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Neckface Devil’s Disciple at O.H.W.O.W


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

Neckface is currently showing at O.H.W.O.W. Discounting the festive sculptural slant of this show we thought that owing to his success within a gallery context, in contrast to the difficulty some other graffiti associated artists experience when operating within a fine art realm, it would be appropriate to reflect upon the caprice of the contemporary art world with regard to its apparent veneration of, and simultaneous reluctance to embrace, graffiti culture.

As we all know, many graffiti writers get stuck in limbo when transitioning from the street into the gallery, but what constitutes that limbo, the audience or the artist’s inability to make the transition successful? And how does graffiti function in the realm of the ‘art world’ versus the realm of ‘subculture’? And moreover, what enables one graffiti writer to succeed in the contemporary art world while others fail?

First of all it might be useful to qualify the term ‘graffiti artist’. Today, when most people consider the term graffiti artist they think of graffiti writers who take after the New York subway painters in the 70’s; the guys who were doing Wildstyle lettering pieces and everything that’s based off of that aerosol lettering style. However, the history of the term ‘graffiti artist’ is somewhat divided because before the New York subway thing in the 70’s there was a trajectory of people that were doing stencil work, poster work, stuff with paint brushes, revolutionary slogans and death metal, not to mention hobo monikers on freight trains and yard workers who used to do their own thing. Quite unbeknownst to the average art patron there are a lot of different histories in graffiti and when the term ‘graffiti artist’ is used it kind of sloppily hugs them all together. Even the term ‘graffiti writer’ in a sense really only just scratches the surface.


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

To most people the word ‘graffiti’ means something that is done in the street as a kind of vandalism. ‘Graffiti writers’ in the vernacular – tagging stuff – and ‘graffiti artists’ – who lean toward figurative renditions – are kind of two separate types of graffiti artist; those who work exclusively in the street and those that sometimes (sometimes more often than not) operate within galleries. But what makes either discipline succeed or fail?


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

If you’re a graffiti writer and you’re going to try to present your work as contemporary art then its not necessarily graffiti (in the vernacular) any more. Oftentimes the only thing you’re taking over to the art world is a style that you learned in the graffiti world where its done out in the street for no profit. It’s like a kind of professionalization of the style. But the thing about graffiti art, in all its styles, is that its basically kind of a folk art and the high-end snobby contemporary art world already has massive barriers up for folk art if it isn’t developed or adapted in someway. So called ‘graffiti artists’ like Banksy and Shepard Fairey are (or were) riding on a wave of something kind of new, but essentially they’re coming from a non fine art folk/commercial art area that has its own unique lineage. In regard to Banksy, for example, there is a huge tradition of stencil street artists in Europe that we don’t have in the Untied States. Paris used to be covered in stencil street work and Banksy is a direct product of that.

For a while there was a lot of hype surrounding Banksy’s work but that has kind of died down now mainly because the look of his work as a painting is not that exciting. What was exciting about his work, over and above the political mores that he played off, was where he put it, but in that state its not salable and in a gallery it just gets neutralized. Banksy was very successful as a kind of folk artist, but his cross-over into the professionalized high value commodities market of art just didn’t work out. Well, it worked out for a minute because he was riding on hype, but that can’t and didn’t sustain it in the long run.


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

Neckface, however, even though he’s done work on the street, has a very distinctive painting and drawing style that he’s developed that holds its own whether its on the street or not. It was innovative when it first appeared on the street and it holds its own in a stylistic way on paper too. Working on the street simply adds credibility to his gallery work and therefore has potency in his general practice beyond the initial role that his work on the street played in allowing him to break into galleries, something many graffiti writers who go that route fail to achieve.

Its not that most writers who attempt to make the transition devalue their work on the street by bringing it into a gallery, if you’re just trying to sell canvases then its not a problem, its just that it doesn’t really translate. When you see some letters go by on a train it means something because its on a train and you went in a yard in the middle of the night and you did this and that and its riding around the country and its this folk art form that’s highly structured, by the way, because each one of those formats has its forms that you have to stay within, but if you paint that same logo or those same letters on a canvas it doesn’t mean anything, its been removed from its context. And that’s the problem that most graffiti writers who try to cross over run into, they don’t realize that when the style is removed from its context then it becomes kind of worthless. Like an archive, it enters a different matrix of meaning and the forms and colors and shapes that go into the visual aspect don’t mean anything, belong or vibrate in that context.


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

Again, Neckface is somewhat of an exception because he wasn’t really ever a graffiti writer. He has respect from many camps, but he never went out and came up through the typical format. He came from a San Francisco, skater, zine, folksy angle. He was never someone who was based off of subway artists and although he owes those guys something because of the way he uses spray paint he never came from that direction. The name Neckface itself is not really from that either. Typically the subway influenced writers have one name that’s five letters max and its something that sounds slick and clever. Neckface by comparison is almost a joke, like Panda Sex or Hot Carl (a shit on the chest). That’s the direction things are kind of going now, versus Atomic, Crome, Wreck or Argue. In regard to names, Earsnot is one of the people who pushed the envelope and is very similar to Neckface (or vise versa) in regard to the way their names are created, although the way they work is very different. Earsnot is New York subway influenced graffiti to the max, all the way, but the name Earsnot is not something anyone had ever seen before. It was this disgusting two-word name, so Neckface, even though what they do is very different, owes Earsnot something in regard to picking his name.

