• February 7, 2006
  • Posted by Marc

The Tampa Tribune Surveys Street Art in Tampa, Florida


Not to long ago we were contacted by Ben Montgomery, a writer for the Tampa Tribune down in Florida.  As you may know there’s an interesting situation happening down in Tampa. The street art scene is starting to explode down there, and artists are for the first time starting to get some recognition.  Artists like Tes One, Bask, Brandon Dunlap, Jay Giroux and Sane - as well as the arrival of the “Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture” show - has created this “tipping point” where the city is starting to recognize that art can be more than whats in a gallery or museum and that graffiti can be viewed as much more than vandalism.  On Sunday, Ben’s piece ran on the front page of the paper.  It’s a very good, clear, and balanced view. 

We’ve included the full article below.

Street Artists Claim Their Share Of City’s Cultural Future

By BEN MONTGOMERY bmontgomery@tampatrib.com

Published: Feb 5, 2006

TAMPA - Down a dark stretch of Columbus Drive, inside a warehouse between a boat dealership and a Budget Inn, the jeans are tight, the caps are cockeyed and the Pabst Blue Ribbon is in plastic cups.

The place smells of Marlboros and sawdust, and sounds of vintage Dr. Dre and the thwack of skateboard wheels on wood.

Jay Giroux, a shaggy 27-year-old in paint-splattered jeans and work boots, is talking about wheat-paste posters and billboards and what this city is becoming.

“Right now Tampa is bustling,” he says. “You have money moving into the area and artists like myself who have the option of moving to San Francisco or L.A. or New York are deciding to stick around.”

In this city, that’s a new refrain.

“It’s a good time to be an artist,” says Elizabeth Kozlowski, who works with Ybor House of Artists. “The scene is on the upswing.”

“The city is starting to urbanize,” says Craig Kaths, who organized this one-night show called “Apply To Self” at Transitions art gallery at Skatepark of Tampa. “It’s starting to grow up. That’s what you’re seeing.”

This gallery is an incubator for an underground art movement that is changing the way the city looks. While the politicians and the art elite fought about where to install a new Tampa Museum of Art,kids with paint cans and wheat-paste posters were making the streets their gallery, showering electrical boxes, billboards and blighted buildings with the message of presence.

Their urban art is gritty and mechanical and textured, and when it is pasted or painted on other people’s property, illegal.

The form’s zealots are as diverse as its labels: street art, urban Americana, low-brow art, graffiti art. Some call it vandalism.

Whatever it’s called, it’s a new paradigm in a sunny city that’s more palm trees and sprinklers than brick alleys and manhole covers.

“This is a phenomenon,” says Alexa Favata, associate director of the Contemporary Art Museum at the University of South Florida.

The work a handful of artists have done on public-view streetscapes has earned the curiosity of commuters, annoyed a few business owners and upset some city officials. And it has sparked a new kind of artistic energy in Tampa.

One night in October, just before the “Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture” exhibit opened at the University of South Florida, Giroux and L.A.-based street artist Shepard Fairey loaded wheat paste and posters into a van and began a university-funded mission to promote the show. (Fairey is known for obsessively posting images of Andre the Giant in cities throughout the country, and he has found commercial success, claiming clients such as Sprite, Levi’s and EarthLink.)

The two worked around the clock for three days, say several people who were aware of the effort.

Their largest works are most noticeable: a grimacing Andre the Giant on a billboard near Busch Boulevard off Interstate 275; a large profile of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Tse-tung on the side of the empty S.H. Kress & Co. building downtown; a girl with a machine gun between two palm trees near Centro Ybor. They also did smaller pieces, such as a sticker on the trash can in front of a Hillsborough Avenue Circle K.

“There was this subculture here in the area made up of young adults who were very engaged in this form,” Favata says. “We decided it would be very nice to bring Shepard Fairey in. He’s an artist who could really kind of stimulate a community.”

In three days, Giroux and Fairey bombed dozens of city intersections and buildings. Before long, other artists were working as well, and stencils, graffiti and posters spread into the alleys of strip malls and onto the art-starved streets of north Tampa, Hyde Park and Seminole Heights.

“A lot of artists saw that as a sign that maybe there is something cool here in Tampa that they can relate to,” saysBrandon Dunlap, 32, a Chicago transplant and USF graduate. “I think it just opened the doors for a lot of people to come out and put their stuff up.”

The curiosities crept up. What’s the story behind that faded poster on the out-of-business Hardee’s on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard? Why are the support pillars under Interstate 275 dotted with stencils of President Bush? And what does GWAN mean? (It’s an art and music collective.)

“Beautiful Losers” displayed the street art of many leaders of the genre. It was one of the best-attended shows at the university museum and fuel for a burst of outdoor creativity.

“People are coming out of the woodwork and are ready to showcase their talents,” says Chris Deacon, an artist and teacher at Saint Leo University in Pasco County.

But why now? And why here?

“I think it’s the result of a number of us, instead of sitting around and complaining, we started trying to create our own thing,” says Wes Demarco, 28, part of a collective called Blank Cartel. “We’re by no means innovators or originators of this in this genre, but we are some kind of originators and innovators in this area.”

