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April 2017

The Beautiful Psychedelic Pollution Floating in the Gowanus Canal

Watergowanus07-1080x721Steven Hirsch’s photographs, now in a new book called Gowanus Waters, capture unexpected beauty in one of America’s most polluted waterways.


Who would have thought that such dangerous pollution could produce such vibrant colors in compositions that remind us of high art?

According to Allison Meyer of Hyperallergic,

New Yorker Steven Hirsch brings his lens so close to the toxic surface of the heavily polluted Brooklyn waterway, you may worry about his health. Yet the results are strangely mesmerizing, transforming the burbling brew from more than 150 years of industrial runoff into psychedelic abstractions. Streaks of purple mingle with neon greens and blues, while rainbow wisps swirl amid a murky darkness, like galaxies floating in space.

Hirsch’s vibrant images encourage a new perspective on the 1.8-mile waterway. And while they’re not necessarily a form of environmental advocacy, it’s hard to separate them from the site’s polluted past. The Gowanus neighborhood continues to be gentrified and developed (the gleaming Whole Foods got a $12.9 million tax credit for its cleanup of contaminated land) even as the adjacent waters remain poisonous. In a 2013 article for Popular Science, Dan Nosowitz asked, “What would happen if you drank water from the Gowanus Canal?” The answer was complex due to the sheer number and variety of pollutants — in one of the stagnant micro-zones, you might be guzzling raw sewage or E. coli, while another would be rich in radioactive material or arsenic. No matter what, you’d probably get dysentery.

The Gowanus Canal is now an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund Site, although it’s possible the cleanup plan could be delayed under the Trump administration, with longtime EPA opponent Scott Pruitt leading the agency. Some of its “black mayonnaise,” a grotesque mix of coal tar, heavy metals, and PCBs lining the canal’s bottom, along with old boats, tires, ragged metal, and even boulders, was dredged late last year. Will Hirsch’s photographs eventually be a time capsule of industrial folly?

“One spring day, we visited the canal and Hirsch saw, for the first time, the water teeming with tiny fish, but caught virtually none of the slime he’d been hoping to discover to make new photographs,” journalist Jordan G. Teicher writes in an introduction to Gowanus Waters. “Indeed, thanks to its Superfund status, the canal — long referred to by locals as ‘Lavender Lake’ for its distinctive, unnatural hues — is slowly on the mend. Soon enough, Hirsch’s polluted palette will be a memory, much like the industrial heyday of the borough’s interior.”


Gowanus Batcave

What fresh hell is this What fresh hell is thisI go to Gowanus often and never heard of the Batcave. So I am thrilled to be able to explore it ... before it gentrifies! Read the full history here.

Known best for the ever-changing political graffiti on its overhang, visible from the 4th Avenue 9 Streets stop on the F and G train, the building is now empty save the furniture and belongings of the people who had lived there.

Currently being cleaned of an excessive build-up of moldy books, mattresses, and plush toys (albeit the graffiti remains relatively untouched), the building was recently bought and is being developed into an art center and bicycle velodrome. 

Breaking News on 5 Pointz

5 pointzScreen-Shot-2013-04-23-at-11.52.32-AM 5 pointzScreen-Shot-2013-04-23-at-11.52.32-AM 5 pointzScreen-Shot-2013-04-23-at-11.52.32-AM 5 pointzScreen-Shot-2013-04-23-at-11.52.32-AMIn what many of us are considering as an encouraging yet pyrrhic victory over the destroyers of 5Pointz, the courts recently said that a trial can commence regarding the destruction (whitewashing) of the art on the walls prior to eventual building destruction.

This was something that Meres talked about before the whitewashing and now we see that, despite the slowness of the process, the law protecting street art is starting to work. We will have to see if justice is served. But this will be justice served very cold since the buildings are long gone and the glass atrocity being built on its grave has begun.

From Artnet:

On Friday, a group of graffiti artists won a significant legal victory against the real estate developers who demolished the graffiti haven known as “5 Pointz” in 2014. In an unexpected turn, a Brooklyn judge ruled against the developers, who had made a final request to dismiss the case before trial.

The judge’s ruling breathes new life into the three-and-a-half-year-long lawsuit, originally stymied by earlier decisions which allowed the property owners to destroy the graffiti and redevelop the site. Today, luxury rentals now reside on the Queens lot where the warehouse once sat.

In their pending suit, the graffiti artists argue that the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA)—which grants visual artists limited rights over work they created but do not own—entitles them to monetary damages for the destruction of their art.

