Monday, September 13, 2010
Long before Shepard Fairey's Obey stickers appeared on San Diego walls, a series of "NO ART"stencils could be found all over the city. The identity of the artist was a mystery, until now. Culture Lust contributor Dave Hampton did some sleuthing and tracked down the "NO ART" artist.
You can read more about Saint Marko and his NO ART graffiti campaign by going to the KPBS arts blog Culture Lust.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Right now in San Diego, street art has become almost respectable. "Viva la Revolución," the big show up at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, celebrates the work of street artists. And the recent documentary, "Exit through the Gift Shop," also highlights the mystique of urban art and the people who create it. But street art was not always regarded as anything more than graffiti, except by a chosen few. Back in the early 1980s, a pioneering street artist here in San Diego stenciled the enigmatic phrase ‘NO ART’ on blighted and boring public buildings. Who this artist was and what happened to his work is the topic of an investigation by my guest. Dave Hampton is a mid-century art enthusiast, co-founder of the Objects USA Art Collective. He's also a frequent contributor to the KPBS arts blog, Culture Lust. And, Dave, good morning.
DAVE HAMPTON (Co-Founder, Objects USA Art Collective): Good morning, Maureen. It’s nice to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Now I want to make clear because people can’t see what we can see, it’s NO ART, n-o, not know like ‘know thyself,’ k-n-o-w. NO ART.
HAMPTON: That’s right. It’s the word NO and the word ART.
CAVANAUGH: When did you first see the NO ART stencil?
HAMPTON: Well, I must’ve been in high school and I lived up around Solana Beach and so this was sort of North County, up along Highway 101 and places like that. And I think what would happen is you’d pull up to a traffic light probably most frequently and most of the time you aren’t aware of the big boxes there that power the traffic lights but this phrase NO ART just reduced to information, almost looked like a sign, would be stenciled there and the letters were along the lines of the stencils that you might have seen a long time ago on like Army footlockers or labels for crates or something like that. It was pretty hard to tell if it was a sign from the city or someone (sic) that someone else had put there.
CAVANAUGH: So it would be possible to see this sign and think that, indeed, some official put this up to make sure that no art went there.
HAMPTON: Absolutely. You could read it any number of different ways. That’s really kind of the fun of it. And it also was the context of where it was placed. So the artist was very selective about where he did put this. It was typically on property that was not private. It was really on public property, state property, that kind of thing. And it was specifically these structures of our built environment that are kind of ugly or boring and that we now pass by without even really noticing but these structures could be transformed by this signage or just by these words, and you saw them in a different way. And it was puzzling. Did it mean that there was no art supposed to be placed there? In case you were thinking about putting art here, don’t put any art here. Or was it saying that this structure, this piece of our infrastructure, is not artful, it’s not beautiful and we should do something about it? Was it a call for action or protest? It’s wide open to interpretation. When I saw it, I was basically just a teenage kid and I thought, hey, that’s pretty cool. I liked it. But it didn’t really cause me to think a lot. I just enjoyed it. When you’d pull up and find yourself stopped for 30 seconds at a traffic light, it was the kind of thing that you could read in the distance from a little ways away.
CAVANAUGH: And I want to invite our audience, if anyone has memories of seeing a NO ART signage in San Diego back in the eighties, you can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. As I say, we’re talking about the early eighties and the whole concept of street art was basically lumped in with graffiti. Did anybody know who was doing this? And that it was an artist behind it?
HAMPTON: No, I think that’s – that part of the enigma surrounding it is that there was no way to know who did this. In fact, you wouldn’t necessarily know that it was done by an individual. You might have thought it was done by the government. So no one knew. It wasn’t common knowledge. I remember thinking about it and asking a friend at one point, a drummer named Jerry Touretski, and I asked him who’s doing that? And he said, well, I think it’s some art student at Palomar. But that was – and that actually stuck with me because it’s been about 28 years now. But that’s as much as I ever knew. I never knew really who did it.
CAVANAUGH: So what got you, Dave, to start tracking down who the NO ART artist was?
