Off the Wall

Some think it's ironic that young practitioners of graffiti -- a stealth art form that's as stylized as it is free-spirited -- often end up working as commercial illustrators. One of the genre's biggest names, Shepard Fairey, proudly sticks up posters by night dissing the very capitalists for whom he works during the day. Others, such as Jeff Soto, later pick up the brush to create fine art, albeit work with a definitive underground edge sometimes described as "lowbrow." Both artists will be featured in Urban Angst: A Graffiti-Inspired Show, opening Friday at the DC Gallery, 125 Broadway.

But where does the graffiti end and the gallery-worthy work begin? It's an old story already, one that dates back to the heyday of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.

Soto's artistic turning point came with maturity: "Once you reach your mid-twenties in the graffiti world, reality starts setting in," he says. "I just realized, 'Wow. I could go to jail for this.'" Education also plays a role: For local artist Chris Huth, a reformed graffitist and recent Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design grad who will share the spotlight with Soto and others, graffiti, though viscerally still a part of him, is just a big step in a more socially acceptable direction. And Huth's star is definitely rising: In addition to his pieces in Urban Angst, DC will hang a solo display of his work in September.

The spray can was Huth's first true paint medium, when he was a directionless Albuquerque high-schooler who liked to draw. "But there were no good art teachers there, so I did graffiti instead," he says. "Basically, I vandalized our school, and that was my art school." His Albuquerque crew broke up after a bust when he was eighteen; since then, he's been off the street physically, although, as one painting in the DC show, Strong Roots, deftly illustrates, the street is still with him. "It ends up in everything you do," he says, "whether you like it or not."

That's a good thing, Soto points out: "The cool thing about graffiti art is that it's very raw. It's artwork made to be looked at by the public, put out there on display where people can enjoy it without having a master's degree in art theory." And if anything, it's that spirit that remains with artists like Soto and Huth, long after the spray-paint high disperses.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd