Graffiti writers communicate through elevated street art

"It's one of the purest art forms, about honest expression."

Photo Credit: David Zuccarelli

Graffiti writers communicate through elevated street art

Written by: Jerry Davich
July 13, 2018


About 30,000 years ago, someone painted with red pigment a human handprint on the wall of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France, as if to say, “I was here.” 

Today’s street artists are using pigments of all colors to paint similar handprints, metaphorically speaking, sharing the same timeless message with the world.   

URBAN TAGGING MEETS FINE ART
“Back when we first started doing this, in the 1980s, we had no clue of the magnitude that this art movement would develop into,” says Felix “Flex” Maldonado, of FLEX Creative in Hammond. “Now that I can reflect on it all these years later, I better understand and appreciate why it has become such a global movement,” he says. “Whether you call it street art, public art, graffiti art, or America’s last folk art movement, it has not only turned the art world on its head, but the world’s culture as well.” 

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About 30,000 years ago, someone painted with red pigment a human handprint on the wall of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France, as if to say, “I was here.” 

Today’s street artists are using pigments of all colors to paint similar handprints, metaphorically speaking, sharing the same timeless message with the world.   

URBAN TAGGING MEETS FINE ART
“Back when we first started doing this, in the 1980s, we had no clue of the magnitude that this art movement would develop into,” says Felix “Flex” Maldonado, of FLEX Creative in Hammond. “Now that I can reflect on it all these years later, I better understand and appreciate why it has become such a global movement,” he says. “Whether you call it street art, public art, graffiti art, or America’s last folk art movement, it has not only turned the art world on its head, but the world’s culture as well.” 

Photo Credit: David Zuccarelli
Vogue Cleaners mural | Miller Beach | Ish Muhammad

Maldonado is a self-taught artist with 25-plus years of experience in painting, drawing and graffiti art, with a degree from the American Academy of Art in Chicago. “Flex Maldonado is a bit of a contradiction,” says Raymundo Garcia, whose downtown Hammond restaurant, EAT, reflects an example of Maldonado’s freeform artwork on its northwest facade. “On the one hand, he is a tattooed urban street tagger, one step ahead of the law, while on the other, he is a student of fine art.” 

Some of his artwork reflects organic exercises of color and form. Other pieces are commissioned with specifically requested content. His art exists on the boundary of traditional photorealism and hip-hop postmodernism. 

CAPTURING THE CULTURAL PULSE
Ismael Muhammad Nieves, whose street name is “Ish,” specializes in what he calls “post-graffiti abstract expressionism” (ishmuhammad.com). “For me, it exercises the tools, styles and patterns traditionally used for graffiti writing to capture contemporary pulses in culture and thought,” he says. “I try to capture information that most writers process as they’re practicing their craft. Very similar to trying to capture going for a walk without painting a picture of a bike path.” 

For Nieves, who no longer considers himself an active graffiti writer, it’s all about colors, lines, symbols, shadows and silhouettes tied to the process of being in the moment. “It is elusive trying to paint an experience that few can relate to,” says Nieves, whose art has been commissioned by several companies and museums. “The cool thing is more public art, street art, and graffiti art is appearing throughout the Midwest landscape. The visual language is finding audiences.” 

True graffiti writing remains a colorful channel for fellow graffiti writers, yet it’s a language developed enough to communicate outside of the graffiti writing community. So-called “vandals” are now getting commissioned work, and the layers of public versus private work are cross-pollinating in big cities and social media, creating visual mashups, Nieves notes. “Post-graffiti brings all the challenges of being creative and finding new ways to try to match the excitement and experience of being an active graffiti writer,” he says. “So far I’ve created some cool works, but have not been able to capture a true moment of being a graffiti writer.” 

Self-criticism is a familiar hue with many of these artists who’ve also become improvised diplomats of their world to outsiders. 

Photo Credit: David Zuccarelli
Miller Beach | Eric Roldan and Jeffrey Brink
Photo Credit: David Zuccarelli
Miller Beach | CISA Crew

ART MADE FOR SOCIETY
“As a professional artist, I often hear cliché questions on the purpose of art and art making,” says Diego Gonzalez, a classically trained artist whose preferred medium is airbrush art using spray art tools. “Art and the humanities is the most important endeavor for humanity. Without art, this world would be a very boring and lifeless place,” says Gonzalez, who conducted a TEDx talk on street art and vandalism.

“Street art and graffiti is just art,” he says. “It’s the counterculture movement away from the galleries and academics. So these artists instead took to the streets to get the message to the people . . . Art is made for society, not for snobs, critics or elitists. And graffiti art is an expression of humanity by an urban culture. It’s one of the purest artforms, about honest expression. Society still needs to think differently how to view it, from an art educated point of view.”

Maldonado, whose most recent public work is the Jackson 5 mural on 5th and Broadway in Gary, says post-graffiti abstract expressionism marries the work of current street artists with legendary masters such as Picasso, Pollock, van Gogh and the Impressionists. “I don’t see this term as a way to separate ourselves from traditional graffiti artists, but as a graduation to something more evolved,” he says.

To those graffiti art newcomers who simply or crudely want to write their name in public places, Nieves suggests to instead paint the conversation they had with themselves prior to writing their name. Gonzalez adds, “It’s all about being seen and, literally, making your mark on the world.”

In other words, saying “I was here” through the public prism of street art.

Photo Credit: David Zuccarelli
The Jackson 5 mural on 5th and Broadway | Gary | Felix "Flex" Maldonado