Alexander Jarman is the Public Programs Manager at The San Diego Museum of Art.
Saratoga Sake is an artist working with Writerz Blok.
Related Story: SDMA And Writerz Blok Collaborate On Mural
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. An organization that was formed as an alternative to gang activity in San Diego is now making itself known in the arts community. This week, a mural by street artists from Writerz Blok will be officially showcased by the San Diego museum of art. Not long ago they were dismissed as taggers and grafitti vandals. My guest, Saratoga Sake is an artist where Writerz Blok. Thank you so much for being here.
SAKE: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Alexander Jarman is public arts manager for the San Diego museum of art. Hello
JARMAN: Always a pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us if you would about this collaboration between the San Diego museum of art, and Writerz Blok.
JARMAN: Writerz Blok is a wonderful program. We've done a few small projects with them, and we've been trying for the past 18 months to come up with the right space and the right funds to execute a mural at our museum. And the opportunity finally arose in conjunction with our current exhibition, Mexican modern painting. It's a show that focuses on the easel paintings of Mexican artists in the first half of the 20th century, but a lot of those artists were mural painters. And a lot of their murals are in Southern California. We wanted to contextulize, bring the whole muralism movement up-to-date, up to the 21st century. And of course if you talk about muralism, one thing you can't overlook is graffiti.
CAVANAUGH: When we say this is going to be in the San Diego museum of art, where is it going to be?
JARMAN: It is in what we at the museum call gallery 15. It's right next to the auditorium, it's on the west wing of the building.
CAVANAUGH: Why is it important do you think, Alexander to have a partnership like this?
JARMAN: It's really important because at the San Diego museum of art, we want to partner with people in the communication who are doing really important projects. And Writerz Blok which is housed at the Jacobs center for neighborhood innovation is really committed not just to promoting graffiti as an art form but to also saying that there is a differentiation between good graffiti and bad. And they're just as against a really terrible scrawl on a nice park bench as you and I. They're committed to working with the police department to stop that type of vandalism. And they're also committed to teaching youth that if you're a decent graffiti writer, that's a really great skill that we have, and we want to figure out how to promote that in a really impactful way for your community.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sake, what is your connection to Wrterz Blok?
SAKE: Well, I've been painting there on the weekends whenever I can. My graffiti art. And also I've been a part of a few of their graffiti events. And they also have me on board as mentoring the youth and painting a few commissioned murals.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I saw you vigorously shaking your head when Alexander was talking about the fact that if you're a good graffiti artist, that's something to really nurture and to expand on. How do you do that with kids at Writerz Blok?
SAKE: Well, you show them the possibilities of what could upon ha. For instance, I'm painting at the San Diego museum of art, which 20, 30 years ago, I would have never even thought I would be doing that. There's tons of ways to approach the youth and steer them in the right direction. If they do have talent, you definitely have to fox on that.
CAVANAUGH: Now, we heard about this mural, Alexander told us about, how it's based on the exhibit of Mexican modern paintings. How do you take an image from a painting and -- from at a collection of paintings, and make a mural -- a whole mural out of it? What were you looking for in those paintings that you could expand on?
SAKE: I wanted approach the projection without just, you know, reproducing what's already done. So I just put paintings together in a surrealist manner and took parts that I found interesting create a whole story through them and adding a little bit of me into it as well.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what medium are you using? Are you using spray paint?
SAKE: The inside portion I'm using oil paint. And the panels because we can't paint inside of that area because it will infect with aerosol dust, like Picassos and, you know? So we had to think of a clever way to not just put panels all the way across but to incorporate a design out of the panels and paint them off side.
CAVANAUGH: With a little spray paint.
>> Yes, outside.
CAVANAUGH: Now, is working in oil, is this something that you do a lot? Or is it a new thing for you?
SAKE: The past seven years or 6 years I've been working with oil paint. I do sort of what they call pop surrealism art, and I keep that separate Friday my graffiti art. And I do two separate things. But I'm pretty comfortable with oil paint.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Sake, who is an artist with Writerz Blok, and Alexander Jarmin, who is the program director for the San Diego museum of art. And we're talking about a mural that's going to be unveiled officially on Thursday at the museum of art to go along with the exhibition of modern Mexican painting. The museum of contemporary art San Diego last year featured the work of international street artists called viva la Revolucion. Do you think great art is in some ways revolutionizing art?
JARMAN: Well, you can look to that exhibition, you can like to mocha's aren't exhibition called art in the streets as just I few examples of how street art has been legitimated. Certainly I think as more and more artists are interested in sort of getting out of the paradigm of the art world of having to have a gallery and sell your art that I think street art has opened up more and more options for even people who are doing performance art in public. They look at what's going on with street art and how they're approaching their craft. So I think that street art is just becoming more and more mainstream. What's fantastic about it is it INSTEFR stops surprising us.
CAVANAUGH: What does it mean to bring street art into a museum? Basically, there's anneminess about street art. So do you lose that when you bring it into a conventional setting?
SAKE: Some would argue about that and say yes. I think it depends on the technician. If they're doing great street art, then why can't it be in a legit art institution?
