It's nearly midnight on a frigid December Saturday, but St. Louis City Hall is as lively as it will ever be. On the polished marble floor in front of the building's grand staircase, a dozen break dancers whirl, flip and bob to hip-hop beats that boom from a DJ's turntables. A nearly nude woman, painted like the skeletal Santa Claus from The Nightmare Before Christmas, saunters through the crowd of onlookers, who try not to stare.
The hallways are filled with artists and their work, most of which is being auctioned off to raise funds for the local nonprofit ArtDimensions. A small group has gathered in front of what by day is the office of the collector of revenue. A sign on the table says it's the temporary shop of the Graffiti Lounge, sellers of custom urban apparel and (among other specialties) body-paint experts.
Lounge proprietor Chris Sabatino and fellow artists Justin Tolentino and Bryan Walsh sip from cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and discuss the irony of a graffiti-inspired art show at this particular venue.
"St. Louis has grown a lot, it's changed a lot," says Tolentino. "We're getting there, we're starting to gain respect because of the quality of the work so many of the young artists are producing. But it's still not to the point where street art is really relevant or respected."
The city is home to a budding street-art community and a talented group of graffiti-inspired gallery artists. But it's a precarious existence plagued by a broad range of conflicts — from recent legislation by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen that cracks down on graffiti to citizens who consider their work petty vandalism. Yet the artists persist, hoping their hometown's resistance will eventually give way to understanding and acceptance.
"St. Louis is starting to see the potential in street art. There's so much art there that's being created by a younger, hungrier generation," says Chris Burch, a local artist who is studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. "It's such an open field, and it is really starting to define itself in terms of an identity on the street. When I go back home, I see lots of interesting things going on in streets of St. Louis that I don't see even in San Francisco."
In July Walsh and Tolentino co-curated an exhibition at the Regional Arts Commission gallery. Entitled Screwed In, the show featured works by the pair and five other street-influenced artists, all with strong ties to St. Louis. The centerpiece was a massive mural, a collaboration among all seven artists. Colorful and glossy, the wood panels were covered with intricate images and faces created with brushes, airbrush and spray paint. Three sections wrapped around the main room of the gallery and stretched from floor to ceiling.
Chain-smoking Pall Malls and double-fisting cans of Schlitz at a South Grand bar, Tolentino says the mural represented a fusion of his current career as a gallery artist and his youth spent as a graffiti tagger in Fenton.
"I started writing on other people's shit when I was about fifteen," he recalls. "I was really into hip-hop, and I'd always see the freight trains coming west from the city with all the tags on them. I like graffiti because it's a lot like the blues. It comes from a deep, dark place, and it's beautiful because of its rawness."
Nine years ago Tolentino graduated from the Memphis College of Art, where his love for tagging flourished along with his gift for painting on canvas. He developed a style strongly influenced by graffiti, using loose brush strokes to render murky caricatures of faces and animals. The works are simple but striking, and often painted on an intentionally tattered canvas.
"I want it to look played or weathered," he says. "Like it was leaned against the back of a Dumpster for months. I've always had an appreciation for dilapidated buildings and things that look disheveled."
Walsh, who grew up in Collinsville, Illinois, and studied graphic design at Miami University of Ohio, professes a love for the most basic graffiti tags scrawled with thick black markers, and it shows through in his art, which consists of glossy canvases covered with colorful shapes and patterns punctuated by jarring black arrows and scribbles.
"Graffiti, abstract expressionism, graphic design: Those all play a part in how my pieces come out," he elaborates, peeling the label from a bottle of Pabst and affixing it like a sticker onto the table.
Their work at the Screwed In exhibit impressed curators at some local art institutions, including Kim Humphries, director of exhibitions and collections at Laumeier Sculpture Park in Sunset Hills.
Humphries lived in New York in the 1980s, when graffiti first appeared in art galleries. He recalls seeing subway cars bombed with colorful "Wild Style" tags from artists like Keith Haring, Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000 and being inspired by the work of street-art legends like Jean-Michel Basquiat, who, with the help of Andy Warhol, pioneered art's No Wave and Neo-Expressionist movements.