The developers, meanwhile, asserted that such rights are narrow and inapplicable given that, while the artists are well-known, the works are not. As such, they aren’t covered by VARA. But in his ruling Friday, judge Frederic Block sided with the artists, stating that the evidence provided by both sides was sufficient to merit putting their VARA claims in front of a jury.


Street Art is Coming to Cambodia

In a Rundown Phnom Penh Neighborhood, Graffiti and Street Art Thrive

Ben Valentine of Hyperallergic writes that graffiti in Cambodia has not historically been very common, but that’s changing fast.


A mural showing Reahu, by Theo Vallier

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Graffiti in Cambodia has not historically been very common, but that’s changing fast due to the city’s relatively young and increasingly urban and networked population. While many tags are done by people passing through or immigrants who live here, locals are discovering the joys and thrills of tagging as well. Nowhere can you see this more clearly than in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak neighborhood.

បឹង (boeung) means lake, and Boeung Kak was the largest lake in Phnom Penh until it was leased for redevelopment in 2007. Many protests, evictions, and tons and tons of sand later, the lake remains largely undeveloped but completely filled in. The residents who lived nearby, and many in the surrounding neighborhood, have been forcibly evicted and simultaneously harassed, neglected, and ignored by the government.

A large graffiti hub

The abandoned buildings and small residential houses, which the government and real estate developers alike would love to see demolished, have made Boeung Kak the perfect urban canvas for taggers. Walking around the neighborhood, I saw several foreigners preparing a mural, a few wasted foreigners in the midday heat, and I was offered drugs and women several times. It is of the opinion of many (myself included) that it is an intentional tactic by the government to allow places such as these — prime real estate that is largely occupied by poorer families — to fall into squalor, making forced evictions and the redevelopment process easier to swallow for the public at large.

Large mural my Lisa Mam, Seth, and Peap Tarr

In Phnom Penh, two of the current graffiti stars are Lisa Mam, who is considered Cambodia’s first and definitely most successful female street artist, and Chifumi, a prolific foreigner based in Phnom Penh who helps organize the Cambodia Urban Arts Festival with the French Institute. Both Mam and Chifumi combine contemporary illustration with traditional decorative styles from Khmer architecture and sculpture called Kbach (ក្បាច់). Chifumi is most recognizable for his depictions of the hyperextended fingers of traditional Cambodian Apsara dancers.    

KC.Walkerzz and Rasmaii, writing in the Khmer alphabet with Kbach elements

Traditional Cambodian subject matter, like Kbach design and Angkor Wat, is pervasive. Also found is Rahu, a bodyless god who lives in the sky and catches the moon or the sun, briefly swallowing them whole to create eclipses. I’m saddened that, given the beauty of Khmer script, I rarely see it used in street art. I think this is a testament to how foreign-oriented the scene currently is.

At the top we see “Khmer” written in Khmer, with a tag by Alias 2.0 below

A good representation of the state of Cambodian graffiti is the above tag, “ខ្មែរ” which, as the tagger helpfully translates, is the word “‘Khmer” written in Khmer letters. I assume but am not certain that this was written by a foreigner. However, the translation gives us an idea about its intended audience. 

But there are some younger Cambodian kids emerging on the scene. One active group in Boeung Kak is នគ រាជ (Noko Reaj) which means “royal kingdom.” Pictured below is a piece by the group with the members’ signatures under the Angkor Wat outline. I’ve seen many of these names involved in various tags throughout the neighborhood.

A piece by Noko Reaj

I spoke with one local resident, who had a piece on one side of her house that had been done by Lisa Mam, Peap Tarr, and Seth. She said she loved the work and hopes that the artists can help to make the neighborhood more beautiful. Not a 10-minute walk away, I asked an older woman for permission to photograph a tag on the side of her house. “Why do all you foreigners love this stuff?” she responded. “What does it mean?”

“Did they explain what they painted?” I asked her.

“They didn’t tell me anything, they didn’t ask,” she responded. “I don’t like it. This is my house.”

And so, the endless debate about graffiti continues, from NYC to Phnom Penh and everywhere in between.

Work by Thai artist Alex Face
Another work by Alex Face
Large work by Chifumi
Work by Venk, an immigrant long based in Phnom Penh, and others
“Khmer” by Rasmaii and Vong
Boeung Kak’s graffiti alley, always with people taking selfies
Beautiful tag of an owl-woman, artist unknown
Another piece by Reahu