Event Recap: BSA Street Art Stories with SWOON and DAZE

By - Monday, March 14th, 2016

It was a packed house at the Museum of the City of New York last Wednesday night on March 3rd when artists Chris “DAZE” Ellis and SWOON participated in a discussion on the Graffiti culture led by Steven Harrington and Jaime Rojo, the founders of the website Brooklyn Street Art. Graffiti enthusiasts of all ages gathered to join the artists in a conversation focused on their relationship with New York City and it’s impact on their art. It was interesting to hear the stories of these two stylistically different artists and their perspective on the act of putting art on to public walls, and how they themselves got involved in the culture.

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DAZE, is an old school Graffiti Writer from the 1970’s where the times of tagging up and painting whole subway cars in New York City were alive and booming:

“Looking into the work that was going on in the early 70’s, it just made me ask more questions. I wanted to know who did it. I wanted to know what it meant, and how it got there. But I think that’s what kind of drew me to the culture, those questions that I had. But then I started meeting some of those guys from the early 70’s and listening to them and just started to get involved in it myself.”

He has since then successfully transitioned from those Urban Art days into the Fine Art world, with permanent collections in many of NYC’s essential Museums. His exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, The City is My Muse, reflects an intimate relationship with the Big Apple that many people can relate to. It takes you through the 5 boroughs and we get to see and feel NYC through the eyes of someone who views the City in a special way.

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Swoon’s street art career started in 1999, when she moved to Brooklyn from Connecticut to study at the Pratt Institute.

“I was a kid who was classically trained, not from the city but when I got to the city, New York in every way and graffiti in every way completely exploded my concept of what art could be. I was like it’s a painting on a wall, you know what I mean? So it was like I just got the topic in my mind, the concept of what art could be, how it could be, where it could be, and graffiti was such a huge part of that. And I knew I wasn’t a graffiti artist. I was very clear on who I was. I was like oh I’m this classically trained kid who was just showing up here you know like just doing these little drawings whatever, but I was still so shaken that I wanted to like touch that and be a part of that in some way.”

SWOON’s desire to be apart of New York City’s landscape directed her to start wheat pasting large scale intricate drawings actively in the early 2000’s. Now her delicate, detailed wheat paste paper cutouts of human figures are recognized throughout the globe. Many of these cutouts are of people she admires who are heavily involved with “the city in so many ways” that they become her muse and inspire her to participate in other ways of connecting with people through her art, such as the Heliotrope Foundation which funds her countless efforts to help communities in need.

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These two artists started their paths into this urban culture in different ways but the essence of Graffiti and the way it interacted with the City is what heavily  inspired them both. Graffiti/Street art is a temporary art form and in a place as condensed and unique as NYC, Street art mimics it’s culture. One day a piece is there, the next it’s gone. The art is constantly moving, dying, being reborn all over the boroughs just as quickly as NYC life. According to Daze, “that’s why documentation of it is so important, because you go into it knowing it’s going to have a certain life span… it’ll be gone eventually.

This ephemeral nature of Street Art is what drew SWOON in: “For me, one of the reasons why I always stuck to paper and didn’t move towards paint, which I occasionally tried, was that the paper, just curls and pulls off the wall and does all this stuff, that shows it’s a little bit alive. It shows you this life cycle… I was completely drawn to the aspect.”

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Melding with the landscape of New York City, Street Art and Graffiti have always been synonymous with urban neighborhoods. However that relationship is slowly changing. As Gentrification explodes in NYC, murals are popping up on every corner taking up whole neighborhoods, transforming the once gritty rawness into polished aesthetically pleasing environments. It was refreshing to hear an actual Street Artist like Swoon, who’s made a career out of the art form in the streets and in the fine art world, voice her thoughts on the topic:

“I would have to say that something that has been coming up for me a lot lately, you know back in the days, it was kind of like this, September 11th had happened and the city was really politicizing in a very different way, and there was this huge conversation about the privatization of public space. And so to take something and put it outside always felt like this radical gesture which lead to reclaimed space as public, but lately what is happening is this feeling that putting art outside is gentrification. It means this totally other thing, and I’m just still trying to wrap my brain around it. Like that action you started with one meaning has come to mean something else and you can’t do anything about that. And I don’t have a firm position on what does that mean for me as an artist and what do I do next but I think about it a lot.”

Swoon and Daze have had such successful careers in the Graffiti/Street Art world. Not many artists can transition so gracefully into the gallery fine art world as these two have. It’s inspiring and important to note how SWOON happens to be one of the most popular female street artists. In a world dominated by boys since the 70’s, caused by the illegal nature of the culture, a woman being a successful street artist might seem rare, because all anyone ever really talks about are the Banksy’s and Mr.Brainwashes of the world. The visibility of female Graffiti and Street Artists is scarce due to many factors but that doesn’t mean the girls aren’t in the game and hitting as hard as the boys are. Shining light on women who participate in this Street Art and create what they love is very important for the next generation of female artists. When I asked if SWOON has any last words to tell young girls out there who want to put their mark on the streets, she responded with:  

“I think that there is such a power in just like believing in what you’re doing and in positivity and just bringing your truest self and trusting. I will give the advice that somebody gave to me where I was like worried about it and it’s illegal and I don’t know what’s gonna happen, and he was like, ‘don’t worry about all these considerations just make the good thing first and when you make that good thing the world will make a little more space for you.’ And I think that young women, in my experience of being a young woman, the challenge is just believing in yourself. The challenge is just being like ‘No, I’m going to do this.’ So Just make that first action, then make the next action and then make the next one but by all means just make that first action because that’s how you build the confidence.” 

This advice, to just believe in yourself and your art, and the rest will come, is one that can be spread to young girls, young boy, and anyone who interested in the act of creating. The stories heard last Wednesday night  at the Museum of the City of New York, solidified the impression that the streets of New York City can be enticing and inspiring, giving us the confidence boost needed to engage in our own street art stories. 

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