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Finding Jacksonville’s underground art
Urban Art and Graffiti

      It’s late on a Sunday night, probably Monday morning at this point. Cars are sparse on Atlantic Blvd. as I accompany a local graffiti artist to a spot he’s been eyeing to tag. ‘Observer’ quickly turns to ‘look-out’, as I’m instructed to keep watch for approaching cars. A few adrenaline-charged minutes later, the stencil of Mahatma Gandhi is complete. Nobody had any idea we were even here.
      “There’s a lot of negative things that people do and I want to try to put something positive out there,” the artist says. “I’m trying to uplift, trying to make things more positive.”
      Because serious consequences can come from our cop-friends, some graffiti artists choose not to be identified.
      That said; grab your cell phone, mace and possibly a sharp object because we’re going graffiti-spotting in Jacksonville! Not all urban art is in sketchy parts of the city, but you never know where you might end up while on the hunt for great public art.
      One important distinction to make before viewing this type of art is to keep in mind that various genres of graffiti do exist. Political graffiti tries to send a message, like the stencil of Gandhi. There’s gang graffiti that signals territory. Even “hobo” graffiti, which is easily detectable by the lack of artistic intent. Like the ever popular ‘Jim was here’ or ‘Chris sucks’ most commonly seen below overpasses. Tagging, which originated in New York in the 80s, is graffiti we’ve all seen. The challenge in tagging lies in the creativity of putting the name up. It’s about stylizing the letters so they are different from everything else. It’s not only a signature, it’s a creative piece of art. Mural graffiti art feels the most impressive due to its size. Most often, it’s commissioned or can only be found in hidden spots. This has to do with the size and time involved in creating a mural. Newer forms of graffiti have been popping up everywhere as well. Some people re-configure older, existing graffiti. Even cleaning dirt away from a wall to reveal an image can be considered graffiti. The ways in which one creates urban art is endless.
      Be quick, though. Graffiti has illegal side-effects which cause the art to be temporary. But that’s part of the attraction of this media. You may see a really great piece of graffiti on a train that very few people get to see. Or maybe the art is from the opposite side of the country. Either way, you should consider yourself lucky. After all, this is illegal underground art.
      A member of The Great Escape crew recalls being caught by police in a subway tunnel up north. But he shrugs it off as something that comes with the territory.
      “When I find a space that inspires me – that’s where I put my stuff,” he says.
      He’s compelled like most artists to make art, regardless of the location or outcome.
      Some cities have designated areas for urban art. A graffiti free-wall stood for many years in Riverside. Eventually people were banned from putting graffiti on the wall, often a meeting place for local artists. Luckily, businesses that encourage graffiti have emerged.
      Ian Ranne, 27, co-owner of Shanty Town pub and head organizer of The Royal Treatment record shop, insists that graffiti be part of both his businesses. Ranne was influenced by the graffiti he saw growing up in Jacksonville and was disappointed to see the end of the free-wall.
      “There’s nothing like that anymore,” Ranne says. “So when I got older I wanted to have a place to see spray paint again.”
      Outside the bar, a huge mural of a baboon and the words “Shanty Town” illuminate the pub’s cinder block wall. Inside the bar’s backyard, graffiti covers nearly every inch of the fence. Ranne compares the graffiti at his bar and the record shop to a living plant. “It constantly changes,” he says. And that’s one of the most exciting aspects of graffiti.
      Graffiti doesn’t always take the form of spray paint. Other forms of urban art like wheat pasting can be seen in most cities. This is where flour and water are mixed into a paste. The paste is slathered on concrete, then a poster is pressed against the sticky concoction. Some see this as a way of eliminating the damage that would be caused by paint.
      Recently, a group called Urbismus posted wheat pastings of nearly life-sized ordinary people on buildings in the downtown area. A blog posting from the group says they are trying to bring attention to the lack of life in urban areas. It says they are artists who “live and breathe for the urban lifestyle.” They have used their art as a way to send a powerful message without having to buy ad space.
      Others are happier going unnoticed by the masses of society and prefer to hide their art in the nooks and crannies of the urban landscape. Chris Spohn, who does not consider himself a traditional graffiti artist, says he likes to put up stuff the real graffiti artist will ponder.
      “I like to make things that the average person walks by,” he says.
      Spohn, who does any art he can get his hands on, uses crayons, stickers and paint to create un-planned, experimental art.
      “I’m just on the punk rock level . . . not really going for perfection,” he says.
      Spohn, like many artists, is driven to create art using the urban environment as inspiration. Once the inspiration ignites, there is no holding back.
      “It’s pure art,” Spohn says. “I’m compelled to do it. I just find myself out there doing it.”
      For more info or to simply get inspired, check out these resources:
http://www.banksy.co.uk , serious political, stencil graffiti artist
http://urbismus.blogspot.com/, wheat pastings around Jax
Google: Barry McGee, Shepard Fairey
Myspace users: Urban Art Warfare, Jville Spray Vision
“Bomb the System,” movie
“Style Wars,” documentary

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