CAVANAUGH: Right. Have you thought about that, Alexander, and that kind of dichotomy? Here it is, something that you like because it's a little outrageous, and yet you're bringing it SPO a place that's kind of conventional
JARMAN: Yeah. And we've talked about this eight a lot with the artists at Writerz Blok. There's a lot of different types of graffiti artists. You can't just put a blankept description on street artists. And some people don't want anything to do with an institution. They want to keep their stuff out on the street, on public walls. But some people really would love to have their art form recognized. And it's great to be able to give over space within an institution where we know we can care and protect and interpret the art for audiences. While it is great to walk down the street and have this serendipitous experience where you find a piece of art that you weren't expecting, how many people is that going to reach versus how many people if they know that this mural is at the museum can come and check it out?
CAVANAUGH: I'd be interested to find out what kind of feedback you're both getting from your respective arts communities about this. How did this idea go over at the San Diego museum of art?
JARMAN: It's so funny. I was just talking to one of my colleagues before we came in here. And I said in public programs, there's a lot of different types of events we do, and some of them I still can't believe that the museum let me do. This is sort of one of them. But people are overwhelming responding positively to this mural. They love that it ties in with the show. They love that they can look at it and talk about how art of the past is not dead. It's still influencing artists today. Artists today love looking at what came before them. And it's sort of like sampling, if you were a DJ. You take the old song, mix it into something new. And all of a sudden, people want to go back and look at what was that songy? So when Sake puts up part of a diOEG reOo Rivera painting in his mural, people want to check it out from a century ago. So I think people are really excited with the connection back to the permanent collection.
CAVANAUGH: Any people giving you a hard time about where your art is and it shouldn't be in a museum and that kind of thing?
SAKE: Oh, no, no. Definitely not. I've basically been painting since I've been kind of removed from the universe. But from the -- from what I have heard is people have been totally 110% behind me.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now, I'm wondering, you said that 20 years ago, you would never have thought of being able to produce anything like this for a museum of art. If you had seen something like this back then, you know that you can create a mural like this out of talent and spray paint and just your artistic vision, what do you think that would have done for you back then?
SAKE: When I was a youth?
CAVANAUGH: A young kid, yeah.
SAKE: That would be like 30 years ago for me. I would definitely be really excited about it. And my main focus at the time was definitely graffiti. But I think that would have turned me onto more -- the masters as far as what goes on in museums and classic painting.
CAVANAUGH: What did graffiti mean to you back then? What did it symbolize for you?
SAKE: Well, my inspiration for graffiti came from New York City. So it was all the subway art
CAVANAUGH: Right, right
SAKE: Basically just getting my name out there. Doing great design work with lettering, and just putting it in an area where the public could see it, basically.
CAVANAUGH: So the idea -- this was not necessarily gang related tagging anyway.
SAKE: No, not in any shape or form
CAVANAUGH: It was always the idea of what the street artists in New York were doing and kind of having your own vision of that.
SAKE: Right. Just what you could do with the alphabet, like changing it a little bit, you know?
JARMAN: And if I can say something about this relationship of graffiti to gauge activity, something important to note is that a lot of really serious graffiti artists actually try and distance themselves as much as possible from gangs. Because if you're in a gang, you have a certain territory. So you can only really write your gang's name in a certain territory. All of a sudden, the amount of places where you can go right on walls and very limited. And graffiti artists want to go all city. They want to be all over the place. So it actually is a detriment to graffiti artists to run with a gang
CAVANAUGH: Yet back in the day, Sake, you had your stuff confiscated by the police.
SAKE: Yes, 94.
CAVANAUGH: This was a crime.
SAKE: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Basically what I was doing was a crime because I would go out and paint on property that wasn't mine. But that's what I had to do to get my art out there, you know? Get it accepted. Even if it wasn't accepted by quite a few people, you know, they didn't see it as art.
CAVANAUGH: And that's one of the reasons where Writerz Blok came into existence, right? Is to show off that kind of work without having risk getting a ticket?
SAKE: Yeah, yeah. And to help so you could practice your craft, and stuff. Because there's aerosol artistics, taggers, bombers under the whole umbrella of graffiti. So at that time in the 90s, I was working on aerosol, painting portraits, and at that time there was probably -- there was myself, there was HEX from LA, and part two from England who could properly execute a perfect portrait with spray paint at that time. Very rare. So I wanted to show the world that it -- aerosol or the spray paint can be used as a fine art tool
CAVANAUGH: We're just about out of time. Just quickly, Alexander, how long is this wall going to be up and what are you hoping the impact is going to be?
JARMAN: It's going to be up indefinitely. We don't have any other plans for the space. So until the museum is torn down and the new building is --
JARMAN: Is up in front of it. Our hope is that people will come and see it and realize that graffiti like you said, it has been a revolutionary art form. It is a part of art history now, and it does have a place in an art museum.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both. Sake, thank you so much.
SAKE: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Alexander Jarman of the San Diego museum of art, thank you very much.
JARMAN: Thank you, Maureen.