Florida-based Arcade Monsters is coming to San Diego with an immersive arcade game facility. It also commissioned graffiti artists to cover its walls and even ceilings with murals to create an art gallery that expands the idea of public art.
A little history ...
Tens of thousands of years ago, prehistoric humans held their hands against cave walls and blew a spray of paint, leaving a hand stencil behind. That, you could say, was the birth of both graffiti and public art. But no one has ever called cave paintings illegal or an act of vandalism.
Back in 1991, I had the pleasure of working with eight graffiti artists on a project for Fox Channel 6. I interviewed them about their art and about the stigma they faced trying to find places to paint.
"As soon as they hear spray paint or aerosol, it's like, 'no, no, no, we don't want any of that vandalism over here,'" recounted artist Jason "Sero" Saiz in my 1991 interview. "Someone will say, who do you paint for? We paint for ourselves and the writers. We'd like to say we paint for the public, for people to see, for other people to appreciate it."
But it has taken a long time for graffiti to gain that appreciation.
"The beauty of graffiti is it came from not asking for permission," explained artist Marcus "Grabster" Borges. "And we would just go out and paint wherever we can, whether it was trains or walls, abandoned buildings. We'd go under bridges and find our walls and paint them."
Back in those early days, no one was hiring graffiti artists to paint walls.
"Sometimes there was really no incentive other than just doing it for the love," said artist Jonathan "Rekal" Torres. "So to me, that is public art. I feel that graffiti is actually the original public art. It's in your face, it's in the public — a lot of times it is illegal — but if you know what you're looking at, a lot of times you can find the value of the craft of graffiti writers and what they do."
Graffiti emerged from the idea of writing your name.
"Picking a name and taking that name and elevating that name to the highest possible degree," Rekal said. "Within graffiti, there's actual genres. There's guys that only do tags. There's guys that only do bubble letters. There's guys who only paint trains. So within the actual craft of graffiti, it's a very big world. But the art of graffiti is lettering."
What's amazing about early graffiti artists is that without formal training, without financial or community support, and without sophisticated equipment, they managed to not only perfect their art but explode the boundaries of what was possible.
"Back then, it was like, you got to know someone, and they'd be like, 'oh, my cousin does graffiti, or this friend of his I heard he does graffiti,'" Grabster recalled. "And it was so secretive because you don't go around saying, like, 'yeah, I do graffiti.' It was like a secret society."
And there was a sense of mentorship.
"When you are really dedicated to the craft of graffiti, older graffiti writers would take notice of you and they would bring you under their wing," Rekal said. "And then they would teach you things, and they would show you how to blend with a spray can or what types of caps to use."
Now you can Google "graffiti," and find how-to videos.
Graffiti moving into mainstream culture
"I feel like the culture of graffiti itself is a little more mainstream now," Rekal stated. "A large part of that is due to the fact that a lot of older graffiti artists are probably like art directors at Nike or big brands like that. And so whether people know it or not, graffiti is influencing the culture now."
Grabster added, "It's nice because we've been practicing our craft and using the spray can for two decades and now I feel like we're at the level where we can paint almost anything with the spray can."
Including murals for businesses.
"Here at Arcade Monsters, it's really fun because we have the opportunity to paint a lot of fun cartoons and video game characters that we grew up on," Grabster said.
Arcade Monsters comes to East Village
Arcade Monsters is a relatively young and growing company with five locations in Florida. The new East Village location will be its first in California. Operations manager Jonathan Haines described it "as fully immersive and completely interactive" with bartenders and wait staff dressing in themed attire for the retro arcade facility. But the real wow factor comes from how Arcade Monsters puts graffiti artists like Grabster and Rekal to work.
"The way that people walk in, it's all about their reactions," Haines said. "They walk in and that first initial walk in, you just see the look on their face, and you can't beat it. And you know we're doing something, right? And that's what sets us apart. We're an art gallery."
With art covering every exposed inch of space.
"We're curving around walls, there's doors, so it's not just a big flat wall," Grabster pointed out. "So I think that's the challenge, fitting what we're trying to show or portray in the small areas and spaces just to fill every wall in here. As you notice as you walk around, there's art on every wall. So we don't discriminate walls. If it's a small wall, we'll fit something cool there."
Since the murals are big and some are even being painted on the ceiling, the artists have to frequently work on ladders. And since the facility will be black lit, they also have to learn to work with fluorescent paint.
"It's eye candy," Grabster said. "Normal jobs, I'm just painting one wall. This, it's like every inch is getting art. I think they really appreciate the art and see that video games and comic books, everything, there's art in that. So why not put it on the walls too? So the walls are alive too, not just the screens."
Rekal was working on a room with some characters that were recognizable but with a fresh spin.
"What we're doing is we're taking very popular pop art characters, comic book characters, anime characters, anything that has some type of fandom, and we're basically painting them in these impossible scenarios where you have 'The Simpsons' versus 'Rick and Morty,'" Rekal explained. "And that would only happen in a place like Arcade Monsters."
Graffiti still fighting an image battle
"It's a language that a lot of people don't understand," Grabster said. "There's geometry in it, there's flow and movement. But people sometimes, they'll see graffiti and they're like, 'I don't know what it says, so I don't like it.' They'd rather see a face. But if you just look at it for the colors, the abstract shapes, the movement, you can appreciate it."
Arcade Monsters definitely appreciates it.
"Their art is finally getting the attention that it deserves because they are truly very talented. We fly in some of the best artists throughout the United States and just watch what these guys do," Haines said. "It's truly special. I think that's the only word that can truly describe it. It brings not only the place to life, but the whole dynamic of it comes to life."
Grabster and Rekal are both Miami-based, but Arcade Monsters wants to hire local artists as well.
"We had one of the local artists just walk in, and we got to talking with him. So he actually does have a piece upstairs," Haines said. "We want to get the community involved out here as well."
People walking by on the street tried to peek in and excitedly asked when the place will open. Arcade Monsters hopes to open its doors in East Village by Thanksgiving, but as of today some walls are still awaiting paint and some games are still wrapped in plastic. When the doors do open, people may rethink how they define both public art and art galleries ... while they are racking up a high score on that pinball machine.