I feel like graffiti has become a dirty word that you have to clean up by using the term "street art." Or maybe you consider them two different things. But there's no denying graffiti's value as an art form. You might see crappy tags or colorless bubble letters and think they're ugly. Often, that spray-painted crap was the beginning of something great. But graffiti is illegal, so the artist probably had to run before finishing their work. Imagine what happens when you take a huge warehouse with endless walls, and let graffiti artists go nuts without the fear of getting popped. Endless Canvas is an organization that finds ways to make this happen, yielding arresting results (no pun intended).
When I noticed my nephew doodling a character created by prolific Bay Area artist GATS, I practically grabbed him by the sleeve and ran down to the latest Special Delivery exhibition curated by Endless Canvas. Remembering my own teenage art experiences, I recognized that graffiti is often one of the first and most accessible ways for kids to notice art, and I wanted him to see what GATS could do indoors. We were lucky to sneak into the last viewing of Special Delivery at a Berkeley warehouse owned by art collector, Alan Varela. It was a known graffiti spot that had been abandoned for over a decade, and Varela liked what he saw on the walls. He wanted to give the artists a chance to do one last piece and show off their work before the space is sandblasted and occupied by his business. He'll later commission about ten of the artists to do permanent works.
The show opened to the public for a one-night party and thousands of people lined up to see it. The space was coated from floor to ceiling with color and life. In this gnarly, former ink factory, the walls were screaming. Paul, the curator of the show and Endless Canvas photographer says, "Good graffiti stands out from the rest. It's something that makes you stop your car on the freeway when you're already late for work because you can't take the chance that it disappears before you get the shot. There are different criteria that constitute good graffiti. One is the difficulty of the place it was executed in. Another is the technical skill and control involved. How much graffiti the person has done in their career is also taken into account. Most importantly though, is originality. Something that pushes new boundaries of style and content. If it's good graffiti then it will live forever in a photograph. If it's bad graffiti, it will forever be damned under a layer of grey buff and forgotten by the next generation." He's been photographing Varela's warehouse for years and says, "To me, photography is the afterlife for graffiti."
Paul gave priority to artists who had already painted in the building and who he knew how to contact (obviously most graffiti artists are anonymous). Then he invited some local legends and emerging artists, including, "12-year-old IMB, who painted the Sad Reindeer. The opportunity was life-altering for many of the artists. For a few of them, this was the first legal piece they had ever painted. Many of the artists grew up hanging out in this building and learned to paint here."
San Francisco artist Edith was given a wall to paint, and she noticed a difference in the East Bay vibe, "There really seemed to be a supportive and inclusive mentality amongst most of the painters who were part of Special Delivery, and I think that energy inspired us to try something new."
So, do you have empty walls to fill? A concrete paradise that would appreciate some special treatment? Why not reach out to local artists and become the next graffiti patron? It's your responsibility as the owner of an empty endless canvas.
Keep up with Bay Area graffiti at Endless Canvas.
Photos by Lilah Ralston.