cover_story_2 (2006-37)

The Art Issue


The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.

Art is what you can get away with.

It’s everywhere. In almost any town, no matter what size. You’ll see it, emblazoned in larger-than-life, distorted letters; under bridges, on the sides of buildings, in most public bathrooms. And, if you’ve driven east on I-40 recently, near exit 388, you’ve seen the latest handiwork of underground artists Lime and Grifter, their names boldly slathered on the back of an interstate billboard.

“I paint spots where I think it would look good and make people wonder how it got there.... My works are more about seeing something than saying something,” the elusive Grifter writes to us in an email, always protective of his secret identity. “But mostly it’s just to stand out and be someone, being part of a nationwide yet still underground community.”

Everywhere layers of scribblings have piled, year after year, into an amorphous smearing of angst, ego and unregulated bravado. Graffiti is living art, illegal museums where primal urges are not only accepted, but also encouraged. New art swallows the old, and a clandestine beauty begins to form. There’s no ethos behind it. It’s just a mark, a way to say I was here , like an acid-fried Kilroy. Old tags get covered. Pieces bleed into one another, like fractal computations, the socio-artistic articulation of a Mandelbrot. Restless voices, singing together; frozen in time, until the paint is scrubbed away. Like one of Malevich’s Suprematist paintings, deconstructed to resemble a Pollock, but on a huge scale. Like an organic Christo, slowly taking over the dingy, forgotten parts of the city, forever sprawling-out in an urban Petri dish.

They work in silence, and they work at night, in dreamland, content in the knowledge that each layer they leave behind—each color, every fleck of paint—means something, and was put there for a reason. Sometimes it’s only made to satisfy an ego, or to have the kind of adrenaline buzz that comes from doing something illegal. Trespassing. Vandalism. Nighttime anarchy, splashing Knoxville’s underbelly with colorful—at times poignantly beautiful, but most often asinine and puerile—memories of being there…. It doesn’t have to be terribly complicated, as long as it’s there when the sun comes up.

Graffiti, whether you see it as a true art form or an unwelcome eyesore, has always been an accidental expression of uncertainty. When it’s done right, even the lame neophytes must agree: That took guts.

And when the underground has something to say, it’ll say it. Always has. There are still fragments of Hellenic sidewalk graffiti in the ancient city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. Graffiti is a reminder of a single moment forgotten in time, a simple documentation of existence. I was here, so deal with it.

In New York—whose subway trains in particular have been “tattooed” with an energy to put our own rude practitioners to shame—not an inch of free space is spared except that of advertisements.

For every good piece of graffiti, there are hundreds—probably thousands—of lame excuses for art, just vandals wanting to be bombers.

“The good comes with the bad,” says 9-Ether, a former graffiti bomber now spends his time MCing for tIME & sPaCE and The Usual Suspects and former graffiti bomber. “The beauty of the art, there are gonna be some that mock or try to do things that aren’t up to par—stuff that’s gonna tarnish the name. But, it’s been a couple of good bombs that I’ve seen. There’s one behind Hibachi Factory on the Strip that was tight.”

“Tell ’em we got love,” says S.M.O., who has been collaborating with 9-Ether to bring graffiti into the local art galleries. They tag real canvases these days, which are on display at Agora Gallery on Sutherland Avenue.

“Now, I do graffiti work in a gallery. I try to use it so I can sell it, so I won’t get thrown in jail, or harassed because I’m doing what I’m doing,” S.M.O. explains. “Everyone has their own style. Do what you do. But you should be doing it for the right reasons. You should do it because you love it, not because other people are gonna like you more. Fuck, we’re gonna do it. If it works, it works. Fuck!”

When S.M.O. and 9-Ether are together, they’re always building upon each other’s thoughts. It’s like free-association at a psychiatrist’s office. They’re talking about hip-hop culture, with a fierce beat pulsing out of S.M.O.’s computer. Their voices come together, fuse, pick through each other’s words to find the right abstraction. These two, when they talk about hip-hop, they don’t use precise language. The definition of their art wants to defy classification, to build out of itself into something new. At least that’s what they’d like their art to do.

“They like clones, facsimiles; everybody’s like an assembly line,” 9-Ether says, his voice getting louder. “Everything’s manufactured, nothing’s natural.”

“It’s so acceptable to be bombarded with advertising these days,” S.M.O. jumps in. “When I write my name, when I’m putting a message on a wall—I’m throwing up a tag or I’m bombing something—we got a message behind what we’re doing. Calvin Klein is just trying to get money. Even if I’m saying open your eyes to the propaganda that’s being forced-fed to you—if someone tell me what we be doing, it’s like, ‘Oh that’s graffiti, that’s bad, that’s vandalism. ’Naw. Vandalism is trying to sell me some shit. Vandalism isn’t me trying to put my name up with a message.”

They see graffiti as an attempt to conjure an image out of the chaos that exists just below the surface, right beneath the thin veneer of civilization. Theirs are voices that pop up from time to time, only to remind us that everything is not OK, that people are always going to be pissed off. It’s human nature to want to make our anger heard.

