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Inside Project Be
Slamming the Door on New Orleans' Black Power Graf (PHOTOS)
One of the largest installations of black political art sits in the Bywater, but HANO's job is to keep you from seeing it. Before it's demolished, Skylar Fein spends some time at the Florida Housing Projects and Project Be.
In July, word began filtering through my neighborhood in New Orleans: a group of artists had taken over an abandoned public housing project and were filling it with art installations. Their goal was to create as much art as possible before the complex was demolished. And that would happen soon. They were calling it Project Be.
I went to see for myself on a hot Saturday afternoon. The Florida Projects are a disorienting sight: at the corner of Florida and Mazant, in the Bywater neighborhood, rows of townhouses--brightly colored, oddly new looking--sit in spectacular ruin. Around them, overgrown fields are dotted with the foundations of dozens more. It's an urban Stonehenge bearing witness to decades of bureaucratic neglect and piecemeal demolition--as well as climate change. Ever since the area flooded in Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, it's been a spot that graffiti artists have sought out to do large, exterior pieces. They worked undisturbed, since nobody cared.
I parked and walked through the front gate, which tends to be wide open.
Inside, the huge complex--derelict, forgotten--was a hive of creative activity, the courtyard crisscrossed by serious young men on the way to their installations, a rap video filming over there, a photo shoot happening over there. Throughout the 77 units, every door was open (or missing), and visitors walked unimpeded through rooms with elaborately painted scenes of black history, literature and political thought, with the artists frequently present to answer questions.
Here was a massive portrait of Angela Davis, Marxist thinker and perennial candidate of the Communist Party USA, in shades of electric blue;
Here was Huey Newton, Louisiana son and founder of the Black Panther Party, posing--infamously!--with shotgun and spear;
Here was Malcolm X, peering out the project window.
After taking a self-guided tour up and down the dilapidated stairwells, I sat down on a splintered stoop to rest. It was quiet, with almost no breeze, just the sound of birdsong and distant rattlecans. I could hear womens' voices lightly filtering down from a room upstairs, where they were painting.
A woman was saying, "Do you know who that is?" She says this very slowly: "Malcolm X. Say that."
A little boy, who from the sound of it might be 2 years old, tries--"Maka?"--and the mother says, even slower this time: "Malcolm. X." Over many visits, I can confirm that one was always hearing things like this at Project Be.
The Florida Projects are a deep well of New Orleans history, deeper than most people realize, even locals. Millions of people know the famous picture of Ruby Bridges, at age 6, being led into a formerly all-white school by Federal marshals, but how many people know that she lived in the Florida Projects? It would take a long time to plumb these depths, and it is not even within my purview to try.
But on one of my visits, I sat down with the man everyone knows as BMike to chat. While it is tough to call anyone the organizer of a commune, Brandan Odums has a wide view of all that has been going on at Florida.
What follows is the transcript of an interview that was alternately interrupted by school groups on tours and housing police trying, unsuccessfully, to clear the complex.
Skylar Fein: When you're coming down Florida, and all of a sudden the projects come into view, and you can see those big burners on the outside--it just makes my heart sing.
BMike: Every time I see a new piece, I feel the same way.
SF: But here's the thing: not everybody feels that way. And some people, when they see it, they feel incredibly threatened. Frightened. To them, it's about violence. And they're sure that something terrible is going to happen. I'm not on Facebook, but since I've been doing these interviews about graffiti, friends tell me that people are writing, "Skylar should be taken out in the street and shot! He should be killed." It's a reminder that to a lot of people, property, and property rights, are vitally important--more important than human life.
B: That's pretty interesting. Even before I was actively doing any type of art, any time I would see a new piece, I would get excited. I heard a quote from an artist, saying their job was to break people's routine. If you have a routine, you drive this street every day, you see the same thing--their job was to do something to break that routine. So when I see something new, I think, "Whoa, that's so dope!"
SF: When I met you on Tchoupitoulas that time, and you were doing that legal mural, I didn't know that you were the guy behind 2-Cent. How do you have the time to do this?
B: This is my vacation time! Am I in your way?
[At this point the interview is interrupted by a large group of people who filter into the room holding cameras: teachers from Bonnabel High School, in neighboring Jefferson Parish. They are planning on bringing their classes here on a field trip and are being led through the projects on a guided tour by one of the artists.]
Tour guide: This is a portrait of Malcolm X. I just like the colors in this room. He looks really regal here. On the right side, his name, El-Hajj El Malik El Shabazz, is written out. And if you translate that name roughly, it translates to "The Journey of the Glorious King." He did the Hajj--the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are supposed to make, to fulfill your duty as a Muslim, to visit the site where the Prophet Mohammed, praise be upon Him, died and ascended into heaven--and he refound his purpose in life.
B: Look at him giving tours and stuff. [Tour group laughs.]
Tour guide: I know this stuff, boy! I've been reading!
