Whether Legal or Criminal, Street Art Brings Art to the People

Posted on 19 August 2014

"Structures of Thought II," 2013, unique handcut stencil and spray enamel on canvas, by Chris Stain. Courtesy Karyn Mannix Contemporary.

Chris Stain, “Structures of Thought II,” 2013, unique hand cut stencil and spray enamel on canvas. Courtesy Karyn Mannix Contemporary.

By Tessa Raebeck

An image by Los Angeles street artist becca in Sag Harbor Village. Photo by Michael Heller.

An image by Los Angeles street artist becca in Sag Harbor Village. Photo by Michael Heller.

A few years ago, Chris Stain was arrested for spray painting graffiti in a public space. While on probation for the crime, he was commissioned $60,000 to paint a mural, also in a public space. As the line between “graffiti” and “mural” gets thinner, the public is beginning to catch up in understanding the common thread—art.

Mr. Stain is one of 13 street artists featured in East Hampton art dealer and curator Karyn Mannix’s new show, “For the People: Beat of the Street.” Years in the making, the opening reception for the pop up art show will be held at the Atlantic Terrace Motel on Saturday, August 23.

Long miscategorized as the work of vandals and heathen teenagers, street art seems to finally be earning recognition for what it is: bringing beauty to public spaces and art to those with no private collections or museum memberships to speak of. In New York City, Baltimore and London, streets without galleries and apartment buildings with bare hallways are being decorated and enlivened with giant murals and powerful stencils of social commentary created neither for profit nor recognition, but for the culture of the people.

The show’s artists include: Mr. Stain; Andre Woolery of New York City and Jamaica; becca of Los Angeles, who has stencils on walls around Sag Harbor Village; Billy Mode of Baltimore; DOM from the United Kingdom; Brooklyn’s gilf!; Jason Poremba of Southampton; Karen Bystedt of Los Angeles; Leon Reid IV of Brooklyn; Harlem’s Ruben Natal-San Miguel; and T.Wat, also from the United Kingdom. Peter Tunney and Rolland Berry also collaborated.

The latest way these public artists show their work is through an “art drop,” in which an artist takes a painted canvas and leaves it without any publicity or fanfare in a public space.

Mr. Poremba has been doing art drops around the East End one or twice a week for the past few months, his most recent drop was last Friday in East Hampton.

Most of the pieces included in the show, which the artists prefer to keep affordable, were originally done on the street.

For Mr. Stain, an urban kid who started painting graffiti when he was 11 years old growing up in Baltimore, decorating the street was the natural artistic development.

There were no subways to speak of in Baltimore in the early 80s, but the book “Subway Art” by Martha Cooper, which documents the paintings being done during the graffiti movement of the 80s in the New York City subway systems, nonetheless inspired the young artist.

“They were being made by kids, for the most part, and when I saw the book and when I found out that it was kids making the artwork, I got really excited,” Mr. Stain said. “Because I was already into art, a little bit, but that really piqued my interest and art became a way of self-expression for me.”

He took a class on printmaking and learned to make stencils in high school and, around 1998, Mr. Stain’s art evolved from graffiti lettering to more figurative work “because I wanted to tell more of the story of the person and what was going on around me and my life and my neighborhood—the people I knew.”

"Corporate Greed" by T.Wat. Courtesy Karyn Mannix Contemporary.

“Corporate Mugging” by T.Wat. Courtesy Karyn Mannix Contemporary.

When he moved to the city in 2006, “I just transferred my putting stuff on the streets in Baltimore to putting stuff on the streets in New York.”

“I want to tell the story of common people and by putting the work on the street, everyone gets to see it, it’s not just those people who go into galleries,” Mr. Stain said, before being interrupted by a question from “one of the kids in the neighborhood.”

Mr. Stain’s commitment to depicting the “struggles of the unrecognized and underrepresented individuals of society” has garnered him classification as an American Social-Realist.

Started in the 30s and 40s during the time of the depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal, social realism is an international art movement comprised of artists of various mediums united in their desire to draw attention to the conditions and everyday struggles of the common people, painting narratives of the lives of the working class and the poor. Naturally, it takes on political and social criticisms of the social structures and powers that be that keep those conditions in place.

Those included in “Beat of the Street” vary widely; The line-up includes sculptors and photographers, street art pioneers and those new on the scene, and paintings of Hollywood Stars by Mr. Poremba next to “Corporate Mugging,” an image of Mickey Mouse brandishing a broken Coca-Cola bottle by T. Wat.

The only common ground is that their art is, first and foremost, for the people. As Ms. Mannix explained, “Their work goes out on the streets, that’s the only thread between them all.”

Often an illegal art form, subversion is inherent to street art. Political commentary is a natural extension of a means of expression that often lands the artist in jail.

“You do the crime, you gotta do the time,” said Mr. Stain. “The first time I was arrested I was 11—and it didn’t really stop me.”

Mr. Stain was arrested again as a teenager and a third time as an adult, each time with different fines and implications. His most recent imprisonment was when he would leave meetings with his probation officer to work on the large-scale—and legal—public mural for which the artist was commissioned.

“It’s pretty funny, it’s pretty ironic,” he said, adding, “It’s kind of ridiculous.”

The opening reception of “For the People: Beat of the Street” is Saturday, August 23, at the Atlantic Terrace Motel, located at 21 Oceanview Terrace in Montauk. From 5 to 6 p.m. a special preview for ticket holders and collectors will offer a first glance at the work, which Ms. Mannix expects to be sold out quickly. The gallery is open to the public from 6 to 10 p.m. and will be on view through September 7 by appointment only. For more information, visit karynmannixcontemporary.com.

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