Diary of a Street Art Culture Warrior

1. Day of the Photo Shoot

With a clink of shotglasses last night, I committed my intentions to pose naked for street artist Quel Beast, whom I met four days ago, and to write about it afterward. He is coming by later today, to take reference pictures of a few of us on my roof, and I am trying to decide what to wear. Rather, I am trying to decide what I will be able to take off and put back on quickly in front of three people.

I’ve never posed for a painting before, but I’m not completely inhibited about giving up clothes for the sake of art, either. I received two signed prints for participating in one of Spencer Tunick’s group-nude photo shoots in Los Angeles. And, also while I was living in L.A., I was an extra in a movie directed by my friend, Cody Jarrett. The women-in-prison flick, Sugar Boxx, featured cult-movie starlets Tura Satana and Kitten Natividad, and I’d had no regrets playing “Rybarski’s (topless) inmate girlfriend” in the low-budget movie. But I have a shy side, too, so I also had no complaints when my scene was cut from the final edit.

I’ve been living in Brooklyn for four months, and have been looking around for some kind of collaboration, so the invitation seemed to fit. I’m curious to observe from beginning to end how the street artist starts with his concept and ends up with an original painting that he will give away to public space—risking arrest to have his work be torn apart by the elements, stolen by fans, or dissed by haters. The storyteller in me wants to see how street art works from the inside out, but saying yes also means looking closely at my own process, too—meaning, my Vanity.

So after I shower and dry my hair, I look at my face, with consternation. Normally I wear little makeup, but how I look will be part of a painting that, even as ephemeral art, may outlive me (thanks, Internet). On his Flickr page, Quel Beast describes one portrait series as “abject faces of genuine emotion and the beauty of imperfection.” He’s seeking to reveal something about who we are on the inside, so—no idealizing, airbrushing, or concealing.

But as I look into my mirror at a magnified view of precisely what is going to be revealed, I am driven as if by instinct to mount a counteroffensive. I tweeze and pencil my brows. Extra eyeliner. Extra mascara. As though this prettier and girlier version of me will preemptively defuse the artist’s de-glamorizing intentions. The writer in me is ready to surrender my image to his artistic license, but my Vanity, with a mind of her own, is primping passive-aggressively for a Glamour Shots session. Beauty in, beauty out, Vanity reasons. How could it be otherwise?

By the time Quel Beast arrives at my East Williamsburg loft with our friend Andrew, around 3 p.m., Vanity has further decided she isn’t really ready to reveal everything, even for art. Counting on Andrew’s shyness, I announce I will only get as naked as Andrew, who’s agreed to pose in briefs. His nervous laugh tells me he knows it’s not a dare. The three of us open a couple of beers, and while we’re waiting for a third model, Quel explains his concept to me, for the first time. “So, Andrew is going to pose like a girl, and you and Aimee will be posing as guys.”

“Oh,” I said nonchalantly, standing up and heading to the fridge. “I’m having another beer. Who else needs one?”

I met Aimee for the first time on my roof, and we chatted as Andrew took the first turn in front of the camera. The three of us made a rule: the two of us who weren’t posing wouldn’t peek at the one who was. We giggled but Quel was serious, directing each of us into the poses and facial expressions of hip-hop dancers of our opposite genders. I had no idea why, none of us looked the part. But it was also Aimee’s birthday, so the mood on the roof was all celebration and sunshine and showing up so our friend can make some art. In that spirit, my self-consciousness at enacting an unfamiliar role fell away.

With my back to the other two, when it was my turn, I looked west at the gorgeous partial view of Manhattan, stepped out of the simple black peasant dress I’d chosen, and waved at the neighboring buildings. “Hello, Brooklyn!,” I said, laughing, then moved into the direct sunlight.

Like a director to a performer, Quel guided me verbally to find mentally an attitude that would manifest physically: machismo, low center of gravity—I’m a dude telling you to suck it. After just two pictures, he had the full-length images he wanted, and when I turned around to pick up my dress, I was relieved to see Andrew and Aimee about 15 yards away, paying no attention to us. Next, the artist and I spent a few minutes facing each other. He sneered at me, showing me a face he wanted me to mimic, and as I did, I knew my forehead was wrinkling. My face formed an almost Elvis-like lip curl. As I conjured whatever bravado I could find, Vanity said to herself, well, but maybe it will still look pretty somehow.

This might be a good time to tell Vanity that the artist lifted his alias, Quel Beast, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In the movie, Holly Golightly exclaims: “He’s sweet when he isn’t drunk, but let him start lapping up the vino, and, oh, golly, Quel Beast!” It means, What an animal. I don’t think pretty is the direction he’s going.