B: I feel that! This is the first, the very first, piece that I did here. When all these walls were empty. And it was on his birthday, 5-19-13. Everybody was on Twitter, "Happy birthday, Malcolm!" And I was like, "I know what I'm going to do." I felt safe here. I felt I could take my time. It was real quiet. It felt like I was... away. Like I escaped.
Tour guide: This space, it tells me, I'm free to do whatever I want here. I came here and I was just inspired to paint. When I walked in and saw all these murals, I was thinking, "Wow, this is so inspiring. Why isn't there more like this going on in the world? Why can't I think up something that will inspire people?" And I'm glad that HE beat me to it! And I hope that by giving you guys this tour, that you leave today inspired, and wanting to do something that will change somebody else's life. One of Malcolm X's nicknames was "Black Shining Prince," and that makes the crown over his head even more appropriate. Is everybody ready to go on to the next room? We have a nice Coltrane piece right here. Any fans of jazz?
[Tour group files out.]
SF: Before George Washington Carver High School was knocked down, you had a lot of work in there.
B: Yeah. I recognized early that there were certain qualities that graffiti artists had, that I wanted to have. I didn't think I was that good at it--
SF: Like what, the lettering?
B: Yeah, the lettering. I would go to spots where it wasn't as public. Spots that you could go during the day, and take your time. Carver was one of those buildings where me and a few friends would go regularly. You could go in there and take your time, and not get messed with. I would teach at Carver, in the trailers, and sometimes I would leave work and go straight into the old building and paint! They would always say that it was going to get torn down. But I was like, "This ain't happening anytime soon." I stopped working over there, and I remember one time, I was trying to show some friends from out of town, and I drive up and I saw all the bulldozers. And I was like, man. I didn't have that many photos. This was before Instagram and all that stuff.
Eventually, I just said, "I'm not good at lettering. But I can draw. I can paint." So I decided to try my hand at using the spray paint to create these figures. And at that point, I found some comfort in my process. The aesthetic of it, I feel good.
SF: Back then, you were writing Free. Do you still write that?
B: I tell friends, I'm just a graffiti poseur. And when I was writing Free, I felt like it was too thought-out. To me it just looked good. I would put it in these contexts where I was forcing people to think. But then I felt like I was trying too hard. I was writing Free for a good two, three years. And then I stopped. Then I started writing Be. All the spots where I wrote Free are gone.
SF: It always seems to me that graffiti is inherently political.
B: Definitely. And that's what I'm trying to do today, a portrait of James Baldwin. He said, "All artists are here to disturb the peace." And that's why people feel discomfort with graffiti. In the past few years, there's been a wave of understanding of street art and graffiti. But the first response is that fear. They assign it to so many things that it shouldn't be assigned to. Most, if not all, the graffiti artists that I know, they're not looking for trouble. They're peaceful dudes! To assign it to all this fearful imagery--it comes from ignorance.
In graffiti culture, there is the good and the bad. You can put up an argument that some things are crossing the line. With all cultures, there is internal debate. Look at hip-hop, there is always an internal debate amongst themselves. They even police themselves--"Nah, this might be too far." Or, "This should go a bit farther!" I try not to talk about graffiti in terms of good or bad. I just try to educate people on how TO appreciate it.
SF: I've even tried this one on: "All graffiti is good." Even though some of it is clearly terrible!
B: Right! Some decisions graffiti artists make could be deemed better or worse. When you choose to paint over something that's really meaningful to somebody--you could have a conversation about whether that's worth it. There was a story a while ago about this old, famous tree. And somebody tagged on it. I can see why the public would be upset. At the same time, I'm not prepared to have that conversation and say, "Graffiti is bad because of THIS." There's that ying and yang.
SF: A lot of graffiti artists look down on political graffiti.
B: I don't think I'm included enough in the graffiti culture to understand. At the end of the day, when I see somebody using a medium to express themselves, I still see it as art and I respect it. I was always taught that what I do has an effect on other people, and I'm conscious of that. When I create, there is a responsibility. There's an opportunity there. If I have an opportunity to say something, let it be SOMETHING. What I do is saying something. Whether it's political or not--
SF: Well, your choice of people is certainly political--
B: To me, political art would be a lot of thought put into it. I don't think I have a specific goal in mind. All these pieces is me reflecting on these walls. So when I paint Malcolm, it's probably because I just read something that... Shoot!
[From the street outside comes the sound of tires crunching on gravel. BMike crouches down at the window and calls out to a comrade across the complex.]
B: Wait, bro! Watch out! The HANO police are looking right at you! Get out the middle of the street! They about to drive in, son. Tell everybody to hide! Go in there, HANO's about to drive in! They about to drive in! Stick to the back or something! But anyway--
SF: What about Angela Davis?
B: All of them are images that... [Trails off.] Oh, there they go, right there. Dang!
[Two police cars cruise slowly into the complex. Police megaphone: "The two of y'all who just went upstairs, come downstairs. Come downstairs to the police car." A third police car rolls slowly along rear of the complex, blocking a possible exit route.]
SF: How often do they get out of the cars?
