Painted “signs” cut from used metal shelving onto utility poles, except that Dombrowski broods about mythology rather than politics. His signs, “contemporary totems” resembling fantastic birds or fierce animals, are offerings toward a visual language that would speak to us the way ancient myths informed primitives.
Philosophy aside, Dombrowski got tired of working through public art agencies. “I think of arts administrators as light bulbs,” he says. “You unscrew one and screw in another.” Artists hoping to have a project funded generally submin a proposal, alter it several times to accommodate suggestions from panels of experts and advisers, and present it for approval to any number of city agencies and community boards. Dombrowski circumvented the tedious process by acquiring the strapping tool used by the highway department to put up street signs. As Martin Hason says, “In true street art there is no societal editing.”
Street artists often think of their work as performance. (Some kind of performance, in which the artist interacts with the artwork, is de rigueur at East Village openings.) When Dombrowski videotaped the daytime installation of a sign on 23rd Street, he rented a limousine, parked it across the Chelsea Hotel, and planted a seventeen-foot ladder on its roof while his chauffer directed traffic.
For artists like Paolo Buggiani, performance is all. New Yorkers know Buggiani for his “kites,” the iridescent windsurfers (a little like weather vanes) that he nails to city masonry, where they function as placards for his street spectacles. He bends copper tubing into human outline, covers the tubing with fiberglass rope, and soaks the rope with kerosene and wax. Wearing his fire-resistant jump-suit, he torches the whole business and skates it through the thoroughfare. “It makes people think life is not always the same,” he says. “There’s always the unpredictable corner, and in that corner I play.” Buggiani, like Dombrowski, hopes to create an urban mythology (Minotaur with blazing horns, Icarus with flaming wings). “Fire is the source of life,” he says. Is it art? “It’s like drawing in space. ...Duchamp made it clear that art is not always established by the critics.”
Or take the still stranger case of Allen Daugherty, a man who has devoted his life to performance. He dons his red-spot T-shirt, pins a red-spot button to his cap, and prowls the streets pasting up red-spot posters. He is, after all, Red Spot, the eccentric artist who produces the Red Spot Outdoor Slide Show Theater. From a rear window in his fifth-floor Soho loft, Red Spot projects slides onto the side of a commercial building seventy-five feet away, entertaining strollers who happen onto the corner of Broadway and Spring Street. “I was raised in an area with a lot of drive-in movies,” explains the forty-eight-year-old artist from Texas. Thirty artists drew cartoons, made collages, or played language games for Red Spot’s summer show; his fall offering, “Women in the Streets,” premiered September 14, a half-hour after nightfall, and will show Tuesday through Saturday until the weather gets cold. “I mean to make this thing an institution.”
A few blocks northeast, Eva Cockcroft is creating an institution of a different polity. She is executive director of Artmakers, a group of muralists that cooperates with community organizations interested in “the cultural democracy movement.” This summer Artmakers sponsored La Lucha Continua, a project intended to turn a litter-strewn lot between Eight and Ninth streets off Avenue C into “a political art park.” Twenty artists painted murals on three themes – intervention in Central America, apartheid in South Africa, and gentrification of the Lower East Side – and some helped create the five-story “centerpiece” that took weeks of work.
In some ways Cockcroft exemplifies Martin Hason’s ideal street artist who integrates art into people’s lives. Artmakers solicits its funds from the community and persuades local businesses to supply materials; it encourages neighbors to help select mural subjects. The muralists clean the walls and erect the scaffolding and often find themselves surpervising children who can’t resist trying their hands at street art.
This instance aside, the chief gripe against street artists is that they willfully ruin property. Tylicki says he prefers to explode his paint bombs on abandoned buildings; outdoor art lasts longest on the roughest walls. On the other hand, Jim Nickel, an artist currently earning an M.F.A. at Columbia (see box), tells of his coming across a Hambleton silhouette in Dusseldorf, where it looked out of place, “unlike in New York where everything is battered, manhandled, misused and mistreated.” R.V. believes the trick is to adapt to the environment. He lives in Orlando, Florida, half the year, where he paints Bad Jets on sheetrock that he screws onto telephone poles. Street artists who admit that their work is destructive have a ready defense. As Martin Hason says, “I’ll take the cost of cleaning up some buildings as a payment for freedom of speech.”
For thos who disagree with him, Hason has good news. He thinks the street art frenzy has fizzled. “I would expect that artists working in the street would move on. That statement has been made strongly in the last year or two. One thing that art should be unique.” Haring and Hambleton made names for themselves in the street, but lightning doesn’t strike thrice. “A lot of artists are trying to imitate that way to success,” says Nickel, who works outdoors but through official channels, “and they’re not going to make it.” The streets have become just another medium for self-promotion. “It’s really given street art a bad name,” laments Red Spot.
While their materials are cheap, street artists pay in time painting on Broadway and expect the Times to call me in the morning.” Says Larmee, “but it would be up for a year and nothing really happened, except people walking by would take pictues.” He took his art uptown, to the construction wall of a new wing at the Metropolitan Museum, without results. “I see people in Gucci’s walking by my paintings at the Met, and it’s their kids who are pointing.”
The question is, once you start, can you stop? “It’s kind of addictive,” says Larmee about working in the streets. “I love taking walks to see my art.” And ideals dies slowly. “We want to show that art is for anybody,” says Hiratsuka, “My best work is one the sidewalk, for all to see.”
Rex Roberts is a staff writer for Columbia.