HAMPTON: Well, it’s kind of a combination of things, the first being the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which is the, you know, really the first – it’s a landmark show. It’s international in scope. There’s 20 artists from 10 different countries. And it’s really the first sort of street art exhibition so in a way San Diego’s art history is being written now. And that reminded me of this. The other thing is that I became interested over the last 8 or 10 years in San Diego artists, especially from the fifties and sixties. And as I learned more and more, I began to understand that some of them really were pioneering some conceptual art ideas here in San Diego. And I kept thinking in the last few years, I wonder if there’s some sort of connection here?
CAVANAUGH: So I’m speaking with Dave Hampton. He’s a mid-century art enthusiast, co-founder of the Objects USA Art Collective, and he's taking us on the journey of how he found out who was behind the NO ART stencil art back in the 1980s. So tell us who, and how’d you track him down?
HAMPTON: Well, it’s a guy who goes by the name of St. Marko. And what I had to do when I decided that I would try to – I wanted to try and figure out who did this, I thought it was really interesting, even more so now in retrospect, 28 years later and in the current climate. So I went to some friends of mine who were photographers at the time and who I’d been roommates with most of them. Most of them were involved heavily in skateboarding, and so I contacted each one of these guys, Chip Morton, Todd Swank and Steve Sherman, and I said, do you guys have any photos of this thing? Because it was the kind of thing that they would’ve zeroed in on. All of them, in addition to action shots and skateboarding and surfing, they also liked sort of gritty street images. It was part of a kind of a Irv I guess. So I thought there’s a very good chance, if anyone shot this, that they would have and I wanted to find a photograph of it. But none of them did. But my friend Chip said, you know, I’ll ask another photographer named Grant Brittain, and he asked Grant and, in fact, Grant knew who the person was.
HAMPTON: And he gave me a phone number through Chip Morton, which was in Hawaii. And I called the number and it was a deadend. It’d been shut off. So that got me nowhere and I did a little bit more digging and I went and saw that the artist was on Facebook. I don’t really use Facebook myself, so I went to my friend Chip…
HAMPTON: …and I said, Chip, can you send this guy a message and tell him what’s going on? He did, and that’s how I actually wound up in contact with St. Marko. And he is currently in Newfoundland and he’s a surfer, an avid surfer. He divides his time half the year between two really unlikely kind of exotic, to me, as a San Diego kid, islands: Maui and Newfoundland. And so I struck up a long distance e-mail conversation with this guy up there in Canada.
CAVANAUGH: Now you say he’s an avid surfer. Is he also still an artist?
HAMPTON: He is. He’s very much a practicing artist as far as I can tell. Although he’s also a little bit obscure so it’s hard to know quite what’s what all the time. I think that’s maybe even something, a thread that’s been consistent going all the way back to the mystery about the NO ART. But I got ahold of him and he was maybe a little bit reluctant at first to sort of spill all the beans because this is something that had largely been a secret and anonymous for a long time. But he did tell me that he was doing – he was involved with public art and I thought, well, that’s interesting. He’s still thinking along the lines that he was thinking when he did these stencils although obviously not everyone is going to think of a graffiti stencil on a wall as public art. In fact, I do look at it that way and I think that’s borne out by the fact that he still does artworks where people are going to see them. He’s really a photographer. A lot of his work involves photography. The funny thing was when I said do you have any old photos of the NO ART stencil so that someone could see what it looked like on one of these traffic light boxes, he didn’t have anything like that. He couldn’t find anything.
CAVANAUGH: But there is a picture as part of your blog post on our Culture Lust blog at KPBS.org. You could – Tell us how that happened.
HAMPTON: Well, he was helping me with my research and I told him that I really wanted some kind of in – some kind of image to go along with this blog post, otherwise it wasn’t going to make sense to people. And I’d suggested, wow, maybe it would be kind of funny if you drew a sketch. And so taking it even another step removed, so draw some funny sketch of it. And instead what he did was recreate his old stencil spray painted onto a surface and take a photograph of it, since that’s his primary medium. And so he sent that photo and that’s the photo that accompanies the blog post. It’s a recreation of his old stencil. And also as far as the photography goes, one of the things that was interesting was that when he started doing the stencil, it was about 1978, roughly, and he was going to Palomar Junior College and he was in the photography department there along with some other guys who were very involved with surfing and skateboarding and have gone on to big careers in those fields. But there was a teacher there who’s named Russell Baldwin, and as it turns out, he’s the real connection to the conceptual art part of the story. So Russell Baldwin had been good friends with another artist named John Baldessari, and they both worked a lot with text and so one of Russell Baldwin’s – One of my favorite pieces by Russell Baldwin is a kind of an idea-based, text-based piece removed from the traditional practices of painting or sculpture. He liked a phrase a lot called ‘art is all over.’ And, again, because of the entendre and the open-ended interpretation, art could be everywhere or maybe it meant that there was no more art, that art was all over with.
