One of Missoula’s few contemporary art galleries is located in a charred building with no roof. The entrance is a chain-link gate with a “No Trespassing” sign. The halls are littered with empty spray paint cans. There is no curator. New work appears regularly.
Street art isn’t about conforming to the formalities of a traditional gallery, but its urban workspaces often serve the same purpose: showcasing new work from emerging artists. And while Missoula is fortunate to be home to a public street art and graffiti outlet at the south end of the California Street footbridge, it also boasts hidden “galleries,” like the one described above, with walls covered by edgy illustrations and large-scale murals from floor to where the ceiling should be.
“These are canvases,” says local artist and teacher Patricia Thornton, standing at one of the “secret sites” she and colleague Karen Slobod discovered in preparation for their workshop on street and public art, which began Tuesday, June 11. “A lot of artists I knew in San Francisco, it was hard for them to show. Galleries can be tough. But you can always get it up on walls. It’s a place for people to be seen, to have an audience, to get their work on display.”
Street art—also known as guerilla art or neo-graffiti—is an overarching term that encompasses multiple areas of specialization. Included in the definition are straight aerosol spray art (such as logo-style tagging, where an artist leaves his or her name on the wall); stencil art (Missoula has recently seen an influx of “Dick Cheney is Watching You” stencils throughout downtown); stickers (always prevalent on newspaper racks and parking meters); and multimedia designs that include combinations of the above. Often the work includes sociopolitical messaging; the DIY approach and lawbreaking aspect is part of the artist’s expression. Thornton and Slobod are less interested in promoting illegal art, however (their workshop includes a discussion on etiquette), and more focused on how responsible work enhances its surroundings.
“A lot of people see tagging as just a way of saying, ‘I was here,’ but I think a lot of it goes beyond just a name,” Slobod says. “The best street art is sociologically motivated and aesthetically thought-out. It becomes a way of speaking to and for the community.”
In spite of its alternative roots, the medium has received increasingly widespread recognition in the mainstream art community. The late New York graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is well-known for transitioning from street art to international critical acclaim in the 1980s. Thornton was first introduced to street artists at a San Francisco opening in a traditional gallery two years ago. And Thornton and Slobod’s workshop is being presented by the Missoula Art Museum.
“The non-elitism of it, the fact that any artist can find their space, is what’s so appealing to me,” says Kerri Rosenstein, director of Gallery Saintonge and a longtime fan of local street art. “It’s not a bunch of kids just fucking around. It’s a craft. It’s a legitimate craft, just like traditional painting or anything else, and there’s a range. Some of it is really beautiful and has a clear message. It’s exciting how everyone wants to be heard and understood, and how they can be regardless of who or where they are. It’s exciting to see it, especially coming back to the white walls in my gallery.”
At one “secret spot” in Missoula, rows of concrete walls are covered with elaborate aerosol taggings and what look like unfinished experimental doodles. The artists represented in the space go by “GAS 134,” “The Prude” and “Iamagicnation.” The latter spells out the beginning of his handle—“Iamagic”—in graffiti letters, followed by each remaining letter on the chests of six dancing characters who look like punked-out rejects from Where the Wild Things Are. The piece stretches approximately 40 feet.
“My buddies and I were the first to start painting there,” says “GAS 134,” who recently moved from Missoula and prefers to be identified by his handle. “It was the sort of place where you could get out there and hone your skills after class or after work when I had the urge to paint.”
Sure enough, “GAS 134’s” work refining his style—including one large-scale tag that took him two weeks to complete—led to bigger things. He was commissioned to paint two murals at Edge of the World skate shop in early 2005.
“When we started painting there I always envisioned it being a mega-secret spot, something folks just heard about word-of-mouth from other artists, and coming back years later to see who’d found it,” he says. “It’d be like a collection, from our crew [the Zoo Town Artists] to…whomever.”
Almost like a collection in a gallery.
The Missoula Art Museum’s “Street Art/Public Art Workshop” continues Thursday, July 13, at 7 PM, and Saturday, July 15, at 11 AM, at MAM’s Temporary Contemporary in the Florence Building. Patricia Thornton and Karen Slobod will discuss and present examples of local street art and, on Saturday, participants will have the chance to create their own artwork. $10 per class. Call 728-0447.