After four years of filmmaking in over 10 cities around the world, Pablo Aravena premiered Next : a primer on Urban painting. This full-length documentary sketches the current situation of graffiti-related art both in established scenes in North America and Europe, and emerging areas such as Asia and Latin America. Following a projection in front of a filled crowd of both graff afficionados and curious folks at Cabaret , I had a chat with him.
When starting the project, did you plan on going to so many cities ?
Yes. I had a list of cities and artist I wanted to hit. I always had a masterplan, but it took a while to accomplish it. Obviously I made a lot of discoveries on the field also.
It must be draining to shoot a movie over such a long period.
Somebody said making documentaries is like being a monk. I had a vision and didn’t want to let go until it was completed. I got started quickly with high level artists so I knew I had it by the handle.
Do you plan to have it toured everywhere it’s been shot ?
That’s the plan. Ideally with live painting and dj’s like at the Montreal premiere ( Sixtoo, Moonstar and Scott C provided beats, while HVW8, Roadsworth, Labrona, Other and Turf One painted). I am also looking for distribution (hint hint) It’s also airing on documentary channel in Canada.
I had graffiti and dj crowd, but also people that have nothing to do with it. Older people come saying they’ll never look at tags and graffiti the same way again. So I’ve done my job, communicating to both crowds, that is built-in urban youth and people simply interested in art. My editor (Christopher Hills-Wright) and I worked on that balance between hardcore and underground, so it’s not a film just for the hardcore heads. I was the hardcore one, he was the mianstream voice. The point is to show it as a world culture, as an artform, not vandalism or lower art for kids.
Public space and municipal policy
Montreal municipality has gone from a harm reduction policy (through projet graffiti, a youth intervention approach based on prevention, mentorship and education) to a repressive and criminalizing policy. Can movies like yours do something about that ?
The point is to create a dialog with people seeing it as raw vandalism. There is though, work and creativity behind it, even in the tags. You will never get rid of graffiti, no matter how much money you throw into it. Kids are gonna get up and do it anyway, beating the system. Doing it illegally is built-in, even where there are legal walls. I understand their position in that their job is to control and apply rules.
But two issues come out of it. One : If the streets are supposed to be owned by everybody, why can advertising companies pay for public space and visually pollute us and the citizen can’t ?
Two : Cities have to admit to the fact that they can’t control it and create policies working with the phenomenon rather than against it. Take Melbourne, Australia for example. They refer to graffiti as art and have a sensitivity towards it. They are trying to accommodate that reality and be constructive, by allowing it in certain areas of the downtown core. Jailing kids for graffiti is like, why don’t you go catch real crooks ? And it’s also a training ground for artist and free public expression. I don’t think it’s right that people expressing themselves get criminal records.
How did you reconcile the hardcore vision of bombers and those doing it in galleries ?
Well lot of people are grown adults trying to earn their lives. Then others say it should stay illegal on the street. Both sides have a point and coexist within the community, and individuals may change their position and become painters, designers.
And diverging North/South approach ?
My vision is that Brazil, for instance, is a lot more revolutionary in it approach to graff. The whole social comment or political side of it depends on the artist and his/her socio-economical reality. There’s no welfare, free health care there…. It’s not housing projects, but cardboard ghetto, creating another level of social inequality. That gives a conscience because it is inherent to their reality. But the legal/illegal distinction is more of a a European and North American thing. In Brazil it’s more about getting your work up, either way. Especially that they have huge spaces commissioned by the city (In São Paolo).
São Paolo : Latin America’s graffiti Mecca.
Other hot spots are Buenos Aires Santiago de Chile. But São Paolo has a history and its developed its own style, as well as pixacão coming for heavy metal music. They were also the first Latin Americans to come go to Europe then North America. Stylistically, they are very sophisticated. It also had to do with Brazilian mentality and the idea of anthropophagia (cultural cannibalism) Since the 20’s that theory about appropriating /assimilating/mixing other cultures has been going on.
Have you seen pixacão elsewhere ?
In Venezuela, some graffers are inspired by it, like bek03 and design collective Masa. I’ve also seen people in Europe studying pixacão as a basic letterform. People used to study Wild Style back in the day, now they’re studying pixacão. There’s even a guy from Denmark who would write in pixacão as an hommage to Sao Paulo.
Is this the place that struck you the most ? Yes, I guess because I’m South American, and I felt at home there. What touched me too was that it had that social reality underlying it all : they (writers) were aware of the reality and trying to talk about it, which is what this art form is about for me, at the end of the day. That really hit home. Again because I’m south American it really touched that side of me. You forget about that living in North America, the mad inequality and injustice. Also the inequality gives a certain electricity to the air. Like the Blade Runner of the tropics…
Grapicho(graffiti + Pixacão) and northern provinces
They always had a figurative content, from the get. Brazilian traditions such as litteratura de Cordel (handcrafts books with woodcut illustrations) are a folk heritage included in the work. It’s very authentic and grounded in their national reality, whereas in Europe and North America graffiti is more removed. The access to information has allowed the styles to move around. In Brazil they had to develop their own style because of isolation, even today. The kids doing pixacão still don’t have a computer.
Tell me more about Pips Labs (Holland).
Those guys are on a whole other level. Lumasol is just the tip of the iceberg. They’re doing interactive music and theater where the audience interacts to create a special event. They’re hi-fi lo-fi inventors, often not dealing with fancy equipment as we expect. Case is like the mad inventor creating software to solve the concept. They made me feel like doing a film was archaic ; they’re so much ahead. Also, the fact that they are a collective is very Dutch.
Get it while it’s hot
You once said something about grasping graffiti before it would be recuperated…
When I started the movie I saw something that no one else had seen, on a film level. It was bubbling and growing. I had the instinct that it would blow up. I wanted to grab the moment before the big media. In the process of making the film the movement got a lot bigger. But I’m happy many artists I interviewed have grown, career-wise. There is now some commercialization, like in anything else. But the cream will always rise to the top. But I don’t think the bubble is gonna burst anytime soon, it’s only gonna get bigger. I was always scared it would burst before the end of my movie making, but I see growing scenes, like in Hong Kong, Eastern Europe, South Africa.
Transnational hip hop
These places have different socio-economic realities, and something to talk about. It reflects that young people chose to express themselves in the same way as these kids from the ghetto in New York did, during the first wave of graffiti writers. It’s amazing that they refashion hip hop to their reality. It’s also a form of transculturalism. It came from a few neighborhoods in New York and it’s all over the world now. People are fusing that with their own culture. In the experience of making the film I went to crazy places I never thought I would go to and always had something in common with these people , there was this kind of common language. It gives you a level to create relationship and understand people from different cultures.
Name matters : from graffiti to straight painting.
Were you ever confronted with hardcore graffers saying your conception of graffiti is too broad ?
I chose dope work, it’s hard to deny that. I also have a broad cross section of artists : old school people like Lee Quinones (Wild Style + graffiti icon) and others who are more painterly, designers and street artists. I called it urban painting because I wanted to get away from the term graffiti for two reasons. First , as Ease and Phase 2 say in the film, graffiti is a derogatory term for working in the street, in that it refers to scratching on a wall. I also called it painting because the debate about whether it’s art or not was answered 20 years ago. It’s time to move on with the dialog. I had comments from graffiti outsiders amazed by the quality of the work. That was my objective, to choose people whose work would be so amazing you cannot deny its value.
check out the Next site for more info on the movie