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A Movement Defaced: Queer Street Art Fights for Legitimacy 

Wednesday, Jun 15 2011
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This Easter, Wall Kandi put up one of the posters near some Dublin churches. It was removed within a day, he says, but this inspired him: It meant someone was touched by the work, even if that person was touched by a fit of anger. "You reach a much wider audience with street art," he says. "Young people wouldn't go into galleries. Galleries can be a little bit elitist. The street is for everyone."


But the exhibition at SOMArts points to one of the dichotomies of queer street art: The street may be theirs, but many practitioners still seek out galleries for affirmation, exposure, and critical recognition. Being collected by museums can elevate a street artist's career like nothing else.

This marriage of street art and high art is what's happening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which is holding an exhibition, "Art in the Streets," that it's calling the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art. The works of big names are represented: Banksy (who in 2004 did a stencilwork of two male police officers kissing), Keith Haring, Jean-Michael Basquiat, Shepard Fairey, and the French artist Invader. For street artists, queer or otherwise, it's the best of times and the worst of times.

In April, Colla lampooned "Art in the Streets" when it opened by going to Los Angeles and stenciling "The problem with vandalism is that it eventually attracts unwanted museum exhibitions" on a street-level billboard nearby. Those in the know recognized his signature tag right away. He spoke to the people who gathered to marvel at his audacity. One asked, "Are you Banksy?"

This is not Novy's first high-culture recognition. In 2009, Prestel Publishing (which bills itself as "one of the world's leading publishers in the fields of art, architecture, photography, and design") issued a book, San Francisco Street Art, that featured a page devoted to his koi. In 2007, an arts organization in Milwaukee (where Novy attended college) featured him in a video about a commission to beautify an empty storefront. In a window display that heralded Milwaukee as the birthplace of the typewriter, Novy created a 6-foot-tall piece that transformed a nondescript space into something worth noticing. That's what Novy says he does with his art, and what other gay street artists are doing in San Francisco and elsewhere: covering spaces that need artistic help.

Novy's fellow street artists will often put their work on walls, windows, and billboards that are already full of graffiti tags. In San Francisco, Glama-Rama!, a hair salon on Valencia near 14th Street, recently commissioned him to stencil a series of drag-queen heads on its sidewalk, and Cafe Flore (at Market and Noe streets), Lone Star Saloon (Harrison near Ninth Street), and several others have invited him to paint koi on their properties. Novy says he may soon be an artist of greater renown ("There are people who think I'm the next big thing"), and that years from now, the exhibition at SOMArts may be considered a historic event that heralded the arrival of gay, queer, and queer-friendly street artists.

So far, though, the reaction has been mixed. At the June 4 opening at SOMArts, I heard one gallerygoer complain that the work was disappointing and tame. "It doesn't have a lot of shock value," the man said, suggesting that the Internet age has upped the ante for outrageousness.

Meanwhile, Novy is facing legal issues. Last month, Jim Provenzano, an arts editor with the Bay Area Reporter, the city's most established gay-oriented newspaper, filed papers with San Francisco Superior Court alleging that Novy threatened him after he told Novy to stop pasting posters on the paper's outside walls. The two got into an argument on the set of a cable TV show, Ten Percent, after which, Provenzano alleges, Novy spray-painted a door at the paper with a threat that alluded to Provenzano's past as a member of ACT-UP's New York affiliate. Novy has been served with a restraining order, says Provenzano, who dismisses his art as that of an "appropriationist" and says, "I'm not the only person who fears him. I find it ironic that he's curating an exhibition that claims to fight homophobia when he's attacking gay people."

Novy refuses to discuss the charges, and says any attention on the exhibition should focus on the art and the social issues surrounding it — not on the artists' personal lives, which remain well guarded. Novy doesn't like to reveal his face in media photographs. Nor do many other artists in the exhibition. Like Wall Kandi and Pixelstud, many of them use made-up names. Gay or straight, hiding behind a different identity — being partly in the closet, as it were — can be necessary to avoid attention from authorities. In San Francisco, the Department of Public Works urges people to call 911 to "report graffiti in progress," and asks people to e-mail photos of spray-painted or stenciled walls, which it then passes on to police. SFPD warns graffiti artists they may face fines of $50,000 and three-year prison terms.


For someone accused of attacking other gays, Novy has assembled a wide array of gay street artists for the exhibition, including Daryl Vocat, who puts his entire life — including his Toronto address — online for people to see and judge. Lots of people judge Vocat, especially over his drawing of two Boy Scouts embracing each other under the headline "Children Be Gay." A poster of the image has appeared on lampposts and other public spaces in Canada, alongside a T-shirt version.

Children Be Gay first surfaced around 2002. "That image has made the rounds," says Vocat, who was a Boy Scout as a kid. "It was specifically intended to be more in-your-face, more obvious in its agitational content. I originally thought of it as a poster that people could have on their walls. I was basically giving them away for the cost of postage to anyone who wanted them."

About The Author

Jonathan Curiel

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