"That was probably the best thing I'd seen in terms of street art in a gallery in St. Louis," Humphries says of Screwed In. "As far as a finished, thought-out, museum-style exhibition or formal presentation — I thought that was the pinnacle."
Nestled as it is amid the taquerias of Cherokee Street, the face of a masked female wrestler painted on a boarded-up building is easy to miss. This particular luchadora sports gaudy blue eye shadow and puckered red lips that poke through the mouth of her crimson mask like a rose.
A few blocks down the street, cutouts of a half-dozen more masks lean against the wall of Peat Wollaeger's attic-like studio. The masks are part of a collaborative series organized by Wollaeger, another Screwed In artist. He sends templates painted with just the eyes and mouths to different artists around the globe. They add their own custom masks and send them back. The works debuted at an art show in San Francisco and have traveled as far as Australia. The Cherokee piece, though, might be the last time that one of the masks appears on the street in St. Louis.
"I'm done with street art indefinitely. It's just not worth it," Wollaeger says. "A lot of people in St. Louis don't understand the difference between street art and graffiti, and I don't want to get caught doing it and put my family or career in jeopardy. Right now I'm just doing it for the love of it."
Now 32, Wollaeger got his start in commercial graphic design; his projects included creating matchbooks for Camel cigarettes and using urban contemporary art to give products a hip image, marketable to a young audience. In 2003, inspired by the satirical stencil work of the British street artist Banksy, he began cutting his own elaborate stencils.
"I was just tired of creating for the Man," Wollaeger deadpans. "I had to create for myself."
Wollaeger wasn't alone in adopting Banksy as his muse. Though the buzz that brought highbrow graffiti into the mainstream had vanished by the end of the '80s, relegating street art to its previous status as a public nuisance, Banksy and his iconic stencils served to reinvigorate the medium just in time for the new millennium. As the first decade of the 21st century nears its end, Banksy is widely regarded as the catalyst of a global resurgence in guerrilla public art.
One of Banksy's most famous works depicts a police officer in riot gear searching the picnic basket belonging to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Wollaeger's approach tends to be more lighthearted. In addition to the masks, he's done a series called Dead Fat Comedians that includes the colorfully stenciled faces of Chris Farley, John Belushi and John Candy.
Wollaeger might be the most successful of St. Louis' street-to-gallery crossover artists. His work has taken him around the world, including a trip to Melbourne, Australia, for a street-art exhibition last year. He still dabbles in commercial graphic design; in 2007 he was one of eleven artists, including the famed New York graffiti writer Dr. Revolt, selected to create a custom Mountain Dew label. Wollaeger's design, a hippy/hillbilly hybrid he dubbed "Beardy McGreen," is now painted on a garage door in St. Louis on South Fourth Street at Lombard Street.
He says opposition to his public art in St. Louis has increased dramatically over the past year. He has received complaints from neighbors on Cherokee and phone calls from police asking him to stop stenciling. Now he's considering yielding to their demands.
"I'm just getting sick and tired of being known as someone who's out wrecking shit when I'm not wrecking anything out there," Wollaeger says. "Anything I put out there is more to beautify the community."
In St. Louis' insular graffiti community, the railroad tracks beneath the intersection of Tower Grove and South Vandeventer avenues are known as "The Arena." And for good reason: This is where the rival crews do battle. Thousands of colorful tags decorate the concrete walls that run parallel to a long stretch of tracks. Though most of the pieces have been painted over, scratched out or otherwise ruined by feuding crews — acts known as "disses" — a handful of well-preserved pieces date back more than a decade. There are layers upon layers of paint.
Leading a tour along the railroad ties, Hoax, a St. Louis graffiti writer, expounds upon the significance of a crew.
"It's all my best friends. It's not a gang or anything like that, it's just a group of guys united under a title," he says. "There's no initiation. You go out painting a couple times, and then if they're cool, they're in the crew. You learn who you can count on and who you can trust real fast when you're out in the middle of the night running from the cops."
