There’s no doubt graffiti can be a nuisance, for the personal property owner whose trashcan or mailbox becomes defaced with an indecipherable signature or the business owners who find themselves repeatedly repainting an exterior wall. But equally indisputable is that graffiti is an art form. It is one with ancient roots, as evidenced by the hundreds of examples found in Pompeii. These were sometimes pictorial but mostly scriptural, from vulgar insults to elegant poetry, scratched into the surfaces of walls — the term graffiti comes from the Italian for “scratch”: it’s akin to what our own pioneers did when they carved their names and dates into sandstone along the Colorado Plateau, or when the kids running around today leave their “tags” in public places. But the art of the form is really something that developed in urban settings of the last century, as these scrawls became painted, and highly stylized, slowly morphing into more pictorial elements until we have a multilayered, multi-expressive public art form known under the general rubric of “street art.” It’s one that for decades now has been accepted into the galleries and which has created international superstars like Banksy. And one that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the Utah scene.
Like a number of Utah artists, BASHA, who is showing at Phillips Gallery this month, has incorporated elements of graffiti and street art into his own fine-art practice. Originally from Pakistan, BASHA (a pen name which means “king”) says graffiti saved his life, showing him an alternative to gangs and violence. After serving in the Air Force and stints as both a clothing designer and restaurateur, he’s now devoting himself full time to his art, which is equally influenced by the graffiti art he was turned on to by a high-school friend and by the design work of his goldsmith father. His current works are characterized by two opposing fields: one a simple wash of color, like the wall of a building, the other a complex interweaving of black-and-white design. The latter evokes graffiti’s tradition of creating a highly stylized script that is frequently indecipherable to the uninitiated. The artist talks about hiding messages in the designs that are meant to reveal themselves to the viewer over time (his three children are apparently adept at this game of interpretation) and his multilingual background (in addition to English he speaks Punjabi and Urdu) adds complexity to the game, as one must wonder whether one is looking for messages in a Roman, Persian or Arabic script.
The same play of personalized script is on display this summer at Ogden First’s outdoor exhibition series PLATFORMS. In Calligraffiti, street artists Josh Pohlman and Jeremy Little have taken the words of Ogden poets and transcribed them into their own “hand” or style. They are displayed on panels that are hung on fencing in an empty lot that has served as a canvas for a number of art installations over the past year. The exhibition title refers to a blending of calligraphy, typography and graffiti that seeks to heighten the impact of the written word by transforming it aesthetically. That transformation frequently can be difficult to read at first viewing, which may seem counter-productive, but since poetry is about a concentration of language, the act of focus required in order to decipher the lines serves to mimic the original poetic intent.
The PLATFORMS project is an example of the attempt to create “legal” settings for street art: more and more business owners have embraced spray-paint-wielding artists and encouraged or commissioned them to create works on their walls, providing patronage — and a degree of control — to the artistic expression bursting at the urban seams. So, it seems only fitting that a local design firm has stepped in to provide legitimacy and professionalism to the process. WOW Atelier, which operates out of Salt Lake City, brings artists, architects and designers together to offer clients the opportunity to create branded environments, with a heavy dose of graffiti and street art. The artistic force behind the group is Ben Weimeyer, an artist equally comfortable on the street as in the studio. Weimeyer has spent years creating legal (and possibly some illegal) walls across Utah, and beyond. He was a visible force in the 337 Project, and is responsible for multiple murals, including the back side of Canella’s and the elk mural on the side of Gallenson’s Guns and Ammo, both in Salt Lake City. If you’ve been to Lagoon this summer, you may have seen one of his newest creations, created under the auspices of WOW. It’s an eye-popping 100 ft. long x 16 ft. tall building facade, with some additional nearby crannies, located in the children’s section of the park and appropriately featuring tigers, sharks and octopuses.
When mass-market, family friendly institutions are commissioning street artists to decorate their buildings, one can be sure the form has received broad acceptance. Purists will lament this transformation: what began as counter-culture social and political protest is co-opted, tamed, commercialized by the culture it once stood against. Kind of like tattoos, once confined to sailors and prisoners, now adorning soccer moms. Or the paintings of those revolutionaries, the Impressionists, now splashed across calendars and mugs. But that’s what happens to any form: it is developed, morphed, transformed, retaining the look and feel of the original without necessarily the purpose, until it becomes something else. As for those with a rebellious spirit, don’t worry, having your street side garbage can vandalized is still plenty annoying.
You can still catch Ogden First’s “Calligraffiti” during Ogden’s First Friday Stroll, Aug. 4, on the corner of 25thStreet and 5th East. Participating poets will be reading from their work. BASHA’s works are part of Phillips Gallery summer group show in Salt Lake City through Sept. 8, Gallery Stroll reception is Aug.18, 6-9 p.m. Learn more about WOW Atelier at be-wow.com.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.
Categories: Visual Arts