Imagine if street artists came into a museum and covered the gallery walls with graffiti. That’s what happened in the Morris Museum’s main gallery—but it wasn’t an act of vandalism. Twelve vibrant tags (letter-based graffiti) and caricatures were spray-painted directly onto the once-pristine walls for the exhibit “Aerosol: Graffiti | Street Art | New Jersey | Now,” on display through March 15, 2020.
The museum’s chief curator, Ron Labaco, along with cocurator and Trenton street artist Will Kasso Condry gave creative liberty to the participating aerosol artists: 4sakn, Acet TM7, Dave Mek One Klama, Dean Ras Innocenzi, Demerock, Distort, Elan, Felipe Prox One Rivas, Jonathan Conner (LANK), Leon Rainbow and Maliq Griffin. Each is a contributor to New Jersey’s dynamic graffiti scene. Condry is also represented in the exhibit with his street-art portrait of the late Jerry Gant, “a New Jersey graffiti god.”
Distort, known for his Jersey City murals, including the state’s largest by a single artist, painted an ominous piece for the exhibit depicting a man at the mouth of a railway tunnel. “He has a very dark palette,” says Condry. “He’s very detailed and his work literally draws you in.”
In addition to the individual murals, there is a tribute area dedicated to artists who have died and a wall for throw-ups, or quickly executed bubble lettering.
A strong sense of community is an essential element of graffiti culture. Artists are often members of crews or travel to practice their craft. “That’s the beauty of it,” says Condry. “No matter your race, class or gender, the only thing that matters is what you put on the wall.”
Still, the industry is male dominated. In this exhibition, Acet TM7 is the only woman artist. Currently, a majority of graffiti writers are suburban white males, says Condry. “It’s funny, because it started in very urban black and brown communities. But it’s always been a melting pot.”
Graffiti writing and street art are rooted in risk-taking. Roadblocks for artists include unpredictable weather, local laws and complaints from neighbors.
Condry, who teaches the politics of graffiti at Middlebury College in Bennington, Vermont, says the legal consequences for producing graffiti and street art have intensified over the years. “It depends on the municipality and on the level of property damage,” he adds.
Graffiti writers live by the rule, “Don’t get attached to your work,” says Condry. “The spaces that you paint are just as ephemeral as the art.”
The same goes for this exhibit. The walls will be painted white when the show closes. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get this caliber of creativity and artistry in one spot,” says Labaco.
On November 21–23, New Jersey’s 10 Hairy Legs dance troupe will complement the exhibit with performances of Trouble Will Find Me: Remixed, a new site-specific piece.
While anonymity is valued in the graffiti scene, so is fame. “At the end of the day,” says Condry, “you want to be remembered. That’s really why you put your name up. You want someone to know that you exist.”
Above all, it’s about self-expression. “There’s a story behind each one of those tags,” says Condry. “Hopefully, we can tell that story as authentically as possible.”