"At the time, I had no real desire to do professional art," says a local graffiti artist best known by the tag name 6Cents.
Very few people are where they anticipated themselves being in high school and most graffiti artists are no exception.
Ironically it was in an art class that 6cents met someone doing what would become his life's work. That someone became the other half of FAB Crew, arguably Indy's best-known aerosol artists and host of our annual graffiti expo, SubSurface.
"[In class] he saw my drawings and said, 'we don't have anyone in the crew that can do characters. If you want to paint characters, I will teach you how to paint graffiti,'" remembers 6cents.
The door was open and that day he took his first step onto a track that would send him past mile markers across the country. He hasn't stopped running since.
"We spent years working at night in forgotten places," recalls 6Cents. Like many artists he spent much of his time painting and repainting over any flat surface that would serve as a canvas.
As the FAB Crew grew in their newfound hobby, the small group of artists quickly realized that they were not the only ones.
"Eventually we went to an event called Paint Louis," says 6cents.
The event was several days of nonstop communal painting done along pre-approved walls throughout St. Louis. Over the last decade, these types of gatherings have steadily grown, becoming the closest thing to a gallery opening that graffiti can truly have. These events differ from a traditional art opening because they are alive. An outdoor workspace draws in hundreds of observers and several dozen artists at a time. Needless to say it is a unique experience to witness layers of broad strokes from an aerosol can become a stunning image.
"It blew my mind and intoxicated me," says 6Cents.
Not satisfied to have to always travel to other cities for this experience, eventually the Indianapolis artists decided to bring it home and inaugurated SubSurface.
"It was our attempt to get a small piece of what we saw in St. Louis," says 6Cents.
SubSurface has grown leaps and bounds since its humble beginnings in Broad Ripple ten years ago. Quickly growing to match the heavy hitters of cities like Chicago and St. Louis, artists from around the state, country and even world began congregating in Indy once a year for one simple reason, to paint together.
This year, roughly 50 artists will gather in Fountain Square. Almost all of the presented artists are broken down into crews, groups of working artists, who are, as 6Cents defines it, a "fraternal organization of like-minded people."
Indianapolis based crews will be FAB, IWS and BrameUW. Others will include KingBeeUW, an early star in NYC graffiti, the DF Crew heralding members from NYC, Cincinnati and Denver, Devious from Cincinnati, Deph from Los Angeles, Crazy In Style Artists from Northwest Indiana and MFK crew.
It was not until SubSurface came onto the playing field that Indianapolis could be picked out of the lineup in the national lineup. Talented work had been gathering on the cinderblock walls around town and now would see its debut.
"[SubSurface] is a snap shot of the culture as a whole," says 6Cents. "So, in other words, you have to go into an artists studio to see their work but you have to be in the right place at the right time to see what we are doing."
Pete Brown, founder of Midwest Street Art, sat on a tan couch in his small, north side studio. Dressed in khaki shorts and reef sandals, he would blend in better in a beach town than central Indiana. Brown is on the SubSurface planning committee and he, along with 6cents, explain the importance of the event.
"Anybody can go to the Stutz or the Harrison any Friday they want and walk around and check out an artist's studio, meet them, talk to them and ask them questions," says Brown. "This is almost the annual open studio to graffiti in Indianapolis."
Some people aren't comfortable with equating graffiti to fine art, but the FAB crew, for one, has proven that they will not be limited to alley walls. Their commissioned work can be found on everything from IndyGo buses to Super Bowl murals to pieces created for productions of Klipsch audio. Despite being asked to create pieces, a stigma remains that comes with using a can over a brush.
"It's known mostly as an act," says 6Cents. "So when you say, 'I am a graffiti artist,' that calls up visions of people running around cutting fences, climbing buildings and just generally being a menace. I don't think that is entirely fair because we live in an era where the art form itself is 30 years old. It's assisted every commercial consumer product that is known to man. Yet all the general public knows about graffiti is that it is a crime. That is the biggest eye opener for me over and over. No matter how far I take my work or how far some of the artists who I work with develop their professional portfolio, people have to separate it in their minds."
"There is a huge educational component going on," adds Brown. "There are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about what graffiti is, especially in the Midwest. The fact that people can go to an event like SubSurface and meet the artist, talk to them, watch a piece go from a gray wall to this amazing explosion of color and content. It's educational."
SubSurface has peaked the interest of art lovers and aspiring artists alike, some taking the education into their own hands by learning the history and practicing themselves. The style of writing and the graffiti movement as whole has spread like wildfire. Graffiti as we know it took root in the early 80's, solidified and brought to the public eye through music, word of mouth and the PBS documentary Style Wars. During this time, the use of stencils spread from Europe, taking the subculture by storm. The craft was being developed and pushed. With its growth came different branches such as letter writing and street art.
"Graffiti and street art have the same approach: putting a piece of art out in my city on the street where it can be seen," says 6Cents. "That is where the similarities end. Street art it is all about a message, it is all about context: what image you used, where you put it and what it means. In graffiti, it is a mastery of letter style, which unfortunately the untrained viewer just can't tap into. Street art wins every time [in terms of popularity with the public] because it uses a vocabulary that everyone understands. Graffiti is a mastery of letter form while street art is a medium for a message."