“What’s wrong is when these works get scrubbed down, washed, your shit gets blown over ’cause it’s ‘vandalism,’” S.M.O. says. “But they’re destroying artwork. You would never see someone go into a gallery and burn paintings, erase paintings. That shit makes me angry.

“You’re a gladiator in the city,” he goes on. “If you’re Andy Warhol and you’re in a gallery making work, you know Andy Warhol would never make something and not take credit for it. There are armies of artists out in the streets everyday doing stuff with no money, just for the love of having their work shown.”

“You may have a message, or a picture you just wanna see; it just may be your moment in time,” 9-Ether continues. “You know you can paint this picture that’s gonna be dope, tight as fuck. And everybody’s gonna want to see it——I know it’s a good feeling to hear somebody else mention it. You’re like Clark Kent.”

There’s a reason that most graffiti isn’t hyper-realistic. It’s an artistic interpretation of the uncertainty principle. We’re always moving forward. There is no rest. Only unrest. But, from time to time, we can share a brief moment of clarity, even if that moment can only be captured as a distorted and elongated abstration.

“Common sense isn’t a common thing. Thomas Paine said that, one of my favorite quotes. There’s a line you don’t cross,” S.M.O. explains. “That’s what it’s about, moving forward, marching. Let’s move forward, make a movement, and squash this dumb shit. Say something, tell me something.”

The Greeks called it a dithyramb, the moment when we’re able to step outside of our bodies, step into a higher consciousness. It’s a bit of hyperbole, sure, but when you’re there, in the middle of it, hearing the voices, it’s surreal. S.M.O. and 9-Ether, as they talk, their conversation turns into freestyle rap, without any warning:

S.M.O .: The Art of Dionysus, the god of the wine / Take a grape and smash it / Spit at the spine / Give underground light, you know / ’Cause in Knoxville / Never mind, the cats don’t know / When we bomb the system; S.M.O. / You see it tagged up all over the city—

9-Ether : Just an MC / Tryin’ to stay out of trouble / They don’t want to see me sold to no label / Shop and deal / They want to shop and kill / I’m tryin’ to shop for real / I play the game like Walter Payton from scrimmage / I get the most yardage when I hit it / People don’t understand the game keep spinnin’ / Just like the world, with new rims on / Whatever ride you got—

S.M.O .: S.M.O., temporary tag / Go up in the gallery to get me pricetagged / No, it’s not about that shit, it’s about just having an outlet—shit / See, we the unusual suspects, the usual suspects / We usually suspect—

9-Ether : From alternative, to rock / To funk to pop / To anything that you got / They don’t understand ….

Don’t look for the meanings; look for the use.

“This isn’t 1982 in the Bronx,” Grifter writes. “Graffiti has evolved from subways, to walls, to trains, to rural American towns and the rest of the world. Why should it be tied to one style of music when its come so far?”

Fred French, the public service foreman of they city’s paint crew, finds graffiti everywhere. “Most of it’s around playgrounds and parks,” he says. “Most of what we deal with is vandalism…. There were some concrete barricades that they had painted a picture of downtown Knoxville, Sunsphere and everything. It wasn’t in a conspicuous location, so I just let it stay.”

Any graffiti artist who knows what it’s supposed to be about will have enough common sense to choose a suitable canvas. That’s just part of the art. At the same time, what they’re doing is still illegal, but it’s growing nevertheless. The art has changed since the days of Style Wars in the early ’80s. Even a white-bread suburbanite can pick up a stencil and tag the side of a building with a can of Rustoleum, and feel like a  part of something much bigger.

“When you tag some shit, it might go away,” S.M.O. says. “But at that moment, it was a good release.”

But graffiti isn’t perceived to be as criminal as it once was. We’re so saturated by it everyday that, maybe, we just don’t notice it as much. There was a time, back when Phase 2 was bombing trains in the Bronx, when the sophisticates at Yankee Stadium would be taken back at the sight of a brightly colored train, emboldened by letters and words, distorted beyond their recognition. Nowadays, it would be weird to see a train pass that doesn’t have at least one tag.

Back in S.M.O.’s apartment, the beat has stopped. He and 9-Ether sit still, as if they’re in the eye of a storm. “Somebody went out of their way, just to get a message across, or to bring a little bit of art into your day,” S.M.O. says, breaking the silence. “When you’re sitting there on that boring-ass bus, looking at the stupid-ass, bullshit advertising, you got a little piece of artwork.”

“And you don’t have access to canvases and that type of thing,” 9-Ether chimes in, “but you know that wall of that abandoned building has been sitting there looking at you for a few days. You make your mark. You ain’t really harm nobody. Some great mind did this, somebody was mad enough——” He stops mid-thought, moving with S.M.O. into another freestyle.

One of the best things about graffiti, according to Grifter, is looking for it. “Just explore,” he tells us. “Finding a good piece on your own is like finding a treasure.”

The Art Issue (continued)