Book review

An in-depth analysis of graffiti and street art, the Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art presents a strong sampling of the current scholarship in the field. Edited by University of Baltimore Professor Jeffrey Ian Ross, it is appended by a glossary of graffiti terms and a chronology of graffiti beginning with early cave paintings.

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Published earlier this year by Routledge — the world’s leading academic publisher in the Humanities and Social Sciences — it is divided into four sections, offering a range of theories by thirty-seven contributors on the:

  • History, Types, and Writers/Artists of Graffiti and Street Art
  • Theoretical Explanations of Graffiti and Street Art/Causes of Graffiti and Street Art
  • Regional/Municipal Variations/Differences of Graffiti and Street Art, and
  • Effects of Graffiti and Street Art.

With its mix of aesthetic, cultural, sociological and political perspectives across a richly diverse spectrum of topics – from the history of freight train graffiti in North America to the value of street and graffiti in the current art market – it is a fascinating foray into one of the most significant global movements of our time.  Among the many essays of particular interest to those of us immersed in the current scene are: Rafael Schacter‘s thesis of graffiti and street art as “ornamental forms;” Jessica N. Pabon‘s examination of gender in contemporary street art; Jeffrey Ian Ross‘s discussion of London’s contemporary graffiti and street art scene; Mona Abaza‘s analysis of the graffiti and street art that surfaced in post-January 11 Egypt, and Peter Bengtsen‘s discussion of the value of street art removed from the street.

An interview with Professor Jeffrey Ian Ross follows:

What initially spurred your interest in graffiti?

Beginning in childhood and continuing during my high school years, I spent a considerable amount of time creating visual art – graphic design, painting, photography and sculpture. Frustrated and/or disappointed with the quality of instruction in my public high schools, I enrolled in and completed courses at the Ontario College of Art–now Ontario College of Art and Design — in Toronto. Later, I was accepted to the Central Technical School Commercial Art program, as well as the Photographic Arts program at Ryerson College — now University–, but I chose not to attend. In many respects, my study of graffiti and street art, and the content of this book represent a way of coming full circle. The scholarly study of graffiti and street art deals with many subjects close to my personal interest areas, including codes, control, crime, criminal justice, deviance, gentrification, harms, illegalities, identity, state responses, power imbalances, protest, punishment, resistance, subjectivity, subterranean processes and networks, surveillance, urban incivility and vandalism.

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What inspired you to edit a book of this nature?

In 2012 I decided to teach an undergraduate class on “Graffiti and Street Art” at the University of Baltimore.  Over time, as I started to read the body of work on graffiti and street art, I noticed that it was short on empirical scholarly analysis, was of uneven quality, and was distributed through a diverse number of scholarly venues. What was missing was a reference book that presented and analyzed the important research, theories, and ideas related to the field of graffiti and street art. I was determined to assemble a collection of original, well researched and written pieces created by experts on this subject under one literary roof. This handbook is the result of this effort.

How do you account for the increased interest among academics in graffiti and street art?

Graffiti and street art are pervasive in cities around the world. You cannot ignore it. Because the amount of graffiti and street art has increased since the 1960s and has changed in form and content, it is something to be examined by an interdisciplinary cadre of scholars.

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How did you decide what topics to include?

Through an intense reading of the scholarship of graffiti and street art, and by consulting with some of my contributors, I was able to disentangle what are/were the most important topics to include in the book.

And how did you decide which academics/scholars/authors to include?

Again through a careful read of the scholarship and by engaging with my contributors with respect to who might be the most appropriate scholar/author to write on a particular topic, I was able to narrow down which academic to invite to write a chapter.

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Are there any particular theories presented here that particularly surprised or enlightened you?

I am a big fan of subcultural theories of crime, but recognize that there are numerous other theories embedded in other social sciences and the humanities that are relevant here, including different kinds of literature that play into the study of graffiti and street crime, like gentrification, space, etc.

Who is the audience for your book?

The Handbook is easy to read and designed to answer common questions asked by undergraduate and graduate students, as well as by experts on graffiti and street art. This book is also accessible to practitioners — individuals working, or aspiring to work, in the fields of criminal justice, law enforcement, art history, museum studies, tourism studies, urban studies, etc., as well as policy- makers in these fields. In addition, it is of interest to members of the news media covering stories on graffiti and street art. The analysis and writing are accessible to upper-level university students — typically referred to as juniors and seniors at American universities — and graduate students. This volume will also be useful for scholars and libraries, and can easily be utilized in the classroom context. A reference book of this nature will be of interest not only in the previously mentioned scholarly fields, but it will also be specifically relevant to those institutions that have programs in cultural studies, visual arts, tourism, and museum studies. Last but certainly not least, the Handbook will appeal to a wide international audience.

