Graffiti Imagery in Contemporary Art: Jack Olson Gallery NIU

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Curated by Alison Bastian and Alyssa Jaracz. Works by Liz Lazdins, Mario Gonzalez and Ruben Aguirre


Want to get to know me a bit more? Here is an interview I did discussing graffiti, galleries and in between:

What was your motivation behind the decision to enter into the gallery as a venue? “I wanted to push myself artistically and find a voice specifically my own. I was building up a body of work with no real intentions of showing it in galleries but rather just because it felt good to push myself to create. It was friends and associates who encouraged me to be part of various shows and pursue solo shows.”

As an artist that has transitioned from making work for the street to making work for the gallery, why is it still important to create work for the street (i.e. sidewalk stencils)? What need or role does this play in your current artistic practice? “Everyone can see work in the street. It doesn’t pile up in your studio or hidden in on the wall in someone’s house. The streets are dynamic, things get buffed, the work is illegal so putting it up is itself a skill. I could never promise to leave it alone entirely. It is thrilling and challenging and statement about public/private space.”

How have your works (or your style) changed as they became constructed in the studio and for gallery viewing? How do your street works differ from your studio works in motivation, form, media, etc.? “My street work, murals, stencils are simpler in form than my paintings. Although lately my indoor work has been showing up in legal murals. My painting are much more illustrative. They are a way for me to tell the stories I experience in the streets. They are documentation of street characters and stories while my graf and street art are a result of my own character being played out in real time.”

Has your entry into the gallery felt limiting in any capacity? Freeing? “Galleries are a wonderful way to view my work! If a show is well lit and well hung you can really appreciate the details and textures in my pieces. But it is a totally different world than a wall or the streets, it is like a lovely frozen moment in time while the streets are always moving, breathing, eating, shitting.”

Is there a particular environment you prefer to work within? One that is more inspiring for you? “A place where I can make a mess and use spray paint are ideal. And of course being outside is lovely.”

You note that some artists “end up in the gallery because their street work is so influential that we want a permanent piece of their work for posterity. It is their illegal street work, their style, and their longevity that makes their gallery work sought after. Then there are others that were always more artists at their core and less vandals, but just didn’t happen to have a correct venue in their youth for their talent. Many have “grown up” and now make beautiful paintings, perhaps influenced by their days on the streets, rooftops and trains. And of course there is the double-threat: the graffiti and street artists in the galleries that are both of these things- a master vandal and a true artist in one.” Where do you see yourself within these types? “I am probably less vandal and more illustrator but this is not necessarily by choice. Obligations such as children, income, family have kept me inside more and more over the years. I consider myself a story-teller and wild child who likes to write on things and pay tribute to the beauty around me.”

What are your thoughts on the dividing line between street art and graffiti? “I have no idea what the difference is but I’ll give it a try. What is graffiti anyway? I guess it depends on how you define it. Graffiti has been going on for thousands of years. But if you define graffiti as stylized letters and characters that began in the 1970’s, made famous in New York, most often done with spray paint or markers then I guess graffiti is street art. Street art defined in the most literal terms. It also goes under the streets (subways) and over the streets (rooftops). Graffiti often includes dangerous venues- billboards, train yards. Graf artists don’t typically use wheat paste. Graf artists are less socially accepted than “street artists” (whatever that is) perhaps because tags are a code not easily understood by the general public. Or because it’s roots are in the urban American ghetto. Graf artists don’t have much love for street artists generally and probably visa versa. I don’t know why, I don’t buy into all that. I love it all. After all, I’m basically a retired graf writer who does “street art” now (stencils- definitely not seen as graffiti as defined above).”

What are your thoughts on permission walls? Is this still graffiti? “Permission walls are a good way to introduce communities to the prettiest parts of graffiti. Often people will walk up and ask “What does that say?” and bring their kids to check it out. They appreciate positive themes and colorful characters. When done by Graf writers permission walls are essentially murals done in a graffiti style. I’m pro permission wall but an active graffiti writer has to do illegal work to be considered active and “up.”

Besides your stencils, which are still created anonymously and illicitly, you have been involved in some public art projects (particularly one alongside another one of our exhibiting artists, ZORE). Can you describe your experiences with these types of projects? “I’m honored to be included in public art projects. The mural ZORE and I collaborated on in South Shore was a great opportunity to cross my indoor art onto the street. Using rollers and painting portraits. I’m hoping to tackle more of these in the future. I’d like to do work similar to my paintings across the outside of an entire building!”

Do you have a preference when it comes to smaller, more anonymous forms of street expressions (i.e. stencils) versus large-scale, public pieces? “I have to admit I’ve always appreciated the little things in life. The dandelion between the crumbling concrete, the cicada shell, the well placed stencil or sticker. But I never turn away from a challenge and I’ll paint the McCormick center if you want me to.”

Who’s work did (or do) you look up to? Any favorite Chicago graffiti writers?  “My earliest influences and still top favorites include Dr.Seuss and Shel Silverstein. Have you seen Rose ONeil’s “Sweet Monsters”? They are totally different than her magazine work and awesome! Alphonso Piloto Nieves is a Chicago sculptor I am crazy about. And Jennifer Cronin is inspiring- crossing boundaries of reality and excellent technical skill. Graf-wise I was taught back in the day by some of the greats: Attica (RIP), Raven, Zore, Gtek. I studied the likes of Rafa, Trixter and Casper. Avon used to get up like crazy with these ugly tags- I always liked his persistence. I’m a big fan of more recent guys like Fact and Obe. The Champ- another person crossing between graf and “street art” with these wheat paste posters. Keep your eye on Bel2 she is a very dope south side female Graf writer. Ugh I’m probably forgetting people.”

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