Graffiti occupies a unique position within art. While it still is distinguished by being intrinsically illegal, the last decade or so has made clear that the commercial art world can offer even this outlaw form a path to "legitimacy" — and in a few cases, stardom. This tension has changed the field; while its trendiness has attracted poseurs in unprecedented numbers, graffiti also has benefited from an invigorating influx of new participants (and more importantly, new kinds of participants) taking up the spray can or paint marker.
For an informed perspective on graffiti in general and their methods in particular, I spoke with two of New Orleans' most storied painters, YOU GO GIRL and READ MORE, who are collaborating on an art show called "Spectacles" through June 14. Both are well into their second decade of painting, and both have staked out distinctive visual niches within a crowded field.
READ's style, perhaps best known for slogan variations such as "READ MORE BOOKS," is strong and stark, a bold shout of antique lettering styles remixed into freakily precise ratio relation. It looks like propaganda from some future past. YOU GO GIRL's playful Day-Glo creatures and limbs, twitching with weird life, appear like enticing fragments from a fabulously fun other-dimensional party.
They are two very different mature artists whose work has not only inspired countless others but, over long years, definitively and positively shaped the appearance of our city.
GAMBIT: Where did the idea to do a show together come from?
READ: Well, we've been painting together maybe 10 years. This felt like a natural progression. I've done some art shows, YOU GO GIRL's done a lot of events, and so it's just something that came up.
YOU GO GIRL: I've done a few things like this, but never on this scale. It's a real adventure and a chance to work in a lot of different mediums.
G: So this is more than just an exhibition of your street art?
YGG: It's a completely different animal. There'll be sculpture, installation, some 2-D work ... and a lot of surprises.
READ: It's not a conventional gallery space; it's a warehouse without a roof, so it's mostly outdoors. It's a halfway, in-between space.
G: You both have radically different aesthetics; has that been an issue building the show?
READ: I'm playing into that. I feel like I'm letting YGG push me further away, even compared to stuff I've done in the past.
YGG: I work a lot with bright colors — ideas of fantasy, horror and humor. And I can't paint a straight line to save my life.
G: "READ MORE red" and "YOU GO GIRL green" is not maybe an intuitive visual pairing —
YGG: I'm forgoing color entirely.
G: Sick! Is that true?
READ: I might adopt — I might pick up some neon.
YGG: Wow, have I finally rubbed off on you?
READ: People will just have to come see. We're gonna try to make a coherent installation with our diametrically opposed styles.
G: Usually the most interesting thing about a piece of graffiti is that its creation was a crime. While you two are both accomplished visual artists, how's your work changed by the loss of that stress, excitement and adrenaline?
READ: Making work for the studio is actually more challenging. When you're out there painting graffiti, there's only so much you can do. The work has to stand for itself based on the parameters you have: being in the public sphere, being illegal —
YGG: Time, lighting ...
READ: I think it's much more straightforward to do a street piece, whereas studio work you have too much freedom. You really have to ask: What am I trying to do here? What am I trying to say? Why am I doing this?
G: Having more freedom than you're used to can be weirdly paralyzing.
YGG: It's a freedom cage. When I first started working on this I was frozen: Wow, I can do anything ... I can work without having to run away at any moment.
G: So how do you feel about legal work, whether it's this show, or legal murals or signs for the library — is it just part of your larger vision, or is it a separate branch?
READ: In terms of shows, I try to maintain the same value system I hold in graffiti practice into the show. Even as a fine artist I still consider myself a [graffiti] writer first. But in regards to [legal] murals and stuff like that, those kind of stand alone I think of it as a separate body of work. It's less personal, even if they look the same.
G: When you talk about values, do you mean aesthetic values or a discipline of approach?
READ: Both. Graffiti is very formulaic, so I see a lot of those practices bleed over into the studio practice too. I still like working in multiples, repeated imagery, which is what graffiti is based on. Both of us have a history of printmaking, whether posters or handmade stickers, so it's just a further developed process — you're lifting some of the limitations of the street.
G: Y'all both have been writing for a while — what's changed as you've aged?
YGG: Well, it's a lot harder to do everything in heels. My back is killing me.
G: A friend recently told me, "I'll never be too old to run from the cops, but I might be getting too old to run from the cops while in heels."
YGG: Exactly. Now I take them off before I run; that's the wisdom of maturity.
READ: My baby's mama is always giving me grief for still going out and doing vandalism at my age. Now if I stay out all night I have explaining to do.
