Thursday, September 9, 2010
NO ART was confusing, blatantly illegal, and really quite brilliant. Long before Shepard Fairey's "Obey Giant" stickers and posters made their first appearance on walls and stop signs in San Diego, a mysterious local artist waged a 5-year graffiti art campaign here that said it all.
NO ART, two wonderfully ambiguous words, were spray-painted in big stenciled letters on traffic light boxes, concrete barriers, pump houses and other bleak roadside features all over San Diego during the early 1980s, particularly along 101 from La Jolla to Oceanside.
NO ART confronted cars and drivers head on as they left the Roberto's parking lot in Solana Beach. It was there for many years and over time other stencils appeared on the cinder block wall around it: an enigmatic teapot rumored to be one of Swank Zine publisher/skateboard entrepreneur Tod Swank's symbols and the anatomical logo for Limpies, a local surf/skate/music clothing company.
NO ART has stuck with me for something like 30 years. Now, with all the hubbub regarding Viva la Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape at MCASD and the associated street art projects around San Diego, I marvel at what an elegant dialogue with the urban landscape it was.
NO ART prefigured work by some of today's foremost street artists, done as it was when Shepard Fairey was just beginning to draw on skateboards and Banksy was still wearing knee-pants. In retrospect, the anonymous stencil campaign marked a key point in the 1970s when punk rock and skateboarding first collided with conceptual art on San Diego streets.
NO ART was created by Saint Marko, an artist and photographer who remembers painting it for the first time "around 1978" while studying at Palomar College. The school was "a great place," says Marko. "That's where I met Grant (Brittain - pioneering skate photographer) and Sonny (Miller - venerated surf cinematographer/filmmaker). We were the photo department."
NO ART evolved in the early 1980s when Marko "switched to a larger size font and made [the letters] centered and shadowed. It looked more official and added to the confusion." He used property that wasn't privately owned, but admits to making an exception or two.
NO ART appealed to the late Russell Baldwin, who taught art at Palomar College for decades and was friends with Marko. "He was one of the few people that knew I was the No Artist and we had great discussions about his Art Is All Over," says Marko. Baldwin, along with his friends Bob Matheny and John Baldessari, was among the first to explore Post Studio Art in San Diego.
NO ART clearly had a lot in common with Russell Baldwin's similarly ambiguous signature phrase, "Art Is All Over," which began showing up in his work around 1971 (a fine year for art-referential text pieces - see Baldessari's "I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art"). Robert Pincus, the former San Diego Union-Tribune art critic, has quoted Baldessari as saying "There weren't many artists who I found to be as interesting as Russell in San Diego. He was so valuable to me."
NO ART eventually got Saint Marko into hot water. While in Europe for a year in 1984, someone else copied his stencil and sprayed it on the newly-installed Niki De St. Phalle "Sun God" at UCSD. With police and apparently even the F.B.I. looking for him, Marko remembers, "It seemed about then that No Art had run its course. I ditched the stencil and moved on."
NO ART was out of Marko's hands. Some vigilante art critic/prankster took the idea and applied it in a completely different way, and, although I'm not sure I disagree with his or her evaluation, the incident raises inherent questions about ownership of ideas in art (see Fairey's Obama poster controversy) and tagging or defacing other artist's work (see Fairey's mural in Hillcrest).
NO ART had to be recreated for this post. Saint Marko, a surfer who divides his time between the islands of Maui and Newfoundland - as unlikely as that sounds - obliged us by re-making his old stencil and photographing it. We couldn't locate a single photo of the work in situ and the old tags are long gone. But it's the idea that counts. That's the real test of the potency of his work - 30 years later I can see it just as clear as day.