Inside Gallery5 (Photo by Samantha Willis)
Walking into Gallery5 right now is a bit trippy. Graffiti marks the walls just inside its dim downstairs, and a there’s strange, steampunk-y assortment of lamps grouped near the entrance, their naked bulbs glowing eerily. Walking past the 6-foot-tall, pineapple-shaped metal structure on the way to the gallery upstairs prompts one to ask, “What is that?” Flattened beer cans strewn across the staircase leave just a thin path for your feet to find their way, as your eyes squint to take in the colorful graffiti plastering the walls; it feels just like a shadowy subway stairwell somewhere in New York City, minus the stench of urine.
New York-based graffiti artist Noxer stands at the bottom of the stairwell; it's one of his installations in the "Wastedland 2" exhibition. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
At the top of the stairs, a dystopian world awaits. A wall of writing – is it Greek or some other ancient script? – shouts at you, some letters black, some bloody red. In the corner, there’s a pile of spray-paint cans, discarded cigarette packages, used paint rollers and an empty fire extinguisher, crowned with three gilded numbers: 907.
Artist Andrew H. Shirley with his piece "Piles Upon Piles Upon Piles Upon Piles" (Photo by Samantha Willis)
“That’s called 'Piles Upon Piles Upon Piles Upon Piles,' and it’s art made from trash. It represents my life, and it’s a comment on the current state of our country,” says Andrew H. Shirley, artist, filmmaker and the mastermind of this exhibition, "Wastedland 2."
Shirley, dressed in a tuxedo-printed T-shirt and low-slung baseball cap, explains the premise of the traveling exhibition, which is on display at Gallery5 until Nov. 26.
“This show centers around my film, 'Wastedland 2,' which delves into the question of “What is the point of our existence?” Shirley says. The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, wherein “three solitary nomadic vandals … cross paths while on the hunt of the meaning behind the abandoned landscape’s prevailing enigmatic artwork left behind by UFO,” its website reads. It’s a 30-minute study in counter culture, graffiti art and general “What is life?” musings with dashes of cynical humor throughout, all shown through a gritty lens.
Several street-famous, New York-based graffiti artists appear in the film; they created their own costumes to mirror their on-screen “spirit animals,” Shirley explains. Three of them – Noxer, UFO 907 and Rambo – are lounging on the stone steps of Gallery5’s entrance, smoking cigarettes and chilling until it’s time to hit the road. They’re headed to North Carolina next, and they don’t mind me interrupting their smoky reverie with my questions. Why are they here?
“We’re nomads, really,” says UFO, a boyish smile playing on his lips. “We go everywhere, anywhere, to teach people about our art, which is graffiti. Graffiti is our way of sharing and teaching.”
Longtime graffiti artist UFO 907, also based in New York, stands before a piece he created for the show. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
They get serious when I ask what role graffiti plays in today’s artistic climate, where street art like murals is now an accepted medium.
“Graffiti artists paved the way for muralists to do their work,” says Rambo, creator of the writing on the wall upstairs. “If it wasn’t for us, nobody would be getting paid to paint on walls and public spaces like they do now. I’m not hating on it, it’s not my craft, but I think people need to recognize that.”
Graffiti artist Rambo displays his large-scale installation, a 15-foot-high wall of writing including various messages and poetry. "907 major trickster slayers," "33 hearts of compassion," "conspire for you and never against you" are some of the phrases embedded within the art. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
Despite its dubious reputation, graffiti has long been a pillar of American pop culture. During World War II, soldiers popularized the phrase “Kilroy was here,” along with its signature doodle of a bald man peeking up over a wall, his long nose dangling (the origin stories of this phrase are practically too numerous to name). In the 1970s, the anti-establishment punk rock movement was punctuated with graffiti art; fans of bands like Black Flag couldn’t stop stenciling the group's logo on walls and phone booths.
In the 1980s, the country witnessed the hand-in-hand evolution of hip-hop music and highly stylized contemporary graffiti art. This style of graffiti remains the most internationally recognized, and is now featured in museums from Brooklyn to Houston and beyond. Radical public art project The Street Museum of Art displays “the guerrilla tactics of street art & graffiti culture in a program of illegally curated exhibitions” in various locations worldwide. Which brings up the aspect of graffiti art that’s always been controversial: its legality — or lack thereof.
“You’re putting not just your heart, but your freedom, on the line,” rumbles Noxer in his bass voice. “That’s the magic in this risk.” Before I take photos, all of the artists put sunglasses on or pull on masks. They must obscure their identity to keep themselves in art galleries and not behind bars; you'll probably find more of their art on the streets than in galleries.
Type “Is graffiti legal?” into a search engine if you relish the sensation of your head spinning. There are binary article headlines like “Graffiti is Always Vandalism” and “When Does Graffiti Become Art?” You can see the media reports about gangs marking their territory with graffiti that is illegible to many. You may gawk at page after page of photos featuring swear words scrawled on walls in pretty colors, or scroll through countless Tumblr feeds displaying the work of master taggers (RVA has a few of its own). But after all of that, the fact remains: Graffiti is illegal in most places, including Richmond, where it is a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Graffiti is many things to many people. To some, it’s the art of defiance and noncompliance, or the colorful, public expression of renegade souls. It's a common thread and shared medium of punk rockers, rappers, soldiers, artists, writers, curators, historians and vandals. To others, it’s simply vandalism, and a costly nuisance. But what it is, above all else, is provocative: Graffiti demands a reaction from its viewers. It’s what makes the work of Shirley and his fellow graffiti artists so intriguing, and it’s why we’re still talking about it decades after it exploded into the mainstream.