Beyond Graffiti

A new generation is making street art that is conceptual, abstract, and even sculptural in nature.

Eltono is known for his colorful geometric box patterns, like this one painted on a wall in Bogotí, 2008.

Eltono is known for his colorful geometric box patterns, like this one painted on a wall in Bogotí, 2008.


Say the words “street art” and chances are people will conjure up images that borrow heavily from graphic pictures inspired by comic-book art or Constructivism: Shepard Fairey’s omnipresent “Obey Giant,” the stark black-and-white visage of wrestler Andre the Giant, which the artist has pasted onto streets around the globe; British prankster Banksy’s cheeky portraits of people and rats; or the countless other icons by artists illicitly pasting their work on walls and traffic signs worldwide.

That trend is changing. Young artists are turning away from the figuration common in so much street art—not to mention the alphanumeric elements of spray-can graffiti—and producing works that are more conceptual, abstract, and even three-dimensional.

French-Spanish street artist Eltono, 35, for example, hand paints geometric mazes that evoke a stylized tuning fork—a riff on his name, which translates to “The Tone.” Gabriel “Specter” Reese, 32, a Canadian-American artist, fashions urban refuse into sculptures, installing them in forgotten public spaces in New York and Toronto. The American-born, Berlin-based Brad Downey, 30, digs up and rearranges bricks into geometric monuments. The pieces are part of a long-running series he calls “Spontaneous Sculptures,” a project he is compiling into a book.

“The initial idea, with graffiti, was to add something colorful to the city,” Downey says of his work. “Now I think that the best thing to do is to shift the meaning of what’s already there, to reorganize all that information.” As is generally the case with street art, much of this reorganization is against the law. Downey has been arrested numerous times.

Regardless of municipal vandalism codes, this new school of street art has attracted the attention of curators at an international level. In 2008 the Tate Modern featured a number of artists working in this vein in the exhibition “Street Art.” Last year, the Fundación Caixa Galicia in La Coruí±a, Spain, organized a citywide exhibition titled “Postgraffiti, Geometry, and Abstraction,” which featured artists working in an abstract-geometric vernacular. And, this month, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego wraps up a six-month show titled “Viva La Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape,” which included work by Akay, a Swedish interventionist who once crafted a small residence in the middle of a road divider.

Interestingly, the esthetic theories behind some of this art seem almost conventionally academic. (Studio artists like John Baldessari, Joseph Beuys, and many others were doing uncommissioned works in public spaces back in the ’60s.) What sets this movement apart is that much of it is inspired by or has evolved out of a graffiti tradition. Most of these artists have at some point taken a can of spray paint and placed words and images on a wall—illegally. Having embraced this gesture, they are now developing it into something new.

“What these artists draw from graffiti are materials, technique, and attitude—it’s very ambitious,” says Cedar Lewisohn, the curator behind the Tate Modern’s street-art exhibition and the author of Abstract Graffiti(forthcoming from Merrell in March). “But the art is coming from a little bit more of an art background. They’re making art-historical referential work.”

Artists have arrived at these new forms in different ways. MOMO is a New York City-based street artist who, since 2004, has created colorful collages of paint and paper that feature candy-colored stripes layered over and under bright squiggles and geometric shapes. As with many street artists, he began by engaging more conventional methods—spraying his name on freight trains and painting portraits of acquaintances on derelict walls. (MOMO is a childhood nickname. Like some artists interviewed for this story, he preferred that his real name not be used.)

In early 2003, with the Iraq War looming, MOMO says he found himself increasingly uninspired by the imagery he was producing. “It was a moment when I felt like I didn’t relate to the public at large,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to appease them with figurative work. I didn’t want to inspire nostalgia.” As a result, his portraits became increasingly jagged and deconstructed. Soon, he was working with pure abstraction and placing his collages on the street. Since then he has created commissioned pieces at the Museum of Image and Sound in Sí£o Paulo and the Fundación Caixa Galicia, among other places. Like many artists working in this abstract and conceptual arena, he does not have gallery representation and survives largely on commission work at small galleries, kunsthalles, and museums.

Certainly the shift away from the figurative is related to the fact that many of today’s street artists have at least some formal training. Downey has a master’s degree from the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Eltono has a degree from the Polytechnic University in Madrid. Others, like MOMO, have completed one or two years of art school.

“These kids aren’t just trying to ‘get up,'” says New York art critic Carlo McCormick, who has followed urban guerrilla art since the early ’80s. “There are much deeper roots here that make me think of artists like John Fekner and Gordon Matta-Clark, people who were going at it in ways that were really conceptual and activist.”

McCormick explores works such as these in his new book, Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art, which he co-authored with Marc and Sara Schiller of the popular street-art blog Wooster Collective. “So much of what’s been done within street art and graffiti has been declarative,” he says. “What we can say about abstract art is that by not shoving a message down our throats, it can be more poetic.”

