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Graffiti Masters

by Ilka Skobie
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The artist and “Yo! MTV Raps” star Fred Brathwaite, more commonly known as Fab 5 Freddy, pulls his black Mercedes up to the curb at 350 Bowery, the address of Gallery 151, which is hosting his first New York City art exhibition in recent memory.

Immediately Fred is swarmed by an enthusiastic crowd straight out of Hollywood casting. Genially posing for photos eager young fashionisti and truck drivers who are “lifelong fans” (“I’m bringing my kids to see this show!”), Fred finds time to chat with a German model and then greet a friend last seen at the Basel Art Fair.

The Brooklyn-born cultural avatar’s newest body of work, "New Work: New York," on view at Gallery 151 till July 1, 2011, is a bold and beautiful conflation of past and present. Abstract graffiti pieces set against patterned backgrounds share the gallery space with heroically scaled images of boxers and exotic dancers.

We met at the gallery last Friday and had our conversation.

Ilka Scobie: How did you become a visual artist?

Fred Brathwaite: I hit the scene in the early 1980s and the first thing that happened was that I was invited to exhibit my paintings in Rome at Galleria Le Medusa with Lee Quinones, and that helped other people from backgrounds like mine to realize they could take their artwork to serious venues. I grew up going to museums, and places like the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum were wonderlands to me, like a Disneyland of art. That was a pivotal thing, being comfortable around art, curious about it, and wanting to make it.

IS: How was it participating in “Art in the Streets” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art?

FB: Overwhelming experience, just gigantic. The show laid out the history of things I’ve been involved with, and the show has had good reviews, and sparked a big controversy. It’s a large exhibition, with artists from around the world. The show documents the history of graffiti as it develops into an art form, with people like myself, Basquiat, Futura taking it into galleries and changing peoples’ minds and convincing them to look at this kind of work differently.

IS: What’s up with the Brooklyn Museum refusing the show?

FB: The museum said it was an issue of finances and that’s all I know. But people are asking, if it’s a certified hit show in L.A., drawing 10,000 visitors a week, new members joining, catalogues selling, corporate sponsors who want to connect to that hip, cool audience. . . then if the Brooklyn Museum is having fiscal issues, then why not bring it in? It doesn’t add up that they couldn’t put it together.

Someone else is going to take the show, that’s for sure. And it is going to have great success and reap amazing benefits. That’s the nature of this work and this culture. It’s like Malcolm said, “By any means necessary,” and that has kind of been an underlying idea for me. Find a way. If the system is making noise, the force of creative energy is going to find a way. That’s it, and it can’t be stopped.

IS: Do you think graffiti is still relevant today?

FB: It’s been more than 20 years since graffiti has left the city in the form that it was in. It spawned an art movement that has inspired people around the globe. We should be able to look past the negative aspects and see the benefits.

IS: How did you get back to making art, after years of working in music, film and television?

FB: It’s all the same creative energy, production and direction, hosting the first rap program, introducing hip-hop culture to a television audience.

IS: Who are some of your favorite artists?

FB: John Chamberlain and Frank Stella. Chamberlain’s sculpture is just great. And Stella’s “Exotic Birds.”

IS: What’s the source for the boxers and the girls?

FB: Photographs. They’re all relatively recent. I started with the boxers. I just got really excited about working with crystal, the materials are really great. The Swarovski people donated some materials to help me get started. And I must mention the Art Production Fund, those amazing ladies, Doreen Remen and Yvonne Force were really instrumental, they took on my project and really helped me.

I started with these boxers, and I was in a couple of group shows at Art Basel, some other things. Just kind of priming the pump. And then the APF put together a big exhibition at a new hotel, the Cosmopolitan, that opened over the New Year in Las Vegas, a $3 billion mega-hotel with contemporary art is part of its theme. They saw my work and loved it, so I was the first artist in residence, the first exhibition of the figurative work.

When I conceived the work, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to show this in Vegas! And when Doreen came and said, “Hey, we got this opportunity, what do you think?” It was like a dream come true.

IS: Did you apply the crystals yourself?

FB: I did do a lot of it. Once you get into the groove, it’s like a Zen process. But I also had some assistants. We had these little apparatuses and a smooth method to move the work along nice. It’s very specific, detail-oriented work -- next thing you know, two or three hours pass by in no time. The work is really about movement, the interaction of people moving into the work, and then they get pulled in. The crystals are like the hot sauce.

IS: Tell me about the “Hot Girls” series.

FB: The girls are models and dancers. A lot of people look at the series and ask if they are strippers. And I tell them, none of the girls are taking their clothes off. They represent a new level of iconic sexiness that is part of a long history. Degas nudes, can-can dancers at the Moulin Rogue, or Vargas pin-ups. These are contemporary versions of that. The poles were added as a realistic and formal element.

IS: And what about the abstract works.

FB: The process was like thought, and also like the way a lot of urban contemporary music is made, growing out of hip-hop. It’s a digital process, sampling and remixing and reformulating, having the work printed and then painting on the surface again. Taking elements of “Wild Style” graffiti and dismembering and twisting and turning and recoloring them, and reformulating them in a way that’s almost sculptural. It was inspired by the process of making music, and I liked that a lot.

IS: What’s a favorite place in New York?

FB: Brooklyn Heights promenade. Coney Island, I have to go at least once a summer to Nathan’s and take a ride on the Ferris Wheel. That’s a deep thing for me, my grandmother lived in Coney Island.

IS: What’s your next project?

FB: More painting. I’ve been working on this body of work for the last three years. This is my first New York show and more things are coming. I’m just really happy to be making visual art, and the response has been great.

ILKA SCOBIE is a New York poet.