State of Street Art: Vandalism or legit, it's not going away

It's nearly midnight on a frigid December Saturday, but St. Louis City Hall is as lively as it will ever be. On the polished marble floor in front of the building's grand staircase, a dozen break dancers whirl, flip and bob to hip-hop beats that boom from a DJ's turntables. A nearly nude woman, painted like the skeletal Santa Claus from The Nightmare Before Christmas, saunters through the crowd of onlookers, who try not to stare.

The hallways are filled with artists and their work, most of which is being auctioned off to raise funds for the local nonprofit ArtDimensions. A small group has gathered in front of what by day is the office of the collector of revenue. A sign on the table says it's the temporary shop of the Graffiti Lounge, sellers of custom urban apparel and (among other specialties) body-paint experts.

Lounge proprietor Chris Sabatino and fellow artists Justin Tolentino and Bryan Walsh sip from cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and discuss the irony of a graffiti-inspired art show at this particular venue.

Justin Tolentino with his work.
Jennifer Silverberg
Justin Tolentino with his work.


RFT Slide Show

View a slide show of graffiti around St. Louis by some of the artists profiled in this story.

"St. Louis has grown a lot, it's changed a lot," says Tolentino. "We're getting there, we're starting to gain respect because of the quality of the work so many of the young artists are producing. But it's still not to the point where street art is really relevant or respected."

The city is home to a budding street-art community and a talented group of graffiti-inspired gallery artists. But it's a precarious existence plagued by a broad range of conflicts — from recent legislation by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen that cracks down on graffiti to citizens who consider their work petty vandalism. Yet the artists persist, hoping their hometown's resistance will eventually give way to understanding and acceptance.

"St. Louis is starting to see the potential in street art. There's so much art there that's being created by a younger, hungrier generation," says Chris Burch, a local artist who is studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. "It's such an open field, and it is really starting to define itself in terms of an identity on the street. When I go back home, I see lots of interesting things going on in streets of St. Louis that I don't see even in San Francisco."

In July Walsh and Tolentino co-curated an exhibition at the Regional Arts Commission gallery. Entitled Screwed In, the show featured works by the pair and five other street-influenced artists, all with strong ties to St. Louis. The centerpiece was a massive mural, a collaboration among all seven artists. Colorful and glossy, the wood panels were covered with intricate images and faces created with brushes, airbrush and spray paint. Three sections wrapped around the main room of the gallery and stretched from floor to ceiling.

Chain-smoking Pall Malls and double-fisting cans of Schlitz at a South Grand bar, Tolentino says the mural represented a fusion of his current career as a gallery artist and his youth spent as a graffiti tagger in Fenton.

"I started writing on other people's shit when I was about fifteen," he recalls. "I was really into hip-hop, and I'd always see the freight trains coming west from the city with all the tags on them. I like graffiti because it's a lot like the blues. It comes from a deep, dark place, and it's beautiful because of its rawness."

Nine years ago Tolentino graduated from the Memphis College of Art, where his love for tagging flourished along with his gift for painting on canvas. He developed a style strongly influenced by graffiti, using loose brush strokes to render murky caricatures of faces and animals. The works are simple but striking, and often painted on an intentionally tattered canvas.

"I want it to look played or weathered," he says. "Like it was leaned against the back of a Dumpster for months. I've always had an appreciation for dilapidated buildings and things that look disheveled."

Walsh, who grew up in Collinsville, Illinois, and studied graphic design at Miami University of Ohio, professes a love for the most basic graffiti tags scrawled with thick black markers, and it shows through in his art, which consists of glossy canvases covered with colorful shapes and patterns punctuated by jarring black arrows and scribbles.

"Graffiti, abstract expressionism, graphic design: Those all play a part in how my pieces come out," he elaborates, peeling the label from a bottle of Pabst and affixing it like a sticker onto the table.

Their work at the Screwed In exhibit impressed curators at some local art institutions, including Kim Humphries, director of exhibitions and collections at Laumeier Sculpture Park in Sunset Hills.

Humphries lived in New York in the 1980s, when graffiti first appeared in art galleries. He recalls seeing subway cars bombed with colorful "Wild Style" tags from artists like Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000 and being inspired by the work of street-art legends like Jean-Michel Basquiat, who, with the help of Andy Warhol, pioneered art's No Wave and Neo-Expressionist movements.

"That was probably the best thing I'd seen in terms of street art in a gallery in St. Louis," Humphries says of Screwed In. "As far as a finished, thought-out, museum-style exhibition or formal presentation — I thought that was the pinnacle."

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