The artist had been offered space for a solo exhibition at Bushwick bar King’s County. Public walls rarely offer a street artist a chance to create multiple works that share a context; images are usually pasted up one at a time. So at King’s, he wanted to fill a room with dancers and bring to life the energy of the Juvenile rap song and video, “Back That Azz Up.” The 1999 hit, a favorite of the artist, was the cultural reference point he was starting with to develop his themes.

The idea was to orient viewers to something familiar, and then disorient them by rearranging dancers’ gender roles and undressing them, Quel said, to minimize the effect of clothing on viewers’ perceptions. In this restyling, he was exploring social questions about how we reach our conclusions, about how our physicality informs our assumptions about identity and sexuality. Ultimately he was painting eight dancers for the show (not including me) and hoped they would rival the video-dancers in ebullience and sex appeal, while raising eyebrows and provoking some discussion. As a young artist, of course he hoped a few people outside Bushwick might also take notice. And that’s where my portrait comes in: it’s going up in Chelsea, a few days before his show opens.


2. The Day of the Paste-Up

I’m supposed to meet Quel Beast at a diner on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea at 5:30 a.m. I’m tired and I forget that the trains don’t run every few minutes at this hour, and after I swipe my Metrocard, even before descending the stairs to the L platform at the Lorimer stop, I hear the Manhattan-bound train leaving. The next one isn’t due for 20 minutes, and I don’t want to be late, so I call a car service. The car drops me at Ninth, and I arrive at the diner just before he does. We’re the only customers, and we’re dressed for an occasion—though he tells me later that we seem to have dressed for different occasions. Usually he wears a black hoodie, as though it renders him invisible. But in the booth this morning he’s sitting up straight, sipping his black coffee formally, wearing a dress shirt, suit jacket, and shiny shoes. I realize this is an occasion; the street-artist’s equivalent of an opening. I’d ordered my coffee to go, but we’re not in the hurry I thought we were, so we chat as he finishes his coffee, then I follow him to the spot he’s picked out on 22nd Street, west of 10th Avenue.

The few weeks since the photo shoot have passed slowly, and I’ve had a lot of time to imagine what the painting may look like. Quel Beast has only said that he likes it. I’ll be seeing it for the first time as he pastes it on the wall. The intrepid woman who was willing to trust someone I just met with my likeness has been battling with the little girl who wants the nice young artist to paint a pretty picture of her. I’ve been bullying Vanity, pressuring her to appreciate the artwork even if it makes her sulk, and I fear she will. The conversation about beauty and identity the artist has been trying to promote, seems to be taking place within my psyche.

I am most afraid I will look exactly like the pictures we shot, because I remember snarling in a way that parents always say not to, “because your face might freeze that way.” But in a painting, freezing a moment is the point. I’m afraid I will hate being topless on the street. I’m afraid I don’t really want the world to see my thighs. I’m afraid his painting will look exactly like me, or nothing like me. I am even afraid the painting will be so popular that a lot of people will talk about it for a long time. I’m afraid it will remain on the street for years. In spite of fearing almost everything, what happened, had never occurred to me.

He removes a bottle of paste from his canvas bag, unrolls the Kraft-paper painting, places it face down, squirts the liquid onto it, and starts positioning it on the wall. In the predawn light, it is glistening and wet, and I find that I can’t look at it directly. It is me. It is not me. It is too much me. There is too much detail to take in at one time. Her head is larger than her body, and the foreshortened perspective and bright colors he uses make the figure seem unreal, like a cartoon. And yet, my eye immediately locates where his drawing is scrupulously faithful. A blush of modesty makes me unable to view the painting with any detachment.

Quel Beast stands next to me expectantly, adrenaline coursing through his veins. He can barely speak, but I don’t share his floaty, post-vandalism euphoria. My caffeinated text-brain is analyzing, comparing, weighing. It is assessing the potential consequences of conflating my image with the identity projected by the rendering.

And as my brain calculates, Vanity is standing around demurely, wondering whether people, upon seeing this portrait, might get the impression they’d seen me naked. She doesn’t love it. I’m not sure what to think. My glances are only sideways and almost stolen, and I am sort of amused to catch myself looking at this painting a little like I might regard a rival. Given the pose, maybe that is a natural response.


3. The Day We Learn the Art Is Dead.

“Good art dies. Great art is murdered,” the artist wrote without explanation on his Facebook page. It hasn’t even been two weeks. I ask him what happened. The art was “killed,” he said, painted over, destroyed. I’m confused. We talked a lot about art, and wanting art to be seen. I didn’t see how this was something worth announcing.

