ, and I’m a b-boy,” he said. “But those graffiti cats – they’re kinda weird. I don’t really get them.”
April 7, 1927, was the day of the first simultaneous telecast of image and sound. An audience in New York City looked and listened to a 3 square inch image of Herbert Hoover giving a speech – in Washington, D.C. It made history.
Exactly 80 years later, people gathered in Oklahoma City for Made You Look – the state’s first public exhibition combining a gallery setting with works by over 50 graffiti and street artists. History in the making, capped off by some guy busting caps.
The Electric Chair Gallery was packed. People with gauged earlobes gauged the prices of the colorful pieces lining the walls while DJ Diverse played his sets to one of the most diverse crowds in Oklahoma hip-hop history.
Small children clamped their stubby fingers around their parents’ hands, staring wide-eyed at the assortment of colorful pieces lining the walls. People swarmed the merch table, asking about buying pieces and shirts that said “I [spray can crap] OK.” Fingers pointed as flashbulbs lit the walls.
Everyone seemed surprised by the turn-out – including the event organizers themselves – and the pieces of artwork were selling like hotcakes.
“That one’s dope,” one middle-school-age kid murmured to his friend, pointing at a painted skateboard deck.
Others stopped to examine the dunny collection in its own display case, its shelves filled with painted and decorated designer toys made popular by Kidrobot.
In the far side of the room, a circle formed around the dancers. Twin midgets popped to DJ Diverse’s back-in-the-day jams while a powerhead from Texa’s Havikoro crew wowed the audience with his gust-inducing flares and windmills.
The circle became heated when one intoxicated female in the crowd—let’s call her “Paris”—became overwhelmed by the dancing and bum-rushes the circle. A fight broke out. Immediately, a wall of people exploded from one side of the circle to separate the girls, but not before Paris received a few fists and elbows to the head.
A voice emerged from the crowd: “You don’t fuck with Ha’Styles. You mess with one of them, you mess with all of them.”
The cipher culminated with a massive battle between Ha’Styles and the Playground Bullies, each crew mocking the other’s name and shouting as the dancers displayed skillful sets that left the crowd’s heads spinning.
Although the break-dancing temporarily took over the spotlight, the night still seemed to belong to the artists. Like the faint odor of spray paint, the artists have made their presence subtle, but potent.
In the moments of silence between the b-boy battles, phantom chants echoed throughout the room announcing the three-lettered names of Oklahoma graffiti crews such as SIK and DGF. People walked around with their blackbooks tucked neatly into their armpits, eager to open them to share their own scriptures, testaments of outlines, and color schemes. Children watched in awe as their blackbooks were passed around and signed – their hip hop version of an autographed baseball card collection.
“I had so many little kids come up and want me to sign their black books,” event coordinator Jason Riggle said. “It was awesome. It was a good way to see everyone’s ideas and outlines and color schemes. And you could trade stickers and do pieces in each others books. I liked that part of the show a lot.”
Morge, a member of Tulsa’s UZI crew, agreed. “The traditional thing is to have each other do a tag or simple a simple piece, or go all out,” Morge said. “A lot of the younger kids are just coming up looking for inspiration, and to get their handstyle in their book is sort of like an inspiration thing. Hopefully they’re not looking to bite it… but to get a hands-on feel for graffiti. It’s a way to see that you’ve met people. I have books with writers from New York and known writers, and it’s nice to show friends.”
As the battles raged on, clusters of people congregated near the entrance, conversing and laughing. One of those people was Jabee Williams – emcee, promoter, DJ, pastor, and one of the most networked people in Oklahoma’s hip-hop scene.
“There’s been a few hip-hop shows where they do live art walls and stuff like that, but not anything dedicated just to graffiti,” Williams said. “It was good to see people wanting to buy it and stuff like that.”
And as strikingly eye-opening the exhibit remained, there was little mention of people who created it – nor the work they put into it – through days of painting, planning and paying dues.
“We get out there and paint for us – and so people can see it, hopefully,” Riggle said as he explained the significance of the name ‘Made You Look.’
“People drive to work, and they focus on getting to work. They don’t look around. They could be driving by a good piece of art – not even necessarily graffiti – something you could get something out of. If they don’t look around and don’t open their eyes, they just focus on where they’re trying to get,” he said.
Walls aren’t just walls, trains aren’t just trains, and those metal silver box things aren’t just metal silver box things. As cliché as it sounds, to a graffiti guy who takes the time to look at the world around him, anything look like a canvas on which a meaningful idea can be delivered.. But then again, most people aren’t cut out to be graffiti guys.
At once, these graffiti cats seem to be the most prideful and the most humble members of the four-fold hip-hop community, keeping their identities hidden and letting their work do all the talking for them. In a world of shameless Internet banners, Facebook groups and MySpace bulletins for other artists, “anonymity” is the big, shining word that drips over this graffiti culture.
It’s a tight-knit group – small enough that any outsider is sure to be at least temporarily accused of being a pig, a member of the swine, an undercover police officer. Unlike rhyming or DJing or b-boying, where props and gratification are an immediate hit-or-miss, it’s a lifestyle that has to be lived out largely in the dark.
Recognition doesn’t necessarily mean appreciation. It mostly likely means fines and incarceration.
