Wednesday, November 23, 2005

REV: Ephemeral Art


Be Sure to Read the Handwriting on the Wall
By RANDY KENNEDY, The New York Times, November 24, 2005


In the world of New York City graffiti, the artist who calls himself Tracy 168 is a kind of presiding deity, a founding member of the old school.

So it was somehow fitting the other day to find him in a classroom at his old school, specifically his old high school, Julia Richman, on East 67th Street in Manhattan. He admitted that he remembered little about his time there in 1975, a brief pit stop on the road to full-time delinquency. "Basically, lunch was my best subject," he said.

So even in his wildest, aerosol-enhanced dreams, he never thought he would be asked to return to the school as a mentor, certainly not for what he did best: painting and drawing, usually on subway cars or other highly visible pieces of public property.

But there he was, sitting in a second-floor classroom, and on the walls around him were classic Tracy 168 pieces, including one of his signatures: a smiling, feathered-haired cool guy who looks like a fugitive from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Surrounding this drawing and covering almost every inch of the classroom, from the radiator to the lockers, was an explosion of other graffiti, making the room look as if it had been struck in the middle of the night by a spray-can army.

In fact, all the artwork was legal, and far less indelible, rendered in chalk atop a special bottle-green chalkboard paint that had been used to coat the entire room and make it into an interior canvas for the kind of art that usually shows up outside the school's doors.

The project - conceived by Hugo Martinez, an art dealer who has long represented street artists - has allowed students of Urban Academy, a specialized high school inside the Julia Richman building that serves sometimes troubled students, to work side by side over the past several weeks with renowned, and sometimes infamous, graffiti artists.

Starting on Dec. 3, and on most Saturdays through the end of January, the school will allow the public to see the results in the classroom, at 317 East 67th Street, from noon to 6 p.m. At the end of the viewing period, depending on how students and teachers feel, the work will probably be erased - adding it to a long tradition of ephemeral art - and the classroom returned to its previously scheduled institutional color.

The exhibition is part of a series of urban shows in a kind of floating gallery that Mr. Martinez has maintained since he gave up traditional art spaces in Chelsea and Brooklyn. Last year, in his first such project, he and several graffiti artists, along with the Dutch designers Marleen Kaptein and Stijn Roodnat, decorated the inside of a new pediatrics clinic in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Earlier this year, the group took over and redesigned - with the inhabitant's permission - a studio apartment in a public housing complex on the Lower East Side.

In each of these projects, which Mr. Martinez calls "interventions," he and the artists are trying not only to upend the idea of graffiti as an urban scourge but also to use it to question institutional authority - be it municipal, educational or aesthetic.

The goal, he said, is to use the work of graffiti artists, quintessential outsiders in the art world, to teach students who often feel themselves to be outsiders, too. And in the process, in a slightly more theoretical vein, to "challenge even further the seemingly sacred character ascribed to art and to education," he said.

Antonio Zaya, the Urban Academy show's curator, citing the examples of Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud, said that one important lesson to impart to students was that "much of the great art of the 20th century has flirted with illegality, with attacking authority."

In some cases, it is a lesson that New York City students may have already internalized. Many public-school educators, especially those at schools like Urban Academy, which serves primarily low-income minority students, know that some of their students are already part of graffiti crews that go out and paint illegally at night.

"You can't act like it doesn't happen," said Roy Reid, an Urban Academy teacher who has created a class that centers on street art. "You have to try to direct it and channel it instead of just saying, 'Don't do it.' "

Herb Mack, Urban Academy's principal, said that when Mr. Martinez first approached the school about the project earlier this year, he and his teachers were unsure. "We talked several times about whether we wanted to do this," he said, but in the end they felt that it was not glorifying or encouraging illegal work.

"I'm not sure how it's going to be seen by Klein or Bloomberg," he added, referring to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and the mayor. (A spokeswoman for Chancellor Klein and the Department of Education said the department supported the project, but added, "We would expect the school to make clear both the importance of appreciating art and respecting property.")

Mr. Mack, one of the founders of Urban Academy, said he had watched it develop into an unlikely collaboration. "It's enriching for the kids to be able to see legitimate artists at work and to critique it," he said. "They see some of these guys as the da Vincis and van Goghs of their world. They know who they are, and they're excited that they're here. In fact, they can't believe they're here."

The other day, with both Tracy 168 and another graffiti legend, known as CoCo 144, present in the classroom, a kind of reverential silence had descended over the handful of students who were working on their own art, including a girl who was writing, probably ironically, "Stay Sweet" in pink letters at the bottom of a wall.

In a corner of the class, high above the lockers, another well-known graffiti artist, Rate, had drawn huge, elliptical rats, which have become his calling card. Asked where he usually painted them, the artist, a thin young man wearing a baseball cap, smiled and did not exactly answer the question.

"The cliché is that the two things you're supposed to stay away from are churches and people's cars," he said. "Other than that, I guess everything else is fair game." (He has been arrested at least twice for vandalism.)

The biographical blurbs written by Mr. Martinez for the veteran graffiti artists in the show are not the kind of restrained prose usually found in the gallery world or a classroom. One artist, Case 2, is described as " a demon god of the oldest of the old school piecers." Another, JA, is called "the most savagely prolific bomber in the storied history of graffiti."

"Simply put," the blurb adds, "JA is a beast."

Ryan Kierstedt, 17, an Urban Academy student, agreed, and as he wrote his own elaborate, bubble-lettered tag - Noah 6 - in chalk on a radiator cover, he said that he still could not quite believe that his work would adorn the same walls.

"It's crazy," he said. "I didn't think it was going to be this big. I can't compete."

But then he flipped open his cellphone, whose screen displayed a picture of a huge piece of graffiti not drawn in chalk, and not on a classroom wall. It was in paint, on the side of what looked like a defunct factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

"That's mine," he said, smiling.

And has he ever been caught?

"Been chased," he said, "but nobody's caught me yet."

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