Monday, October 01, 2007

ImPOSTers, POPaganda and FREEkingdom

Take a look at these envelopes. They look like any other mail one might get, but look a little closer. Do you recognize the faces? The first stamp is of Tony Clifton, a notorious character made famous by Andy Kaufman. The second is Ferdinand Demara, a dude who was famous for impersonating anyone from a lawyer to sherrif to a monk. What you may be asking yourself is why these folks have been honored by being placed on a couple of our United States stamps. Well, they haven't been honored that way, exactly. These are not real stamps. These are a couple of works of art in the collection called "ImPOSTers" by the Chicago street artist known as TEWZ. Tewz is known for the usual street art like spray can stuff, but he also teamed up with other artists to decorate the hideous boxes that hold our various daily papers and magazines. That was the MonsterBox project. However, Tewz has entered new territory with the pseudo-stamps. He has created art in an arena that was formerly determined by our government alone. How often do we get to choose who or what is on our stamps? I've read about votes on this or that stamp; most recently, folks got to decide on a Star Wars-themed stamp, but who got to propose the Star Wars theme to begin with? We have government-chosen art all around us (kind of like the force) but we don't really choose what that art will be. Tewz decided to see if he could make such a decision and I think he made quite a statement in that process.

But public art is not a new idea. People have been tagging since the beginning of time, as Toro so aptly puts in one of his poems: (to paraphrase) the first tagger was Cro-Magnon man. However, for some reason - I assume it is because people don't understand it - public art is often not seen as an art form at all. Vandalism is the word many people use for it. I understand that sentiment, especially as someone who, as a young girl, had to see her father paint over some tagging on the garage. Nonetheless, there are some really interesting things being done in terms of public art. Ron English is famous for his "illegal" billboards, many of which attacked big tobacco and, I believe, contributed to the stance we have on smoking today. He particularly went after the Joe Camel character and how it appealed to children; his public art campaign definitely contributed to the demise of that cartoon. A new version of a documentary that covers his guerilla billboard action goes into the reasons why he thinks public art is necessary. English, and other artists in the film, state that there is no real public space for art and commentary. In theory, we are supposed to have public spaces for our ideas to flourish, but in reality, high fees and connections are what determine whether someone is going to be able to contribute to the public arena.

The street art movement believes that art and commentary should be available to the larger public, both as viewers and participants. In other words, there should be a FREE KINGDOM available to the public. There should be a public domain where we FREAKS can say what we need to say and make the world a prettier place, a smarter place, a more informed place. There should be a FREEkingdom where new visuals and ideas can make statements that may not have crossed the larger public's collective mind. It is easy to say that artists should just work within the gallery system, but we need to ask ourselves how limited that gallery system is. Who controlls it? Who views art in these private spaces? Who decides what is worthy? There is a reason why artists like De La Vega, Keith Haring and Basquiat began with street art.

Latino muralists have beautified ugly buildings; graffiti artists beautified trains and buildings with spray can art; Ron English questions our moral decisions with guerilla billboards; and TEWZ has entered a new arena within our postal system. Here are some other random street artists and some around the world. Look at the art in Tokyo. It looks like vandalism, perhaps, but aren't there works that cause you to think? Would these works have the same effect if they were in a private, sterile space? What happens when these works interact with the actual public?

I remember looking at the graffiti murals when I was taking the Blue Line home from school; I was always excited when the subway came up into the El part of the line, right by Damen Avenue in Chicago. There was a strip of art that made my skin get goose bumps every time I saw it. Why? I'm not sure I understand. Perhaps it made me feel like I was having a conversation with someone who I didn't know. Perhaps it was excited to have a gallery that was controlled by the public. Perhaps the work was just beautiful. Perhaps the work depicted my reality more than the work in the Art Institute. I'm not knocking the Art Institute - Chagall's blue stained glass windows are a part of me forever (the link doesn't do them justice; they are immense) - but street art is something that feels like home. It feels like it is mine.

Street art isn't anything new, hence the wiki-entry, but it is an idea that demands new thought. Just like Andy Kaufman tried to push the limits of entertainment, street art is trying to expand the the limits of the artistic world. I think Tewz has pushed us to think about postage art, something that we have to pay for all the time(!).

Where else might we squeeze some innovative thought in?


Toro said...

Awesome and important article on street art and the idea of public and private property.

People who see graffiti and street art as "vandalism" should not blame the people who make it. They should point the finger at an elite ruling class who do not allow access for poor people, particularly of color, to art and the venues set up to share and distribute art.

As Ron English explains, one needs thousands of dollars and a legal and marketing team to have access to a billboard, just for a single month. How many people does that exclude from having access to such visible. Those who have that kind of resources usually have a singular perspective, one that is strictly commercial.

If we did not create environments that oppress young people in their physical spaces, I guarantee there would be little to no "vandalism." What we need is free art programs for underprivileged youth and museums, galleries, and city facilities to offer space for them to have their work seen and their ideas shared.

To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, Most people hack at the branchs of a problem rather than strike at the root of it. To blame kids for trying to have a voice in the face of a system that forcefully works to keep them voiceless is simplistic and destructive.

The billboards along I-10 and 35 are vandalism that is much more harmful to the spirit than a tag on a street car from a 15 year old kid.

Let the insane replies begin (Along with the eloquent ones).

Toro said...


An amazing book that explains how publicity transforms the public and personal consciousness, and its affects on our spirts and minds, check out

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Here is a link to an excerpt:

Paolo Moschini said...

.. very interesting .. wish to come one day in Your beautiful Country ..

I wait u on my Blog..


Anonymous said...

