From the Editor: Art and Vandalism, Under the Bridge

Virginia Highlands, Atlanta. John Fleming/JJIE

I was in Johannesburg in 1993, before the rise of the anti-apartheid government, when the streets throbbed with uncertainty about the future.

The political leadership was trying to decide if the fall of apartheid would be peaceful or bloody. The ambiguity hanging in the air made it hard to get a bead on the general direction of things.

But you could find clues. You just had to search for them among the people of that huge industrial city, in their voices, their writings and especially, in their art.

And that’s what the graffiti I saw off a dingy street in the heart of the city was; stark, explosive, powerful, art.

They were three together, aligned as cartoon panels, projecting the power that was the oppressed majority.

The first, a landscape dominated by smokestacks, belching smoke into the sky, with the caption, “We are The Economy...”

In the second panel the smokestacks begin to fold downward, taking on the look of fingers, with the caption, “...We can...”

In the third panel, the stacks have turned into a fist, and the caption simply reads, “...Shut it Down...”

“We are The Economy, We can, Shut it Down,” captured pretty much everything you needed to know about who, ultimately, was going to win the struggle for the new South Africa and how they, the victors, were going to do it.

That’s what graffiti can do. As effectively as a particular Dali of the late 1930s, a mural of the streets can capture the moment.

Then again, it can also be garbage, blight on public and private property, a disgusting reminder of the shortcomings of a society.

We’ve got some of both in my part of downtown Atlanta -- a nice in-town neighborhood called Virginia Highlands -- the well-done works of graffiti, those renditions worthy of a show somewhere (if you could just haul the slab of concrete into a gallery) and the stuff barely passing as doodles that, if anything, qualifies as the idiots stuff that sadly defaces... well, graffiti.

Two clusters come to mind in my neighborhood. One is aside rail tracks just off a Kroger parking lot, and the other under an ornate bridge near one of our city’s parks.

Of course, these are just snapshots of one corner of one neighborhood of one big city. There are endless examples, good and bad, in your city as well.

Know some good examples? Send them to us at But, please, we only want to see the good stuff, the best of the best. No doodles, please. Keep the profanity, the nudies, the stuff in bad taste, to yourself and the wall it defaces. We want art. Please include where the graffiti is located, the city and the neighborhood if possible, the date and time of day would be cool, as well as your name, if you want the photo credit.

And, if you know the artists of any of these, or if you are an artist, please let us know. Or better yet, have them get in contact. We would love to talk to them.

Although we are hoping for some works with the power of an anti-apartheid mural, we are content just to celebrate in the artistry.

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From Graffiti to Fine Art: KAWS at the High

KAWS installation of 27 circular paintings at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March, 2012.

KAWS tryptic installation at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March 2012.Kaws "DOWN TIME" at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March, 2012.KAWS "DOWN TIME" exhibit at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March 2012.KAWS "DOWN TIME" exhibit at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March 2012. When a Jersey City teenager started tagging and defacing public advertisements back in the early 1990’s, he had no clue it would turn into a lucrative art career. But that’s the story of Brian Donnelly, better known as “KAWS,” that has led him to a multi-sight exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

Perched on the top floor above the High’s Picasso to Warhol exhibit, KAWS’ installment “DOWN TIME” seems to bring the Modernism housed in the levels below into the modern times they helped create.

His work is strange, yet strikingly familiar, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s essentially a commentary on pop-culture, drawn from pop culture and stamped on pop culture -– it has become pop culture. KAWS has taken on the manipulation (or perhaps re-imagination) of such iconic characters as Mickey Mouse, The Simpsons and Sponge Bob Square Paints. His street-art style dots urban encampments around the globe and offers imagery virtually every culture can relate to.

The High exhibition features a number of these icons, including a 16-foot tall sculpture of Mickey Mouse-like sculpture dubbed “Companion” in the museum’s piazza. A florescent color palette and tight cropped compositions of cartoonish features make a gridded install of 27 round paintings pop off the wall with a questioning familiarity. The images appear as if part of a larger story and narrative unfolding just out of frame (or on your TV screen at home) as you go on about your life, from advertisement to advertisement.

As the young artist gained popularity back in the ‘90s, his subversive images -- scrawled on billboards, bus stops and phone booths -- became hot commodities. Eventually, this work would prove to be a precursor to actual collaboration with commercial photographers and brands.

When KAWS met British photographer David Sims, who happened to have shot a number of the ad campaigns KAWS had worked on top of, a few years back it was the start of a series that would find its way to the walls of the High. KAWS took his acrylic paints to Sims’s actual photos, producing a unique infusion of two rival forms of accepted popular culture that constituted a sizable portion of his installment at the High.

Since the early days, KAWS has also branched out from graffiti -– far out. He doesn’t even do graffiti anymore, at least not on city walls, but the elements of his youth are unmistakable and irreplaceable in his work. Simply put, KAWS has his hands in everything from limited-edition vinyl toys and t-shirt design to fine art painting and sculpting. That also puts him at the crossroads of a variety of different worlds. For toy collectors he’s the toy maker, for graffiti artists he’s the street artist, for art aficionados he’s the painter.

Yet somehow his work finds a strange continuity between distinct groups with unique tastes, in the United States and abroad. In this ever more interconnected world it’s entirely possible, more than anything else, that KAWS’ work illustrates we’re all part of a global culture, transversing borders and long standing notions of what individuality and uniqueness actually are.

KAWS: DOWN TIME” will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta until May 20, 2012.

iPhoneography credits: Clay Duda/JJIE.

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KAWS "Companion," 16-feet tall sculpture at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. March 2012.

Boy Busted for Using a Marking Pen in Class

A 13-year old boy was hauled off to jail last week for using a permanent marker in his Oklahoma City middle school.  A seventh grade math teacher claims the boy tried to hide the marker when she asked him for it. Teacher DeLynn Woodside called police and signed a complaint, saying the child was “writing on a piece of paper, which caused it to bleed over onto the desk.” broke this story with a link to the arrest records.

The teen is accused of violating Municipal Code Section 35-202, originally aimed at stopping graffiti on private property:

No person may possess an aerosol spray paint container or broad-tipped indelible marker on any private property unless the owner, agent, manager, or other person having control of the property consented to the presence of the aerosol spray paint container or broad-tipped indelible marker.

The internet is buzzing about the story, which many consider outrageous. One website points out that the law should not apply in this case, because the incident took place in a public school.