Hoax says he founded "LD," also known as the "Low Down" crew, in 1999. Tattoos poke from his shirt collar and climb both sides of his thick, muscular neck. His bottom teeth are capped with a fanged gold grill. He has served time in prison and says graffiti abetted his path to crime.
"Graffiti is like a gateway drug. It desensitizes you. It puts you in a situation where things that aren't all right are suddenly all right," he says. "It can be positive, but it can also lead to being a total fuck-around. Once you start doing shady stuff, what's to stop you from doing other shady stuff?"
By all accounts, three crews, consisting of a total of about twenty people, are responsible for virtually all of the tagging that goes on in St. Louis. In addition to Hoax's LD crew, there's "OFB" (a.k.a. "Out for Blood") and "TKO," an outpost aligned with other graffiti crews in cities across the United States. The rest of the paint either comes from "toys" — unaffiliated amateurs out to imitate what they see on the walls — or traveling graffiti artists who stop over for a few weeks, tag as much as possible, then move on.
The burning question posed by property owners, police and city leaders is why the graffiti writers, many of whom are obviously gifted artists, are driven to vandalism.
Some say it's rooted in spite, along with the rush of feuding with other crews.
"I do it for the drama. I'm not in it to make friends and be famous and meet trendy guys. I'm here to destroy people's property and beat up kids," says Boke, a leader of the TKO crew. "It's about destroying public property and pissing people off."
Hoax says that early on graffiti provided an outlet for his destructive impulses. As he got older and joined a crew, it was about putting up as many "throw-up" tags (simple bubble letters with one or two colors) as possible in pursuit of notoriety among his tagging peers. Now he mostly aims to create "pieces" or "burners," the large, elaborate, often illegible explosions of color that made graffiti famous.
"It's for myself, not for these other guys," Hoax says. "And then it's for people to say, 'Wow, that's beautiful. How'd he do that?... I hate that fuckin' guy!'"
He says he's been perfecting his style for more than a decade, working with different color schemes, adding depth and complexity to the letters and occasionally experimenting with different names, writing "Slug" or "Pablo" when he gets bored with his usual letters.
"It's fuckin' vandalism: I want it to be there, but they don't," he sums up. "It's art — but it's art that someone doesn't want there."
In August the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved a new city ordinance cracking down on graffiti, banning the sale of spray paint to anyone youner than eighteen and making any graffiti-related vandalism punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.
When she proposed the legislation that led to the stiff new law, 16th Ward alderwoman Donna Baringer says, she had no intention of making a distinction between street art and graffiti.
"Your average citizen doesn't know the difference," Baringer maintains. "When they see it, they don't know it's anything but what they hear. They think: gangs and crime."
According to the city's street artists, it's precisely that lack of understanding that poisons their relationship with their hometown.
David Langley, one of the Screwed In artists, recalls a conversation that occurred at the exhibit's gallery during which members of the public met with the artists and discussed the works.
"This lady said, 'I believe you guys should be in jail and be arrested for what you're doing,'" Langley recalls. "My only thoughts on that are: If you're doing something truly innovative, there's always going to be someone that's afraid and wants to eliminate it."
Langley and others say it's seldom difficult to distinguish street art from vandalism and graffiti.
"Street art, whether here or elsewhere, very often has social context. It's serious or humorous or political," says Screwed In co-curator Bryan Walsh. "Graffiti and street art come from very similar disciplines, but they're very dissimilar in their intention and approach."
Street artists often employ methods graffiti artists don't use. For instance, Stan Chisholm, a Screwed In artist studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, draws complex sketches of characters and animals on paper plates, then affixes them to walls with a "wheat paste" glue made from flour and water.
"Street art is much looser in structure than graffiti," adds Marc Schiller, co-founder of the Wooster Collective, a New York-based website that chronicles street art from around the world. "It can use paper and projections and metal. It's not only about a spray can. It's a much broader thing."