YGG: I think with us, it's cultural. It's something you did when you were a kid, and now you're still doing it and you're like, Ew, what's wrong with me? Maybe. Sometimes.
READ: I had no notion of doing graffiti at this age. I knew people who quit because they turned 20. I remember being 19 and looking up to writers who were 26, being like, Wow, he's 26, and he's still doing it?
YGG: And now here we are in our fifties.
G: Both of you are so visually distinctive — what are your non-graffiti influences?
YGG: It's kind of hard to narrow it down, because many influences are subliminal to some degree, but I do draw a lot from comic books.
G: What kinds? Like old EC Horror? I'm guessing not superhero comics.
YGG: No, definitely superhero comics! When you're a kid and you're alone and all you have is comic books as your friends, they sneak into your brain and much later come back out.
READ: For the fine art studio work, I guess I find my inspiration just in people's ingenuity and resourcefulness, ways of making immediate fixes of things — especially in this city. Like how they're gonna fix a telephone pole that got knocked over: you know they're just gonna ratchet-strap it to the telephone pole closest to it or something. That's the kind of stuff that really intrigues and influences me.
G: A lot of graffiti is just a big piece on one flat, even space, but both of you tend to find clever and unusually shaped spots. I've seen neon-green arms crawling around corners, and the KFC on South Claiborne Avenue READ painted entirely from roof peak to parking lot still sticks in my memory.
READ: I like to seek out walls that have multiple surfaces, either multiple walls or even patchwork walls. I like to have a background; makes the piece more interesting to incorporate environment. I don't really like painting on a clean wall.
YGG: I think ... you have to break out of the box, or the box will break your box.
G: ... Really?
YGG: I don't want my box broken. It's special, and I only have one. Or two.
G: There's a rigid doctrine that says graffiti was perfected in the 1980s and that's the form everyone should aspire to. I feel like graffiti has a lot of rules. As unconventional stylists, how do you operate in relation to those rules and received ideas?
YGG: Graffiti is illegal and there are no rules, but people have a lot of self-imposed ones. They get hung up on nostalgia and tradition. The people who make changes in anything are the ones who change the rules. but I do think you have to know where it comes from — it's a cliche, but you need to know the rules to know how to break them.
READ: Well, I've always operated within the traditional framework of graffiti.
YGG: That is so not even true.
READ: I've tried to. This is something only [graffiti] writers would understand, and less so now than ever. You're working within a framework, but how can you be innovative within that? How do you define yourself and make yourself stand out? I'm still trying to break ground and do new things, but you have to do it within this tradition to have respect from — or for — the people who came before you.
YGG: I'd like to add that some of the good rules are the things people are lacking these days: respect for people's shit. ...
READ: I was talking about the visual rules of graffiti, but the rules of etiquette were originally really simple: No houses, and that includes houses of worship. That was about it. And don't sidebust [attach your work to an established artist's] or go over people. There's no regard for that anymore. The scene here has changed a lot. It's completely overrun. These writers just follow each other around, they all paint the same, in the same spots. They paint on houses. They got no style.
G: Going out painting night after night is hard work. Are you driven by some private compulsion, or a spirit of competition with other artists?
READ: It's complex. Lots of times people think there's one reason to do something, but really there's several reasons. [Painting] has always been an all-or-nothing thing in my life. I can take long spells off and then go back at it. I've found it hard to do halfway. It's definitely competitive by nature but it's also a solo activity, so you have to have a lot of personal drive.
YGG: I think it's mostly about yourself and self-satisfaction. I care about making other people happy too, but I don't really think about competition much ... because there is none.
G: You've never felt salty when you did something you really liked and someone went over it?
YGG: That depends, but If it doesn't seem malicious, I don't care. I've literally never gotten into any beefs. I'm vegan when it comes to the drama.
READ: I feel it more when someone gets a spot that I didn't see. That's more — I know there's a word for it —
YGG: I think it starts with a J. It's like "jam" or something ...
READ: It's like, Hats off to them, but damn, how did I not do that? I constantly study the visual environment: How did I miss that? And most of the time it's some obvious spot.
YGG: Like 1-800-411-PAIN — how do they keep getting those sick spots?
READ: I feel competitive with Morris Bart.
G: On that subject, I see fragments of what look like advertising jargon in both your work. Do you see yourself in an arms race with advertising, or is it symbiotic?
YGG: People don't complain about advertising nearly enough. Graffiti is the scapegoat for visual pollution.