“Some people stay anonymous for their whole graffiti career,” Riggle said. “They know they did it. If friends aren’t telling them, ‘Congratulations,’ they never hear it. Some guys walk around with their name on their hats, saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’m that guy,’ and they get props that way. But some graffiti writers never get them.”
Factor in a virtually nonexistent profit margin, and the sense of being a street artist seems to make even less sense.
“It definitely takes a certain sort of person – a strange sort of person. You can’t want immediate gratification, and you can’t have it associated with your actual person. It’s almost like a second personality or something – an alter ego. When it comes to painting, if you’re painting trains, those trains, you could paint a thousand, and only a hundred are going to get seen,” Morge added.
“Gratification is a real basic personal thing – you have to be real driven to do it. You have to enjoy what you’re really doing. To me that’s the most pure form – you’re not really looking for money or personal gratification. It’s just something that you want to do and you want to, like, further this culture by inspiring new people, and that’s something I’ve thought about. I’ve thought about it a hundred times, why am I doing this? If anything, I’m losing things by doing this. But I can’t stop – I just love it.”
With such reckless dedication, it’s no big surprise that the transition from a late night vandal to a money-making gallery artist isn’t always a smooth one.
Take, for example, the fact that some of the pieces at finished pieces at the exhibit are tagged by random individuals (“The hunter has become the hunted!” my high school English teacher would say.) Or, the fact that the legal wall that Riggle has prepared for the event is constantly being tagged or crossed out by other unknown writers.
And even with plans and permission, Murphy’s Law is always bound to kick in full force. Some Oklahoma graffiti artists have chosen not to participate in events such as Made You Look because it undermines what “real” graffiti is – illegal and forbidden.
“Even at the yard, I said, ‘Don’t say my name’ and made up a legal name for the day,” Riggle recalls. “And that didn’t work out. Everybody was still calling each other by their names. I walk up and see some normal looking dude who asks what my name is, and my friend – he started drinking at 10 in the morning – tells him. I said, ‘Ah, shit, it’s 10 o’clock and you’re already breaking the rules!'”
But for those who have chosen to adapt their outdoor work to be shown in an indoor art gallery setting, the experience is proving to be both fruitful and profitable.
Morge says several of his friends were able to make a few hundred dollars from the show, while he was personally able to sell two of his works – a larger piece for $100 and a smaller one for $10.
And even before the exhibit, artists from all over the Oklahoma as well as artists from as far as Dallas and Kansas City came to break bread over the legal wall – complete with free cans of pastel-colored Belton Molotow spray paint for Easter from event sponsor Art Primo.
“It brought everyone together and built a stronger sense of community. There were a lot of people there who didn’t know a lot about graffiti. It was a good chance to see we’re not a bunch of gangster dudes. We’re just a bunch of artsy kinda guys. It probably gave them a wakeup call to what it’s all about,” he said.
Morge says he feels Oklahoma has the talent and resources to establish a solid reputation, especially with trains that can travel across the country – but only if crews can put their squabbling aside and be “civil” so that they can “kill shit.” And Riggle is already planning a bigger and better Made You Look for next year with more walls, more sponsors, more prizes and more art.
That is, of course, unless it gets shut down by the cops.
Every Oklahoma tagger, bomber, whatever-er graffiti artist seems to have his or her own favorite story about hiding from cops, running from cops, and most commonly getting their heads smooshed into things by cops.
Gravel, windshields, walls – you name it, some graffiti kid has probably has his or head slammed into it while being kicked by Oklahoma PD.
So it’s no big surprise that having graffiti art in a well-lit gallery guarded by cops feels a bit strange for the artists.
“I’ve been arrested for graffiti before. I know how cops feel about it. I wonder what goes though their heads when they know they’re hanging out with graffiti guys –guys I’ve probably seen half of them before. For illegal reasons. It’s a big wake up call when you’re sobering up in jail, there for vandalism and evading arrest… and some guy next to you is in there for stabbing someone,” Morge said.
Riggle is surprised that there isn’t more tension with the cops at the show, especially after the shooting.
“I don’t know where they came from,” he says. “I was really surprised that the local detectives didn’t show up. I heard people went to locals’ houses and was asking some questions. I’m sure they knew what was going on. We had fliers everywhere and were in the [Oklahoma] Gazette, but I don’t know. They didn’t mess with us – I’m glad though,” Morge said.
As I departed the show, two police cars raced down the road in pursuit of the gunman. Another two squad cars stop in the street. One of the policemen got out and shined his flashlight at the ground. I can see the light reflecting off one of the bullet shells.
As far as I can tell, the shooter and the driver are long gone. They haven’t technically hurt anyone by firing up into the air. They were probably just hungry for adrenaline or attention.
Likewise, two guys had quietly observed the cops coming and going and were making their way down the dark street, the balls in their spray paint cans giving muffled clicks from their bags. They’re armed as well: with spray canisters they can aim, fire, and put away at a moment’s notice.
Perhaps in the morning, some guy on his way to work will catch one of their pieces out of the corner of his eye and take a second to swivel his head away from his windshield, his cup of Starbucks, his XM radio. But for now, all there is to see is two dark silhouettes melting into the dark night.