Spray Tell

Dedicated artists shake their cans at Paint Louis

It's high noon on Sunday at the Mississippi River retaining wall that, since 1997, has been the site of Paint Louis, one of the biggest -- indeed, one of the only -- city-sanctioned graffiti-fests in the country. And it's hot. From what the participants say, it's always hot at Paint Louis. "Why don't they hold this in December?" one of them suggests. Despite the heat, the enthusiasm is strong. The graffiti writers are in heaven. They express awe and disbelief that the city even allows the event to happen. "I love it," another writer claims. "This is the highlight of my summer. I'd stay another week if I could."

Over the long Labor Day weekend, about 200 graffiti artists produced more than a mile of art. When all was said and done, when the dust settled and the paintings were complete and the painters had packed up and gone home, it became possible to judge the works on their artistic merit. Some of the paint jobs are better than others, as one would expect. A few of them are distinguished by their intricacy, color and imagination. Others look like the work of beginners, just learning to individualize the standard graffiti idiom. All of them are worth a look. But the real story here is the event itself and the motley crew of participants that spent their Labor Day weekend in St. Louis.

They represent what graffiti art is today. It's no longer the raw, spontaneous paint-can scribbling of the 1970s, when stylized "tagging" was in its infancy. Nor does it bear much resemblance to the "high culture" graffiti art of the 1980s, when Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were catapulted to celebrity status to feed an empty art market, ravenous for the next big thing. The graffitists of today appear quite happy to be out of the galleries and back on the streets and in the freight yards.

And yet they also find themselves working in a peculiar time for graffiti artists. There may not be any high-art graffiti celebrities along the lines of Haring and Basquiat today, but graffiti has not evacuated the uptown gallery scene. Recent exhibitions like Post-graffiti in Santa Monica and Graffiti: Illegal Art? in Boston, along with national shows by Margaret Kilgallen and Barry McGee, prove that the graffiti aesthetic has a firm foothold in the gallery system. But, one could argue, there's gallery art, and then there's street graffiti.

The artists at Paint Louis might be considered the authentic graffitists of today. In their hometowns, they paint illegally. And they remain very, very serious about what they are doing. Over the Labor Day weekend, it was clear that they were willing to come a long way for the chance to paint unmolested. License plates from New York, Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona and Minnesota populated the dusty lot along the wall. The artists came in Toyotas, Saabs, Hondas and even a battleship-gray Cadillac. Almost all of them were male and shirtless, revealing the predictable piercings and tattoos. They parked their cars near their stretch of wall, unloaded their paint and commenced working, breaking only to talk to each other or the stray reporter, or to stand back and assess their work.

These guys come closer to realizing the myth of the fevered, obsessed artist than any other painter working today. The only difference is that they're not in the garret; they're on the street. All they want to do, it seems, is paint. They talk about it with conviction and emotion. Sneze, from Portland, Ore., sits on a scaffold, sweating, recounting his story: "I usually paint trains. I've worked so hard this year. I've painted 90 trains so far, and I want to get up to 150. But it's so hard to work! I have school and stuff!"

Pursuing graffiti art requires that kind of commitment, partly because it's normally an illegal activity. Artists have to work within distinct space and time limitations and contend with the very real possibility that they could be caught. Normal, an artist from Milwaukee, is painting a jaunty chameleon with his name inscribed inside. "I wanted to come (to Paint Louis) last year, but I was locked up, for painting." Normal spent two months in jail. "Things are bad in Milwaukee," he claims, adding that police are cracking down on graffiti writers more than ever.

This makes Paint Louis an extraordinary opportunity for artists like Normal and Sneze. But it also brings up an interesting point: The city of St. Louis, which sanctions the annual Paint Louis event, is otherwise hardly famous (or infamous) for its graffiti. Though Paint Louis technically began in 1996 as an outlet for local graffitists, those locals were never as visible as graffiti artists in other cities. It's not because the local graffiti artists save their efforts for Paint Louis. In fact, the vast majority of participants are from out of state; one is hard-pressed to find a local working on the wall. Current and past Paint Louis participants note that the city itself, outside of the Paint Louis "Mural Mile," is amazingly "clean" -- that is, graffiti-free.

This may explain why some of the visiting Paint Louis participants couldn't contain themselves, spilling out into the city, painting and tagging illegal walls. They knew the city at large was off-limits. Paint Louis organizers were clear in their instructions not to stray beyond the retaining wall. But the lure of tagging on a perfectly clean wall must be irresistible for someone from New York City, or even Milwaukee or Minneapolis, where painting usually means painting over someone else's work.

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.)

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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