In Southampton, What Lies Beyond the Streets for Graf Writers

Written by J. Scott Orr
Photography by Elizabeth Freeman and via Instagram

The first thing that confronts visitors to the Southampton Arts Center (SAC) these days is an aggressive abstract canvas, rendered in bright yellow, gold, red and pink spray paint, delimited by black masses and floating orbs of color, light and shadow. That the piece is suspended in space in the center of the gallery just adds to its celestial presence.

Not far away, a collection of works by graffiti photography doyenne Martha Cooper hangs in a corner. One photo, shot in 1980, depicts a subway car speeding through the South Bronx festooned end-to-end in fiery shades of red, gold and black. Its demeanor is likewise otherworldly.

Work by Martha Cooper

That the work on canvas, a 2019 piece called SAITAMA SET, and the whole subway car captured by Cooper and known as Break, share such similarities should be no surprise. They were committed nearly 40 years apart by the same man: first generation graffiti legend turned fine art superstar Futura 2000.

“Keeping the respect of the culture you came from is key,” Gastman told UP. “And artists that are able to maintain that and keep true friends and family around and pay respect to the history but keep it moving forward is always the key,” he added.

Combined, these two pieces succinctly capture the essence of the current exhibition at SAC, Beyond the Streets: Post Graffiti, the latest installment in the Beyond the Streets franchise from LA-based curator, author, and renowned graffiti/street art historian Roger Gastman. The wildly successful franchise has toured the world, with stops in LA, New York, London and Shanghai, seeking to document the evolution of public art and the maturation of its practitioners.

For graf artists today, the street is a worthy starter venue, but it’s what lies beyond the streets that can far exceed the modest ambitions of the early writers, and Gastman’s exhibitions have succeeded in proving that point over and over again. Beyond the Streets also makes another point: those graf artists who thrive beyond the streets are those, like Futura, that stay true to their roots.

Art by Kenny Scharf

“Keeping the respect of the culture you came from is key,” Gastman told UP. “And artists that are able to maintain that and keep true friends and family around and pay respect to the history but keep it moving forward is always the key,” he added.

What lies beyond the streets for today’s street artists? It’s way more than galleries and the elitist world of fine art. Graffiti’s influence has spread far and wide, informing music, fashion, politics, entertainment, marketing, and other cultural avenues. Just one timely example: Futura recently was tapped by Nike to contribute design ideas and street cred for the Olympic gear it is creating for the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

Besides Futura and Cooper, this incarnation of Beyond also features work from:  Kenny Scharf, OSGEMEOS, Lady Pink, ZEPHYR, CRASH, Eric Haze, Alexis Ross, Andrew Durgin-Barnes, Barry McGee, CHITO, Conor Harrington, C.R. Stecyk III, Guillaume Ollivier, Felipe Pantone, Greg Rick, Guerilla Girls, Haroshi, HuskMitNavn, Jane Dickson, KATSU, LA2, Madsaki, Maya Hayuk, Ozzie Juarez, Paul Insect, PRIEST, Tim Conlon, Timothy Curtis, Todd James, and UFO907.

Art by OSGEMEOS

A comparison of the Futura canvas, one of two in the show, and the Cooper photograph of his nascent subway work makes Gastman’s point that graffiti artists moving into new domains can, and should, bring their technique and credibility with them.

Like Futura, the other artists whose work is displayed in Beyond the Streets have made the often difficult transition from the streets to the galleries. But most brought with them the swagger and urgency that first led them to pick up a can of spray paint and head out to write in earnest.

Aside from the obvious, like the similar color palettes and swimming shapes, both Futura pieces are alive with motion and heat. Both suggest a swelling tectonic narrative, and they both feature a common, essential epicenter. In SAITAMA, it’s a bright spot in the upper left quadrant; in Break, it’s a violent gash in white and purple near the center of the car. Both of these highlights appear to be attracting the other elements, like a collapsing star. So, while there are differences between the two works, the essential sameness of their intent and jurisdiction persists.

Like Futura, the other artists whose work is displayed in Beyond the Streets have made the often difficult transition from the streets to the galleries. But most brought with them the swagger and urgency that first led them to pick up a can of spray paint and head out to write in earnest. Beyond the Streets delivers on the message that while the early artists may have grown up, it is location not compromise, maturation not adaptation, that distinguishes their latter day work from their juvenalia.

If the mission of the early graffiti writers was to get their art noticed by launching it across Gotham on the sides of subway cars, there was but a finite window for success. In those heady early days of the 1970s and 80s, graffiti art pioneers like Futura, Dondi, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Al Diaz and many others had free rein to commit art in unsecured subway yards. All that changed in the late 1980s, and by 1989, city authorities celebrated as the last graffiti-tagged subway car was taken out of service and cleaned.

“Most of the first few generations of artists quit when they graduated school and moved on,” Gastman said. “It was something they did as kids then they needed to get a job and figure it out. As style progressed more opportunities appeared and being an artist became more of something that was real.”

Moving to static spaces like building walls and handball courts was the next phase in the art form’s evolution, but even then it was clear that the genre would one day have to launch a full-scale assault on the fine art world, which meant bringing graffiti and street art into the galleries. Some graf artists seized on these new opportunities, many did not.

“Most of the first few generations of artists quit when they graduated school and moved on,” Gastman said. “It was something they did as kids then they needed to get a job and figure it out. As style progressed more opportunities appeared and being an artist became more of something that was real.”

Futura stands in front of one of his works at the South Hampton Arts Center. / Photo via Instagram

At the same time, some struggled with the idea that seeking a toehold in the elitist gallery network would be perceived as a sell out. In an interview last year with​​ The Talks, Futura discussed this very point.

“Back then,” he continued, “we artists looked at galleries like, ‘God, I need to show my work! I need exposure!’ But now I think the galleries are really looking for artists; they need us more than we need them. That’s something Basquiat said to me, and at the time I thought he was almost arrogant. But he…was right.”

“When my peers and I — meaning myself, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat — started getting into the traditional art world and showing in proper galleries, I became very suspect. The very fact that we were selling ‘graffiti’ in a gallery… It bothered me because when you remove graffiti from its public space and you beautify it, put it on a canvas on a gallery wall… Does it somewhat delegitimize it?” he said.

“Back then,” he continued, “we artists looked at galleries like, ‘God, I need to show my work! I need exposure!’ But now I think the galleries are really looking for artists; they need us more than we need them. That’s something Basquiat said to me, and at the time I thought he was almost arrogant. But he…was right.”

Gastman believes the landscape beyond the streets is better than ever for current generation artists that possess the talent and drive it takes to succeed in any art genre.

“It’s open: literally anything is possible. Do you see what’s happening on the streets! Holy fuck,” he said.

Beyond the Streets runs through July 20 at the Southampton Arts Center, 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton, New York.

J. Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. His work has appeared nationally in countless newspapers, magazines and websites. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine.

 Instagram: @bscenezine

Website: bscenezine.com