Friday, April 10, 2020

A graffiti tour in St. Paul, Minnesota

It's okay with me if you want to just scroll through and look at the pictures.

My background is in art. I spent four and a half years studying art at three art schools. I learned how to talk about art, which is basically 70 percent bullshit and 30 percent giving a shit. I took some surprisingly excellent art history classes and as I got older pursued a deep interest in that during multiple European trips with my wife, particularly to Rome, and focusing on a passion for Caravaggio, Bernini, and Borromini. I painted, culminating in some larger scale portrait shows with some modest local notoriety. 

Then I gave it up to write. I'm better at it, and I like it better.

But I was never a graffiti artist.

In my art school days I knew a couple of them, but I don't really know all that much about the culture of it outside of a few interesting articles or documentaries here or there.

I'm not a graffiti, or street art, scholar either.

I'm not even a photographer, not in any really good way. I have not adopted a mission or vision of documenting graffiti for the ages.

I'm just genuinely a straight up fan of graffiti!

I think the standard of it in America is shockingly high. I think it's beautiful, creative, innovative, brave, political, generous, and inspired. The more I look at it the more I admire it. I admire its intentions and its accidents, its whimsy, conviction, daring, and abstractions.

Outlaw at its core, graffiti is one of the brightest visions of Anarchy in regular cultural activity. It expresses a surprisingly strong thread of hope for humanity. It actively demonstrates a culture of making art, for other people, at actual physical and legal danger to the creator, all without hope of remuneration. It is non commercial, anti authority, anti capitalist, and challenging. 

I love it. 

I wish the Internet were like it. 

Even just a little. 

Maybe, barely, sometimes it is. I mean, I'm here.

Don't worry.

There will be pictures. Even though I'm a very mixed photographer with a terrible camera, some of the pictures are going to be very good even (though not the first few).

Oh, and I'll also talk a little less going forward.

During the six plus years of writing here every day on clerkmanifesto I occasionally thought of photographing some of the graffiti I really liked and putting it on here, even though I usually just use words on clerkmanifesto. 

Recently I was particularly inspired to do so by a piece painted on a column under a bridge I live near. 

I just said I have some very good pictures of graffiti here. I don't really have one of this piece. But here is a first look anyway:

It's hard to get to. It's in the middle left of the picture. I like to call it "SoiA" cause that's how it sort of looks. It's a beautiful piece, with wonderful coloring and letterwork, great control, and it's also really pretty. But I also wanted to start off with this picture because it says a lot about seeing graffiti. It even says something about graffiti in general: 

It kind of looks like crap.

I mean, the Mississippi River is pretty beautiful around here. This bridge is, well, okay at best. No one is really ruining a great sight by crawling out on its lower cement arch to shittily spray paint OREEZY onto it. But no one is improving it either. It is all kind of a mess.

And then (and I wish this were more clear and better), there's this:

Even blurry, you should be able to see that this is kind of wonderful. However you want to say it: gallery worthy, art, a pearl in the mud. Something one could dismiss in that first glance of a scribbled bridge, and painted where it is it even invites one to make that mistake.

But it also invites one to something else.

So let's move on to better representations. 

There's a lot of excellent graffiti down in the river, but maybe, as we see, it's all a little beyond my current photographing capabilities.

And then I found the train.

Out in the tracks behind a neighborhood I've been much exploring in the Pandemic, the train has been parked for a few days.

It is full of fantastic graffiti!

So I decided to take the bull by the horns!

Sorry, it was irresistible.

But this train is just, like, one excellent graffiti piece after another!

I mean, look at these! 

There's great, weird color combinations, especially this last one with an insanely clever use of circles (look for them and for how wonderfully accidental and natural they seem). There's dynamic fluid script like in the second piece with that clever smokey background effect. And that top piece, DARIUS, uses a great off-green and off-yellow background palette and an enjoyable flair to the red to orange transition.

And yet these three above pieces were about average on this long train, and on a nearby well-used series of metal bridges, where the graffiti just goes on and on and on.

So I took a lot of pictures, with a bad camera and as an occasionally adequate photographer.

Maybe a third of them turned out.

There were whimsical pieces:


(Note the difficult placement if you can. This is done not on the side of the car, but between cars)

And Santas:

And this charming little ghost:

And there were interesting little one off sketches and materiel variations:

Plus there were dazzling masterworks:

I'm sorry I don't have a good wide shot of this, but just look at that pink thread work its way through the letters in 3D! That mountain backdrop! The sheer fluidity of the line and letter work! I just really love this one.

And while I'm sorry not to be able to get wide shots of everything, some of the details on these pieces are, and as an intense admirer I don't say this lightly, perfectly Picassoesque, elegant abstractions no matter how one breaks them up. Look at this:


This is really great. I'd go see this show at my local museum, but instead I saw it peeling off a train!

And speaking of Picasso, what about these colors and forms, also from a piece I only have detail of:

This is one of the few where I feel rust and age have unfortunately diminished it some. There's a lot of careful work in here, some of it maybe lost now.

But as in all good painting the close ups and full picture work together. This full piece:

is superbly controlled, angular, and articulate, and also a treat in its details:

These are great colors, and bleed through in an interesting way, and the boxcar's ledge is taken absolutely in stride! It's still interesting super close up, as below:

How about this:

I feel that maybe arrows and circles, which we've seen in earlier pieces, were circulating through this community of graffiti artists. This is slightly blurry, so here's another shot:

Here's another more abstracted detail of an artist whose use of silver metallic paint is particularly inspired in relation to the form they are working on:

Now we should  remember that for all the fancy formalism with which I am talking about this stuff (and feeling slightly silly at times doing so) I am not some brilliant theorist breaking ground with how "High Art" the "Low Art" of graffiti is. Jean-Michel Basquiat, once spray painting Manhattan, has been High Art Canon for more than 30 years now. And the most prominent artist of this era, Bansky, is, ultimately, in relation to graffiti and street art.

Speaking of which, I did see one interesting stencil out on the tracks:

Nevertheless I don't think Bansky was out working on these bridges. And some of the work was very eroded. Does that start to happen in a month, or a year, or ten? 

I suppose it's off the graffiti subject a bit, but I loved the weird orange and black spidering you can see above, and then more so here:

And all those layers of paint and erosion does sometimes call into question the artist's intent. I think with art it is best to be as generous as possible and assume intention and credit whenever possible, not that it will do that much good to all these anonymous talents. Here's a series of shots of a particularly drippy and expressive artist which might look less messy to you if I had a decent wide shot of the work (I don't). As said above, I'm all in on giving the full credit for this:

And oddly this even closer up detail might convince you more:

When it's a brush instead of a spray can they call that painterly.

Now just for fun, what about this one:

More circles! Tighter. More control. Super interesting pallette. It's a Kandinsky.

How about this:

It's also by Kandinsky!

I'm just kidding. It's really simple though. I like it.

I have no conclusion to all of this. This was really all just an excuse to show you some graffiti I like.

I do have some skulls left for you:

If you dare to scroll all the way back up to the top you can see a bit of these guys in the first picture!

And that's all for our tour today. All credit to the wonderful artists. It was such a treat wandering the train tracks, admiring this stuff, taking pictures, and then running for it when the Railroad pick up truck came down the tracks at me.

I guess that's life on the wrong side of the law...

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