RVA Street Art Fest Muralists Give Insight into Their Ephemeral Art Form
RVA has mural fever right now and I am loving every second of it. If the passing of the monumental G40 mural project left you wishing for more public art, the RVA Street art festival delivered.
Artists from Richmond and beyond swathed the former GRTC bus station in doses of color, turning the former eyesore into a spectacle. Coupled with the Richmond Mural Project from earlier this summer, this project showed that Richmond can realize its ideation of being a true artistic hub.
I had the pleasure of attending the RVA Street Art festival artist panel at the historic Byrd Theater. Ed Trask presided over the event, which unfolded into a thought-provoking discussion with four of the participating muralist.
A small audience added a tone of intimacy to the panel discussion. 1st District Representative Jon Baliles opened the event with gracious words for those behind the festival along with everyone who came out to enjoy the art. Trask, the other force behind the event, followed Baliles with an introduction peppered by his own unique perspective as a visual artist. Trask emphasized the implications of this event regarding the current perception of street art and its power to positively affect communities. The discussion lasted well over an hour.
Audience members and artists alike spoke insightfully about the evolution of public opinion regarding street art, the role of the information age on their art, and their impressions of RVA as place for making art.
The panel consisted of Mickael Broth, Pose, Andrew Schoultz, and Nils Westgard.
While the RVA Street Art festival legally utilizes public space and many of the artists now make a living off of similar commissioned projects, their careers didn’t begin that way.
Trask began the discussion with an anecdote involving his own duping of Los Angeles cops, whereby he crafted a card supposedly lending him permission to be part of the Los Angeles Mural Arts project. While his mural was eventually covered, his card duped a cop and a security guard to not only allow him free reign over public space, but also grab him refreshments.
I chuckled at the story, which showed how easily our minds are bent. One has to consider the close relationship between the tagger who’s trailed by the cops and the “official” commissioned artist. Trask made a point of noting that the former often becomes the latter, and the discussion played out to reveal how most of the artists used to work clandestinely before gaining “legitimacy.” He described it as one of “the most memorable” experiences he had as a painter, and asked the artists if they had similar experiences from their early careers.
Andrew Schoultz, who was raised in Milwaukee before relocating to San Francisco, responded at length explaining how street art “In San Francisco… was pretty socially accepted at the time, but I got into quite a bit of trouble in Milwaukee in the early 90s and spent a little bit of time in the crowbar motel.” Like Trask, he equivocated his way through several situations. His art was met with mostly positive reception from people in the neighborhoods where he painted. Early efforts paid off when curators began to take note and he realized he was “really on to something.” Eventually he found himself participating in numerous community projects.
When asked about subject matter for his works, Schoultz explained “in my 15 years or so traveling around the world doing this, I try to find out what social issues are relevant in that particular community or neighborhood and I try to make something that’s relative to the place.”
Having noted that several of the artists started painting long before Instagram and flickr became driving forces in the art world, I was curious to hear the artists’ opinions on how the information age had affected their work.
Mischief and anonymity are paramount to many graffiti artists. I asked how this hyper awareness of what they’re doing, fostered by the internet, had changed the face of street art and how it would affect the future. After all, when most of these people began street art wasn’t a “buzz word” like it is now.
Nils Westgard, a 21-year-old artist and the youngest of the panel, explained how the internet was how he actually found out about the art form. He noted how it helps him “connect his graffiti with friends around the world.” Conversely, Pose expressed that there are “severe” advantages and disadvantages. As an artist who began working before Instagram was a form of validation, his perspective differed.
“A pro is that you can reach so many people so quickly and learn so much so quickly, and it can potentially grow much faster. Graffiti and street art are uncontrollable and I think people will always turn things on their head and come up with new things, I don’t want to be jaded and think I don’t have to work as hard and come up with the same ingenuity. People are being just as clever with the technology,” he mused.
As someone who’s been working for years, he considered himself a little behind on the tech front as it’s become seamlessly intertwined with the world of street art and graffiti. Many artists have an obsession for garnering “likes” on their Instagram account, which in Trask’s words, provides “a new sense of validation, and that’s a strange feeling.” Interestingly, the artists acknowledged that one aspect of their art that the internet has left unscathed by technology are wars over territory. Different crews battle for space to make their art, just as this did 20 years ago.
One of the final questions came from an audience member who wanted the artists’ impressions of this event. She called attention to the sparsely populated audience, asking “how can we see that this room is full next year.” The negative tone of the question was met with complete positivity, and the artists seemed unaffected by the relatively small amount of people in attendance. Andrew Schoultz applauded the event, saying he’d had an incredible experience last year and this year. “It kind of blew my mind, the conversations I had with the kids and parents… I very much appreciate the opportunity to come here.” Pose agreed, adding that he was “blown away that a project of this magnitude could happen.”
Despite fancy commissions that allow some of these artists to feed their families, street art remains primal in its ability to communicate and connect with people. Unlike the Mona Lisa which will remain under strict climate control and high security, their art is subject to the elements. The artists unanimously agreed that they had no problem with the prospect of their works being one day covered up, that is something accepted in their unique community.
Westgard insightfully mentioned the comparison to “Buddhist monks who work tirelessly to make the mandalas, only to later wipe them away.” Trask applauded the “egoless” attitudes of the painters while they worked, and their words supporting the transience of street art drove his observation home in a different manner. The talk provided a glimpse into the artist’s minds that I would otherwise never have known and left me feeling intimately connected to the project. PS: Please don’t mind my shameless Instagrams of the murals.
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