Miami has many graffiti writers, but it also has a few graffiti writers who are in the process of transitioning to contemporary artists, people like Typoe and Books of Spinello Gallery for example, who, as opposed to bringing graffiti into a gallery are bringing the subculture, the attitude almost (as we hate the word subculture), of graffiti into a gallery in a sculptural form. While they are still young and have time to convert they are doing better than most in their position in the sense that they are not trying to sell canvases that they did the word Typoe or Books on. Crome does, but in his case it works because he, thanks to his prolific work on the streets and the media who mention him in every article about graffiti, is on a totally other level; that of celebrity.


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

On the flip side there are people like JonOne who do what are essentially abstract paintings, but he comes from a whole other generation, from the first wave of graffiti artists, like the ones who were painting on subway trains, and at that time the art world was happy to buy canvases by writers thinking it was going to be the next wave of painting (which it turned out not to be) and now, thirty years later, the art world is simply bored of it. In a similar vein there’s also Crash, who was a train painter who now just does canvases.

These days its harder for graffiti writers, artists, whatever, to break into the art world. Shepard Fairey, if we can cite him again, is a good example of someone who is pretty unsuccessful at making art for the contemporary art market. Sure he is hugely successful in terms of audience and finance, but somehow his work doesn’t really belong in a museum as art that stands alone. It could have the context of being an artifact from the work he has done on the street, but what he is doing now with his work and the way he is purporting to be a painter feels, despite the way everybody is kind of gaga over it, like its spreading further than it needs to. What is important about Fairey is the poster work on the streets, specifically the Andre the Giant thing. That was creative and it was innovative in a marketing sense, in an advertising sense, and in a guerrilla media campaign kind of sense. It is also valuable as art in the way of an artifact of what he accomplished, but his recent ripping off of propaganda posters, which he changes very little about, and then selling them as art that stands alone because it this kind of brand, is not (at least for us) successful in an artistic way. Obviously it’s bringing him a lot of money, so its successful financially, but does that really matter?


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

In the 70’s you had writers like Futura2000 who did amazing trains that really pushed the limit of the culture at the time. In many ways his success was due to the fact he was not defined by the time he worked in and was independent from a commercial support structure. Later he became a graphic designer and began selling in galleries, but even when he existed in a graphic design in-between kind of world he was very much ahead of his time. And lets not forget Seen, a living legend who came out of New York and is the classic icon of the graffiti writer. Style Wars was where he really blew up, now he does tattoos and is very famous for that. Also you have Dez, also in Style Wars, who is now known as DJ Kay Slay and very established in the music industry.

In the 80’s graffiti began to become a marketable thing in and of itself. In the early 90′s there was Videograf, two guys who although they didn’t do so much in the way of actual writing influenced contemporary graffiti enormously by making videos of people doing serious vandalism graffiti like writing over highway signs, train windows and basically causing a lot of awful destruction while running around with beer bottles and a machetes. Their video series was called Out To Bomb and was set to really bare Hip Hop beats. It was tremendously successful, they made some stupid amount of money selling tapes – this was in the days of VHS and really before the internet – and eventually went to prison for conspiracy because the police were very unhappy that they were essentially disseminating chaos throughout the country.

When the internet came about graffiti had a kind of a melt down because where as before you had kids all over the country wanting to do it, but not really knowing how, now, suddenly, they could look at an unlimited amount of pictures from every city, Europe etc., and as a result all the regional styles that defined writers around the country began to melt together. After this you could have someone in Kansas painting trains that looked like they were painted in Los Angeles that would end up in New York. This was very much the beginning of both graffiti boom and graffiti doom.

In the 90’s a further graffiti apocalypse occurred with the advent of special paint, which kind of destroyed the illusion of the secret society thing because before the 90’s writers went and stole their paint – Krylon, Rustolium or some junky paint – and cut out their own caps. Maybe you could mail order some caps from somebody somewhere if you got hold of a magazine that had an ad in the back and some friends to go in on a bag with, but mainly writers would use WD40 caps (for example) and make their own markers out of chalkboard erasers and tic-tac boxes. Writers were in many ways like mad scientists, but by the late 90’s high end stores with everything displayed alongside sneakers popped up and companies began competing with each other for the graffiti writer market making paints and markers in every color and size. Nowadays you have Montana, Belton, Clash, and Molotov. Markers are being sold for ten dollars and they’re full of all this beautiful silver ink and kids are buying it all up, but its not the same as it was, its not a secret society anymore, its something people do and like skateboarding it was changed by commercialization.