Photos for this post by Jeffrey Ian Ross: 1. Baltimore (Graffiti Alley); 2 NYC & 3. Santiago, Chile; interview by Lois Stavsky

Note: Hailed in a range of media from the Huffington Post to the New York Times, our Street Art NYC App is now available for Android devices here.

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Recently released by Dokument PressRUBIN NEW YORK SCANDINAVIA is a stunning survey of Rubin‘s distinct abstract and geometrical artworks that are rooted in traditional graffiti. With dozens of images documenting Rubin‘s journey — from Sweden, where he grew up, to NYC, where he is now based — Rubin New York/Scandinavia  offers an overview of the works of an exceptional artist, who has brought a singular beauty to our NYC landscape.

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The book’s succinct text by Björn Almqvist introduces us to Rubin’s experiences as a child of Finnish immigrants who made their way to Sweden in search of work. The alienation that Rubin felt among Swedes, along with the stark grey concrete walls of the housing complex that enveloped him, were calls to pick up a can and make a mark.

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Inspired by Scandinavian design, Rubin has developed a unique aesthetic that uses geometrical, symbols in lieu of letters. With his splendid craftsmanship and unique aesthetic, he transforms the gritty language of graffiti into his own distinct expression that is as effective on the streets of the South Bronx, as it is inside a church yard or on the outside of a Manhattan boutique.

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Rubin New York/Scandinavia also provides us with a handsomely curated survey of Rubin’s studio work that has been increasingly making its way into galleries.

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Rubin New York/Scandinavia is a splendid ode to a distinctly wonderful artist. Its NYC release took place last month at WallWorks, where the artist’s  works remain on exhibit through June 29th.

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Images

1. & 2. Brooklyn, 2014

3. Brooklyn, 2014

4. Gothenburg, 1989 

5. Brooklyn, 2015

6. Gallery nine5, 2014

Photo credits: Tony “Rubin” Sjöman and Mika Tuomivuo; all photos courtesy of Dokument Press; book review by Lois Stavsky

Note: Hailed in a range of media from the Huffington Post to the New York Times, our Street Art NYC App is now available for Android devices here.

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The following guest post is by Houda Lazrak, a graduate student in Museum Studies at New York University.  

To the discontent of many, the corporate advertisements plaguing the urban landscape have become integral to our every-day visual vocabulary.  As a response, street art is often offered as an alternative platform to reclaim public space from the impersonal iconography of corporate publicity.  However, Philadelphia native Stephen Powers has employed that very language to empower his own personal vision.

"Stephen Powers"

A Love Letter to the City tells the tale of how artist Steve Powers’ witty lettering and profound insight turned advertising on its head.  Authored by Powers himself, the book is a visually astonishing compilation of his large scale public art projects in cities across the globe, such as Philadelphia, New York City, Dublin, Sao Paulo and Johannesburg.  With each chapter focusing on a metropolis, the book illustrates the artist’s engagement and collaboration with local communities and art organizations to “reflect their collective visions and dreams… to make art for the people.”

Powers’ outrageously honest introduction retraces his debut into the graffiti world under the moniker of ESPO in Philadelphia.  In first-person narratives, he highlights his experiences and encounters that propelled him to the status of acclaimed public artist.  Readers are treated to his eloquent personal recollections, as well as captivating photographs of his beautifully executed street art pieces.

"Steve Powers aka ESPO"

Steve Powers’ employs signage style graphics to produce poignant conceptual pieces, ranging from single word slogans to multiple line phrases. The publication’s images bear witness to Powers’ ability to marvelously blend colors into the pre-existing urban hues.  Prior to hand-painting site-specific murals, Powers deeply immersed himself in the spirit of each city.  He embraced the values and needs of communities, deciphered central issues of local histories, and appreciated the soul of its neighborhoods.

"Stephen Powers"

In Coney Island, Powers worked with local citizens to revitalize an abandoned space into a sign shop/social club. The shop produced street signage for the inhabitants free of charge, which served to invigorate local businesses, as well as to enhance the community’s visual landscape.  In another instance in Dublin, Powers altered his design plans when he saw a neighborhood recurrent tag: “Please call me, I am home, the door is open, ” followed by a phone number.  Inspired by the message of love and loneliness, Powers then created a mural that spoke to similar concerns.

"Stephen Powers"

A Love Letter to the City provides invaluable insights into the creative mindset of a unique street artist.  It sheds light on the back-stories of his sign pieces, from his improbable conversations with passersby to the formally held community meetings.  Ultimately, the book illustrates how Powers and his team remarkably wove intricate typographic art into the fabric of multiple cities around the world.

All images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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 The following guest post is by Houda Lazrak, a graduate student in Museum Studies at New York University. 

Currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York through September 1, 2014 is the exhibit City as Canvas. To accompany the splendid exhibition featuring pivotal selections from Martin Wong’s exceptional graffiti art collection, the museum released a book by the same name. Edited by exhibit curator Sean Corcoran and cultural critic Carlo McCormick, it features hundreds of images, along with essays from experts in the field and artists’ recollections.

