Saturday, September 24, 2011

New York Spray Can Memorials: A Backdrop to Life
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

One of my passions is to create Post-Graffiti artwork on cloth. A series of posts on this blogspot have addressed issues in Graffiti and Post Graffiti Art as well as presenting images of such art. I have listed some of these below for your enjoyment.
Time Dimension in Art
Unleashed: The Rise of Australian Street Art
Act of Engagement
Another Brick
Cultural Graffiti
Beyond the Fear of Freedom
Oh, Oh Marilyn and Mona@Spoonflower
Neu Kunst: Mona & Marilyn
Paste Modernism 4

In order for people to get a wider appreciation of my Post Graffiti artwork - and where it springs from – a series of art essays have been and will be posted in order to put into perspective future posts on my Post Graffiti ArtCloth.

These art essays are in themselves self-contained and attribute the work of previous artists (some unknown) that have contributed so much for the development of Graffiti Art and for the fledgeling Post Graffiti Art movement on cloth.

The book, "R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art", by Cooper, Martha and Joseph Sciorra, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1994 [also published by Thames and Hudson in UK as "R.I.P.: New York Spraycan Memorials" and in France as "R.I.P. N.Y.C.: Bombages in Memoriam a New York City"] - was an extremely valuable resource. Most of the images below were procured from this book. It would be a truly remarkable tome in your art reference library.

A Background Briefing
The picture drawn on the wall is mankind’s oldest form of graphic communication. It was the first conscious act of our prehistoric ancestors to liberate themselves, via communication, from the daily grind of survival. In learning to draw images on cave or rock walls, they separated themselves from all other living creatures. The ancestors of the Australian Aborigines have been shown - via recent genetic studies - to be the first peoples to escape from the cradle of Africa. Their rock art abounds across all parts of Australia, including where I live in Lake Macquarie.

A kindred spirit links the huntsman of antiquity with the street muralist of today. Although the bison paintings of Lascaux are revered among the world’s finest works of art, many of today’s art critics would assign a lesser status to today’s wall art murals, the latter of which are displayed in our urban landscape. Note: I use the word “wall” in a generic sense and not in terms of a distinctive surface.

A timeless bond exists between the wall art of antiquity with its modern variant. For example, the huntsman were motivated by an artistic drive to transfer an image onto a solid surface - as do the wall muralists of today. Both are communicating via a visual language and using the wall structure as their art medium. Furthermore, today’s wall muralist, in common with their ancestral mentors, entertain no illusions regarding the life expectancy of their artwork. The surfaces employed, necessitates that nothing they paint may survive the natural and/or social forces at work in the cave or urban setting. It is therefore transitory art – not necessarily by design, but most likely by circumstance.

There are differences starting to emerge. Graffiti Art is often splashed on trains and buses – moving items. Ever since Einstein, we now realize our universe contains four dimensions: three with respect to space (length, width, height) and one with respect to time. Unwittingly Graffiti artists when using the “walls” of moving vehicles are now introducing a time element into their art (i.e. displaying a form of kinetic art). Time with respect to the act of engagement becomes an important factor. Fleeting glimpses of Graffiti Art have serendipitously introduced pace of engagement into the art equation. Even murals are often engaged at a brisk walking pace, where a passerby would not entertain the notion of loitering.

In developed democratic countries, such as Australia, UK and the USA, economic and social policies of governments eroded the essential urban qualities of industry, density, service and transportation - policies that unwittingly ensured the political and social enslavement of the poor and furthermore, the cultural alienation of the middle classes. The establishment - under peacetime conditions - of the most deplorable state of urban desolation and alienation known to western civilization, was exasperated due to its systematic implementation via misguided social planning.

In the Arab Spring of 2011, the political disenfranchised - armed with the internet and courage - rioted, bringing sweeping changes to their political infrastructure in some of the Arab countries. However, the Spring riots in the UK in 2011 was of a different ilk. It was forged from the anger of a social disenfranchisement; anger against authority, anger against unemployment and reliance on social services for their existence, anger against a pluralistic society, and anger against cultural isolation, all of which culminated into social riots - although anarchistic, nevertheless without a political framework - of youth with mindsets that were completely and perhaps unwittingly - via government policies and enactments over several decades - stripped of hope. Looting, trashing of small businesses, acts of violence against the police and against the public in sympathy with law and order, were the actions of the hopeless and the hapless of a mobile modern democratic internet-connected society.

