Street art is “labor of love” for local artists
By Benjamin Dale
Spray paint–check. Stencils–check. Markers–check. Stickers, running shoes, cigarettes–check, check, check. These are the supplies and the tools of the elusive painter of the night; the street artist.
Since the creation of Man, some inner compulsion within the human psyche has prompted a certain segment of every population to carve, paint or otherwise improve upon natural and man-made surfaces. From the cave paintings at Lascaux to Rome’s Latrinalia to the ironic urban improvements of Banksy, the art of the people, the art of the street, isn’t going away any time soon.
In the modern age, we live lives of constant stimulation. By day, we are confounded and bombarded by billboards on every highway, ads in every newspaper, signs that scream for our attention so that we might buy, buy, buy. Most of the time, what they’re selling turns out to be crap and we are left holding the shit bag, fooled again. What we bought was the ad, the carefully constructed “artwork” designed to capture our emotions and condition us to be good consumers, to work all day so that we can afford to continue to consume and stay home at night. We are Pavlov’s dogs. Are you not entertained?
“The billboards are just as offensive, if not more, than advertisements,” said one street artist, who for legal reasons wishes his identity to remain anonymous. I will therefore refer to him as Randal the Vandal.
“I am a local artist making original art,” Randal said, “but my art is considered felonious.”
The citizens don’t give the advertisers permission for the ads on the billboards; the only permission required is that the “advertisers” possess the necessary funds to buy the ad space. If you can’t pay, you can’t play. If an artist sells art to a corporation, which then uses the art on a billboard in a community space without the community’s permission, then that is completely legitimate. But if an artist takes an unused, dilapidated surface and turns the squalor into splendor – that is a felony.
In an effort to make everything look pretty, to paint over the surface of a declining economy, a debauched culture and a poverty of imagination – those with the Federal Reserve Notes make the rules, and they seek to marginalize and criminalize free-form artistry. So the street artist is forced underground, a rat in a world of fat cats.
“You can say it’s an adrenaline rush, it’s an addiction,” said Randal. By day, he is a mainstream artist, selling his artwork in galleries and studios. But the real game for him is getting his art in the streets, in the faces of unsuspecting urbanites and in the places where they least expect it.
“My goal is to beautify the city,” said Randal, “adding colors and layers to all the grays and blacks and browns. I actually hate ‘graffiti’ – the stuff that you see the most of – because it sucks. Graffiti is just people’s names on walls. Art is making something for people to look at. It should have substance, a message, or at least draw off other influences.
“In the graffiti ‘scene,’ it’s not about the art anymore, it’s about dick size. No matter what you do, everybody’s going to hate on it – either because you’re better than they are, you’re worse than them or they see you as competition,” said Randal.
Most artists belong to a crew – a group of artists represented by three or four letters. The crews range in size from three to four friends to as large as a few hundred across a geographic region. The competition lies in trying to get the best spots – those furthest from the reach of the authorities, but those that also have a high visibility factor – because it is only a matter of time before the art gets “buffed” or painted over by the city.
“The city comes by and paints over it with a gray square,” said Randal. “When you see that, you know that’s where art once was. The gray just makes it look worse.”
If the art isn’t buffed, then it might get painted over by another artist. This is seen as a tremendous insult unless the artist “burns,” or does better artwork, than the previous piece.
“If you can’t burn it, don’t paint over it,” said Randal.
Street art is not about arbitrarily defacing surfaces. There are rules – no churches, no schools, no houses – and of the roughly 30 to 40 active artists in the Dayton area, most abide by this credo.
There’s no money in street art, it is a labor of love, and the artists are possessed of a drive and determination that compels them to hit the streets when everyone else is asleep, in an effort to shout out, to say “I exist,” in a world that has forgotten art and the meaning behind it.
Reach DCP freelance writer and editorial intern Benjamin Dale at BenDale@DaytonCityPaper.com.