Ceci N’est Pas l’Art, Or Is It?

This possibly pataphysical interview with the actual Adrian Wilson, phantom street artist and stealth visual commentator, may or may not have happened within the past week. With Wilson anything is possible and nothing is always what it seems. One thing is true, he makes artist-interventions. His art is either here, there or anywhere. It is seen and not seen, visible and visible. I was reacquainted with it when on Seventh Avenue I came across the vintage newsstand below. But you may or may not have seen a slew of other things that anonymity prevents him from taking credit for. But for more below the radar blips check out below and here.

I recently stumbled across your newsstand (an old structure, in fact) that just seemed to appear like a mushroom in the rain across from FIT. What is the genesis of that?
Oh god, since Stormy Daniels described Trump’s appendage, I am not sure that I am best pleased with your description of my art but I am always on the lookout for new spots to add art to. I paint art on gyro boxes for food carts through to 25 ft high walls, mostly in places nobody has painted on before. There was actually a run down newsstand right opposite Penn Station on 33rd and 7th that I had been asking the owner to let me paint for months. You would be surprised what planning goes into some projects and how spontaneous others are. Part of the challenge and satisfaction for me is the hustle to get an idea I have to exist for real. Even if it exists for 10 minutes, it existed. Ideas are nothing without reality.

The newsstand was a mess, so I offered to paint it. “How much will you pay me?” said the owner. “You will get famous from this and it’s New York, so everything is worth money”  was his reasoning. I pointed out to him that it was my hobby, I had to buy the paint, my name wouldn’t be on it but it would draw people to his business and that “Nobody gives money to a food bank and is expected to pay to donate too”.I agreed to pay any fines he got for having art on there and that was that. I choose pieces that reflect the fact that it is a new stand, so the first big piece was about fake news. I asked different people to collaborate on the art with me partly because I enjoy the community of artists but also because the more respected the artists on there, the less likely it is to be vandalized. So instead of another mural in the Lower East Side, there’s a new art location opposite a fashion college in Chelsea and hopefully it will inspire other people to approach their own local newsstand owner and do the same.


The stupidest question of any interview with an artist is ‘Where’d you get your idea(s)?’ Well, call me stupid, there are so many? And so varied where did they come from?
By now, the ideas just flow though a mixture of practice and a lack of restriction from either myself, or those around me. They can range from schoolboy pranks to high brow art, planned to spontaneous, provocative to playful. My brain is wired in a way that can spot the absurdities of the world around me. I also love puns and a lot of my work is a visual form of wordplay. I consider myself more comparable to an advertising agency than an an artist as it is always about finding the simplest way to get a message across. The difference is that I want to encourage people to think, not encourage them to buy.

I possibly have a visual form of Tourette Syndrome. I am not sure why we are programmed to constantly try to make some kind of sense of the random events in our daily lives, when in fact accepting and enjoying them is what makes life so rewarding. Aren’t the best stories of our lives the ones where something unexpected happened? For whatever reason, my brain seems to be tuned into that randomness and I use my art to try and show it to others who didn’t notice it, in order to enrich their lives too. It is only the same as a basketball player who can see that way through the chaos around them to score the perfect shot, or the pool player who calculates complex trigonometry, spin and speed in an instant to get the 8 ball in the center pocket. A man once asked me what I thought about when I was being creative and my answer was “nothing”. He replied “the brain works the most efficiently when it doesn’t think, it just does”. So I suppose your answer is that it is just who I am.


Most of your work is anonymous and there is a tradition for anonymity in street art. But why?
There are different levels of anonymity in street art. Graffiti is most often illegal and about the repetition of a tag, such as the SEN4 that can be seen on thousands of NYC fire hydrants, understood and appreciated only by a small counter cultural part of society, rather than the general public. The traditional graffiti writers recognized each other’s work and they gained respect within that community from either their quality, their output, or the dangerous spots they tagged.

Street Art is different because it is not about repetition, it is all about recognition. Street artists generally add signatures and hashtags next to their work because they want to, get ‘followers’, become popular, get in a group show, then a gallery, then make some real money by doing real art on canvas. It may be a generalization but with Artification, Artwashing, Artvertising or whatever you want to call it, there’s money in street art and the only way to get your piece of the pie is to get your name on the wanted list. And of course, most street art you see is legal, complete with with certificates of insurance, hoists and the blessing of city permits.

The problem with pushing yourself as an artist, is that you are pushing yourself as an artist. Is the message about the art, or you? In my own case, there are two reasons why I very rarely sign my pieces. The obvious is that some are illegal and it is really disgusting that this city arrests street artists for a 3 inch high sticker, yet never fines the big brands or arrests the crews that cover construction sites with thousands of illegal posters. Even worse is when those guys paste their crap adverts over hand made art, such as you may see in Freeman Alley.


Putting your name on either means ownership or fame or something else what does it mean to you?
I don’t sign my art because then I can do what I want. I am not pigeonholed. Tonight I found a leg off a mannequin, planted it upside down where a tree used to be and created a thong out of CAUTION tape that was lying around. It was spontaneous. It was a commentary on #metoo as it was just a silly prank that made you smile, depending on how you looked at it. Should I have signed it? Added a hashtag so I get some kind of adulation? Sorry, my ego has no followers. There is a famous person I create art content for and I jokingly refer to myself as their “Content Bitch” but he can’t describe me as that because he is a guy and therefore he is “not allowed to”. If I want to do a Black Lives Matter piece, or an anti police brutality piece, or an anti Trump piece, or a I can, without reproach from some offended group. I won’t get HR calling me in on Monday morning saying that the art I did over the weekend “doesn’t reflect the (cowardly) values of this company”. I don’t get Hispanics complaining I am culturally appropriating them by
creating art on tortillas.

