Sometimes projects that do transpire don't work out as planned. Following last year's annual Art in the Park festival in Jefferson City, commissioned graffiti works from St. Louisans and nationally recognized street artists including Michael De Feo and Mark Jenkins were soda-blasted off the walls of the abandoned Missouri State Penitentiary where they'd been created.

"It's like nothing even happened. You can't even see the remnants of color," says Walsh. "The walls of the courtyard we painted border the gas chamber. That place was nothing but nasty. Why preserve that? And to spend taxpayer money to remove the art? That seems like a practice in futility."

Larry Schepker, commissioner of the Missouri Office of Administration, which manages the state's publicly owned buildings and grounds, says that had been his intention all along. "We wanted to maintain the safety and security of the space," Schepker explains, adding that the property is slated for residential redevelopment. "The idea is that it will turn into a real asset for the citizens of Missouri."


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

Details

RFT Slide Show

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

Peat Wollaeger says he'd eventually like to buy a building down the street from his Cherokee Street studio and open a gallery devoted to street art.

Others say they're attracted not only by the cheap rents for studio spaces but also by the potential of the city's arts scene, and the fact that local galleries here are successful in selling urban contemporary art.

"It's accessible to everyone, it's not as mysterious [as more traditional types of art.] A lot of people like to have a certain amount of mystique and inaccessibility around their art, you have to follow their rules," says Michael Hoffman, co-owner of Hoffman LaChance Contemporary in Maplewood. "Street art doesn't have rules; it is what it is. It's honest: It's there for you to like it if you like it and to not if you don't."

Laumeier Sculpture Park's Kim Humphries isn't quite as bullish. "[Street art] has already been tested at higher heights," Humphries says. "Maybe people who employ a portion of that style may function at the top galleries and museums in the art world, but as far as a neo-graffiti movement goes, I don't think we'll see it go anywhere."

Counters Tolentino: "Look at the artwork in St. Louis in the major art galleries. It's super-safe — minimalist stuff with large spans of color. Aside from [printmaker] Tom Huck, everyone is doing something safe. We're here to bring something new to the table, something that's not safe. Something with a visceral feel to it."

The street artists credit the Internet for expanding their audience. Online photo-sharing sites like Flickr, which hosts thousands of pictures of St. Louis street art and graffiti, preserve and disseminate pieces that would otherwise go unnoticed before being painted over.

"Each person has their own opinion of what value street art has for society," says BJ Kraiberg, creator of the "St. Louis Street Art" Flickr pool. "I want to make it more available so they can better form their opinions. As more and more people see it, maybe they'll open up more."

Wooster Collective co-founder Marc Schiller notes that the graffiti renaissance coincides "with the rise of blogs and photo-sharing sites. That's accelerated the scene in many ways."

Seconds Wollaeger: "When I travel, people always ask me, 'How do you do what you do from St. Louis?' That's easy: the Internet."

And then there's the fact that for urban artists, St. Louis' vast stretches of abandoned buildings and sprawling concrete equate to an endless blank canvas.

Observes Hoax: "It's like a utopia for clean walls."

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