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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I Heart Street Art: Count Your Blessings

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2009 at 9:29 AM

click to enlarge sonik_art.jpg
Yesterday I got to hang out with a real live street artist. Caleb Neelon is his name, and Sonik is his other name. He writes, he paints, he appreciates. He's an editor at Swindle, he's lectured at Harvard Law, and he travels the world making art -- sometimes for galleries, sometimes for the street.

He's got a new book out called Caleb Neelon's Book of Awesome which documents a lot of his adventures, and he's currently in town readying an exhibition of new work, which opens Saturday at White Walls.

I stopped by the gallery today and asked him every tough question I could think of.

click to enlarge sonik_nepal.jpg
One thing we haven't touched on yet here at I Heart Street Art is that a big part of this whole thing is the thrill of the chase -- the thrill of getting over. Caleb confirms that this is a factor, calling graffiti "half art, half sport." So now that there's a crackdown on, and our city's sportsmen are being thrown in jail, will San Francisco's graffiti problem disappear?

Caleb thinks not. He's seen massive cleanup operations succeed in Chicago and Philadelphia, and in neither case was it police stakeouts that did it. That did it was what Caleb terms "civic response." The cities and their people pulled up their collective bootstraps, and spent a lot of time and money working hard to keep things clean.

In those cities, Caleb believes, the occasion of a big political convention coming to town provided city governments the impetus they needed to be able to put resources toward such an effort. So to those advocating for a sparkly clean SF, find an impetus.

More importantly, Caleb sees the prosecution of graffiti artists as a huge mistake. In a recent post on the front page of his website, he rails against the persecution of Shepard Fairey in Boston, likening the the whole thing to early efforts to censor such now-universally acclaimed artists as Walt Whitman.

click to enlarge sonik_nepal_chain.jpg

At this point we're standing on a sidewalk across from a janky Motel 6 in the Tenderloin. There's a tag on one of the building's exterior walls, a wall that is otherwise caked with about a thousand layers of grimy Tenderloin taint. So we start comparing this modest tag on a dirty

building to something like a whimsical cartoon character painted on some small business in the Mission.

Caleb says he certainly identifies as a hand-style nerd, meaning he can appreciate the

subtleties in even the most hurried little black-magic-marker tag. So he harbors no special ill will toward the tagger in this case. In fact, Motel 6 being a big corporation, should have no problem having systems in place to keep its walls clean.

But what about a non-corporate property owner who has to repeatedly scrub his repeatedly

tagged awning? Caleb acknowledges that that's a bummer, but also has some advice for such a property owner. "Count your blessings that you can afford to own property in San Francisco," he says, "There are a lot of other places in America where you can own property and it won't be in the line of fire." 

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But here's the thing. Caleb notes that graffiti is like anything else in life: "To get to the good examples, you have to have a lot of bad examples." Are boring tags the price we as a society must pay in order to have the cooler stuff, which in turn inspires the legit art that fuels a vibrant gallery scene, which stimulates the economy and might, just might, give rise to the next superstar artiste like Shepard Fairey or maybe even Walt Whitman? 

Note: The pictures here are all from Caleb's trip to Nepal. He's famously run with some tip-top crews down in Brazil, and he's certainly part of a influential circle of artists here in the States. But the street art he's most proud of is the stuff he's done out on his own, in truly far-flung places where preconceived notions of "art" and "vandalism" don't enter into the equation.

Photos courtesy of The Art Where Dreams Come True.

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Allan Hough

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