Entries in street art (2)


Copenhagen Graffiti

Copenhagen is one of the most quietly beautiful cities I've ever seen. It's one of those European capitals that as a North American, you walk around in and spend most of your time wondering "how did we get it so wrong." A lot of its elegance comes from the uniformity of building height across the city, and the similarity of the architecture. (Compare that with a city like Toronto or Ottawa, where a given street will have three-storey Victorians abutting 8 storey offices sandwiched between a fifteen storey highrise and a two-storey grocery store.)

But there is one thing about Copenhagen that I found a bit jarring: It is easily the most aggressively graffiti'd city I've spent any significant time in. Virtually every building, facade, transit station, park bench, or pillar has been tagged, bombed, or stenciled, including the storefronts in the more chi-chi part of town. This isn't necessarily a problem: 'm a big fan of street art, and a some of the bigger pieces help underscore a neighbourhood's identity, like so:

And so it was into this seemingly welcoming environment that Shepard Fairey arrived last August for the opening of an exhibition of his work at a Copenhagen gallery. While in town, he swung by one of the most notorious vacant lots in the city -- Jagtvej 69, the site of a lefty squat at in the wonderfully multicultural Nørrebro district that was demolished by the city in 2007. Since then, the lot has become a sort of martyr of negative architecture, a sign of The Man's ongoing persecution of the counterculture. Here is the building right next door to the old squat:

On the side of a building facing the vacant site from the east (above), Fairey painted a mural that showed a dove in flight above the word "peace" and the number 69. The locals didn't seem to like the mural or its message. After the mural went up it was immediately defaced with "NO PEACE!" and "Go home Yankee hipster". A few days later, Fairey was beaten up outside a nightclub in Copenhagen's rather douchey meatpacking district (very similar look and feel to New York's) by someone who called him "Obama illuminati" and ordered him to "go back to America".

It really is an appalling work -- the street-art equivalent to John Lennon's ode to empty-headed peace-mongering, "Imagine". Fairey tried to make it better by trying to tidy up the work and make it cooler by adding a black helicopter to the bottom, but that only seemed to make the locals angrier. The thing continues to get vandalized, to the point where the bottom twenty feet are a riot of paint-bombed resentment. Here's how it looked when I was there last month:

The saddest part is that there is already plenty of excellent indigenous art on the buildings surrounding the vacant lot:

As a result, it isn't clear how Fairey thought he was helping, or what he thought he was adding. If anything, it looks like he was trying to keep his cred by piggybacking on the authentic anti-establishment politics of the Jagtvej 69 diehards.

But then again, it isn't clear just how authentic those politics ever were. A few doors down from the commune there was a McDonald's that used to get vandalised every night by anti-corporate lefty types. But someone was patronizing the joint, and it is significant that shortly after the building at Jagtvej 69 was knocked down, the McDonald's went out of business. There's a crappy little bakery there now.


Art so extreme it can never be seen

Even as Banksy is busy working for The Simpsons, the authentic street-art scene has gone, literally, underground. Today's NYT has a piece by Jasper Rees about a new exhibition of street art that is so hip that the gallery's existence is a secret, almost no one has seen the art, and the whole show actually closed the very night it opened.

It sounds like a parody -- something that Mr. Brainwash might get up to -- but it seems to be the genuine article. The gist of it is that some street artists found their way into one of Manhattan's handful of abandoned subway platforms, and decided to decorate the place with street art executed by some of the hottest upandcomers in the business.

Called "The Underbelly Project", the exhibition hits all the usual authenticity-hoax plot points: Popularity is for sell-outs, capitalism is bad, art that no one sees is sacred, and the extreme authenticity of the exercise is underwritten by the fact that it is illegal:

Known to its creators and participating artists as the Underbelly Project, the space, where all the show’s artworks remain, defies every norm of the gallery scene. Collectors can’t buy the art. The public can’t see it. And the only people with a chance of stumbling across it are the urban explorers who prowl the city’s hidden infrastructure or employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That’s because the exhibition has been mounted, illegally, in a long-abandoned subway station.

The whole thing strikes me as a more extreme version of the ephemeral Sufjan Stevens song, that you can only hear by trecking to the owner's apartment in Brooklyn. What becomes of art in the age of digital reproduction? It becomes a commodity—cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected. One surefire way of restoring the lost, sacred halo of meaning around the unique work is to make it inaccessible and transitory -- accessible only to the lucky few, for a limited time.

That's precisely the agenda of the Underbelly project.  The Times has a slideshow of the artworks online, many of of which match the dark, underground, and illegal nature of the show. There are some giant rats, some images of women in veils, some strange cartoonish totem poles, and a weirdly zigzaggy interpretation of the American flag. In short, the show sounds totally, undeniably, awesome. The fact that I'll never see it makes me jealous of those who have -- which, unfortunately, is kinda the point.