There are other trends at work.

The genre is gaining grass-roots popularity worldwide and has “made art accessible to the masses,” says Carrie Mackin, who owns Covivant Gallery in Seminole Heights. Although the form is not new - it began in New York in the 1970s as the graffiti, hip-hop and skateboard cultures evolved - it lately has received more mainstream acceptance.

Example: Work by the late graffiti artist Keith Haring is showing at the Tampa Museum of Art this spring, and officials are talking about hosting a skateboarding session on the same grounds notorious for enforcing “no skateboarding” rules.

The genre is bleeding into the marketplace; corporate advertisers are hiring street artists - Fairey created the movie poster for “Walk The Line” - which encourages others to promote themselves in the streets.

And Tampa is looking and feeling more urban as downtown blooms. “You see the condos going up for the professionals; they’re going to want to buy our art,” Demarco says. “That’s our collector base, and that’s something artists have worried about for a long time.”

Other cities have felt the same surge, but the pace of the movement here may be unique, says Marc Schiller, who runs Wooster Collective, a New York-based organization that tracks and celebrates street art. He wonders how long it will take to see the backswing.

“It’s going to open a debate in Tampa about what’s public and what’s private, what’s art and what’s not art, and what acceptance should be given to this art,” he says. “I think if it continues to explode in that city, it’s going to create a dialogue. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell which way that dialogue will go.”

On a warm afternoon a few days ago, Jim Pinkney, the sharply dressed director of Tampa’s Clean City Division, toured several spots that had been bombed. He hadn’t heard of any street art movement here and thought it best to familiarize himself before answering a reporter’s questions.

He slowed down to check out a brick wall off Tampa Street bearing an “Obey” poster and a piece by Giroux, and viewed the Kress building, site of Mao Tse-tung.

“That’s graffiti,” he determined. “It’s on private property, so it’s vandalism.”

Though Pinkney’s crews are responsible for graffiti removal, he says the street art is a code-enforcement issue because much of it is on private buildings. His division has handled 76 graffiti complaints since it was set up in June 2005.

Property owners have been silent on the issue, at least to Tampa police, who have had no complaints and written no citations.

But it isn’t just Pinkney who’s critical.

“I hate the stuff,” says Theo Wujcik, a retired USF professor and mainstay of the Tampa art community, adding that his neighbor’s door was postered not long ago. But Wujcik acknowledges there is something promising about the proliferation here, even if it’s sometimes annoying.

“Picasso said if you’re going to have topsoil, you need subsoil. That’s what this is.”

To Art Keeble, executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, it “reflects the youthful culture of a city that doesn’t have a direction yet.”

Keeble says he likes the concept of guerrilla art, work from people such as Haring, but “what this is, is defacing public property.”

He says the artists should focus on something more positive. Or use chalk.

And on the streets?

“That’s art,” says Keith Farrell, 24, who moved here from Long Beach, N.Y., as he checks out a piece on Florida Avenue. “They evidently cared about their work.”

“It’s graffiti,” says Mike Kim, 59, who owns Paramount Wigs across from the Kress building. “I think art should be in a gallery, not there.”

“If I was to see this in a gallery, I’d say it’s pretty interesting,” says Andrew Lientz, 38, who lives in Plant City, works downtown and lunches in Ybor City. “Out here, I’m not sure.”

Among artists, the movement has forced an underground dialogue about the aesthetic of Tampa’s future. Is it “Lights on Tampa,” or faded wheat-paste posters on the boarded windows of Pickford’s Sundries on Hillsborough Avenue? Can it be both?

Leon Bedore, known as Tes One, painted his first wall behind a Clearwater business plaza when he was 12. He wanted to show his mother, so the following day she drove into the alley. The police had found it, too. They showed up at the family’s apartment that afternoon.

Bedore recalls his mother telling him he was going to jail. But when she answered the door, she covered for him.

The 28-year-old has found commercial success in the past three years. He has paychecks from Absolut Vodka and MTV, drives a new Nissan Pathfinder and says he lives off his art.

His mother introduces herself at gallery showings as Tes One’s mom.

Bedore and Ales Hostomsky, a Czechoslovakia-born artist known as “Bask,” are local examples of the potential. The two painted walls together in high school in St. Petersburg, and their work has graduated to gallery shows in Baltimore, Detroit and Miami.

They’ve become models for anonymous kids on skateboards.

“It’s going to get pretty interesting,” Tes One says of the movement. “There’s a lot of talent in Tampa. That’s what’s crazy. There’s more talent here than Tampa knows.”

“The people we’ve never heard about,” Hostomskysays, “those are the kids who are going to change things.”

At Skatepark of Tampa, the night is waning, the bar is out of Red Bull and vodka and a mohawked 23-year-old USF grad student who goes by “Sane” is talking about freight trains and cops and the next big thing.

“I could put something in Covivant and a hundred wine drinkers would be looking at my piece, but if I put something up beside Interstate 275, thousands of people an hour will be looking at it,” he says. “They’d have to.”