Street art never lasts forever, the essence of the art form is fleeting. Quel had given me realistic expectations, he had explained how artists show respect; giving each other a little time but then inevitably pasting over each other’s work, especially in prime spots like this one. I assumed that’s what would eventually happen here. I’d even considered it the rug under which I’d temporarily tucked my shyness. I wanted to see it.

We went together to 22nd Street, and I noticed the myriad other paintings and posters and stickers on the same wall remained undisturbed. The black outlines of the painting were still visible under one coat of what looked like plain white interior housepaint. Another artist had already used some of the newly vacant space to put up a piece of his or her own; theirs was smaller and had been placed low, to the side of—not directly on top of—the whitewashed painting.

“So...do you think the person who posted that art, painted over yours?” No, he said. “Are you sure?” I asked. Yes, he said, he was sure. I scrutinized the paint job. “Do you think it was the store whose wall this is?” It wasn’t the store, he said. But you should call and check. (I did. They didn’t.)

The portrait ran from head to mid-thigh. I guess my mid-thighs were not objectionable, because the painter left them alone. But from my head to the top of my thighs, someone took their time, using a brush and not a roller, to paint a white, Robin-shaped spot on the wall next to high-end clothing boutique Comme Des Garcons. I felt offended, and that was confusing. Quel Beast printed over the white paint, “Censored is the highest honor.” A couple was taking pictures of some other artwork and noticed him writing. We posed for them in front of our white space, and then left.

Over dinner we talked about the choices this person made. We analyzed his intentions and brushstrokes and motivations. We turned it over from so many angles, we may as well have been talking about art we’d seen at an opening. I couldn’t find words to express my disconcerting feelings. Maybe the person found my toplessness offensive? But then, he (it has always been he, in my mind) brushed around the nipples and breasts, in circles. How offended does that seem? And how creepy?

 I’d texted Quel Beast earlier in the day and said, I’m not happy, and I don’t get why this makes you happy. He’d replied, “Instead of being ignorable, you provoked a reaction from society. That’s the ideal. You’re a culture warrior now.”

I scowled at my phone. What the hell is a culture warrior?


4. The Day I Wanted to Join the War

“The purpose of art is to affect the public aesthetic,” Quel Beast had said. I’m extremely left brained and text-oriented, and filter out a lot of visual information. But I know many people don’t experience New York’s visual excess that way. Instead of just walking past the painting and ignoring it, which I might have, someone was so offended, aesthetically or morally or ethically or for other reasons, that he also risked a vandalism arrest, just to relieve his discomfort at seeing a painting of me. Now I get why that would make the artist happy.

I think for Quel Beast, the painting was part provocation, part dialogue with other street artists, and part teaser for his show. For me, the painting was a physical reminder of a leap of faith, and a memento of the friendships that grew from the experience. It unnerves me to consider that a likeness of me moved someone to obliterate what the image represented for him. Now that the painting is ruined, I realize what it depicted: not just a topless woman posturing like a dude, but a powerful, unconventional, masculine, and unapologetically topless woman. No wonder I felt shy around her, she was a total badass—and an illustration of how subjective our experiences are of art, or even the world.

At first I felt like a bystander, tagging along as Quel Beast played tour guide to the streets, where art can be followed like a conversation that threads its way through urban neighborhoods. My own building gets repainted every three months, which I suspect is sort of a favor to the artists and graffiti writers who use the blank surface to talk amongst themselves. I never noticed street art in L.A. It’s not that L.A. doesn’t have any—it’s that because of the car culture and the vastness of the city, I don’t think many people experience the kind of dialogue that happens here.

I never wished the painting lasted longer, because I’ve always been ambivalent about it. A friend saw the painting online and told me flatly, “It’s not a very flattering portrait.” It resembled me and it didn’t, and the ways it did ultimately turned Vanity bashful. But I’m starting to understand art-as-conversation, and the experience did make me wish for the impossible, though: I wanted to find the person who whitewashed the painting and ask him why he did it, maybe argue a little. Imagining how that conversation might go makes me feel a little like the girl in the painting; a bit warrior-like, I guess you could say.



Quel Beast is among the artists featured in Pantheon: History of Art from the Street of NYC, on view at the former Donnell Library (across from MoMA) from April 2 - 17 (http://www.pantheonnyc.com).

Contributor

Robin Grearson

ROBIN GREARSON is a writer based in Bushwick. For more of her work, go to www.robingrearson.com.

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