B: Every time they come. Let's go up one floor.
[From a third-floor window, we watch as two teenage girls, who had been photographing the art, appear from a doorway and approach the police car. The cops examine their ID's, then release them. The police stay for 20 minutes, then drive off one by one. We resume the interview.]
SF: The last time I was here, there were 2 rap videos shooting! How much stuff like that has gone on here?
B: I think there's been about 4 or 5 videos. When I meet videographers, I invite them--and they say, "Oh, we already shot a video out there!" In New Orleans rap video, the backdrop of urban decay has always been the favorite. Most of the action here, by way of videos, is because urban decay is seen as the proper setting for rap videos. But that is, in my opinion, the less creative idea, or the more generic idea. I have vocalized my frustration a million times. Urban decay, destroyed buildings--that's just a default. The more Project Be has become publicized, the more rappers and video directors have said, "Snap, I'm gonna do my video right there!" It has less to do with the art, and more to do with the fact that the imagery--former projects, urban decay, destroyed--that imagery is to them more appealing than the paintings of Dr. King.
The photography that's gone on here is different. They've been using the backdrops of those paintings. There's been a lot of photoshoots here. There was an engagement photoshoot here! There was a couple of model shoots. There's been a lot of action. Now, every time I come here, there are people here taking pictures, exploring, or painting. It's been a cool ride.
SF: You're from New Orleans?
B: This is where my parents are from. I was born in Oceanside, California. My father was in the military, so every two years, we'd move--all over the world. But since eighth grade, I've been here, and I call it home. There is no other place that I can even remember as being home. This is home.
SF: When did you start looking at graffiti?
B: I've always been artistically inclined. I went to NOCCA. After college, I was approached to be an instructor at a summer camp at Xavier University. It was for kids. And the course they wanted me to teach was the course on hip-hop. And they wanted it to be full-rounded, like break dancing, graffiti, DJ'ing, MC'ing. And I had to do a whole class on graffiti! Before that, I was sort of ignorant of it. I was still concerned with trying to study the "great artists."
But after doing that class, and researching the history of it, and the foundation, where it started, how it can be traced to more traditional, ancient traditions--and then, by way of the class, I brought in a guest speaker, a friend of mine who was doing a lot of graffiti. And I asked him if he would come and do an orientation with the kids. And that opened my eyes. That was my first time seeing how beautiful it was, and how powerful it was. After that, Katrina hit, and when I came back, there was a lot of abandoned properties. And I got hit with the bug to explore these places. Me and a bunch of friends, we would go urban exploring, to all these places that were forgotten or destroyed, and take photos. And I would see a lot of graffiti. It became a habit to bring spray paint with us, and leave a tag that let people know that we were there.
SF: Obviously, you've painted in a lot of abandoned properties. Do you ever write on occupied houses?
B: No. I would see pieces, especially in the 9th Ward--but no, I never crossed that line. We never found any joy in just pulling up to somebody's property and doing something like that.
SF: You think you'll be able to continue here with the hassles?
B: Every time I get stopped, the cops say, "Oh, it's you. We ain't worried about you." When I'm here by myself, there's never a problem. But I guess they frown upon the mass attention. The second time a news crew came, and they were doing a story, the cops were saying that they got in trouble when the first story broke. So I guess they're getting a lot of heat from their superiors, and as a result, they're being more forceful. But at the end of the day, they've expressed to me that they're not concerned. They told me there's no way to police it. They catch people from all over. They said they found somebody here from Tennessee, from Utah. They don't tell people to go home. They understand what it is. But they're still trying to do their job. I'm just concerned with one day, pulling up, and it's all gone.
SF: What are you going to do that day?
B: I want to get some footage. A friend of mine, we want to do a virtual tour, almost like Google Maps, where you can click your way through. I painted the artist Jay Electronica on that wall over there. He's overseas now, but he sent a message asking if he could buy the property! I was like, "I don't think that's a possibility." Their next question was, could they send some people to see if it would be possible to take the wall off? I didn't put that much thought into what it would be afterwards. I'm not motivated about that conversation--"Oh, let's save the walls! Let's preserve the space!" I'm not interested. This space is better off as housing. It doesn't need to be preserved for art on top of decayed walls.
SF: Does anybody ever say to you, "Why bother, given that it's just going to be knocked down?"
B: That was always the critique--why waste your time? Why create on such a nonpermanent canvas? The poetry of it all. Being in that moment. All you have is a series of moments in life, anyway. That's why it's called Project Be. There's a lot of peace, there's a lot of tranquility, and satisfaction, when you think that way. When that spray can is in my hand... it's about that moment.
One week after this interview, on Friday, August 30, work crews from the Housing Authority of New Orleans began boarding up the Florida Projects to prevent the artists from accessing their installations. The city says they hope to demolish the complex by the end of 2013, and plan to build 51 units of affordable housing on the site. The former tenants will be given first crack at the new leases. The original complex, which was built in 1946 and was majority white, had 734 units.
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