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

Being a graffiti writer is being an artist, its just a different type of artist and if you want to make work commercially then its just a case of changing markets, basically. The graffiti market has always been (and is even more so now) something that is oriented to youth culture, you do it in your teens and early twenties and then at some point you realize that it’s a little bit limited culturally and also financially. Yes there are people who make a lot of money being graffiti writers, they go from city to city doing illegal work, they have sponsorships from paint companies, sneaker companies pay them to design their shoes, they have art shows where collectors buy their canvases, there’s a framework if you want to continue to work as an artist in that sort of structure, but in many ways its just like being into video games and maybe you can make a lot of money being a video game designer, but the scope and intent is limited in terms cultural dexterity. In contrast to contemporary art’s supposed ability to speak about and operate within a broader cultural matrix it seems graffiti in all its forms for the most part is too specific for the fine art palate. But sometimes it isn’t. Neckface does well because his paintings and drawings stand alone just fine due to the fact he has invented his own visual identity and isn’t depending on tired forms as much as others do.


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

So is the snobbery by contemporary culture concerning the supposed erosion of fine/high art justifiable? Graffiti as an art form is valid, it has a history and for a long time has been a culture, not just a subculture. It’s a thing that creative people do and like ‘art’ it also has rigid standards and codes, but who is better off, graffiti writers/artists or contemporary artists? Mainly this is totally subjective as it depends on an individual’s priority as defined by their interests or goals, but out of two people in a room, one a graffiti artist and the other a contemporary artist, who is in the better position to transition into the other’s world? Graffiti is very hard to get into late, its something you have to be raised into from when you’re a kid, so its difficult to cross over into and those that do can probably only get so far, and similarly, a graffiti writer/artist transitioning into the fine arts finds that certain galleries will allow them to experiment, but generally many get stuck in a bracket of commercial advertising or at best plateau in the low brow category along with tattoos artists. But what we have to remember is that there is not just one ladder on which everyone is kicking rungs and scrambling over each other. For example one could be very high in the low brow category and be much higher than someone on the contemporary art ladder. Perhaps then it’s not so much a system of ladders as it is spheres that overlap. But will Larry Gagosian pick up a graffiti writer? Probably not.


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

So in what sense could a graffiti writer, other than developing a stand alone aesthetic like Neckface, make the transition from the street into the gallery? One way could be that instead of concentrating on the way something looks they could focus more on a sense of space, a way to see the city and to measure and mark space that has noting at all to do with a tag or an arrow or a graphic language that will in a sense perhaps always be indicative of a New York subway knock off mentality. To put all that visual baggage in the trash and retain only the spatial aspects of graffiti – being able to climb up somewhere and look down or see where someone has been and judge that relationship by knowing how possible it is to make certain letters of a certain style – you can develop a tool by which to judge distance, size and time. Graffiti in a spatial sense functions kind of like a filter through which you see the city. You know who is going where, what patterns people are moving in, where work is being painted out, where work is decaying because they leave it up and the neighborhood is on the rocks. That aspect of graffiti is very interesting in a contemporary art sense and is maybe even pretty valid. The problem graffiti writers seem to have is that they hang on a ‘graffiti look’ that for the most part feels tired in the same way that a painter who just does cubist paintings feels tired. People would just not be interested in knock off cubist paintings, but the ideas and the thought processes behind what the cubists did, if they could be reapplied today, could possibly generate interesting results. It just seems that a lot of graffiti people, artists and patrons alike, are just caught up in the veneer unable to see the underlying mechanisms.


Neckface – Devil’s Disciple. Photo by Norman Lendzion.

So there are some of the problems that writers today face when transitioning from the street to the gallery, but what about future writers who are growing up thinking that at any point they can make the switch? Are there enough positive examples and reference for them to be able to make informed and adequately dexterous transitions or will they continue, like many today, to just keep doing what it is they have always done except with some kind of artsy spin?

As more and more generations that do graffiti make that transition there will be more role models to look up to. The writers of today looking to make the transition, until recently, had only the people from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and although three generations seems like a lot to work with, unfortunately very few from those times made the crossover and made a go of it.

Neckface plays the graffiti card, but he isn’t really that much of a writer, he’s a painter and a drafts man and whether he makes marks on a wall or a train or a piece of paper it’s the same. And that for us is why he is so successful; because it doesn’t look like graffiti, it looks like a drawing and it still looks like a drawing when its on a building, like a big hand claw thing grabbing. Neckface has been able to succeeded where so many have failed (and are still failing); to work out what he is and disseminate that to a large number of people. Shepard Fairey achieves the same thing, but the reason, conversely, why Fairey doesn’t succeed is because even though it looks like a Fairey whether on a galley wall or on the street its sold as pop art appropriation based work and those terms are no longer that interesting, not just because Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein did it already because that’s not necessarily a consideration, but because Fairey’s work is no where near as interesting as what they did. Props to Neckface!

For more information about and pictures of Devil’s Disciple please visit:

For an interview with Neckface on ArtObserved go here.

This post was contributed by Thomas Hollingworth.

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Neckface Devil’s Disciple at O.H.W.O.W