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A Movement Defaced: Queer Street Art Fights for Legitimacy 

Wednesday, Jun 15 2011
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Street art has reached the point where we almost take it for granted. Almost. Banksy, JR (who won the 2011 TED prize of $100,000), and others have proven that it can pull people in. Queer street art is part of a tradition of work forced on the public. It's work that tries to be outlandish and is often illegal, frequently overlooked, repeatedly scorned, and just as repeatedly praised. Street art is being recognized by major museums, including the Smithsonian. And even queer street art has now found a kind of side entrance to official recognition.


The NEA grant that partially supported Novy's exhibition was an Access to Artistic Excellence award, which "encourages and supports artistic creativity, preserves (the United States') diverse cultural heritage, and makes the arts more widely available in communities throughout the country."

"Heritage" is a designation Novy and the Queer Cultural Center would apply to the work in "A History of Queer Street Art." The exhibit, they say, is the first of its kind in the world — the first to document a street-art practice that stretches back to at least the late 1980s, when gay activist groups such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) began turning public spaces into canvases for their stickers and posters. For these groups, street art became a powerful way to encourage pressure against the federal government to be more active in fighting AIDS. Stickers reading "Silence = Death" began appearing on doorways and walls everywhere.

Another series of stickers produced by the San Francisco affiliate of the national group Queer Nation read "Cock Sucking Faggot" — a mantra that used loaded words to express pride in being gay and sexual.

After the California Supreme Court ruled in June 2008 that same-sex marriages were legal, street artist Eddie Colla created a poster of two young seminaked lesbians kissing under a giant red scrawl that read "Just Married." With the debate around Proposition 8, a measure that negated same-sex marriage, he reworked his poster into protest art. Same image, added headline: "Vote No on Prop 8. Equality for All."

"If I'm only going to defend things that pertain to me, and I'm in the minority, then [my cause] is not going to win," he says. "If only the LGBT people stand up, they're always going to be in the minority. If you look back at the civil rights movement, it's much the same thing. If black people were the only ones protesting, it would never have happened."

In his Bayview studio, Novy stacks his bookshelf with everything he can find on street art, including Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art, published last year to great acclaim but that he dismisses as woefully incomplete. It fails to mention queer or gay street art, and the work of Keith Haring — a founding father of gay street art — is limited to two photos and a handful of words that describe the location of his street work (New York City) and little else. Nothing in Trespass tells readers that Haring was openly gay. In fact, his frank sexual doings and his more extreme art — the work that shows penises, anuses, and oral sex — is often absent from mainstream renditions of his career.

This kind of whitewashing, Novy says, is another example of how queer street art is shunted to the margins of the art world. Haring was so involved as an activist — especially after being diagnosed with AIDS — that in 1988, he participated in an ACT-UP AIDS protest by lying in the street and getting arrested. He died from the disease in 1990.

"Keith Haring is never talked about in terms of the male eroticism stuff that he did," Novy says. "The books will say he died of AIDS, but they don't say he was gay or talk about his relationships or actually show any of the imagery that is queer orientated. We [gay street artists] don't get recognition. It's crazy."

But Haring's life offers a lesson of the power of openness about sexuality. Around 1980, he came out to one of his close straight friends, the graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy, who later became a rapper and MTV host. When Freddy realized Haring was gay, "It was a revelation," he told an interviewer. "I remember thinking, 'This guy and I are really good friends, we're buddies, and he's telling me he's gay, and that's cool.' I had to respect Keith, as did all the others in graffiti who eventually found out he was gay. Nobody dissed him. It was [a] sign that we were on a new playing field."

The playing field has changed dramatically because Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other sites allow street artists from around the globe to instantly share their work. In the past four months, Homo Riot e-mailed images of his bearded kissers to Paul Le Chien, a European artist in the "History of Queer Street Art" exhibit, who posted them on the streets of Paris and London. Two weeks ago, he sent them to an activist and performance artist in Greece, who was planning to sticker streets there. Wall Kandi, a street artist from Ireland who is also featured in the exhibit, says people have contacted him through Facebook to congratulate him on his array of public works — most notably his recent painting Our Lady of Equality, which shows a figure in a Virgin Mary outfit holding a gay pride flag; on the person's chest is a heart that reads "Jesus Loves You."

"It's basically a painting of Sinead O'Connor as Mary," he says. "I adapted it into a poster. It's to counteract religious groups that say, 'God hates gays.' It's to show that the groups are crackpots, and that God doesn't hate you."

About The Author

Jonathan Curiel

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