At its simplest, history painting in graffiti might mean rewriting someone’s name on the same wall where it once stood before the wall was repainted. Each “generation” of graffiti writers was often no more than two years younger than the one before them and learned directly at the hands of their elders. Given graffiti’s ephemeral, illegal nature, the recording, retelling and discussion of its history has always been in the hands of its own participants. For a young writer emerging in a big-city scene, graffiti’s ghosts are everywhere, yet the classrooms are few. For Chicago’s POSE, the city’s graffiti history, as well as the broader history of the medium going back to the days of the earliest Philadelphia and New York writers, was so deep a resource to explore that he wasn’t content to keep his veneration for that history to his own graffiti work. He began to pay homage in his studio work as well.
For more than a decade as a successful fine artist, POSE has brilliantly combined screen-printing, collage and painting to create an ultra-flat body of work in vivid color and hard-edged outline, a mix of Pop, graffiti and portrait imagery. “The more lowbrow stuff is what I draw on and what I get,” says POSE, “and I think that’s why it fits in easily and is fluid with the graffiti, because it’s just all visual art that I’ve been drawn to and accustomed to my whole life. So I started going back to the comics, skate graphics, the immediate-punch emotion stuff where it’s crude emotion, like human emotion.”
While the imagery may be lowbrow in its origins, POSE’s work is technically dazzling and flawlessly executed, almost like a hand-painted silkscreen, all of it produced in an enviably large, high-ceilinged studio where a team of friends and peers assists him in his output.
Graffiti is of course not an easy process, often requiring physical pain, sleepless nights and dodging, if not meeting, the pointy end of law enforcement’s stick. “You spend all your time racking and breaking the law and painting,” says POSE, “and you get in trouble and you’re not going to school and you’re out all night. Seemingly, it’s the worst possible life decision, when you’re fully committed.” Having written graffiti from a young age — encountering all the bumps, bruises and embarrassing conversations with loved ones and yet still emerging with his greaser haircut perfectly combed — POSE came to understand that graffiti for him was not simply one stop on a path to somewhere else. “Graffiti, over time, becomes transformative, at least for me. It’s really what taught me everything about life. It gave me the re-education that I needed and a platform to actually function in society, understand myself. It gave me a real language.”
For POSE, graffiti is also a history and a context to explore and validate. Many of his recent works, which combine painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture and collage, have delved into the deep and only recently unearthed history of New York and Philadelphia’s early graffiti years as encapsulated in the Wall Writers documentary film, companion book and exhibition. In these works he references individual writers, existing photographs and surviving ephemera from a history of graffiti hidden from view, even as later versions of graffiti would become world famous. “I’m going back to some of the ephemera and the photos and the stories,” says POSE, “to try to tell the broader story all the way, going up to my experience. So they’re pretty personal, but their original intent is to really triumph these people and their stories, and show how important they have been to culture by and large, and cement their importance to history.”
These images and figures are central to graffiti’s early history and draw from the long-hidden family and personal photographs of people like ROCKY 184 and STITCH 1, but also from graffiti’s moments of mainstream exposure, e.g., the famous George Lois cover of Esquire in 1973 featuring a visual graffiti riff on a Norman Rockwell painting — a young easel painter holding a spray can instead of a brush. And all of these images become equal fodder for POSE in his historical works. “It might be odd doing these paintings that are almost snapshots in time of some of the original Wall Writers, but they’re also deeply personal. Almost like self-portraits. Because I feel like, even a writer today — even with social media and the different impulses people have now — I do feel like it’s the exact same time. Why kids start writing today — yes, it’s a different time, but take it out of that time-period context and the impulses are probably completely parallel with some of the Wall Writers. It’s a really universal, human thing, you know? I’m trying to kind of capture that a little bit as well. That is sort of timeless.”Images shown (from top to bottom):
BEYOND THE STREETS Los Angeles Installation, 2018. Photo by Beau Roulette.
POSE Train, CTA Chicago, 2017. Photo by OMENS MSK.