HAMPTON: And so he took that phrase, which he liked, and he had it commercially printed on yardsticks in the manner of old like hardware stores or paint products or that kind of thing. Those businesses, as part of their marketing campaigns, would have yardsticks imprinted with their logos and names and, you know, phone number, whatever. So Russell Baldwin did this with a yardstick, he had it commercially imprinted with this phrase ‘Art is all over, Russell W. Baldwin.’ And that’s the kind of thing that Russell was thinking about. I really love that, by the way. If you see one of these yardsticks that you get the joke, the reference to the old hardware stores.
HAMPTON: And that’s the kind of thing that Russell was thinking about.
CAVANAUGH: There’s also a picture of that in your Culture Lust blog entry, a picture of one of his old yardsticks…
CAVANAUGH: …with that imprinted on it. Let me ask you, is that where St. Marko got his idea for this?
HAMPTON: I don’t know that that is where he got the idea but I think that it is a kind of link because also there’s examples of Baldessari’s work that I might share. But I think that St. Marko is a kind of a logical extension of those ideas, working with text and also specifically art referential text to explore these ideas but also working in a way that wasn’t traditional painting and not traditional sculpture, working with what Baldessari called post-studio art…
HAMPTON: …so art that’s no longer confined to those traditions.
CAVANAUGH: Tell me why, did St. Marko tell you why he stopped making the NO ART stencils?
HAMPTON: Yeah, he – I think he sort of felt that he had to stop. What happened is he, as he told me, in 1984, which is basically the end of about a five-year run of him putting up these stencils in various parts of the city, in 1984, he was in Europe for a year. He was out of town. And someone else copied his stencil and spray painted it on a newly installed sculpture by an artist named Niki de Saint Phalle…
HAMPTON: …on the UCSD campus, which is called the Sun God, which all UCSD students are familiar with and anyone that goes on the campuses. It was the first sculpture installed as part of the Stewart collection there, so it’s a big deal. Someone took this stencil and sprayed it somewhere—I don’t know exactly where—on that sculpture or on its base. And as, consequentially, the police and then apparently later even the FBI were looking for Marko, so he felt like, okay, I think this idea has run its course.
CAVANAUGH: No wonder he went to Hawaii. You told us what he was up to. Is he still – From the Facebook page and from your conversations with him, does he still have that innovative spark? Is that the kind of character he is?
HAMPTON: I think so. He’s definitely a funny guy. He has a good sense of humor. I was pressing him a little bit about this idea of he described to me that he was working with the – a department of public – of beautification in Newfoundland, Labrador. And I thought, well, that sounds interesting. I wonder if there really is such a thing? And I couldn’t find anything that made that – So I pressed him, I said, you know, is there really such a thing? And he said, I’m currently working on a sign project for – that involves this. And then he said, sort of repeating the same phrase, the Department of Beautification is working on a sign project along these lines. And so it was a little bit unclear and I think he was having some fun with the whole mystery thing. But he is, he’s involved now in, again, a kind of sign-based project about road kill up there in Newfoundland. And I can’t – It’s top secret at this point. He wouldn’t send me any sort of images. He’s not really done. And I think he does like to work in a kind of a serial process so he doesn’t do just one thing but he does a number of things that are related. Another example of that that he did show me was a photograph that he had composed where you have two workmen and they’re basically – looks like they’re getting ready to install a sign and it’s a street sign much like ‘right lane must turn right.’ So it’s just words but on the street sign it says, ‘You are going to be all right.’
HAMPTON: And it’s part of a series that he calls Signs of Affirmation. So, definitely, he’s still working with similar ideas.
CAVANAUGH: A man ahead of his time, considering how street artists are being celebrated, as I say, at the "Viva la Revolución" show up at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Dave, I want to thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us.
HAMPTON: It was my pleasure. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You can read more about St. Marko and his NO ART graffiti campaign by going to KPBS art’s blog, Culture Lust on KPBS.org. Coming up, a celebration of the telescope, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.