Moving graffiti into the gallery is nothing new. It’s a practice that’s been going on since the 80s and has had its share of criticism from both academics and practitioners. The more recent popularity of street art – work inspired by graffiti techniques that uses existing public settings as its canvas – has helped bridge that gap, but hasn’t resolved the underlying tension: by removing graffiti from its original context, we risk appropriating graffiti culture and undermining the spirit of rebellion embodied in the movement. It’s a problem that wasn’t far from Charles Rasputin’s mind as he prepared for the Nobody Writes Letters Anymore exhibit at WORK|RELEASE, the new multi-purpose gallery and performance space in Norfolk’s NEON Arts District.
“We chose the name as kind of a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that gallery art and graffiti are such separate entities,” he tells me. It’s the second major exhibit since WORK|RELEASE opened this past April, and Charles is just the kind of person to successfully curate such an endeavor. As co-founder and Creative Director of the nearby Alchemy NFK artist collective, he has plenty of experience bringing together large groups of creatives for ambitious projects – he wears so many hats in his current position, they jokingly refer to his job title as “Shadow Government.” “I firmly believe that the culture of graffiti builds stronger artists, creators, doers, and thinkers than any other art movement of the 20th century,” he explains. “Some of the artists we are working with on this have deeper histories than others, but all are bound by that common love for letters, trespass, and communication. It’s that art movement that just won’t quit.”
Over a dozen graffiti artists are collaborating on this show including some of Virginia’s most infamous writers: PHONE, REFUSE, APES, NOAH LARMZ, and REAKT. Also on board are several prolific artists and designers with a street art aesthetic like Schuyler Beecroft, Marshall Higgins, Brandon Sines, and #SecretLover. But don’t worry, the inclusion of the latter isn’t an attempt to legitimize the former. “The thing that is beautiful to me about graffiti and its writers is that they don’t need to feel legitimized,” Charles explains. “If anything,” he continues, “viewing the creative world of the writer through the gallery's lens will legitimize WORK|RELEASE as an art institution that looks beyond mainstream thought and academia and really hits the core of what people respond to emotionally and physically with art.”
That’s always been a major theme of gallery graffiti shows: breaking through cultural barriers and defying expectations in order to present graffiti culture authentically in its most unadulterated form. When done correctly, such attempts expose viewers to a movement they may have previously misjudged or outright dismissed. Lacking proper execution, though, it’s easy to fall flat, or worse, reek of exploitation. When graffiti is taken off the wall and put onto canvas, it inherently loses some of its value. In many cases, removing the criminal aspect compromises the meaning of the work entirely. So how do you find balance and keep that “common love for letters, trespass, and communication” intact?
For Charles, the answer was to talk directly with the contributors about the show’s structure. Discussions with two Richmond artists, Marshall Higgins and Mickael Broth (the ex-vandal formerly known as REFUSE), helped him come to the realization that it’s all about respect for the writer. To that end, the opening will include live painting sessions so that attendees can experience the process of how pieces are made. Not shying away from the legal aspects of graffiti art is another important consideration. For much of Norfolk’s history, these kinds of artists have been criminalized, but the increased appreciation of murals as public art is changing that perception. As Charles puts it, “Our city is growing and learning to embrace the future. Viewing this visceral form of art in a different context is a part of that growth.”
In the press release for Nobody Writes Letters Anymore, WORK|RELEASE touches on graffiti’s lasting influence on the tastemakers of art, fashion, and music. It references widely celebrated artists that represent the merging of these worlds – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Marc Ecko, KAWS, Banksy, Shepard Fairey – while avoiding common street art tropes and words like “lowbrow.” Since 1981, the impact of graffiti has been so pervasive, it’s easy to forget that it all started out just as kids writing their names on walls. Kids from all walks of life who, when confronted by a world that wouldn’t listen, decided to make their mark in a way that was unavoidably visible.
It’s a long way from those beginnings to the place we’re at now where Sotheby’s can auction off a stop sign with a tag on it. Graffiti aesthetics are used by marketing campaigns to sell candy and genuine street artists are hired to paint murals for politicians. While these are all understandable evolutions of the artform, we shouldn’t forget our past in the process. To do so would leave out the pioneers and bury the writers. In short, it would leave out the letters.
Nobody Writes Letters Anymore opens at WORK|RELEASE on Friday, June 5 and runs through July 12. For more information, visit workreleasenorfolk.com.
Photography by Karla Espino