Living next to a railroad switchyard has its advantages. Well, one advantage, anyway: you get to see amazing graffiti that very few other people get to see. The art that rolls by every day includes intricate murals, sly cartoons and tiny Zen landscapes made with a few strokes of white marker. The artists come from places like Atlanta, Brooklyn, Vancouver and Mexico City, and know that their work will be seen fleetingly by only a handful of others who know where to look.
They pour their hearts into it anyway.
"I've done hundreds of trains," says Yors, a Raleigh artist and art school graduate who founded the local graffiti crew NSM back in 1997. "It's a completely compulsive desire. I do graffiti first for me and second for the other people who do graffiti. That's it."
"It has to be lived," adds Aim One, another NSM member. "When you put your life and your freedom on the line for your creativity, that's graffiti."
I went looking for folks like Yors and Aim One after recognizing examples of their work in a show last month by Artspace artist Christin Kleinstreuer ("Painting From Scratch," The Independent, http://indyweek.com/durham/2003-11-05/ae/html). Kleinstreuer had taken photos of public graffiti on the walls of the now-defunct Polk Youth Center and edited the artist's designs into her own paintings, which were now displayed with price tags inside the downtown Glance Gallery. It seemed to me a particularly unnecessary display of mainstream appropriation of brilliant street art. What was the big deal about bringing graffiti into a Raleigh gallery less than a year after one of the world's most famous graffiti artists, Twist, had filled the Lump Gallery with his work?
It didn't make sense, and I wondered what the artists had to say about it.
They weren't hard to find. A day of asking local artists what they thought of Kleinstreuer's show led directly to a meeting with Aim One and Yors at N.C. State University's Free Expression Tunnel--the only public graffiti wall left in Raleigh.
"She said she was bringing graffiti into the gallery," says Yors, "but that wall was our gallery. It's as close to a gallery as I ever want to get. She saw it and felt it in our gallery and took it into another gallery. You don't do that. What did she add? Doing an expressionist take on an already expressionist graffiti piece is redundant."
Yors says that one of Kleinstreuer's paintings--priced at $200--was "almost entirely my work." He's particularly annoyed at her Lust, which uses a piece he painted during a thoughtful reconciliation with a girlfriend to make a statement about physical desire.
"That piece was the exact opposite of what she said it was about. The funniest thing was that she changed my girlfriend's name from Ele to Elb," he says. "She didn't have a clue what any of it meant. Graffiti is about radical personal expression, but she stripped that from me by reappropriating it."
For her part, Kleinstreuer insists that her "editing, adding and interpreting" of others' work was well within the bounds of traditional art history; she points to "Don't Sleep" as an example. It obviously copies Aim One's frazzled alien businessman, adding faces and guns to nearby letters to give the image "an anti-war theme."
Aim One doesn't think that's enough to justify her use of his creative effort. When told that one piece sold for $1,500, he holds out his hand and laughs, "I'll just take a couple of hundred."
Both graffiti artists are angry, but what shines through most is a kind of bemusement. They even took the time to show up at the Glance Gallery opening. "We didn't go looking for conflict," Yors points out. "We just wanted to see it for ourselves."
To them, it was simply a business-as-usual, mainstream take on graffiti. They're aware of the irony of being fiercely protective of work they put up for the world to see and call the paradox just one of many that makes graffiti so attractive to them. But they insist that there's something wrong with what Kleinstreuer did.
"It's like sampling in music," Aim One says. "It's about giving respect to the artist who's work you're using. If someone had come up to us and asked us to collaborate or use some of our work, we'd have been happy to think about it. But she didn't even try to contact us."
"I wasn't trying to slight anyone," Kleinstreuer replies. "I had no idea how to reach them."
She says it never occurred to her to leave a note at the site, or ask anyone at the nearby N.C. Museum of Art to let the artists know she was interested in talking to them. Instead, Kleinstreuer took a photo of a list of nine names and presented it at Glance as "Name tags of artists whose work was used as source material for paintings."
Aim One laughs when asked about the list, which he wrote (and which doesn't include his own name). "Almost none of those names are from Raleigh," he says. "I was just giving a shout out to artists I respect. You know, if you're going to come into a culture as an outsider and use it, don't you think you should take the time to learn something about that culture first?"
He stops painting, raises an eyebrow and smiles.
"Hey, Glance. Where's my gallery show?"