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Graffiti goes to the gallery

Once controversial, street art now expands into mainstream

Published: Thursday, November 29, 2012

Updated: Thursday, November 29, 2012 07:11


Caroline Welch / The Tufts Daily

As part of their ICA exhibit, twin artists Os Gemeos created a larger-than-life public mural in Dewey Square.

Modern art galleries are often home to a diverse and eclectic assortment of art. Here, more so than in any other art institutions, art is often controversial, cutting edge, avant−garde. In some contemporary art museums, anything goes — even graffiti.

In the past few years, graffiti and street art have been gaining a notable presence in galleries and art institutions, which have traditionally been reserved for more “legitimized” art forms. Indeed, many graffiti artists are now taking their work off the street and into the white−walled room.

Take, for instance, the recent Os Gemeos exhibit at Boston’s very own Institute of Contemporary Art. The street art duo, comprised of Brazilian brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, has been a major player in urban art for over a decade. Revered in their field, the brothers now have their first show in the United States at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA). This is just the latest example of graffiti crossing over into the gallery, a trend that seems to be gaining credibility and popularity in both the art world and among the public, particularly in Boston.

Pedro Alonzo, the curator of the Os Gemeos show, is one of Boston’s most public supporters of street art. A resident expert on urban art, Alonzo has a long history with the genre. He was the man behind the ICA’s 2009 Shepard Fairey exhibit, as well as the museum’s 2011 Swoon installations. He has arranged numerous other street art shows around the United States, as well as in England and Mexico.

Ironically, early in his career, Alonzo was not the street art advocate he is today. Alonzo even admitted that when he started working as curator, he had never really considered street art to be a credible or authentic art form.

“My initial reaction was, well, this isn’t really art,” Alonzo said. “And then I kept going back and thinking, why isn’t it art? At one point I realized that I had developed a preconceived notion about what art is and what art isn’t and in order to really understand, I had to break with those ideas ... really flip the paradigm and look at it differently.”

Though he reached that conclusion a couple years ahead of the rest of the art community, Alonzo believes that it is catching up, albeit slowly.

“I’m one of the few curators that really look at this seriously, and most people are still waiting to see what happens,” he said. “[But] it is changing and I think there will be a generational shift where [street art’s] presence will be commonplace.”

Curators and museum directors are not the only ones involved in this evolution. Graffiti artists themselves recognize the increased interest and desire for street art — and some are capitalizing on it.

Project Super Friends (SF) is one such group of people. Founded in 1999, SF is a collective of artists and designers, most of whom decided to pursue art semi−professionally after initially becoming involved in the graffiti scene.

“It started as a loosely based graffiti group,” founding member Josh Falk explained. Since its inception 13 years ago, SF has grown from a small spray−painting trio into a twelve−member multimedia ensemble that receives and often collaborates on various art commissions around Boston.

“At first we were just a group of likeminded individuals whose main goal was to beautify the world in some way,” Falk said. “But over the years, we just realized we could make money on it.”

“Before ... the main component was a group of friends hanging out,” SF member Matthew Zaremba added, chronicling the group’s development over the years. “Then it was a group of friends that all were artists in some realm. And then it became, ‘How can we support our own culture?’”

Members of SF have been contracted for a wide range of projects all over Boston, from making murals and doing live paintings to designing smaller pieces for businesses and hosting studio shows. Each year since 2005, for example, they have been hired by Northeastern University to create a mural during the school’s annual Spring Fest.

Though this event allows most of the members to work together at the same time, few of their jobs are this communal. Recently, Falk teamed up with fellow member Dana Wolfe to paint a series of graffiti−style murals at numerous Cross Fit locations in the city and he and Zaremba just finished an assignment for a Cambridge−based advertising company.

Though they are able to profit from their work, SF is in no way a traditional money−making enterprise. Though they actively take on clients, at its core SF remains a casual group of friends who share a passion for street art. In fact, the majority of SF members have different “day” jobs — Zaremba does marketing for an online street wear company called Karmaloop and Falk works for a real estate developer as a photographer and bartends one night a week in Harvard Square. For SF’s members, street art is not a profession, but rather a “lifestyle,” and ultimately their goal is to have fun.

Others might not see it this way. Though by now they have definitely achieved a sort of “insider status” in the culture, many of the members of Project SF were at one point accused of selling out by some of their peers.

“We received a lot of flack back in the day when we were the kids who were trying to take [graffiti] out of the street,” Falk said.

“That’s the purist thing, they all hate on that,” Zaremba added. “But a lot of the kids who hated on us did what we did after the fact, way after the fact.”

Though they were still committed to making art simply for art’s sake, SF realized what many museums and galleries are beginning to discover: People wanted their art.

“The aesthetic of graffiti is highly marketable, so I’m not surprised that it’s [becoming] so prevalent and saturated,” Nick Z., another of SF’s founding members, said. “It’s only natural that that’s what happened to it. Graffiti is a crime, but if you take the crime away from it, everybody wants it.”

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