Photographer Yoav Litvin began documenting street art after a battle with illness left him physically incapable of any form of exercise other than walking. As he began walking more and farther, he ended up exploring unfamiliar parts of New York City, where he “consumed more and more of the graffiti and street art culture [and] fell in love with its beauty, humor and the way it challenges convention.” His latest documentary book 2Create: Art Collaborations in New York City (Schiffer) is an intimate and insightful portrait of these artists who use the city as their canvas and the buildings and structures on which they are often illegally made as our museums of the street. I asked Litvin, who is also a neuroscientist, about what inspired him to collaborate with the collaborators. If you want to see and hear more, go to The Bronx Museum on Nov. 18.
How did this very ambitious project to cover the actual process of making street art come about?
As the name of the book suggests, it is focused on two major themes—the process of creation, and the art of collaboration. I love the various mediums and techniques that graffiti and street artists employ, but noticed that all the books on the topic include completed pieces that are pretty to look at, but not very instructive. I wanted to inspire people to go out and actually make works for the streets. What better way than to demonstrate the process itself? The artists in 2Create use collage, screen printing, mural making and classic graffiti on a variety of surfaces.
While documenting my previous book, Outdoor Gallery – New York City, I befriended and gained the trust of many artists in NYC, who are very shy with strangers. I feel very fortunate that they shared their intimate spaces with me in 2Create.
You’ve been interested in street and alternative art for a long time. How did you select your subjects?
I worked with several of the artists on my previous book, and the rest are simply artists that I wanted to work with. I feel very fortunate that I’ve befriended and gained the trust of these artists. They let me into their studios, though they rarely allow that, and I’ve produced this book as a love letter to them, their work and this city. I focused on duos that I felt were producing good work that grows as a result of the collaboration. Some collaborations I produced, others I simply tagged along for a pre-planned production. The duos include friends, business partners, lovers and brothers. Through constructive critique and dialog, they inspire each other to stretch their own personal skills, learn new techniques and appeal to different audiences.
As I read through the book, many of your subjects don’t use their real names or even show their faces. What are the dangers of this kind of art intervention?
New York is pretty strict. If they catch you putting up artwork illegally, you can sit in jail and/or pay fines. Nobody wants that.
190 Bowery in Manhattan was a designated graffiti zone after the photographer Jay Maisel bought it for $100K. It was sold to a developer. How do you feel about the tightening of the belt for street artists?
This is a result of gentrification and neo-liberalism. The city wants to control public spaces, either for private or corporate use. Street artists that convey uncensored and independent messaging are being pushed farther and farther outside of the city. Street art and graffiti rebel against this notion of privatized public space and retake the streets. It is evident why a capitalist, hierarchical society like the United States, especially in the richest city in the nation, would push out any threat to profit.
Some of this art is just incredible—as much for what it says as how it was done. I’m thinking, among others, of Dasic FernandeZ and Rubin 415. How do you judge a piece of street art? Is there a standard or is the process of commandeering a space and making something good enough?
Every person has their own taste. I personally like it when I identify artists, such as Rubin415 and Dasic FernandeZ, who are constantly evolving in their work and thought process. I also like artists who think about the communities they are working in, and structure their work with that in mind. For example, the piece by Rubin415 and Dasic Fernandez was created in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, around the corner from a halfway house. By the time they were completing the piece, the sidewalk was full of admirers.
There are individuals at work, but mostly these are collaborations. Stikki Peaches is one such. What did you learn about the process that was at once unique and singular to their work?
Collaborations are very interesting. In order to collaborate effectively, each partner must have a flexible ego that is able to withstand critique and grow. Other qualities include trust, respect, empathy, curiosity, selflessness and ambition. It’s all about the process, not the final product.
Returning to legalities. This is not an underground, clandestine art. Your subjects are very much in the open. How does that factor into their process?
Some are out in the open, others are not (ASVP, Stikki and Dain, TRAPIF, bunnyM and Square). It’s up to the artist—I just went with their wishes. Most of them have been arrested at one time or another. They are experienced enough to know which risks are worth it, and those that aren’t.
Without cutting the baby in half, which of the pieces in the book are the most challenging, dangerous and/or inventive?
It’s really hard to say. I love all the pieces for what they are. Some pieces are obviously more involved (bigger) and require more time—these include murals by Cern and Cekis, Dasic Fernandez and Rubin415 and bunnyM and Square. But that doesn’t mean they are more challenging. For example, ASVP are meticulous about their screen printing and go through hours of editing their images on a computer before they even touch any paint. Stikki Peaches and Dain lay out their collages and play around with them for hours before they start pasting them; Albert Diaz and Jilly Ballistic sift through images and letters before constructing the perfect combo. I want people to appreciate 2Create as a collection of processes that inspire artists and other creatives to collaborate fearlessly.
What’s next for you?
I’ve started a project that looks at radical political movements in America. Like in 2Create, I’m also trying to dissect what works and what doesn’t as far as relationship building. It’s in very early stages so I’m not sure which direction it will take. I feel that with 2Create I’ve given New York City and its street art my everything, all the love that’s inside me (for now), and I need to investigate other places and movements.
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