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Mica Students and Alums Craft an Art Magazine for the Krylon Generation

Bombs Away: A chronicler by the name of "Fifty Three" chases down Baltimore's different riffs on graffiti in "Issue: B" of the new street-art mag Beautiful/Decay.

By Tim Hill | Posted 10/16/2002

Appreciate it or paint over it, street art is a fact of the urban environment. The graffiti writer's quick, crude tag; the slightly more rendered "bomb;" the elaborate, full-color piece under a bridge or on a freight car--the sprays, loops, and cryptic glyphs have been around since the advent of Krylon.

And it's that fact-of-the-matter take on street art--as an evolving urban-design language, the illegal kin to commercial signs and posters--that has inspired a group of Baltimore artists and writers to publish a magazine devoted to works that fly under gallery radar. The bane of mayoral offices, art-school administrations, and police departments in every city, street art gets documentary treatment in Beautiful/Decay.

The magazine's second issue, which recently hit smaller bookstores around the country, tries to "blur the lines" between street art, fine art, and commercial graphic design, publisher Amir Fallah says.

"We're trying to draw from a lot of different things, we're trying to find the similarities," he stresses from Culver City, Calif., where he's been attending graduate school since leaving the Maryland Institute College of Art. "We are an art publication trying to bridge the gaps between many similar arts. It's sometimes hard for people to see that graffiti, painting, sculpture, video, design, and music are all very similar."

The lack of publications that take a "serious and content-based look" at these forms sparked the creation of B/D, Fallah says. "You either had the high-end art publications that only looked at formal art, or you had the lowbrow art magazines that were only interested in hot-rod art and comic books."

Beautiful/Decay's "Issue: B" features photo essays of commercial signage; freight-car graffiti; triptychs of vast; lifeless architectural spaces; doodles found on walls; frenetic skateboard art; and abandoned cars painted by New York artist Kevin Dresser. Tucked between the street-art montages are short interviews with Florida artist Skot Olsen and Bigfoot, a California artist who creates large paintings and sculptures that illustrate, graff-style, his obsession with the hairy chimera.

At first blush a seemingly random collection, the stories and photos together underscore the idea that artists working on the fringe defy categories: Music that's inspired by visual art. Canvas art that's inspired by graffiti. Graffiti that employs fine-arts methods. Sculpture inspired by commercial design.

"Amir's realizing what a lot of people are collectively realizing--that the decade of overinflated art has come and gone," print artist and occasional City Paper contributor Logan Hicks says. "The new gallery is the street--the place to see the most interesting things is on the street." Hicks, who like Fallah operates between Baltimore and Los Angeles, runs Workhorse Visuals, a printing company that features his own and others' "urban art." The stable of Workhorse artists and friends--including street-art celeb Shepard "Obey Giant" Fairey--produces poster and stencil art that, like graffiti, is geared to be displayed on the street. Or on the wall. Or on a sidewalk.

Likewise, the name Beautiful/Decay is derived from the street. It "came out of just walking around the streets of inner cities on the East Coast and noticing how there is beauty in even the most run-down, beaten, and forgotten things," Fallah says. "It also is a good reference to everything from graffiti art to German Abstract Expressionism. I think that it really captures the essence of many different art forms--especially those that are dubbed 'underground.'"

And when it doesn't mean "ignored by the mainstream," underground is often a euphemism for "illegal." Graffiti, posters hung with wheat paste, stickers, and scrawls are to many an ugly fact of urban existence. In Baltimore, as elsewhere, it's a criminal offense. At MICA, where students are anxious to explore public art, it can be grounds for expulsion if the school deems the offense egregious enough: "We don't want students breaking the law," MICA spokesperson Kim Carlin says. While some professors encourage students to test the bounds of public art--such as printmaking chairman Quentin Moseley, who advised a student in a sticker campaign that enraged the city's public works department two years ago (Mobtown Beat, July 12, 2000)--the school's administration prefers the more acceptable forms of street art, such as working with the city's mural program.

The city itself has targeted street art in recent years, spending an unprecedented $350,000 in graffiti removal. Since Mayor Martin O'Malley took office in 2000, the city has tripled investigators working on graffiti and property crimes, from two to six. "Graffiti is ugly," the mayor's office posted on the city's official Web site June 7. "It's not art, it's vandalism. And it makes a city look like no one cares. We are determined to get a handle on this very public nuisance."

To illustrate their progress, the city provided before-and-after photographs of a building on St. Paul Street. A couple of graff writers had bombed every story along the fire-escape stairs. The city painted over every piece, and the result is a building covered by beige pillowy splotches.

But these layers of graffiti and cover-up paint became just the kind of incidental street art B/D records. When the city or property owners paint over graffiti, "they're subconsciously adding to it," Fallah says. "It turns the street into an abstract expressionist painting."

Beautiful/Decay started as a black-and-white zine put out by Fallah and high-school friends in Northern Virginia between 1996 and 1998. In 2001, he relaunched B/D as a full-color "serious publication that bridged the gap between the arts" while at MICA, and now the publication is distributed nationwide.

Fallah has enlisted the help of street-art aficionados around the country, and while he runs things from L.A., a strong base remains in Baltimore. Ben Osher, managing editor of Manifest, a local zine that covers hip-hop, radical politics, and art, helps procure advertising. Marko Pregelj, an occasional MICA student who says he lives the hobo lifestyle, pitches in when he's in town. Kyle Thomas, another MICA student, helps with distribution and provides photos of graffiti he discovers around the country. They're just three of a larger crew who come together when it's time for the issue's quarterly production.

"The background of the people who started this, there is definitely a graffiti influence," Osher says. "But there's also a fine-art influence."

Molding a fine-art magazine out of street art and graffiti culture breaks convention, but it also means walking a fine line. In its masthead, B/D "does not assume any liability, endorse, or condone illegal activity of any kind." Their stance, in Fallah's words, is "documentary."

Rather than celebrating graffiti culture or trying to mainstream graffiti art--a useless endeavor, Fallah says, considering that "by nature, graffiti would not be graffiti if it was not illegal"--B/D explores its patterns and expressions apart from its fringe associations. Moreover, Fallah and company think street artists have something to offer artists who work in less illicit media. And vice versa. "We would love it if people unfamiliar with graff could learn something about it and appreciate it because of Beautiful/Decay," Fallah says. "But on the other hand, I would also like to think that it goes the other way."

Consider the guerrilla art of Monster Project from Cambridge, Mass., featured in the latest issue. Artists cut out and paint plywood to look like segments of monster limbs and hang the disembodied claws and tusks from bridges, highway signs, and rooftops. The art is funny, unintrusive and, in its own way, adds to the urban environment. And it's illegal.

"Monster Project is not about getting up. Monster Project is not trying to keep it real or attempting to go all-city," one of the Monster Project artists is quoted as saying in B/D, distancing itself from graff writers. "Monster Project is a about trying to make beautiful shit in the city, from the city, and about the city."

If you were the owner of the liquor store to whose roof they stuck some monster limb, you might be flattered or even hold onto the piece in case Monster Project suddenly had cachet in some SoHo gallery. Or you might whack it down, cursing at the vandals.

Either way, you've had firsthand experience with transitory public art that will probably never disappear. "This stuff is all around you," Fallah says.

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