Grisel, once again you really hit the nail. I often have enjoyed viewing this form of expression many times in various areas. Whether on the subways, riding on buses, automobiles, the sides of boxcars, or even on the side of a Rte. 22 North bridge wall( while waiting to pick up a load of asphalt from a a Newark plant @ seven in the morning; really super work who ever you are). I find the art form fascinating, and the artists are F'ing talented. I mean come on, have you ever screwed around with a can of spray paint. That is not an easy product to control! I seriously don't know how they do it. These beautiful murals and expressions are done by people who truly can and should be called artists.

As far as space is concerned, I couldn't agree more. I believe that it is indeed unfair that the public spaces be owned, bought, sold, or rented to the only ones who can afford those spaces. And we all know who the hell they are. I have always given a lot of silent props to the artists who were able to beat the system and have the time to be able to even pull these wild, semi-stunt like, fast-served art pieces out of their souls. Some of these artists are rather quick in their ability, too. Logically, some pieces are risky to execute and have to be done quickly while others may take some serious time in planning.

This brings me to thought. Look at those stamps again. What an awesome idea. I would totally love to make a stamp and have it spread around. I wouldn't even want any money for it, just the ability to share something with this crusty world. "Aaaaaaaarrrrrggggghhhh, it was ah nasty globe for sure." Those stamps are creative as all hell! I want to be able to buy those, you know?

So yes, thought. You see spray painting involves not only off the cuff excitement, but it presents us with some rather well planned pieces of art. Some of these murals take hours and hours of time, and that is just one way of showing an artist's true love.

There's a mural done on a wall a few blocks east of Ferris High School in Jersey City, NJ. I tell you that every time I pass that spot or have to wait for the light(one of the few times I don't mind), it brings such delight to me to sit and stare and appreciate what someone took the time to share with the world. That's pretty powerful stuff, at least to this soul.

One of the main reasons it is looked down upon because sometimes the artists and the punks get mixed up. Let's face it a lot of us have messed with someone's property that we really shouldn't have tagged up. People naturally get upset when their home, fence, car, garage, or what have you gets destroyed. This is the big difference between disrespect and true art. This is what breaks it for a large percentage. They see all of it as disrespect and not art; thus sending out a lot of bad vibes.

One last point. I'm a firm believer that all of the graffiti artists of the world all have Spider man powers and sh#t! First of all, you never see these people in action. Secondly, how the f!^k do they get to some of these places ? You could throw a pound of pot out on cliff face ledge over looking the NJ Turnpike, and this Mofo is not going out there to get it. Let alone slap a mural on the side of a mountain face. That's all for now. Drew

Grisel said...

Hey Drew and any other potential artists out there, if you want to create your own stamps - legally, that is - you now have that option. My really awesome sister-in-law, Susan/Susie, made me aware that the U.S. Postal Service has provided that option.

Here is the URL:

I still think TEWZ's sneaky stamps are something special; doing it through the proper channels takes something out of the message for me. However, if I want to create some stamps with Julia de Burgos, for example, I can do that - maybe USPS has something there. I don't have to buy the Reagan nonsense or none of that stuff, if I don't want to.

Toro said...

Okay, I have to say this. Drew has some of the best replies to blogs, the guy should have blog of his own, , I swear.

It is quite amazing what those artist do. I show graffiti to my students, and then I tell 'em, "Okay how many of you can paint that? Okay, how many of you can paint that with a few spray cans? How many can paint it with only a few spray cans while hanging between two train cars and looking out for cops and in under 20 minuntes?"

It's quite amazing if you think about it.

For Drew or anyone else who is interested in knowing more about graffiti and graffiti culture, check out an unbelievable documentary done back in the 70's called "Style Wars." It really captures the heart of the art form. And what is incredible is that alot of the artists they caught on camera, while some of them wound up in jail or in a coffin, many of them are now renowned artists being shown in galleries, touring the world, or at least making a living teaching and pimping peoples rides and stuff.

Also google Marc Lawrence, a cat I did a project with at Taft High School in the Bronx. We did a Poetry and Graffiti Project Together with the High Schoolers. He actually did walls for 50 Cent, though I hate the guy, he paid Marc something nice to do his house, and it has given Marc Lawrence the rep to own his own shop, where he brings in kids and gives them jobs as apprentices. It's that community service factor about Graffiti people that is little known and understood.

Black Educator said...

Dear Grisel,

Thanx for your comments left at my Black Educator blog. The group I belong to- Black New Yorkers for Educational Excellence (BNYEE) would like to share your comments on our listserv. We have had many many Black & Latino educators tell us variations of this horror story. A few of them are active with us in BNYEE.

The Bloomberg-Klein cabal is institutionalizing what Giuliani, Albert Shanker and Koch could only dream of: the double whammy of "whitening and privatizing" the NYC public education system from the TOP down.

Well, we're working on reversing this trend with a multitifaceted form of the fight to achieve true community/neighborhood control over the K-12 public school system.

Stay tuned for the first salvo of information, analysis and proposals for complete redesign/system-change!

In Struggle,

Sam Anderson

Grisel said...

Here's a link to another type of guerrilla art:


Anonymous said...

Now for the obvious question: did dude actually attempt to use those stamps, and was the mail delivered?


Grisel said...

Yes, Onome. The stamps worked (note the postmark on the envelopes). There are several others, too. Only daredevils should try this at home. Just like the origins of spraycan art, it is risky.

Speaking of illegal art.... Ironically, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have become major patrons of Banksy artwork (he is an amazing English stencil artist that has strong political subject matter). I'm not exactly sure how I feel about the faces of U.S.B.S. purchasing art that is supposedly against everything they are about.

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