Thursday, April 3, 2008

Arts

ART/ARCHITECTURE; Museum With (Only) Walls

Published: August 8, 2004

THERE's a world-class museum on Jackson Avenue in Long Island City that's free, that's open 24/7 and that shows the top artists in their field. It has hundreds of artworks, most of them huge: murals with allegorical tales of good and evil, modern takes on Rembrandt, variations on and homages to grunge comix and the golden age of Mad magazine. The art is constantly changing, the staff is paid nothing and anyone can show there. Almost every artist uses a nom de plume. The best view is from the elevated No. 7 train.

It's not the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center but the blocklong establishment across the street -- 5 Pointz: The Institute of Higher Burnin'. 5 Pointz (the name signifies the five boroughs) is New York's hub for the high aerosol -- or spray-can -- art. The outside walls, the rooftops and especially the loading dock, not to mention the indoor halls and air shafts or the trucks parked outside, are its Technicolor showcase.

Formerly known as the Phun Phactory, 5 Pointz is the vision of Jonathan Cohen -- tag name Meres -- whose dream is to have the building ''100 percent covered.'' Artists have come from Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Japan, Brazil and all over the United States to ''piece'' -- make a masterpiece -- at 5 Pointz. Murals are up for between a week and a year before they are painted over, and no artist is turned away.

Don't confuse the art on display here with graffiti, Meres cautions: ''Graffiti is a label for writers who vandalize. Aerosol art takes hours and days. It's a form of calligraphy.'' (Breathing in aerosol fumes over the years has damaged his health, he says. Like many aerosol artists, he wears a mask to work.)

Random tagging -- casually spraying your name across a surface -- is against the rules at 5 Pointz. A derivative of gang writing, tagging is a way to mark territory. ''There's nothing artistic about a tag,'' says the artist Nic 1, who helps Meres manage the site. ''A tag is just expressing anger or whatever. You can tag blindfolded on the phone. Pieces are considered art.''

A tag evolves into a piece when the letters become calligraphic, ''taking on a style concept and a sense of structure and abstractness,'' Nic 1 says. But pieces can also be just pictures. When several pieces by one or more artists make up a larger picture, it becomes a ''production.''

5 Pointz has the blessing of the building's landlord, the developer Jerry Walkoff, who has owned it since 1971. ''I have a certain passion for people in the art business,'' says Mr. Walkoff, who rents studio space in the building to about 90 artists and leases the rest mostly to garment-industry enterprises. As for the aerosol artworks on his property, he says, ''I have no problem as long as they do it tastefully and don't endanger themselves.'' (More 5 Pointz art, past and present, can be seen at www.5ptz.com and at www.x-nyc.com/pointz.html)
SARAH BAYLISS

DRAGONS AND SOLDIERS

''Meres and I started on this wall one day at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and we didn't get home until 9 the next morning,'' Nic 1 says. ''The basic principle of this was good versus evil, but it's not what you think. The dragons are the good guys, and these Roman soldiers are the bad guys. So the whole concept is that it's a switcheroo, in effect, but on a mural-type level.''

What was the inspiration? ''I believe Meres has seen 'Lord of the Rings' one too many times,'' says Nic 1. ''But basically, we're telling our own story.''

Signatures like the one here, Nic 1 says, have an ''unreadable style'' for people outside the aerosol culture. ''We started it as a form of communication and acceptance within the urban society, and the only way you were going to know me is that you were doing what I'm doing.''

FUNKY LIZARDS

These reptiles, relaxing in a country setting, are an homage to Vaughn Bodé, a cult cartoonist in the 1970's. ''These are the most widely known lizards in aerosol culture,'' says Nic 1. ''Everybody that's somebody in aerosol culture has to have one of Bodé's books.''

Rendered by the Miami artists Siner and Pack, the lizards, Nic 1 says, represent ''the male species, and the hunger and the inner desire, and the hipness and the coolness. The lizard is always chasing after female characters with pull-up shorts, the perfect Goddess Woman. That's what Mr. Bodé was about.''

WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK

The concept of this allegorical wall, created in 2001 by the artist Leia, was, Meres says, that ''aerosol artists are perceived as good and bad by people and the media.'' Leia is now painting over that picture with a new production -- a rendering of Washington Square Park with a dancing woman and a view of the World Trade Center. ''I'm trying to bridge my style of fine art and graffiti art,'' he says. The picture, which has a limited palette, was inspired by the three Greek terms for love: Eros (romantic love) is represented by the woman; Agape (transformational and unconditional love) is signified by the twin towers, alluding to the sacrifices made on 9/11. Leia will refer to Philos (brotherly love) by reproducing his closest friends' tags and pictures.

PUTTI

This new wall, with bubble-gum-pink putti strumming harps and cloud lettering, was made in memory of a 27-year-old aerosol artist who died of a heroin overdose this summer. ''In aerosol culture he was known as Glue 2,'' says Nic 1, who made the piece with two other artists, Stem and Raven. ''This was a memorial to him, because he passed recently. Basically, we wanted to do something for him. The beautiful part of having a place like this is that it's a nice outlet for people to come and express themselves with aerosol, without having to worry that they're doing a crime.''

''His last name was Mitchell,'' Nic 1 continues. ''I wrote the 'Mitchell,' and Raven did the 'Glue 2.' ''

The letters have what Nic 1 calls style exaggeration. ''You'll bend and pull and stretch a conventional letter out of its means for the purpose of giving it some life and style and charisma,'' he says.

REMBRANDT

This street-level reproduction of a Rembrandt self-portrait is a group effort by Sperm, a Dutch aerosol artist, and two other artists from the Netherlands. Over the course of a week, they created a handful of walls at 5 Pointz, including two other big Rembrandt reproductions. Working on a wall is ''just the same as being an artist who shows on canvas, working in a museum,'' Meres says. ''The only difference is that a lot of time our walls are 10 times bigger.''

 

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