Interview with Ismael Muhammad Nieves on Graffiti

Ismael Muhammad Nieves (Ish) is the guest curator for “Heartland Graffiti: writers from the Midwest” on view at the Swope October 2, 2009-January 2, 2010. This is an interview conducted by Swope Curator Lisa Petrulis. The exhibition opens as part of October’s first Friday events and Ish will be on hand to talk about the exhibition at 8:00pm Friday October 2.

You are one of the busiest people I know. You have a full time job as an engineer, you have a family with teenagers, you’re an active marathoner, and still you have time to create graffiti art, to organize shows and to participate in panel discussions… (feel free to elaborate on, correct or add to what I just wrote)
• My full time job is: Operations Supervisor for a Power Plant. Basically, I supervise the operations team with the day-2-day activities of operating a coal fired power plant.

Graffiti seems to be a passion for you. How did you first get involved?
• I was exposed to graffiti and street art as a child living in Lower East Side Manhattan New York in the 70’s – 80’s. We used to travel New York City throughout the week and visit New Jersey frequently.
• Street Art was everywhere. Before I knew there names I was studying Keith Haring, Basquiat, Lee, XMen, etc. I remember driving through SoHo, Hell’s Angels HQ in LES, CBGBs, the Hip Hop block parties, the breakdancing, the salsa music, etc.

Why do you think it still holds your interest some 20 or so years later?
• Graffiti and Street Art is American urban folk art. There’s innocence, sarcasm, bravado, and sincerity in most of the work put out on the streets. It’s an art form that has gone global. My continued interest in the art form lies in the belief that graffiti like all art forms if properly exercised develops professional skills and self-esteem.
• If you study art movements you will find similarities. Artists who paint, people who appreciate the art enough to support it, and plenty of “muses”. That exists in graffiti writing.
• A jewel I’ve come to treasure in the art form is: If you have an idea that hasn’t been accepted; put it out there anyways. By any means. Legally or illegally. It’s through this approach that we’ve become the respected artists that we are.

Have you been influenced by any particular graffiti (or other) artists?
• Graffiti writing is very competitive. Writers study all art forms. You will not find a writer with 10+ years of experience who cannot carry an intellectual conversation on art. You will not find a writer who does not have an impressive book collection; be it reference books or art books in general. Don’t you find it interesting that the current top selling art books are graffiti and street art related?
• My favorites are: Phillip Guston, Rothko, DZine, Kerry James Marshall, Basquiat, Charles Scultz, Norman Rockwell, Jeff Zimmerman, Picasso, and some Contemporary Artists. I also appreciate urban development as an art form.
• Way too many graffiti writers I respect to list.
Have you ever wanted to study and practice traditional “fine art”?
• My mentor is Tom Torluemke. He has been a big inspiration in my development as an artist. I know I would’ve learned much if I would’ve been formally trained. However, I have friends who are formally trained and I piggy back what I need from them.

You are an electrical engineer and you were in the army; both of these would seem to involve intense organized routine and yet vigilant practice.
Is that the approach you take to art making too?
• There’s routine and ritual to my work. From my education and work environment I’ve learned to break art projects down to achievable tasks and create a timeline. I work the list until the last task is completed. For the most part I’m on time.
• From the military, I’ve learned that the best way out is straight through. With a good assessment and proper training you can accomplish what you will.

Some of the events you have been involved in, like “subsurface” in Indianapolis, are quite social community events with the outcome of a public artwork.
Is this social aspect part of what draws you to graffiti?
• The social aspect of graffiti writing can’t be beat. For example, @ Subsurface the bulk of the writers are from Chicago, Milwaukee, Northwest Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. There are 60-100 writers simultaneously painting. It’s a great opportunity to get the pulse of current Midwest activity and build your network.
• Spectators are welcome to talk to the artist. Most writers appreciate the attention given to them.
• I enjoy planning a wall. For a 3 day activity you have to coordinate: hotels, food, entertainment, layout of the wall, size of crew, scope of work for each artist, supplies, time management, documentation, promoting and publicizing the activity.

Are any of these public graffiti murals still visible (say the one from 2004 in Broad Ripple Indy) or are they continuously painted over?
• Unfortunately, the current value system for graffiti writing as art can be compared to how we value a daily paper. You read it to stay on top of current events during the day and by evening it’s forgotten and discarded as a recyclable.
• Due to lack of public space most public works are destroyed. A good wall is comparable to a golf tournament. Plenty of great golfers playing an amazing round of golf. History documented! The next day it’s a retired steelworker playing the same holes. When public walls are identified, we accept that the work might last a couple of weeks. God bless digital cameras and the internet! We have been successful in capturing most of the artwork produced.