The modern demonstrations against Corporate greed in Europe, USA, Australia and elsewhere reflect the views of those who are economically disenfranchised. The common refrain of - "privatising profits, but socialising any losses" - reflects the unfair burden that government expenditure cuts have on those economically disenfranchised, when those who have the means to contribute are effectively insulated from any monetary pain.

New York Spray Can Memorials
In the USA atrocious social conditions over past decades have provided the context for the emergence of spray can murals. They were attempts to come to terms with a tragic and hopeless situation through a visual language using public spaces for mass dissemination. The special nature of this genre - naïve orientation, nearly spontaneous creation, rapid deterioration and public location - may have been the catalyst that brought together diverse elements to produce works of unusual significance and power. Nevertheless, Graffiti, Mural, and Cartoon Art that sit on walls is embedded within a current modern art frame. It has antecedence in terms of cave or rock art and modernity in terms of post modernistic art.

Graffiti artists currently producing memorials differ in a number of ways from earlier subway writers[1]. They comprise a much older group, with the average age being about twenty-five years old. To date, there are few well-known female memorial artists[1]. Several artists are academically trained: Jabster, Jad and Tracy attended Manhattan’s famed High School of Art and Design; Nomad holds a bachelor’s degree from the School of Visual Arts. However, the majority of memorial artists are not artistically educated. Moreover, most have a Puerto Rican heritage. The work of white artists, such as Michael Tracy and Frank Fischetti, are found on spaces in the Bronx and furthermore, African American painters entered the scene only in 1993.

The strong Latino presence reveals a historic precedent for the memorial tradition. The walls are updated versions of the simple roadside crosses often erected at the site of a car accident in Latin American (Catholic) countries (and now in many developed Countries). These crosses manifest the belief that the souls of those, who die unexpectedly, have not received the last rites, and so their souls are suffering in purgatory. The marks on the walls, serves as a lasting reminder for passersby to pray for the person’s soul and so speed its delivery to heaven.

New York memorial artists were also inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. The chevron shaped, black granite monument has been internationally acclaimed for its ability to elicit quiet contemplation on warfare’s destructive magnitude rather than champion blind patriotism and/or macho glory.

New York’s memorial art[1] developed in close connection to the indiscriminately violent street battles waged for market share of the city’s lucrative drug trade. Dealers seeking to honor fallen comrades could afford to pay top dollar for a wall artwork, and as a result they helped to establish the business of memorial art. While Tracy and Chico have made a conscientious choice not to commemorate drug dealers, others did not wish to relinquish what they considered to be a money making opportunity.

An advertisement for the United Martial Arts School in the Bronx also doubles as an anti-drug mural. Artists: Alfredo “Per” Oyague Jr. and Joey “Serve” Vega.

Community patronage is paramount; the artist must consider the aesthetic tastes and religious sensibilities of the deceased’s family and friends, and not those of the Graffiti world. A wall is selected because it is near the place where the deceased died, lived or congregated with friends.

The artist Jad stands on the terrace of Carol’s apartment building. “The letters have to be really nice because this is for the family. When they come to look at it and to think about the person who died, they don’t want to see really deep Graffiti because they don’t know what it says. You got to make sure that everybody knows what it means. You have to give them the picture”. Artist: Jose “Jad” Diaz.

The memorial wall transforms personal grief into shared community sentiment by serving as a vehicle for community affiliation and potential empowerment. Covering the expenses for materials and the artist’s labor is often a collective endeavor, with neighborhood residents making contributions in memory of one of their own. The murals create new public spaces for community ceremony. Life is celebrated at the walls with parties, marking anniversaries and birthdays etc. These centers of congregation become rallying points for candlelight processions and demonstrations held by community people, who march through the streets in opposition to violence, drugs or police brutality.

A trio of painted candles burning brightly with perpetual flames is reminder of the “living” that remember the deceased in prayer. Artist: Unknown.

These neighborhood billboards are used to elicit critical examination of the root causes and solutions to the daily onslaught against inner-city youth. Teenage members of the South Bronx Photographic Centre used their photo exhibit documenting community life and commemorative murals to kindle discussion on the untimely deaths of neighborhood residents.

Paco’s graveyard scene in Brooklyn’s East New York.