I don’t get any of that because I don’t put my name on it and you know what? People can just enjoy the image or the art for what it is. The best way to describe it as like the Kentucky Derby. The idea is the racehorse, brought into existence, nurtured and fed by the owner. The owner selects the jockey and he hopefully wins the race. The racehorse is famous, maybe the jockey too. The owner, the most important person who created that perfect, winning moment? Nobody cares. Well, I am content to watch from the stables as my horses go out there and win races. It is way more satisfying and much less stressful than riding the thing past the post.


Have you been hassled, hustled or otherwise snagged by the authorities?
I was arrested once and for a misdemeanor trespass while painting a legal piece but thankfully the case was dismissed. I am respectful, cautious and thankfully do not look or act like your typical street artist.
I’ve heard that you are called the most innovative “memorial” artist in the five burroughs, particularly for your death-defying homage to David Bowie and now Aretha Franklin. Can you describe these?
Nobody is going to say they painted the now infamous “David Bowery” sign because it was highly illegal.


From what I know, when David Bowie Died, there were the usual flowers and candles put outside his Lafayette Street apartment as has been the case since Elvis at Graceland or Freddie Mercury in London. The sidewalk fills up with messages, and bouquets, people crying and so the whole thing is fenced off and a cop stationed there for a week or two until it is all scooped up and put in a dumpster.

So using a bit of the old wordplay skills, how about painting the Bowery sign 3 blocks away from where he lived so it says “David Bowery”? We all know his name wasn’t pronounced like that and if the back side of the sign is painted, so drivers don’t get confused by the new street name, surely that is less disruptive than a blocked sidewalk or the cost of a cop assigned to candle duty for two weeks?Slight problem being that the sign is 20 feet high above (the sadly missed opportunity of Whitney) Houston Street. It would need a hoist, someone stood on the roof of a truck, or maybe a 26 inch deep one day blizzard and someone with the balls to climb a ladder and paint it to make it work. What were the chances of that happening? The storm came and left behind a “David Bowery” sign which top trended on Facebook and went viral. Finally people had found a new way to mourn.

The sign would even be reproduced 13 feet wide in the Lafayette Subway and used as a centerpiece to promote the Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, becoming an officially recognized part of David Bowie’s history.


Prince died a few months after Bowie and some bright spark stuck a sign up on the platform so it said PRINCE RIP instead of PRINCE ST. and that went viral too. Interestingly enough, so did a shot of the entrance with the round Prince logo placed next to the N and R icons. Shame it was just photoshop not real but hey, it’s all about the idea right? Well no, fake sentiments are not real sentiments.

Aretha Franklin was unusual, so I hear from the horse’s mouth,  in that she became gravely ill very quickly. The artist had time to go to the 1 Franklin stop and scope it out, measuring tile sizes, stair tread heights and spotting where was optimum to stick up the pieces in terms of visibility without being caught. The interesting thing about street art is the visiblity/removal ratio, where the more visible something is, the more attention it gets but also the quicker it will be removed. Conversely, a piece can remain in place for years but only be noticed by 6 people, 4 of who are the artist’s relatives. As they were mainly only stickers and easily removed, it was important to put them up just before rush hour, take some photos from different angles and disappear before getting in trouble as the MTA does not like unapproved artwork.

The artist felt it was only a tiny chance but maybe someone would show Aretha the photos before she passed and it might raise a little smile. Sadly she passed away the next day but the Aretha Franklin subway signage had already gone viral, spawning copycat versions at the Brooklyn Franklyn Ave spot and as far away as Aretha Franklinstrasse in Berlin, though that also looked suspiciously like photoshop. A group of street artists went public as the creators of “RESPECT” version 2.0 in Brooklyn and a couple of weeks later, the MTA applied their own permanent RESPECT graphics onto both stations.

In all these cases, would it make the art better to sign the work? Does anyone need to know who did the tribute? Should only black or female artists have done the tribute to a famous black female artist? Should the original artist be thanked or at least told they won’t be arrested, or will that open the floodgates to stations getting plastered with art every time someone dies? As much as this is a new way of mourning celebrities, it can’t become a repetitive cliche. For something to be appreciated (and to go viral) it has to have some originality rather than just adding “RIP” to each station name. But this is where the street artist can have fun and enjoy their challenge. The world needs something to focus their grief on and no longer is it the square footage of the flowers and cards. Art has changed the way we mourn pop stars and that is a fundamental reason why 3 pieces of art that could easily be dismissed as just schoolboy pranks, actually had an emotional effect on millions of people.


Do you have any secret plans you’d like to share?

Oh, I have two dream pieces I would love to do but accept that they are too risky and complicated.First is to take a photo of the cobbles on Mercer Street in soho from above, then work out on photoshop which stones should be painted a particular color, like stone pixels, so that when you stand looking down Mercer street while walking along Prince, the stones form a perfect Keith Haring outline figure. I would need to mark each of the stones with a chalk number such as 1 for red, 2 for white etc and then have about 30 people with spraycans quickly paint each of the stones, Would take about 5 minutes but I think those stones are landmark protected and I haven’t got 30 friends.

Second is the Uptown F stop at 23rd St. Currently closed but there are 92 easily reachable single strip lights and cameras only looking towards the turnstyles. Using those same 30 imaginary friends spread out the full length of the train on Gay Pride Weekend, we get on at W4th uptown F, get off at 23rd street and clip colored gels onto every one of the lights, so that the whole thing becomes one long rainbow.

Two great ideas, too much to pull off even for me.

CATEGORIES
Daily Heller, Political Design, Steven Heller

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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