For many of these artists, moving away from words and figurative images is key. “This isn’t about imposing an idea,” says Madrid-based Nuria Mora, 36, whose angular street abstractions are occasionally laced with floral patterns inspired by textiles. “These are quiet works. I’m trying to create a bit of silence in the city.” For her most recent commission, for the Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa, she built a sherbet-colored found-wood structure within the museum, deconstructed it piece by piece, and re-installed it at various locations on the streets downtown—at times with permission and at times without.

The shift to a different kind of work also represents an attempt to create something that will stand out amidst the plethora of illicit marks that seem to cover every available city surface. For years, Eltono tagged the train tunnels around Paris, but when he arrived in Madrid in the ’90s, he found a city saturated in graffiti. “To add my name to that,” he says, “just didn’t make sense.” It was then that he developed the colorful geometric box patterns for which he is now known. (Today he works primarily as an installation artist, and his commissioned work has appeared at the Tate Modern and the Miró Foundation in Barcelona, among other places.)

Cultural attitudes toward some materials have also played a role in this evolution. In many
cities, spray paint is associated with the most destructive acts of vandalism. Eltono says he switched to hand-brushed latex paint not only because it gives him a bright, defined line, but also because “on the street, spray paint is the devil.” But if you paint with a brush, he says, “no one bothers you. It’s not considered aggressive.” Often it allows him to hide in plain sight, because few people take issue with someone brushing paint on a wall.

The illegal nature of so much of this work is a non-issue for most of the artists interviewed. They view what they do as an interesting way to have a dialogue with the urban fabric. Skewville is a New York City-based duo whose wry three-dimensional pieces play with the very architecture of the city. (Their work has been exhibited in galleries and art centers in London, Dublin, and Lille, France.) They dangle carved-wood sneakers on power lines and fabricate sculptures out of electrical tubing, which they bolt onto the sides of buildings.

“If you’re going to do this so-called ‘street art,’ then I think it should be more about the street and less about just putting up art,” says Ad Deville, 38, half of the pair. “For us, it’s about keeping it real—but literally, by playing with real city materials to blend into the landscape.”

Reese, whose work has been shown at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, says that he began his foray into more conceptual, three-dimensional works after a stint spent working for an architect. For his 2010 “Canner Tribute” series, he constructed towering pieces out of shopping carts, bottles, and plastic crates as a way of paying respect to the anonymous men and women who recycle aluminum cans. He installed the works without permission in underutilized urban spaces along bridges and busy roadways in New York. “I wanted to create a piece that was an homage,” he explains. “But I also like the esthetic of it. I would lie if I said it wasn’t about that.”

As their work expands beyond the established parameters of graffiti and street art, there is debate among artists about what to call it. The term “street art” is generally regarded as uselessly broad. “I struggle with the idea of ‘street art,'” says Patrick Miller, 34, a member of the New York City-based collective Faile, a graphic duo that began doing stencil work in the ’90s before making the jump to three-dimensional installation. “The street is just a vehicle, not the art.”

In 2009 Faile installed on Brooklyn streets two three-dimensional prayer wheels laced with carvings exploring ideas of consumption and greed. In form, they were inspired by Tibetan prayer wheels (they were made of wood and could be spun). On the street, the works offered an unusual juxtaposition: a sacred object bolted—illegally—onto a battered urban landscape.

Overall, Faile’s work straddles the lines between guerrilla and fine art, pop and conceptualism, sculpture and architecture. The duo continue to place pieces on the street in illicit ways. But they are also the only artists interviewed for this article who have gallery representation, by Perry Rubenstein in New York and Lazarides in London. Their silk-screened collages on wood are often priced upward of $60,000. Last year, the pair completed a massive site-specific commission—a faux-historical temple at a plaza in Lisbon—as part of the festival Portugal Arte 10. “It’s a blur between street art and public art and public intervention,” says Patrick McNeil, 35, the pair’s other half. “It lies somewhere in between.”

Javier Abarca, a curator and critic who teaches at the Complutense University in Madrid and writes about graffiti on his blog, Urbanario, says that it’s time to rethink the street art taxonomy. While “graffiti” remains the chosen term to describe spray-can tagging, “street art”—with its everything-on-the-street implications—has become unwieldy. Abarca says he uses the term “post-graffiti” to describe any type of iconic mark-making on the street.

Historically, this would include figures like ’80s pop artist Keith Haring, who created a distinct visual vocabulary that was inspired by graffiti but did not imitate it. Today postgraffiti might include the work of artists like MOMO and Eltono (as well as Fairey and Banksy), who have developed readily identifiable visual symbols. For more site-specific works, such as the one-offs created by Downey or Reese, Abarca uses the term “intervention”—which refers to a piece within the context of a very precise environment.

Naturally, it’s not always clear who belongs in which column. Almost all of the artists mentioned above cross over from one category to another, from the street to the gallery, from graffiti to postgraffiti to intervention, eluding categorization.

“The interest for me is in this gray area where words aren’t speaking quite perfectly,” says MOMO. “If we’re having trouble with the words, it means that something new is forming.”

Carolina A. Miranda is a freelance writer in New York and regular contributor to WNYC. She blogs at

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