Spray Paint Art History Article

Revolution in a can: spray-paint street artists

By Gaile Robinson
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Ruben Sadot was killed by a driver one night in 1989 as he walked along a Mexico City freeway. His friends suspect it was a suicide rather than an accident. The man who had started an art movement was gone just as his creation was beginning to flourish.

Sadot was a working artist and poet when, in the early '80s, he began using spray paint instead of the more traditional oil or acrylic. He would spray a few colors on paper, swirl the hues together and then look for an image to appear in the mist. He accentuated what he saw by incising the paint with a sharp object, revealing the white board underneath.

He discovered that when he painted in the garden outside his studio, he attracted a crowd, so he took his studio into the street. Sadot liked being the center of attention. It also helped that he was creating something unique primarily spray-painted portraits all in a matter of minutes. Spray painting, he realized, was a viable, money-making venture. It was also a forum.

"He would use his art like a weapon," says spray-paint artist Hugo Montero, who was a close friend of Sadot's. "As people would gather, he would talk about the corrupt government. People thought he was crazy." Still, his audience would linger, listening, watching him work.

Other artists in Mexico City, serious artists who had gallery representation, saw how popular Sadot's art was and began to imitate him, taking to the streets themselves.

Twenty years after this all began in Mexico City, spray-paint art has an international client base, even though few people in the established art trade have noticed it. Most large cities, in North and South America and in some parts of Europe, have at least one spray-paint artist.

Usually the artists create fantastical worlds paired with images of impossible astronomical physics, where giant moons hang overhead seemingly only miles above the planet's equator, while flaming meteors streak through star fields. The night skies roil with activity and heavenly bodies, while the planet in the foreground stays as serene as a Buddhist monastery.

Serious artists

Montero, Luis Camacho, Augustin Martinez, Gerardo Amor, Ricardo Huet, Cecilia Banos and Raphael Martinez were the core of the original spray-paint artists from Sadot's circle. They were all formally trained artists and had studios in Mexico City, then they moved outside, to the sidewalks of La Zona Rosa, an area similar to Rodeo Drive that is frequented by tourists. They found that art they produced right before the customer's eyes was an easy sell. They all developed a paint-while-you-wait style. Augustin Martinez and Gerardo Amor are given credit for developing the celestial motifs.

Ricardo Huet was a catalyst for organizing the group. He feared their technique would be imitated by people of lesser talents, and if this were to happen, the art world would never take the spray-paint artists seriously.



His fears were not unfounded; there are spray-paint works being sold on the streets of major cities that belong with the black velvet paintings in the Museum of Tackiness, and there are works that deserve true respect.

Huet was afraid the work would be dismissed as a craft, unless they promoted it, protected it and organized. They needed a name, and La Association Mexicana de Pintura en Aire was born. They found champions in Jose Luis Cuevas, an internationally known Mexican artist, and Mexico City art critic Raquel Tibol. They viewed it as the beginning of a new art form.

Sadot became the group's vocal, media-hungry frontman. He was what every movement needs a colorful, dynamic spokesperson. As is often the case, leaders of the avant-garde are driven by personal demons.

"Sadot was a madman," says Montero. "He was an intellectual man, educated with the classics. He read poetry by Virgil ... but he had a dark side. He liked to drink too much. He liked drugs too much. He was delusional. He was an incredible performer. He was in advance of his time. Like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, he had to die young."

After Sadot's death, the original group hit the road. Banos, Huet and Amor moved to Puerto Vallarta and began to work the Malecon, the boardwalk area along the beach.

But all their posturing and elitist efforts did not stop the imitators, who picked up on the techniques and spread throughout Mexico and drifted across the border into the United States.

Montero, who had a college degree in education in Mexico, came to New Orleans as part of a teacher exchange program because he "admired the American culture." He was a teacher by day and supplemented his income with street art at night, selling at least 20 paintings a night, at $25 each. On an exceptional night, he could make $1,000.

