July's Fiesta mission was one of our best local adventures yet! The theme was "style and design" and Brad and I were sort of scratching our heads figuring out what to explore, since Art Basel doesn't take place until December. But one day, while driving northbound on I-95 and passing the impressive graffiti wall on NW 23rd street, we realized there was some great Miami style and design right under noses!
I knew squat about graffiti before I started this mission, so I had to do a little digging. It just so happens that earlier this year, James and Karla Murray, part-time Miami residents, published a book called Miami Graffiti. The photographers, a husband and wife team, authored a comprehensive tome on the local graffiti scene, which has been active for about 25 years.
The back cover states: " . . . there's so much more to Miami than South Beach and Spring Break. . . . graffiti in Miami is wilder, more creative and vibrant than in most other cities throughout the world."
James and Karla have been following graffiti culture since 1990 and had already published two books about New York's scene when they discovered one of Miami's most famous graffiti spots, the Hialeah penit. This abandoned building, which has since been destroyed, was named so because it looked like a would-be penitentiary. The name stuck though -- now the term penit refers to any similar structure.
James and Karla continued to explore those areas of Miami off the beaten track and amassed a collection of graffiti photos over ten years; many of the original images are in film.
"The colors in Miami really grabbed us," Karla explained. "It's different than in New York. Colors there tend to reflect the dirty nature of the city. Artists use darker colors, like dark blues and purples. No one paints in hot pink or neon orange in New York. When we asked Miami graffiti writers why they used tropical colors, they told us that they didn't even realize they were doing something different. They had simply grown up with those colors."
In our early conversations, Karla was kind enough to hook me up with local grafitti writer Atomik, who met Brad and I one hot July afternoon at Culture Kings in the Design District. We spent the day checking out some of Miami's hottest graffiti spots (see below for specific locations) and learning everything we didn't know about the art form. Later that night, we headed to Transit Lounge's outdoor space, where Atomik spray painted a canvas that sold at auction.
I told Atomik his painting didn't have to be about the car or girly (like the flower graphics I had picked for the car), but in fact, his abstract work really captured the idea of movement and direction, as well as the curvy lines of the vehicle. The very act of painting itself was dynamic. It was a pleasure to watch Atomik go at it, deftly wielding the spray paint can.
I would've kept the painting myself, if I could! But instead a lucky guy picked it up for $100 (surely it was worth more than that). Part of the proceeds went to Transit Lounge's favorite charity and the rest to Atomik's pocket. The guy who brought the painting was hanging out with a lady friend. "It's going to look great in his Brickell bachelor pad," she said.
Atomik wasn't the only person who got creative that night. The outdoor space at Transit Lounge became one massive graffiti fiesta. We thought it would be fun to paint on the car, so Brad purchased an enormous semi-transparent plastic cover, but that really wasn't going to work out as well as we thought, because the cover wasn't actually as big as the car and even if it had been, it would've defeated the purpose of showing off the car.
The guys at Transit Lounge had an even better idea though -- they taped the cover on a wall and then everybody had a chance to try their hand at graffiti.
Well into the evening, the crowd buzzed with creative energy. Some of Atomik's graffiti writer friends showed up, but others who had never written participated too. I really loved this event because it was so interactive. People kept walking up to the wall, covering other drawings with their own. By the end of the night, every inch of that plastic sheet was covered with amazing blasts of color!
Most of us associate graffiti with vandalism and gangs, but it seems to me to be an art form that doesn't get enough respect. I learned a lot from the few hours spent tooling around Miami with Atomik. For example, graffiti artists are called writers instead of painters; a tag is your signature, which basically says "I was here."
Mind you, not all graffiti is illegal. Some business owners approve of designs (within the regulations of their municipalities), which has helped beautify some rather run-down parts of Miami-Dade. But even these so-called permission walls don't always last.
Miami graffiti writer Atomik stands proudly in front of his work. He's old enough to mourn the loss of Miami's beloved Orange Bowl icon, glorified here at a Wynwood wall.
Atomik is a soft-spoken, relaxed kind of guy who takes his work very seriously. I really enjoyed hanging out with him and respected how devoted he is to the art. He has been painting for fifteen years, since he was in his teens. "I've just always loved art," he told me. And indeed, it seems to come naturally to him, as he also does commercial and graphic design work. At the time of our graffiti tour, he was a member of the MSG crew (Miami Style Graffiti).
Next time you drive around Miami-Dade and see some graffiti, take a moment to really appreciate it!
Here are the locations that we visited. Click through to see pictures.
Corner of NW 47th Terrace & NW 2nd Street at Little Haiti Hardware and Lumber store, side street wall by Siner, Zame and Cure.
NW 7th Avenue & NW 46th street, side wall of a convenience store, alien character theme by Freak and Theme.
NW 24th street in between NW 1st and 2nd avenue, mural by Retina from Los Angeles and The Mac from Arizona.
NW 24th street in between NW 2nd and NW 3rd avenue, empty lot, location of Miami Graffiti Book Jam in May 2009 (the paintings are on the interior side of the lot walls, so if the gate is closed, you might need to sneak in like we did -- it was closed, but not locked).
NW 6th Avenue & NW 23rd street, The Wall of Fame done for Art Basel 2008, visible from I-95, featuring artists from all over the world.
NW 2nd Avenue & NW 22nd street, abandoned warehouse (be careful at this location, it's a sketchy zone, right next to the projects).
For a great collection of Miami graffiti photos indexed by writers or crews, visit www.miamigraffiti.com. The site also features a brief history and handy glossary.
James and Karla Murray are curating an impressive satellite event during Art Basel 2009, December 4-6. Graffiti Gone Global will feature urban street art from around the world at 3252 NE 1st Avenue, Suite 101, Midtown Miami. Sponsored by Sushi Samba.
Don't forget to check out those who helped us on this mission: Atomik, James and Karla Murray and Transit Lounge. A special shout-out goes out to Transit staff for not only helping us on a busy night, but doing so with great enthusiasm! Transit regularly supports artists -- you can see paintings on the lounge's walls.
THE MISSION IN PICTURES