New York City, routinely described as an intersecting hub of art and culture, is the glamorous, provocative metropolis other cities wished they could be. As a city of firsts – first to house a paying audience before a 3D film, first to see university courses taught in fashion, jazz, women’s studies – New York reigns in innovation, pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most unconventional and powerful artistic expressions of beauty and emotion began publically debating the world in the heart of the city itself.
Beginning in 2001, Art Battles is a New York based graffiti art initiative with an international influence, that brings together emerging artists through a live art experience. With a mission to bring art into the next generation, Art Battles seeks to merge “fine art with the urgency of graffiti,” challenging the typical ways artists communicate their talents. The concept behind Art Battles uses uncensored creativity to build communities as a way of breaking down the “exclusivity that confines today’s art culture,” bringing art back to its origin as an engaging and accessible medium.
Tom Ballinger, Art Battles curator, speaks of his mission to “capture the essence of sexiness, aggression, grit and everything else that people associate with New York City,” using elements that have surreal beauty to translate well on a large scale. These battles however, used to spawn creativity and globally inspire, bring together a sort of connectivity, typically beginning with a collaborative mural before the actual battle begins.
Most recently exhibited earlier this November at 5 Bryant Park, an unused Midtown space was transformed into a public “fishbowl” of street art. Art Battles enlisted four artists, Max Bode, Don Rimx, Chor Boogie and Natalia Rak to tackle the lot’s rebranding, and cover the 100” by 25” rear wall of the building’s lobby with floor to ceiling art. While working interpedently, the mural itself is a product of the artists talking and communicating with each other, aiming to visually tie things together while still feeling the sense of competitiveness and making their individual pieces stand out.
I was lucky enough be in New York a few weeks ago to watch the four artists first hand as they worked on their pieces of the mural. Art Battles at 5 Bryant Street revealed its astonishing virtuosity right before my eyes as a synergy between performance and actual skill. Although I left the city to return to Kingston before the actual battle began, I can only imagine the kind of raw, explosive imagination these artists spawn.
As a game changer in the art world, Art Battles reconfigures not only the notion of art itself, but brings along an interesting commentary within its name as well. Just recently honoring Remembrance Day, the word “battle,” has traditionally meant death, blood, fighting, one country conquering another etc. However through an artistic means, “battle” in this case emphasizes the opportunities to positively challenge each other, as a means of spurring creativity and obtaining mutually beneficial rewards. By learning and growing from your opponent’s strengths, artists have the ability to absorb such insights and influence others to reach their own capabilities. Art Battles challenger El Nino remarks on his time competing in murals and battles: “it wasn’t important to me who won or lost…because I got the same out of it regardless if I won or not…working around other good artists brings out the best in my work.”
I think it’s pretty safe to say that graffiti has left behind—or is at least trying to leave behind—the negative notions of vandalism. If you’re still not a believer, take a few minutes to check out their website and YouTube videos to get a sense for yourself what it’s all about. If you don’t feel an instant rush through your body while watching and even just listening to the artists speak, I’ll let it slide. But if you’re like me, get prepared to start measuring your walls and begging for any of these talented individuals to come and redefine the space you live in.
Jo Azis, Layout Team
Photography: Jo Azis