Far too often the messages of both are misconstrued.
"A lot of people associate graffiti with danger," explains Brown leaning back into the couch. "A lot of people associate it with drugs, violence and gangs. That's garbage. It is just a stereotype."
For artists like 6Cents, this stereotype is a hard one to wash off at the end of the day. Official statements from the city and neighborhood associations often cause the average Joe to see graffiti and feel threatened by the potential destruction of his block. 'Joe' still considers graffiti to only be a territorial sign of gang life.
"Graffiti doesn't do anything to further the menace of a gang," says 6Cents, offended by the comparison of his own work to the territory markers of gangs. "Do you think that a group of lawless lowlifes, that we all perceive gangs to be, who run around robbing people, selling drugs, breaking into houses and destroying neighborhoods, have any sense of aesthetic sensibility or drive to go and do it?" His voice filled with strength from fighting back for years against a stereotype that is far too well known. "Do you think that their gang member fellow friends are encouraging them to execute an artistic vision? The whole concept is ridiculous."
"Even the paint these guys [professional artists] use is 10 bucks a can," says Brown, commenting on a few logistical flaws. He points out that few gangs will be spending that kind of cash on a piece that takes 20 or more cans nor will they take the time and effort that street artists do.
Simply put for the artists at work, graffiti is not a gateway drug to gang life. But the enmity against graffiti writers is not just limited to gang association. Over time, even their medium of spray paint has been married to a deep-seeded discrimination.
Artist and graffiti writer, Bozak, and 6Cents went into detail about working with a can over a brush or pencil.
"It is more versatile than acrylic or oil paint," says Bozak. "Just in the fact that it can cover almost any surface. You can do anything from a hard sharp hair line to the softest fade."
"The nature of spray paint is that you do all the elaborate colors and designs, then you work your way down into all the fine details," adds 6Cents as both artists elaborated about fine techniques and the subtleties of the trade.
"In graffiti, typically the fill-in is done first," says Bozak. "At some point thereafter the outline and various other elements are added [like a boarder, background, highlights and shading] that add depth. That is classic style...but we have seen people in the last five years experiment. People are doing graffiti in ways now that I could not have dreamt of three years ago."
"As the tools change, all the limitations are gone," says 6Cents.
Technology has only expanded the stroke of graffiti, causing style and technique to rapidly pool and spread. Bozak and 6Cents went on to count their blessings that modern media allows them to see work from around the world, organize events and push their own abilities.
"Previously you would have to meet some older guy that did graffiti and he would have to show you actual photos from his shoebox," explains Bozak. "That was the only way you would see graffiti outside of your neighborhood."
The use of social media like Flickr and Instagram allows artists to see the progression of the style more than just once a year. Even so, Bozak and 6Cents agreed that there is nothing like seeing a friend grow leaps and bounds as they lay down a base coat over the old murals to work out a fresh one.
"You would go out and see the same people in different cities," says Bozak, leaning back in a vinyl-covered chair. "Then I was lucky enough to have the same scene come to my home town once a year. It was something I fell in love with and could not wait to be apart of more and more. You meet these guys that are fun to chat with and take you under their wing in some ways."
Gatherings like SubSurface hint the sentiments of family. Graffiti artists from both near and far come together for their own reunion. With each SubSurface comes a storm of painters flooding town to see one another's progression from the previous year. They leave in their wake a path of brightly patterned walls instead of the torn raffle tickets or the soggy casserole dishes of our own family reunions.
"These events are amazing," says Bozak. "It is an opportunity to put your work on display in the community. Honestly, as I get older, community becomes something bigger in my mind."
The expansion of events like SubSurface have legitimatized the art form for the public and challenged artists to make each piece a little better than the last. Every artist that is participating in SubSurface this year is coming home to open arms.
It is fair to say that most of these talented individuals did not expect themselves to be doing these types of events years ago in a high school art class. With the coming of age comes a beautiful realization, doing nothing that we thought we would is actually okay. For these artists, it has been beautiful and even meant a lifelong path of community, amelioration and stunning work. This weekend, we can party crash this family reunion and see images that make each can of paint worth its weight in gold.
A quick outline of the weekend...
Friday August 30
Post-Graffiti Abstracts with FAB Crew
Artist Panel Discussion and SubSurface Launch party
Saturday August 31
Live painting in Fountain Square
Featuring artists from across the country including DF Crew, FAB / IWS, Higher Level Art, Momentum Art Tech, Crazy In Style Artists, Metal Fingers, Devious and many, many more
Post-Graffiti Abstracts Open House
Featuring work by graffiti artists from across the Midwest
IUPUI cultural Arts Gallery
SubSurface Official After-Party
TopSpeed, Echomaker, TheProforms, Hinx Jones
Doors: 9 Show starts 10
White Rabbit Cabaret