Exploring The Evolution Of Street Art

The new exhibition “Beyond the Streets” charts the evolution of street art from subway scrawlers to blue-chip stars like Banksy and Takashi Murakami.

Wheat-paste posters by Swoon. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

In the early 1970s, Henry Medina and Steve Kesoglides were teens in New York who started writing their names on things.

“Wherever I put my name, that’s my spot,” says Medina, also known by his graffiti name, Henry 161. “Back then, that meant a lot to us. The more trains that you put your name on, and walls...”

“The more popular you got,” finishes Kesoglides, aka SJK 171. “So, that’s why we did it. We started getting popular.”

Model trains showcase graffiti murals. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

They began painting their names in their own neighborhood — Washington Heights — then moved on to trains and subways. They became part of a crew, United Graffiti Artists. And their work is among the urban scrawls that developed into what we know today as “street art.”

The new exhibition “Beyond the Streets” charts the evolution of street art from subway scrawlers to blue-chip stars like Banksy and Takashi Murakami. And tucked away the 40,000-square-foot warehouse, there’s a section dedicated to the work of Medina, Kesoglides, and their pioneering peers. Pairing their upstart works alongside pieces by the Obama “Hope” poster designer Shepard Fairey, buzzed-about painter Maya Hayuk, and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh showcased how the fringe artform became a mainstream part of popular culture.

Artist Shepard Fairey. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

Devo frontman and artist Mark Mothersbaugh. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

Decades after Medina and Kesoglides painted trains, street art has spread around the world.

In his May 3, 2018, opening remarks, curator Roger Gastman said that this show was “25 years in the making.” Gastman himself is an authority on the subject of street art and has a long history of bringing these often covertly made works to wider audiences.

Back in 2011, he was a co-curator for Art in the Streets, the landmark show at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, which captured the zeitgeist of a moment where street art was finally being recognized by the museum establishment. “Being a part of ‘Art in the Streets’ in L.A. seven years ago made me realize how much of an appetite there was for this culture but also how little was understood about the art and who these artists really are,” he told the crowd. “For this show, we wanted to be true to the spirit of the art form: vandalism and vision, rebellion, being out in the streets.”

The show is housed inside a large, warehouse-type space in an industrial corner of Los Angeles’ Chinatown, a neighborhood that itself is covered with plenty of tags and murals. In that respect, “Beyond the Streets” starts well before you enter the building. The show itself, though, is not just hefty in size or name recognition — artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gordon Matta-Clark are represented there as well — but in its scope. “Beyond the Streets” mixes the past and present, and it looks beyond cities like New York and Los Angeles.

Maya Hayuk with her painting. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

Gajin Fujita stands by his mural. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

In the 1980s, artist Bill Daniel was getting into punk rock in Texas. “Graffiti was something that we recognized as our kin, just like breakdancing,” he says. But Daniel also spent two years working in New York, and during that time, he got to see some of the graffiti that would go on to become legendary. “I came back to Texas, which was boring as hell, and I lived next to a freight yard, and I saw these trains go by with all these things on it,” he says. Cataloging train graffiti became Daniel’s calling, and he made the documentary “Who Is Bozo Texino?” which explored some of its lore.

“Beyond the Streets” surpasses what one might define as street art, including works from more gallery-oriented artists who share influences with and connections to street artists. “To me, this is the most important art that I’ve seen this year,” says Jay Novak, co-founder of Modernica, the Los Angeles-based furniture company that produced several street art-minded chairs sold at the exhibition. “I learn about people’s thoughts from this show, about current thinking; that’s what is important to me.”

There’s even an outdoor installation from Ron Finley, L.A.’s “Gangsta Gardener,” an activist for community gardens. It’s a show that brings together art that delights with art with a message, from the feminist troupe Guerrilla Girls to muralist Risk’s commentary on police.

Patrick Martinez’s neon signs. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

A painting by pop surrealist artist Greg “Craola” Simkins. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

Patrick Martinez’s works reflect on immigration and gentrification. Martinez, who is based in Los Angeles, started out with graffiti, but his work now draws heavily from Los Angeles’ neon sign culture. In this show, his pieces include neon signs that read “America Is for Dreamers,” “Brown Owned,” and “Freedom Cannot Wait.”

“It’s interesting to see that graffiti evolve into something that you can show in a gallery or a museum,” Martinez says. “I take a lot of pleasure in seeing that growth on display here.”

In this deep dive into graffiti and all it has spawned, “Beyond the Streets” doesn’t lose sight of where and how this art form originated. “When we first started, it was a crime,” says graffiti progenitor, Wicked Gary. “Now it’s an art. It’s in galleries. It has gone from something that they thought would be a fad to a worldwide culture.”

He adds, “It’s one of the few art forms that was formed in the United States by kids from America.”

Photographer Estevan Oriol flaunts a T-shirt of his iconic L.A. photograph. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

Graffiti artist Jason Revok, who has recently turned to studio art. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

Old-school graffiti artists. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

An installation at “Beyond the Streets.” Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

An installation featuring a painted corvette. Photo by Drew Tewksbury/GOOD.

Julian Meehan

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