Elkology I Christian Kasperkovitz

Street Art Writes New Rules on Urban Linguistics

Contemporary art that merges word and image is forming new urban linguistics. When this hybrid aesthetic is used in the streets, the written text speaks for the space and the surrounding environment, turning artists into authors in the process.

They overlay image, or use stand alone words in short bursts of ideas, with bold type or a bold idea that twists the ideal of what a slogan is culturally, or allowing the environment to say something with the brevity of a tweet. For works with a longer storyline, it would fail if one of the elements, type or image, were excluded.

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With street art being dragged into galleries and converting into higher art, plus the increase of works found in the street, works that use words can also reach a broader audience.

Territorial demands still linger, however. Aerosol graffiti artists who execute stunningly-detailed letter form and illustrations are not afraid to dismiss sketch-like street art as mere scribble with words. Ironically, graffiti artists refer to their work on walls as "writing," an abstraction that's about presence, not about specific context.

Art by Winston Smith I Courtesy of MOCAThat may reconcile with time. The exhibition "Letters from Los Angeles: Text in Southern California Art" noted that the use of typography explores the "element of messaging and cultural narrative" in a work, said critic and author Shana Nys Dambrot. The exhibition has us consider that this movement flourishes in Los Angeles because local artists are responding to texts embedded in the city's landscape, wrote curator Jack Rutberg. He presented the work as being "logical antecedent to the current spotlight on contemporary graffiti and tattoo art."

As Rutberg also said in his introduction, Los Angeles artists who work with text and image are responding to the environment filled with signs and billboards, creating a Southern California version of a long tradition of works with text and image.

Art by Anne TaintorStreet art that uses words to communicate product or a subculture is a continuum of graphic and advertising design -- an irony in itself. That's seen in the anti-design seen in punk rock flyers, the dangerous liaison of found type and bands with urgent logos being surveyed by MOCAtv. It's raw street art, as the do-it-yourself look reached its audience in the streets when was taped, stapled, or glued on utility boxes or poles.

The purposefully random use of type in the punk aesthetic rebels against words written to support consumerism. In the late 1970s that protest was reinterpreted with an added layer of meaning. Artists like Anne Taintor began using word and image as gender rebellion against domesticated female sexuality through consumerism, as noted by Stephanie Young, professor of Communication Studies at University Of Southern Indiana. Thoughts pasted on magazine ads were a commentary that challenged the role of women. It was a commentary on social expectations, and not political ambition. "Street art has more potential for social change," said Young.

Belief+Doubt at The Hishorn. 2012. © Barbara Kruger I Photo: Cathy Carver

One of the most visible leaders of work with text and image, and also commenting on feminism and consumerism, comes from conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, who has been teaching at UCLA for just over five years. For her recent works she uses mostly words for her commentary, bypassing the overlaying of black and white images that once accompanied her work.

Letters to Los Angeles at the L.A. Art Show I Photo: Helen Ly

Eve Fowler, who was a featured artist in "Letters to Los Angeles," uses Colby street art posters with fluorescent backdrop and text by Gertrude Stein printed in thick black letters, in "Tender Buttons." With Colby Poster Printing Company ceasing operations this past December, Fowler's series was one of the last significant collaborations between artist and printing firm. She advances the feminism as a constant process in her works, and like all the aforementioned forms, gives outdoor environment or expectations a visual deviation.

We Are Not A Minority I Photo: © Isabel Rojas-Williams / MCLA

With permission: © Mario Torero Chicano murals and art also have seminal work that use word and image. "We Are Not a Minority" is the 1978 mural by Mario Torero, restored in 1996 under the watch of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. Titled after the phrase seen on the mural, it's based on Torero's 1977 black-and-white silk screen "You Are Not a Minority." The mural is located at Estrada Courts in Boyle Heights, and the wall was selected by Torero to bring the art movement of San Diego's Chicano Park, via Congreso de Artisitas Chicanos en Aztlán, a visual solidarity with cities with art enclaves. "We went with 'we' from 'you' to make show the (civil rights) movement is all encompassing," said Torero. It's also subtle editing. By using "we," the idea behind the words becomes less about the image of "Che" Guevara's re-purposed pose, which echoes James Montgomery Flagg's Uncle Sam "I Want You" poster from 1917. Notably, the mural that came from a poster used in the streets has different type styles. The 1970s organic old English is mixed with "NOT" in extra bold red, an "A" in the shape of a temple, and "minority" in a serif with a drop shadow. It predates the mix of found fonts seen in punk flyers, yet allows a viewer read it with inflection guided by the weight of letters.


As noted before, artist Morley's coping wisdom seen in his street wheat-pastes is approached by the artist by thinking like an author. "I think I probably started this as a writer, but the more I do it the more I've stopped seeing the two as being separate entities," he said. "I think with any kind of creative expression, we're trying to tell a story. Not just a narrative story, but the story of a feeling, of a mood, of an experience, of an epiphany."

Bridge banner I Elkpen

birdmural8.jpgFor Christian Kasperkovitz, aka Elkpen, the message for her fine art is wildlife, coexisting with, or recovering from, urban sprawl. "I believe that the process of thinking about words and how to say something as an art piece has transformed me from a picture maker to an author," she said. "What is certainly true is there is an art to finding a simple and light way to talk about things that in themselves may be complicated and grave." With message or image on temporary medium, the written thought becomes as fragile as the environment she is advocating for, and writing takes an original idea to become something important. "[It's] not just to say something, but to communicate something," she said.

Willamena 'Cos Tragedy Happen I Courtesy of J. Michael WalkerJ. Michael Walker, who was also featured in "Letters From L.A.," doesn't approach writing as brief thoughts, but as literature. It's not specifically street art, but art about streets, as seen in his "All the Saints of the City of the Angels," a series of paintings inspired by streets named after saints that uses phrase as title and subtext within the work, or his mural-like map of Los Angeles that follows the city cultural bloodlines with quotes. His latest work, "Willamena 'Cos Tragedy Happen'," a collaboration with writer Jervey Tervalon, is prompted by poetry and works against a background of the growing dominate sub-culture of YouTube.

When work with image becomes the act of an intimate collaboration, the territorial hierarchy between author and artist is broken down. If it's the work of one person, it may not be clear if word shaped the image, or image shaped the words, even to the artist.

Sometimes the starting point and the end result is known only by how the person reads their personal professional identity, as Walker does. "Artist first," he said. "Then author."

Top: Elkology by Christian Kasperkovitz.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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