These professional and semi-professional artists are creating a body of stylistically discernible work, distinguished from the untrained individual, who paints a simple but heartfelt memorial to a close friend. This new genre of art - born from bloodshed and grief - has established a close relationship to the proliferation of handguns and escalating violence. Memorial walls are designed to stimulate the heart and the mind, tapping art’s transformative and healing powers.

The late Graffiti artist, Eugene “Risk” Cleary, appears as a winged spray can, flying to heaven. Artist: Hoist.

Religious imagery, overwhelmingly Christian, predominates. Crosses, angels, hands clasped in prayer, heaven’s clouds and portraits of Christ and the Virgin Mary are among the favorite emblems of faith. Walls containing Islam’s Star and Crescent or the Jewish Star of David, although rare, indicate an acceptance of memorial murals beyond their original Catholic Latino audience. Painted candles, flowers, hearts and other traditional finery motifs abound.

In the early hours of 9th September 1991, a knife wound punctured 14 year-old Robert Torres lung. Robbed of his wallet, the body of "John Doe" lay in the morgue for a week until his frantic parents found him. This mural features a rare representation of God. Artists: Jose “F-Boom” Crespo and “Dek”.

A single red rose was chosen for Jessica’s mural, a twenty-one year old, shot by a bullet intended for her boyfriend. Artist: Nicer.

Memorial artists borrow images from mass-produced holy cards and religious calendars, which they enlarge and incorporate into their public art. These memorials also proclaim an optimistic belief in the afterlife.

Artist: Unknown.

The deceased may be remembered by their possessions as well as by their portraits. Evoking prestige, and expensive consumer goods bestowed in life, images such as the red Nova identify an individual in the same way, as do the iconic attributes of Catholic saints.

Cano’s killer was AIDS. It was the cause of death for a number of American men aged between 25 to 44 years of age. Artist: Antonio “Chico” Garcia.

Cartoon characters were a major source of images for subway Graffiti writers of the 1980s. These animated stars, which bounce back to life when shot, continue to pop up to pay their respects. Betty Boop was a favorite of 10 year old Jenny Valentine and 11 year-old Evelyn Leon, who were crushed beneath a collapsing marble entrance.

Chico’s memorial decorates a nearby playground created in the tragic aftermath as a safe haven for neighborhood children. Artist: Antonio “Chico” Garcia.

Unlike subway Graffiti, the name of the deceased, rather than the artist, is the centerpiece of memorial wall art. The artist’s name if included at-all, is of minor significance. While subway writers painted their tag names in esoteric wild-style, memorial artist’s inscriptions are legible to the general public. Since these murals offer the passerby a station for solace and contemplation, it is important that they be visually accessible. As with tombstones, birth and death dates are listed. The artist is allowed his say in the epitaph written for the deceased even though the two may never have met. Often, another person actually composes the words. Painted in scrolls or open books, the text might extol a person’s character or empathize with the family’s loss.

Poem, The Legend Lives On. Artists: Julio “Fade” Caban, Oliver “Kazo” Rios and Jose “Solo” Cordero.


Artist: Unknown.

At the Graffiti Hall of Fame in East Harlem, Bio reserved a space in his contemporary wild-style burner for the late writer Shy 147.

As memorial walls became increasingly common in New York, old-school Graffiti artists have taken to dedicating pieces to colleagues, as they occasionally did on subway trains. Artist: Bio.

Portraiture has emerged as a key feature distinguishing contemporary memorials from sub-way art. A common bristle brush or electric powered airbrush, are the portrait painter’s tools of choice. Either of these offers greater control than the spray can, allowing for a more detailed and defined shaded image. Portraits range in style from cartoon line drawings to photo realist depictions. Memorial artists mostly work from a photograph.

Shahid. Artist: Vonce Campbell.

Seventeen year-old Noemi “Suly” Villafane was three months pregnant when a bullet from her boyfriend’s gun snuffed out her life.

While painting the portrait, Per improvised the anti-violence message on the spot in rap-like fashion. Artist: Per.

As artist, Art Guerra summarizes [1]: “A mural is a sort of barometer measuring the different pressures in a neighborhood at that particular point in time. They are a testament to the local people and they voice a concern for the issues of the day. By looking at the murals, you can know a lot about the community around them. Maybe that makes the communication even more intense.”

[1] M. Cooper and J. Sciorra, "R.I.P.: Memorial Wall Art", New York, Henry Holt and Company (1994).

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