You say you grew up between New York, Puerto Rico and Indiana; a curious triangle, your artist statement says “My background is polarized with family very active in organized religion and others very active in the streets. It is a cultural conflict that I continue to experience internally and make every effort to present my dialogues and arguments as works for public viewing.” Do you care to expound upon this?
• I’ve read the bible and Holy Quran in its entirety more than I can count on both of my hands. I have been blessed to have built a good foundation of the stories and parables in both Holy Books.
• I grew up with the presence of alcohol and marijuana always accessible outside of my home. As a teenager, my best friend’s dad was a cocaine dealer. It was an eye-opener to witness who in your community used drugs. I saw beautiful women and girls do unmentionables with his dad for cocaine.
• It’s very American to, as an observer, bounce in and out of cultural pockets. I’ve taken my experiences and memories and present them as abstract works.

I’m interested in pursuing the public aspect of the artworks; unlike gallery art, graffiti will potentially be seen by people who have no interest in art and certainly by more people than would go into a museum or gallery. Is there something about this larger audience that is important to you?
• A good artist develops a language through his palette, lines, composition, and color. You do not have to go to school to appreciate art. Our current understanding of viewing artwork is still bounded by imperialistic and corporate standards. Graffiti has been able to bring forth the argument as to what is worthy to be exhibited, collected, and even enjoyed. I believe art is an experience best experienced as a group.

Do you create with message or dialogue in mind?
• When I am graffiti writing it’s mostly impulsive. The only boundary is how many and what color of spray paint cans I have in my bag and where’s my spot.
• When I create work for galleries or commissions it’s calculated and theme oriented.

Or a particular audience in mind?
• I try to make an assessment of the audience and create work that they will consider and take the time to experience

In some ways graffiti could be an active conversation between participants?
• It’s always a conversation. Be it with the public, your crew, peers, or the competition. If you can read it than the message was intended for you.

Can you talk about some of the artists you chose, as guest curator, to be part of Heartland Graffiti: writers from the Midwest ?
• Zore (Chicago) – lives in San Francisco for the past decade. He bounces back and forth to Chicago for exhibits and art projects. He’s a community activist and founder of Hip Hop University where Hip Hop culture is taught to the local youth. His work has been documented in the current art book “Street Art San Francisco”
• Risk (Chicago) – is very active exhibiting his work in Chicago. I consider him graffiti’s pop artist.
• Flex (Northwest Indiana) is super talented with the spray can. His current work is portraits of Midwest graffiti legends. These works are large photo realistic portraits using spray paint.
• Rooster (Northwest Indiana) is one of the Midwest pioneers of graffiti. His work is years ahead of contemporary thought. His work is comparable to Robert Crumb had Mr. Crumb been a graffiti writer
• Traz (Northwest Indiana) – His work current raises the bar of stencil work. His rust paintings are images made out of rust on steel.
• Kuaze (Northwest Indiana) – owner, publisher of Volume One magazine. The Midwest authority of graffiti writing culture.
• Sacred (Indianapolis) – Pioneer of the Indianapolis movement. Co-organizer of Subsurface graffiti exhibition.
• Cents (Indianapolis) – Pioneer of the Indianapolis movement. Co-organizer of Subsurface graffiti exhibition.
• Scribe (Cincinnati) – One of the best graffiti writers on the planet. His characters are the base of his children’s books. His work is seen in the art book : “DF Crew: Idiots on Parade”
• Rapes (Cincinnati) – A character artist. His work is seen in the art book : “DF Crew: Idiots on Parade”
• Slang (Chicago) – A pioneer of the Chicago movement. Collectors of his work include: MTV, Disney, Viacom, P-Diddy, and has worked for several rap artist including album covers for 50 Cent
• Eighter (Northwest Indiana) – Represents the new movement of Midwest graffiti. His work is very Mesoamerican. He’s created his own alphabet to accompany his body of work.
• Argue (Northwest Indiana) – Represents the new movement of Midwest graffiti. His lettering style is very complex and layered. Beautiful line work.

Did you have a guiding principle while making your choices?
• I choose a group of artists that reflect the current pulse of the Midwest. The artist has to be an individual I admire and can exhibit professionalism. Their styles need to complement and balance the exhibit.

I’m excited to bring this exhibition to Terre Haute. Is there anything else you think our audience should know or would find interesting?
• The Midwest will always be the crossroads of North America. The East and West Coast trends fuse in the Midwest creating a practical balance.
• This exhibit will bring to light the true objective of most graffiti writers and that is to be true to one’s creative energies and join forces with peers to ensure the success of your goal which to show your work
• Terre Haute’s developing graffiti writing culture is similar to all the movements across the globe. How the community acts on the movement determines the direction the artist take as they mature. It’s no accident Pres. Obama commissioned a street artist for his now famous red, white, and blue portrait that you see as a sticker on the backs of cars.
• Graffiti is as American as apple pie. Its rooted in the urban areas and has branched out to include small towns across the country.

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