Rounding a corner along an Indianapolis alley, pedestrians come face to face with a 40-feet-wide scene seemingly out of derranged comic book.
A cartoonish mole, complete with a pick-axe, miner’s helmet and goggles, rides a trolley cart through an eerily glowing subterranean cavern. Stylized lettering around the image identifies the artists responsible.
Nearby, the mural of a robot slipping and falling takes up the lower corner of a wall. A 20-foot-tall portrait of a woman stares disarmingly at passers-by.
Around the Fountain Square neighborhood, graffiti is more than mischievous kids damaging property. Trained painters have taken to turning the blighted walls in this art-centric area into unique creations.
IF YOU GO
What: Scratching the SubSurface
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 14
What: A two-part program looking at the effects of graffiti and street art. Viewers will examine the Midwest Graff exhibition, hear from street artist Pete Brown and other graffiti artists, then tour Fountain Square to see the results of this year’s SubSurface event.
Where: IUPUI Cultural Arts Gallery, 420 University Blvd., Indianapolis; Fountain Square area
What: Midwest Graff
When: Sept. 3 to Oct. 4
Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 7 p.m. Sunday
FIND URBAN ART
Where to see some of Indiana’s best graffiti and street art:
Long viewed as the scourge of the urban landscape, graffiti is gaining respect as a legitimate art form. Stylized block letters, cartoonish characters and bright, attention-grabbing colors are popping up on unused brick walls, often with the blessing of owners.
Throughout Indianapolis, the movement is gaining momentum. Galleries are featuring the art in special exhibitions, and the form has become an accepted type of contemporary artwork.
“It removes graffiti from its street scene and puts it in a gallery setting, so we can really look at it as artwork,” said Pamela Blevins Hinkle, executive director of the Spirit and Place Festival and supporter of street art.
Graffiti art in the U.S. has its roots in New York City, where artists would tag subway cars, vacant buildings and other public canvasses. Since then, it has been regarded as a form of urban folk art and contemporary expression.
When he was growing up, local artist Pete Brown remembers walking through the streets of Detroit, marveling at the style of graffiti tags on vacant buildings.
Chicago and Detroit, with more prevalent abandoned space and walls to work on, have become hotbeds for graffiti art. But Indianapolis has made strides to increase its visibility in the scene.
“Indianapolis is a very clean city. There’s not a lot of opportunity for graffiti artists to practice their form without permission,” Brown said. “A lot of graffiti ordinances are aimed at vandalism, but it affects street artists as well. So we’ve had to do things other ways.”
Brown’s own artwork is a cousin of graffiti art — done in hand-cut stencils with aerosol or spray paint. As he tried to learn more about street art, though, he found that most of the resources were coming from the East and West coasts, Europe and South America.
But the middle of the country were sorely underrepresented, despite the presence of a number of renowned artists.
“I knew there was stuff here, but no one was paying attention to it,” he said. “It rivals anything in this city in terms of interesting contemporary artwork. The color schemes, the styles that people will experience with this work, it’s impossible to see in any other medium.”
Brown created Midwest Street Art, a Facebook community allowing artists from Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago and other Midwestern cities to showcase their creations without worrying about retribution from police.
Part of the mystique in graffiti art is the secrecy with which it’s done. Artists normally work under cover of night, and even those who are legitimate and get permission to paint keep their identities unknown.
Though many graffiti artists work on walls where they have been given permission to paint, the art form is rooted in illicitly and secretly creating works.
“I’m not a graffiti artist, so there’s not really any harm in me going to take photos of their work,” he said.
His interaction with the street art community led Brown to SubSurface, a weekend gathering of graffiti artists. People come from all over the country to work on public street art projects throughout Indianapolis.
The event was organized in 2003 by the Fantastic Aerosol Brothers, or FAB Crew. The graffiti art muralists have had work commissioned by the Humane Society of Indianapolis and for the 46 for XLVI project completed for the Super Bowl.
Working together, they have tried to create an event that draws attention to the artistry of graffiti crews and to break negative stereotypes.
“There’s this fellowship against the prejudice of spray paint. They think everyone who uses spray paint in their artwork is some kind of criminal or gang member, like their main goal is to vandalize things,” Brown said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
SubSurface is meant to celebrate the art of graffiti. Close to 50 artists spent three days over Labor Day weekend in the Fountain Square area, working on 24 wall spaces.
The SubSurface event itself was completed over the course of three days. But the celebration of graffiti art will continue throughout September with the Midwest Graff exhibition.
Work by nine graffiti artists will be shown at the Cultural Arts Gallery on IUPUI’s campus.
The event also serves as a sneak peak for this year’s Spirit and Place Festival.
“When we think of risk and art, it’s hard not to think of graffiti first,” Blevins Hinkle said. “There’s risk on a lot of different levels — the artists themselves take physical risks and legal risks, and it’s an art form that teeters back and forth on the edge of art and vandalism. We thought that was a really interesting notion.”
The festival is sponsoring the Midwest Graff exhibition and hosting a single-day program on Sept. 14 called “Scratching the SubSurface.” Brown will give a talk explaining street art and graffiti. Then, a tour through Fountain Square will show off the work.
“It’s graffiti in its natural habitat. You get to see both sides — graffiti in a gallery and graffiti on the street,” Blevins Hinkle said.