Luis Camacho, who drifted to Los Angeles with a young artist named Ricardo Ponce, had similar success. The rattle of their spray-paint cans "was like shaking money from the sky. There was one night when we made $850," says Ponce.

Ponce made enough, to buy a motor home. He traveled to Denver, New York and Key West. "Whenever I ran out of money, I would set up on a street corner." In 1996 he landed in New Orleans, where he fell in with Monteroand, for five years, they worked together.

They, too, were copied.

"New people are doing it because they need the money or they need to be somebody. Spray paint is a good vehicle for that," says Montero, who could always tell when someone was watching him with more than a passing interest. "Most of the new people are sneaky. They take pictures of your paintings. I look at their nails; if they have spray paint on their fingers, then I know."

Many of the second wave of spray-paint artists have little or no formal art training. Their use of perspective is limited; scale is distorted. The axiom "less is more" is lost on these artists.

Montero, now 42, says the newcomers have no respect for the medium. "They use cheap spray paint from the dollar store. They buy crappy poster board and cut it into stupid sizes like 27-by-13 inches," he says.

Worlds apart

For many of the new artists, spray painting is simply a steppingstone to reaching another profession. . There is a reason to consider multi-careers: Full-time spray-painting can be dangerous. Augustin Martinez died young from inhaling the fumes.

The dangers of the medium are addressed by most of the artists. Martin Martinez, 31, of Dallas, wears a respirator and latex gloves; he also ropes off his painting site so his customers won't get too close. "There are kids in my audience, and so I have to take precautions so they don't get close to the fumes. It has to do with being cautious. Being out and doing what I do carries responsibilities."

They do it despite the risks because it's become a big, busy trade. Some nights, all the customers want are planets; some nights all they want are landscapes. Cristina, 24, who spray-paints with an artist who goes only by Niko on the sidewalk near the Alamo in San Antonio, has added some cruciform images to her repertoire.

"It's our job to figure out what they want. If we just wanted to paint what we liked, we'd stay home," she says. Niko and Cristina will not do anything that takes longer than 7 to 10 minutes. "The crowd losses interest when it takes more than 12 minutes," she says.

The young women are bringing a different aesthetic to the work. Their landscapes are less science-fiction and more serene. "People can recognize the different qualities of work, and with time, the best will remain; the rest, like smoke, don't last," says Amor.

Cecilia Banos, the only original female spray-paint artist from Mexico City, does extremely intricate work; her oceans are alive with sea creatures, her skies are filled with all-seeing eyes. She works the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, and her work is sold on a Web site with an address in Los Angeles.

Her virtual gallery is maintained by composer Michel Rubini, who first saw Banos' work while on vacation in Mexico. He was moved by her artwork and thought she needed a larger audience, and "so I started her virtual gallery," he says. The price for an original Banos is steep; photographic prints of her work sell for $350-$450.

The work of most of the artists, though, has to be bought on the street. You can find them weekend nights, on a busy corner, but only if the weather is nice. There are no guarantees they will be there; they move. Today's local artist may be another city's artist tomorrow.

Recently, Niko and Cristina's turf was threatened by another spray-paint artist. "Some old guy showed up a couple of months ago and thought he knew all about spray painting," says Niko scornfully.

That old guy, who only works a couple of nights a month, is Hugo Montero. He moved to San Antonio recently, the hometown of his bride. Soon after coming to Texas, he set up his mobile studio one night near the Alamo. Indirectly, he met Niko and Cristina.

"There were a couple of painters here," he says. "They were very angry with me for working near them. They were patronizing, and I am not one to be patronized to. They said, 'You can go back to Mexico.' I knew they were Mexican-Americans, not Mexican nationals, when they said that."

To him that meant they were not aware of the history; they wouldn't recognize his name even if he told them. "I don't want to talk spray paint with these people," he says. "I don't want to know these guys."

Copyright � 2003 The Seattle Times Company