Old and in the Paint
By William J. Milliken
An amazing public art project took place in Portland the weekend of August 2 and 3, but it was hardly noticed by the public. Artists from all over New England, and beyond, traveled to Portland to take part in this project. One would think an event like this would have received some notice, media coverage, or acknowledgement by local officials and the community.
That it did not is not surprising, because most of the artists work in anonymity — even though you may be quite familiar with their work. They practice graffiti art.
I’m not talking about the tagging you see everywhere, but rather the large, multi-colored murals with wild lettering and overblown designs. Normally, this art is not sanctioned by the property owners who host it. But Asylum, a sports bar and music venue on Center Street, is an exception. If you go behind the club to Lancaster Lane and the alleyway between Asylum and the Free Street parking garage, you will be treated to a veritable feast of graffiti art.
My interest was piqued several weeks before, when workers (the artists, I presume) whitewashed the back of Asylum, covering up the old graffiti mural that was, by then, several years old, faded and marred by taggers.
The morning of Saturday, August 2, staging was set up. A few cars arrived and someone turned their stereo up loud — hip-hop music permeated the scene. The artists unpacked the tools of their trade — coveralls, masks and, of course, cans of spray paint — and started going at it. Luckily, the uncertain weather cooperated, and by lunchtime the painting had begun in earnest under cloudy, gray skies.
I grabbed my camera and walked over to the scene. A dozen or more artists were standing on the ground or on scaffolding working on their pieces, while several dozen onlookers watched, took photos and chatted. There were couples with kids, older folks, employees of nearby restaurants and businesses, and others who came to witness or celebrate the art being created.
I was excited and began taking photos of the art and the artists. I soon understood why there was no media there to record the wonderful scene.
“Are you undercover?” asked one young man wearing a bandana and a baseball cap on backwards, eyeing me suspiciously with his friends.
“Undercover?” I answered. “Hell no. I’m just documenting this thing. It is incredible.” The young men looked unconvinced, so I continued. “I own the store right there,” I said, pointing to the back door of the Public Market House. “I own Maine Beer & Beverage Co. You guys have been coming in all day buying beer and soda from me.”
At that, the young men relaxed some, but not much. “Do you think we could paint your building, too?” one asked.
“I don’t own the building, just rent. You would have to ask the landlord.” The resigned look on the young man’s face indicated this was a typical answer to such requests. I decided to take advantage of the slight rapport I had developed, and went on. “I’m surprised there are no newspaper reporters or TV stations here.”
“Well,” he replied, “most of these guys don’t want their faces photographed.”
That made sense to me. Graffiti is, for the most part, a covert art, and one held in disregard by the authorities. “Are any of these yours?” I asked.
“I helped on a couple,” he answered.
“Do these guys design their own pieces?” I asked.
“There is some collaboration,” he cagily replied.
He and his friends were still regarding me suspiciously, so I walked down the alleyway to take photographs elsewhere. As I was shooting away, I witnessed one artist walk up to another as he was painting and introduce himself. “I love your stuff, man. Have for a long time,” he said, as they went through an elaborate handshake. I realized many of these artists only knew each other through their art, which carries distinctive styles and themes, much like the old masters’. These two artists had never met, yet were quite familiar with each other’s work.
I had tons of questions to ask, but was afraid to look more like a narc. I turned to a young man standing nearby and, nodding toward boxes of spray cans lying around, asked, “Where did they get the paint?”
“I think they might have gotten a deal on it,” he said.
I walked back up the alleyway, to where the original group of artists I’d spoken with were standing. One had sat down and was working a sketch in a sketchbook over and over again. It was in the style of much of the graffiti art already on the wall — wildly exaggerated, balloon-style lettering. It was a word — “Koone,” I think. I wanted to take a photo, but was afraid to.
As I considered this, a titter went through the crowd. There was a rumor the facility manager of the city parking garage had given the OK to paint on that wall, too. The artists were quite excited by this prospect. I was standing near a few artists, trying to listen in on their conversation, when an older man, closer to my age and somewhat grizzled, approached me, presumably mistaking me for an artist.
“Who is nasty?” he asked.
I did not understand his question. “I don’t know,” I said.
“What a city,” he said. Again, I wasn’t sure what he meant. Did he mean “What a good city” or “What a bad city”?
“It’s pretty incredible,” I said, pointing at the art.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he replied, puffing on a cigarette and looking around.
I spotted a piece that looked like it spelled “Nasty.” “Is that what you’re talking about?” I asked. He acted like he didn’t hear me. “That says ‘nasty,’ right?”
“I don’t care what it says,” he said, starting to walk away. “You’ve got a lot to learn, kid.”
I’m not sure what he meant by that, either — I was older than him. “Interesting crowd,” I thought.
The following Monday, there was a guy disassembling the staging, so I approached him.
He was a bit older than the artists, and actually allowed me to engage him in a conversation. He told me he was the leader, or ringleader, of the project. Red Bull actually paid for the staging. I asked him if there was a club, an organization or a Web site associated with the group. No, he said. He’d told a few people and it spread by word of mouth.
Someone had painted a mural on the Free Street parking garage wall, after all.
Overzealousness, the ringleader said, and added they were working it out with the city. “I tell [city officials] that this alleyway is just a place for teenagers and drunks to hang out. They can sandblast it, but it will just be covered again.”
I agreed: the art project was far more desirable.
As I was walking away, I noticed the piece that said “Nasty” again. “Who is Nasty?” I thought. Then I realized: it really didn’t matter. With graffiti art, it really is about the art, not the artist.
William J. Milliken lives in Portland.