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Art wars on urban canvas

In gentrifying areas of New York, graffiti writers do battle with street artists. It's a fight for legacy in a city where little seems permanent.

June 18, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

New York — THE canvas was a neglected 19th century building on the edge of SoHo, its brick exterior layered with spray paint and wheat-pasted images: a robot, a smiling heart, a series of red lipstick smudges, a man with menacing eyes aiming a gun, a life-size confused-looking Waldo.

For the last three decades, the five-story building on Spring Street served as an outdoor museum for graffiti and then illegal street art -- contrasting forms of expression that involve vandalizing public spaces.

In the 1970s, the walls had been claimed by graffiti crews made up mostly of poor kids who christened the building by tagging their street names.

Two decades later, artists had moved into this industrial area called Nolita and created lofts. It was one of the few affordable places left for them to live in Manhattan. A new class of graffiti known as street art began showing up on the building and elsewhere in the city's gentrifying neighborhoods.

It was practiced by art school students and others from middle-class backgrounds. Using stencils, posters, stickers and wheat paste, they left intricate portraits and images on the building's splashed-up facade, often covering graffiti tags.

Last year, a developer bought the 11 Spring St. building to convert it into condominiums that would sell for millions. The message to the artists seemed clear: In this city caught in the grip of gentrification, affordable neighborhoods had become as impermanent as the graffiti.

The building on Spring Street would be forced to shed its storied skin, erasing the street art and tags. But before it did, dozens of street artists from New York and across the world agreed to convene there in December for a final tribute. With the new owner's blessing, they spent two months covering the inside and outside with provocative, sometimes beautiful images.

One artist created a poster of two women sewing. Someone put up an image of a wrinkled, obese baby with a leash around his neck. Another artist painted a dollar bill with George Washington's face replaced by a skeleton with antlers.

The art would be displayed for four days. The show's opening day came. In a few hours, the public would begin lining up to see the art. As the sun rose, some uninvited guests arrived.

They obscured their faces with hooded sweatshirts. They dipped rollers into buckets of silver paint. One climbed a ladder. Another pulled out a can of spray paint. They went over the street artists' work in gigantic block letters, covering one wall almost completely as passersby shouted at them to stop.

It might have been the biggest tag in New York. The letters read "DYM," the initials of the graffiti crew Demented Young Minds, which has been around for 20 years. Its members grew up in New York before many of the neighborhoods were claimed by people they called "yuppies" and "hipsters." Underneath their tag, they wrote a message: "Take it from the pros, street art ain't graffiti."

Some bloggers and artists reacted in disbelief. Many couldn't understand why the graffiti crew would deface street art.

In response, a DYM member who goes by the moniker HOST18 replied online: "These people continually put their art over real graffiti, completely devaluing what us real writers do."

HOST18 is a 30-year-old graffiti writer who oversees his crew's website, brooklyngods.com. He doesn't reveal his real name publicly and often covers his goateed face with bandanas and hoods. He grew up in public housing projects in Brooklyn in an Italian American family. His crew is a diverse group -- members come from Trinidadian, Haitian and Polish working-class backgrounds.

"Anytime I see street art over graffiti, I go over it," he said recently at a Starbucks in a Brooklyn neighborhood that has become trendier and pricier over the last decade. "I'm going to war, you know?"

Many street artists who moved into low-income areas, he said, treat traditional graffiti as colorful backdrops, but not as art. Most street artists don't have regard for the history and danger -- fights with other crews or clashes with police -- associated with New York's tagging lifestyle, he said, or the neighborhoods where it grew up, the same areas where poor people are squeezed out to make room for people with more money.

"In New York, it's a thing where soon there will be no middle class," the graffiti writer said. Street art "is just a reflection of what's going on in New York as a whole. To me, it's sad, because I know what New York used to be."

TRADITIONAL graffiti is a bold style of writing done with spray paint or markers. It represents a rebellious street culture that thrived in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when the city was coping with soaring crime. Graffiti earned worldwide fame as its pioneers tagged subway cars and buildings here.

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