READ: Billboards are both competition and an opportunity. The main correlation [with advertising] is that you're vying for the public eye, and everybody wants to be in a high-visibility spot. You want to be recognizable by even just a symbol or a single color.
G: Capitalism appropriating street art is old news, but I feel like the logic of the market continues to creep into our vocabularies. Do you think of your work in terms of a "brand"?
YGG: I never thought about that until a couple months ago when this person who shall remain nameless was like "You Go Girl! Your brand is so strong!" and I was like, "What are you talking about? I don't sell anything!" Even if I sell art, it's such a mindf—k to think of yourself that way. I'm an artist, I want to make things that look amazing.
READ: I probably think about it too much.
YGG: Really? I never did. I was freaked out. That means anyone who does anything is a brand.
READ: Well, it's just artistic practice. You're building a body of work, a canon or discography or whatever it is. And even if you're a total degenerate and it's not of any concern to you, that's still a brand you're putting forth. You're still carving yourself out to be that person.
YGG: I think the language of branding is creepy.
G: So if not as a brand, what is your relationship to your graffiti persona? Do you look in the mirror and say "Yup, that's You Go Girl?"
YGG: Only if it's a full-body mirror!
READ: Honest answer, I like to be separated from it as far as possible. It's an alter-egotistical practice.
G: Often graffiti reminds me of Hodor from Game of Thrones, where the only thing he can say is his own name — that's the limit of his vocabulary. But to a lot of people, READ MORE BOOKS and YOU GO GIRL come across as encouragements, not just tags. Are your nicknames meant to give a message?
YGG: Do you actually read books? People want to know.
READ: (long pause) I read some books.
YGG: There it is.
READ: I should answer like Trump. I read all the books! I read the best books.
YGG: For me, I definitely want to encourage people. It's important that people feel good when they see something I've painted. I love this city and I want to encourage people, and the people who are encouraged are exactly the people I'm excited about encouraging.
G: Because you have to immediately relinquish control of your work, do you worry about it being used by people for other agendas? I'm thinking here about the nightmare scenario of Sean Cummings using "You Are Beautiful" to sell condos to yuppies.
YGG: It gets really complicated. There's so many grey areas, because my work ends up in a lot of different stuff — someone used a photo of something I painted, posing in front of it as their album cover art, and I wrote the label, like, "Can I get a free CD?" They were like "No, f—k you." It was so shitty. Really, it's about how people do it. There's been a bunch of weird instances, and then instances where I didn't care. It's all about people's attitudes towards it.
READ: If people appropriate my stuff for their own monetary gain, I might have a problem with that. I might come see you about that. But even that is a gray area, because people have sent me pictures from the French Quarter: "Oh, look at this photo of your work that someone's selling at a gallery." And it's just a straight-on photo of my piece. In that case, I'm not really mad, but I'd ask them is this actually a good photo? Or is it entirely dependent upon my work?
G: Makes me think of the ways people use photos of Mardi Gras Indians.
READ: Well, if someone takes your image and tries to sell a product with it, then that's something different.
G: Even people who cry about graffiti often make a distinction between "legitimate" or "good" street art vs. what they deem bad graffiti. As artists whose work is perceived or designated by certain people with institutional power as beautiful or interesting, how do you feel about this divide?
READ: There's as many bad musicians as there are bad graffiti artists, but you're not gonna listen to them. Graffiti's no different from any other art form, except you don't have a filter for it. When you're out there, you don't get to pick what graffiti you see. So it might seem disproportionate, but compared to any other art form it's about the same.
YGG: I'll just say, everyone starts out with crayons.
G: Very generous. How many women are there in New Orleans graffiti?
YGG: Are you looking for a date?
G: I ... probably wouldn't date a graffiti artist. They're sexy ... but ...
YGG: Back to the question: Yes, there's tons. Women and queers are taking over graffiti.
G: There's more than there used to be?
G: All right — any last words on what we can expect from the show?
YGG: We've both been doing a lot of printmaking. READ brought up how similar that is to graffiti, where you do a tag so many times. When you're silkscreening, you're making the same image, but it's always a little bit different. There will be prints, several sculptures ... We're interested in transforming a space. I really don't know what to expect from the event, honestly.
READ: I just have to keep telling YGG it's not a rave, that we're trying to do an art show.
YGG: I do want it to be a party, though. I think it's important. "Art" can be stuffy.
READ: Gallery shows are historically underwhelming.
G: They can be sterile.
YGG: There's some areas that have white walls, but mostly it's outside, and this place is totally weird. Whatever it is, it won't be boring.