Spray Tell

Dedicated artists shake their cans at Paint Louis

Of course, that's part of the charm of the retaining wall in St. Louis. The Paint Louis organization supplies artists with base paint so that they can create a clean space for their work. But, inevitably, passages from earlier pieces show through, usually around the edges. The wall has become a palimpsest of graffiti art, a cumulative record of four years of labor with the spray can or roller brush. It's hard to say whether this year's efforts outshine those of the past, but there are several must-see pieces.

Almost every one of them features that unmistakable script, the hyper-serif letters twisted and inflated until the words they form are all but indecipherable -- which is, presumably, part of the point. Each artist has put an individual spin on the script. Sometimes the script morphs into architecture, a landscape or a space station, and there are more than enough of the predictable references to comic-book superheroes, their postapocalyptic stomping grounds and ultrabuff cyberbodies.

The very best works are by some of the better-known artists working today. Saber has worked on one phenomenal cooperative piece at this year's Paint Louis. One of the best graffiti artists in the country, Saber earned his reputation partly through his notorious work along the Los Angeles River, which purportedly took him two years and 100 gallons of paint. (Saber, incidentally, is also famous for painting with the roller primarily, as opposed to the spray can.)

The graffitists who participate in Paint Louis come closer to realizing the myth of the fevered, obsessed artist than any other painter working today.
Jennifer Silverberg
The graffitists who participate in Paint Louis come closer to realizing the myth of the fevered, obsessed artist than any other painter working today.

There's a nice small panel dedicated to M.C. Escher, by the artist M.C. Esra of the Ill Eagles Cru, involving interlocking elephants in the style of Escher's morphing birds, with the witty subtitle "Elephants are not afraid of mice. Mice made that up to scare cats." Nearby, the Minnesota Crew has produced an impressive, if not terribly original, landscape scene populated by Dr. Seuss characters.

One of the most striking entries this year is by the 3A crew, out of Atlanta, Connecticut and Boston. Their piece spans more than 50 yards, a red strip bordered above and below with black bars. It features a cartoonlike narrative, populated by figures that, were they comic-book characters, would be labeled the "Sexy Babe," the "Afro-guy," the "Priest" and the "Money Man." They live within a blighted urban landscape. But it's a singular artist's conceit that distinguishes this work: Above each figure, an inset panel shows us an absurdly enlarged detail of the scene -- Afro-guy's Afro-pick, for example, or Money Man's eye. The gesture is somehow reminiscent of avant-garde cinema, or 1980s postmodernist painting by someone like David Salle.

The 3A crew's work stands out partly because there's something original in it, something that references other arts or other modes of communication in a unique way. That's unusual. Although the common discussion of graffiti and "tagging" assumes that it's all about individual expression and marking personal territory, few people are willing to admit that there's so much about graffiti that's standard and, frankly, unremarkable. It remains for the most part an in-the-know lingo that struggles (if it bothers at all) to rise above its "outsider" art status quo.

That said, there's no denying the energy and enthusiasm that lay at the foundation of this year's Paint Louis. It may rely on a standardized, somewhat stalled aesthetic, but graffiti art remains one of the most vital of all alternative art media. Even with its sticky relationship to the high-art scene, it deserves to be fostered. If you need more convincing, just look at writing on the wall.

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