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City as Canvas – New York City Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection, the companion publication to the exhibitis a fascinating window not only into the graffiti that surfaced in the 80s, but also into the life of artist, collector, curator, and visionary Martin Wong.  A San Francisco native of Chinese origin, Wong moved to New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1980s.  Immediately inspired by the surge of graffiti, he at once sensed the creative value of the then teenage-run art movement. Wong’s collection documents the roots of the graffiti movement in NYC and the evolution of writing styles through the 1990s.

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In his introductory essay, Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photography at the MCNY, explains how Wong championed young graffiti artists by befriending them, collecting their works and ultimately opening a museum dedicated to the art form (Museum of American Graffiti).  Essentially, Wong acquired artists’ black books and requested canvas reproductions of their street pieces – such as Lee Quiñones‘s iconic Howard the Duck, originally painted on a Lower East Side handball court wall. He also secured — what he considered to be — significant canvas pieces, such as Lady Pink’s Maniac Depression.  These reproductions form the bulk of the Martin Wong collection and are presented in the second section of the book, alongside biographies of twenty plus instrumental graffiti artists.

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As does the exhibition, City as Canvas spotlights the young graffiti artists’ black books. Perhaps the collection’s most prized pieces, these books illustrate the process through which the young writers honed their skills and shared their styles. The publication features full-size pages of sketches and tags by artists such as Zephyr, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring. True to the original sketches, the pages contain minimal color enhancement and retain their ancient paper background shade and old coffee stains .

Zephyr

Finally, artists such as Lee Quiñones, Daze and Sharp share recollections of their first encounters with Wong. These unique testimonies illuminate Wong’s passionate personality and demonstrate his impact on legendary graffiti writers.   Quiñones remembers his friend telling him: “Just when it all seems done, this is when I am going to buy,” a sign of his “wholly commit[ment] to supporting our work in a difficult time.”

"Martin Wong"

Overall, City as Canvas provides an impeccable overview of the Martin Wong Collection treasured in the Museum of the City of New York.  The publication’s splendid aesthetics and stimulating essays serve as a vital introduction to graffiti art, as well as an indispensible document for aficionados of the iconic movement.

All images from City as Canvas, New York City Graffiti from the Martin Wong Collection © 2013 Museum of the City of New York, Inc. 1. Book cover featuring Lady Pink mural; 2. John Naar, Graffiti Kids, 1973; 3. Lee Quiñones, Howard the Duck; 4. Zephyr, black book; 5. Peter Bellamy, Martin Wong, 1985

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Delusional: the Story of the Jonathan LeVine Gallery

Just how likely is it for a punk kid from a Trenton, NJ working-class background to emerge as a preeminent art dealer in Manhattan’s hottest gallery district?  When Jonathan LeVine spoke of establishing a gallery that would support artists who had been shunned by the mainstream art world, his friend and renowned critic, Carlo McCormick, deemed him “delusional.” But with passion and perseverance, Jonathan LeVine has triumphed, and among the many first-rate artists his gallery features are some of  street art’s finest including Shepard Fairey, Doze Green, Invader, Blek le Rat, WK and Blu. Caleb Neelon’s excellent book, Delusional: The Story of the Jonathan LeVine Gallery, offers an intimate look into the man behind the vision. Interviews with LeVine, along with observations from a range of folks, reveal a deeply humane individual with a fervent mission.

Adrift as a youngster, Jonathan LeVine was reborn in 1985, when, at age 16, he discovered the punk rock scene. The “misfits” this scene attracted were nothing like his high school peers who tormented him for being “different.” Soon LeVine began producing  fanzines and booking and promoting shows — the beginning of a life-long calling of nurturing artists he loved and sharing their work with others.

After graduating from Montclair State College with a BA in art, LeVine spent time on both the West and East coasts, where he met fellow artists and art enthusiasts who now count among his closest friends.  As early as 1996, he organized a solo exhibition of Ron English’s work at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ, before moving on to curating CBGB’s gallery. The following year, he reached out to Shepard Fairey, offering him his first solo show in NYC.

In 2001, LeVine opened his own gallery Tin Pan Alley in New Hope, PA and a year later moved it to Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood. But the art market started booming and NYC was calling, so in 2005, LeVine made the move to NYC’s Chelsea, his current home.

Featured in Delusional are dozens of splendid images culled from exhibits that have graced the walls of the Jonathan LeVine Gallery. Interspersed, too, are comments – often insightful and revelatory — from a range of artists who have found a home with Jonathan in Chelsea.

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Available at most bookstores and online book sellers, Delusional: The Story of the Jonathan LeVine Gallery is currently on the display table at St. Mark’s Bookshop at 31 Third Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets in Manhattan.  You can also pick up an autographed copy at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery at 529 West 20th Street. Enjoy!

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