Still, the two mediums have plenty in common. Many of the graffiti writers and street artists are friends, and all the street artists interviewed for this story expressed admiration for "hand style," the art of graffiti lettering.
"Like graphic designers appreciate different fonts, that's what we do with hand styles," says Walsh. "People like us pay attention. When a dope piece goes up, word gets around the inner circle who did it. Later you see 'em at a party or something and you say, 'Nice job.' Then they say, 'I don't know what you're talking about.'"
Others rave about a handful of local artists who blur the line between street art and graffiti by choosing names that have social significance. In particular, they talk about an artist who calls himself Redd Foxx, after the famed St. Louis-born comedian. (The artist often shortens the name to "Ed Box.")
"Redd Foxx is purely a St. Louis identity. Seeing that as a tag, it spoke on the city's social situation and historical situation," says Chris Burch, whose work was featured in Screwed In. "To put this comedian out there once again but in a different way was super-dope. You don't see that happening anywhere else, where they take the local history aspect and pull something new and unique and clever out of that."
Typically Foxx's work is intricate and accompanied by cryptic messages — "Get up, get God," one reads; another says, "Redevelop or succumb to Ed Box." He has a flair for high-profile buildings; in May 2007 he painted the façade of the Roberts Orpheum Theater with his tag and the message, "Forgive People." The act was met with ire from police and public officials but drew respect from others.
"He's the motherfucker in St. Louis right now," Tolentino says of Foxx approvingly.
Ultimately, the street artists maintain, the key difference that separates their work from graffiti is the consideration they take in choosing where to place their pieces.
"There are some that are really hardcore, that don't give a fuck about anything," says Tolentino. "But for some people, there's definitely a code within it. Me, I don't write on mom-and-pop shops, people's homes, trucks that belong to local companies or anything else like that."
"I'll hit up a condemned building or a Dumpster, but I'll never hit up private property," agrees Wollaeger. "I'm associated with [taggers], I guess. Because I use spray paint, I'm put in the same category with them. But it's a fine line. I respect what these guys do, but personally I have a different motivation."
Counters Boke, whose dissed orange-and-black tag adorns the Chipotle building in the Delmar Loop: "As far as codes, I really don't fall for that shit. I don't paint over a gang's graffiti — I definitely don't paint over that. But really, there's no fucking code. I'd rather just grab a can of paint or grab a rock and throw it through someone's window. That's what gets my jollies off."
Operation Brightside, the nonprofit organization responsible for municipal beautification projects in St. Louis, spends $200,000 each year on graffiti removal. In 2008, Operation Brightside's leaders say, it removed about 5,100 graffiti markings from within the city limits.
Douglas Poynter, manager of Brightside's graffiti-removal program, says the group is only responsible for cleanup; it has no means to prevent the activity or channel it to permissible venues.
"We just basically take it off," Poynter says. "We don't have no other way of trying to prevent it. That's more on the cops and on the people in the neighborhoods."
In the past, the city favored a more proactive approach. From 1996 to 2004, spray-paint legends from across the nation flocked to St. Louis for an annual event called Paint Louis. Graffiti artists were given free rein over the two-mile-long floodwall that starts at Gratiot Street and runs south along the Mississippi River. The event was canceled after graffiti began appearing on private property in the vicinity.
"We had this great influx of great artists that were putting stuff on the wall," says Operation Brightside executive director Mary Lou Green. "Cleary they had talent, but as a part of that there were a contingent who thought they should peg everything else down on the riverfront. I think it's no fun for them to put it on a legal wall. They want their tags to be everyplace."
Even without the city's blessing, the floodwall remains a popular canvas, albeit an unkempt one. There's a knee-high border of dead grass, and some of the most interesting pieces have fallen victim to the fleeting nature of the form. Amateur scribbling has marred works from New York graffiti legends Dr. Revolt and Zephyr.
"Those guys are never coming back to St. Louis," Wollaeger says. "It's all part of the game, I guess."
