Off The Wall

Photo: San Francisco's 1:AM Gallery Exhibit Highlights Legends of West Coast Graffiti
Nastia Voynovskaya/Photo
San Francisco's 1:AM Gallery Exhibit Highlights Legends of West Coast Graffiti

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From rooftop murals to hand-cut stickers decorating stop signs, the diverse forms of noncommissioned public art constantly lurk in the peripheries of Bay Area streets. On certain walls, new illicit artworks creep up as quickly as they are erased into oblivion, swallowed by smears of beige or silver and resurrected as blank canvases for the next user's disposal. But before street art grew to encompass various subcultures and techniques, early graffiti writers pioneered their art form on train tracks and in alleys when it wasn't yet a collector's commodity, let alone a term in anyone's vocabulary.

Commemorating the originators of Bay Area street art and its surrounding b-boy culture, the San Francisco urban art gallery, 1:AM, currently offers an extensive interdisciplinary group show featuring some of our region's foremost graffiti greats. Aptly titled "The Classics," the exhibit samples contemporary paintings and mixed-media works, vintage drawings and documentary photography by artists active between 1983 and 1990. Curated by Nate1, an artist and entrepreneur who got his start during the discipline's West Coast golden age, the exhibit honors the not-too-distant past of an art form still not universally recognized.

In addition to exemplifying the '80s West Coast graffiti aesthetic, many of the works in "The Classics" testify to their creators' devotion to their discipline. Spray cans regularly appear as the subject matter of some pieces and the medium of others. Kasper WCF's painting, "Madcap Spraytown," features a cartoonish cityscape with spray can skyscrapers emitting puffs of white clouds from their nozzles, the whole scene distorted as if by a fish-eye lens. Meanwhile, Robz opted for a panel made up of spray cans rather than a canvas; his "Risk Now Rob" renders a concrete wall bearing the work's title in shining, interlocked letters.

Flaunting the fruits of several decades' aerosol practice, Vogue TDK's "Teenage Love" immediately engrosses with its photorealism. The Krylon spray cans depicted in a hazy glow on the canvas, with their gleaming pink, lime green and silver caps, appear to be rendered in oil paint or acrylic, but were executed entirely in spray paint without a single brush.

Other works offer glimpses into the early graffiti scene's accompanying lifestyle. "4 Elements," a bright, geometric mixed-media canvas by Crayone, alludes to hip-hop's four pillars: DJs, MCs, graffiti writers and break dancers. Executed in spray paint with impeccably smooth precision, four stylized faces frame the edges of the canvas in a spiral. Punctuated with blossoms of stylized arrows, the faces' curved lines merge with the bright, abstract details, a window of graphite designs at the center accentuating the sunny yellows and oceanic blues.

Born out of a climate that encouraged spontaneous forms of expression - like the improvised movements of break dancing and the fluid verbiage of freestyle rap, to name a couple - many of the works featured in "The Classics" point to the egalitarian mentality hip-hop aficionados remember of the West Coast golden age. Without institutions to govern the underground art form, the only prerequisites to earning renown in the local graffiti scene were sharp skills and quick reflexes for escaping the authorities.

"In hip-hop, it didn't matter if you were white, if you were Asian, if you were black. Most of the crews back then were doing (graffiti) just because they wanted to be the best," Nate1 proudly recalls of the milieu of his coming of age. "And when you're dealing with that, then all the other bullshit of society goes out the window."

The photography featured in the exhibit attests to this accepting attitude. Besides a green and neon orange canvas demonstrating his chaotic letter style, the exhibit includes Picasso TWS's vintage photos of fellow artists in front of their graffiti works. One photo, titled "Cloud 9, Sno, and Crayone," shows three teenage boys goofing off in the back of a tagged-up bus, captivating the viewer with their carefree camaraderie. Influential graffiti photographer and author Jim Prigoff's 1980s photos depict murals from all over the Bay Area, with artists of different ethnicities and genders standing before their work.

A member of the crew MPC, or Masterpiece Creators, Nate1 has witnessed the culture and art of graffiti evolve since its inception on our coast. His only painting featured in "The Classics," a diptych titled "Masterpiece Creators Yall," is an acrylic rendering of a brick wall covered with pink and green block letters, jovial Mickey Mouse figures and boastful rhymes that leave the viewer guessing what other cheeky pieces de resistance MPC had up their sleeves.

Though the exhibit's focus on a golden age implies a utopian nostalgia, Nate1 believes that graffiti and street art have become more widely practiced than ever. But despite improvements in spray paint technology and the introduction of wheatpaste and stickers, he has watched the distinct aesthetics of different metropolises merge into a more homogeneous style since the advent of international graffiti blogs and magazines. As the lines of public art continue to intersect through the Bay Area's different cultural enclaves, however, the writing on the wall can always be traced back to "The Classics."


Nastia Voynovskaya is the lead visual art critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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