Blake Kunin’s new book takes a loving look at graffiti; Mayhem

Bark at the moon. Blake Kounin. Photograph. 2018. Courtesy of RAB Arts

Almost anyone can claim an allegiance or affinity for graffiti art, but far fewer people have immersed themselves in the rampant cowboy lifestyle that produces some of the medium’s most enduring figures. In New York, towering practitioners like 1970s icon Zephyr helped create new languages: Zephyr pioneered the fear train graffiti movement, inspiring legions of others while simultaneously ensuring that much of his original designs would be lost forever. The trickling effects of Kenny Scharf’s cartoon-style aesthetic can be seen all over town today. The late graffiti artist SAME pulled off a truly legendary stunt in 2014: he walked into a Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney and tagged “PPPRiceless” on the wall.

Photographer and fellow graffiti artist Blake Kunin has dedicated years to capturing characters like these and the beautiful, ephemeral works of art they produce. The result is his first book, bark at the moon, a 289-page photographic compilation of antics and artistic vandalism. Kunin’s first exhibition, at Leo Fitzpatrick’s Public Access Gallery in Chinatown, will also take place later in the spring.

Observer: YYou’ve done a lot of graffiti yourself, haven’t you?

Blake Kounin: Law. Graffiti really set everything in motion for me to find photography. If it hadn’t been for graffiti, I never would have picked up a camera or really started doing creative stuff. [The book] East a fairly current and comprehensive book on the current state of graffiti. It’s not a history book. I didn’t come out with the intention of exploring the history of graffiti; it’s more about lifestyle, environment and the type of situations that most graffiti artists can relate to. And it’s not just specific to the people in the book. So that was my intention, you know, because there are a lot of people who do graffiti that I don’t know, but who live the same lifestyle and will definitely be able to relate to the people in the book.

The graffiti really fits into the anarchist spirit that New Yorkers embody and that I feel like was most heightened, or loosest, in the 70s. Right? When the trains weren’t running and everyone was angry.

Yes, I would say the 70s and 80s were probably the model for graffiti today. And little has changed. It’s crazy. Everything has been influenced since that time. Only the environments have changed – there are more police and everything is under surveillance. This is the biggest change. But it’s definitely about freedom, you know? Graffiti artists are the ultimate freedom. They definitely want to live in their own world and communicate with each other.

To that end, could you tell me about a few different artists featured in the book?

Oh, absolutely. For example, there’s MQ and he’s been writing graffiti for almost 40 years. And then you have someone on the other side of the spectrum, Tober, who is much younger, in his twenties. But graffiti can bring these two completely different generations of people together. And you don’t really need to have anything else in common other than graffiti to be able to relate and connect and be empowered. That’s the biggest thing that I find really cool about graffiti is that you can go anywhere in the United States or a lot of places in the world and you don’t necessarily have to being able to talk to people to connect with that.

Do you think that not only graffiti itself, but also graffiti culture and the mindset of graffiti bombers, has spilled over into other industries?

Oh, sure. For example, the first time I saw Arc’teryx before I saw it, the mainstream was within the graffiti community. And I feel like any kind of subculture, fashion and all that, was born on the streets, you know? And that’s the first place you’re going to see before you see it on a billboard or on the track. And I really think that’s true with graffiti.

What do you think of some graffiti artists — I won’t mention names — who arrive in the highest stratosphere of the art market?

I mean, I think everyone can do whatever they want, you know? And I’m not against it. I just think along the same lines, you have to respect people who don’t do that. And those who have made a conscious effort to avoid any sort of opportunity like that and not pursue it and really stay true to the culture. And really, that’s why I kept doing this book as much as I did, is because most of the people in the book don’t participate in that kind of stuff. And I think their contribution to graffiti culture should be celebrated.

And just documented, period. Because you see tons of examples in the city of, like, 5Pointz being cleaned up. There is so much ephemeral art and graffiti art that as soon as it is there, there is no more. So exalting it in the art world is a really important thing and element. But you also have to make sure it’s preserved in some way, right?

100 per cent. I give the same credit to the guy who had a tag on the same street corner of a town for 10 or 15 years and maintained something like that. To me, that’s just as powerful as someone doing something in art at the highest level.

Do you have a favorite piece or piece of sustainable graffiti art in New York?

It was in SOHO a few years ago. They pressure washed the wall and it exposed a DONDI tag that was probably from the 80s. And to me that’s another cool thing about graffiti, it’s like a time capsule for other generations. The other amazing thing I saw a few years ago was on The Bowery. They pressurewashed another wall and unveiled a CURSE villain from 2001, and CURSE died in 2008, so stuff like that is close to my heart.

Angela C. Hale