Only a handful of projects are devoted to harnessing the talent of the city's street and graffiti artists and directing it toward permissible venues. Each summer a nonprofit agency called St. Louis ArtWorks teaches several hundred inner-city teens to create murals and stencil art. The organization confers with local business owners and community leaders when choosing the images kids will paint.
For another initiative, Beyond the Wall, program organizer James Clark hired artist Christopher Green to paint murals on the burgundy-color boards that cover the windows of derelict buildings in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of north St. Louis. "We've had some boards up now for two years and none of the murals have been defaced, and they're all at ground level," says Clark, adding that he wants to expand the program in 2009.
Other similar projects have had trouble getting off the ground. Last year Dana Gray, president of the Southwest Garden Neighborhood Association, tried unsuccessfully to implement a mural program. "The comment from some of my board members was, 'You'll just turn these graffiti people loose! You invite them to do that on your garage, and then all the buildings up and down that block, they'll get tagged too,'" Gray recalls.
Sometimes projects that do transpire don't work out as planned. Following last year's annual Art in the Park festival in Jefferson City, commissioned graffiti works from St. Louisans and nationally recognized street artists including Michael De Feo and Mark Jenkins were soda-blasted off the walls of the abandoned Missouri State Penitentiary where they'd been created.
"It's like nothing even happened. You can't even see the remnants of color," says Walsh. "The walls of the courtyard we painted border the gas chamber. That place was nothing but nasty. Why preserve that? And to spend taxpayer money to remove the art? That seems like a practice in futility."
Larry Schepker, commissioner of the Missouri Office of Administration, which manages the state's publicly owned buildings and grounds, says that had been his intention all along. "We wanted to maintain the safety and security of the space," Schepker explains, adding that the property is slated for residential redevelopment. "The idea is that it will turn into a real asset for the citizens of Missouri."
Peat Wollaeger says he'd eventually like to buy a building down the street from his Cherokee Street studio and open a gallery devoted to street art.
Others say they're attracted not only by the cheap rents for studio spaces but also by the potential of the city's arts scene, and the fact that local galleries here are successful in selling urban contemporary art.
"It's accessible to everyone, it's not as mysterious [as more traditional types of art.] A lot of people like to have a certain amount of mystique and inaccessibility around their art, you have to follow their rules," says Michael Hoffman, co-owner of Hoffman LaChance Contemporary in Maplewood. "Street art doesn't have rules; it is what it is. It's honest: It's there for you to like it if you like it and to not if you don't."
Laumeier Sculpture Park's Kim Humphries isn't quite as bullish. "[Street art] has already been tested at higher heights," Humphries says. "Maybe people who employ a portion of that style may function at the top galleries and museums in the art world, but as far as a neo-graffiti movement goes, I don't think we'll see it go anywhere."
Counters Tolentino: "Look at the artwork in St. Louis in the major art galleries. It's super-safe — minimalist stuff with large spans of color. Aside from [printmaker] Tom Huck, everyone is doing something safe. We're here to bring something new to the table, something that's not safe. Something with a visceral feel to it."
The street artists credit the Internet for expanding their audience. Online photo-sharing sites like Flickr, which hosts thousands of pictures of St. Louis street art and graffiti, preserve and disseminate pieces that would otherwise go unnoticed before being painted over.
"Each person has their own opinion of what value street art has for society," says BJ Kraiberg, creator of the "St. Louis Street Art" Flickr pool. "I want to make it more available so they can better form their opinions. As more and more people see it, maybe they'll open up more."
Wooster Collective co-founder Marc Schiller notes that the graffiti renaissance coincides "with the rise of blogs and photo-sharing sites. That's accelerated the scene in many ways."
Seconds Wollaeger: "When I travel, people always ask me, 'How do you do what you do from St. Louis?' That's easy: the Internet."
And then there's the fact that for urban artists, St. Louis' vast stretches of abandoned buildings and sprawling concrete equate to an endless blank canvas.
Observes Hoax: "It's like a utopia for clean walls."