The Impossible Quest to Catalog a Decade of NYC Street Art
"I see next to no good street art anymore," says photographer Katherine Lorimer (a.k.a. Luna Park), the author of '(Un)Sanctioned,' a new book documenting the peak and decline of NYC street art, as well as the illegal graffiti that's as strong as ever.
Mural by Os Gemeos and Bboy6
Photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Instagram have been a boon to street artists and graffiti writers, as well as documentarians obsessed with exploring the subcultures in real time. To some extent, these photographers have become the face of a community that thrives on anonymity. Some, such as Brooklyn-based photographer Katherine Lorimer, a.k.a. Luna Park, have even risen to the same level of prominence as the artists whose work they capture.
Lorimer's new book, (Un)Sanctioned: The Art on New York Streets (out now via Carpet Bombing Culture), is a visual diary chronicling the thousands of cumulative miles she has walked through the city's rapidly changing neighborhoods. She finds as much beauty in a complex mural as in an illegal tag and never loses sight of the urban and human context in which New York's outlaw art is embedded. Her book also features conversations with several prominent artists, curators, and activists about art in public space. The sickness and death of her partner, the photographer, artist, and explorer Peter Carroll, led her to reassess how she approaches her craft, but ultimately strengthened her dedication to the art that fills the world around her.
I sat down with Lorimer in her Brooklyn kitchen to get her thoughts on the book, her obsessive photography habits, and the changing landscape of New York street art and graffiti.
VICE: How did you get into photographing street art and graffiti?
Katherine Lorimer: I used to live in Greenpoint. One day, walking through the warehouses on the waterfront, I saw a woman's face on a door. I didn't know at the time, but it was a piece by [Brooklyn artist] Swoon. I realized that there's all this stuff stuck on doors and the sides of buildings, and I started photographing it. This coincided with my starting a Flickr account, and so I started posting these pictures on the site. After a couple of months to a year on Flickr, I definitely felt that there was a community there.
Unlike today, when everything is on Instagram before the paint is dry, it was about putting on your shoes and deciding, today I'm going to walk all the way down Kent, follow my nose, and look down all the side streets to see what's there. It was great, because I had no biases, no preconceived ideas of, Oh, I should photograph this or this person is going to be happy if I photograph this, or I don't like that person, so I'm not going to photograph that—all the baggage that comes with knowing the scene a little better. In the beginning, it was really just determination, walking around, a lot of luck, and enjoying the hell out of it.
What kept you committed to documenting these subcultures?
At a certain point, I figured out for myself that the process of going out and looking for art was a form of meditation. I could put all of the day-to-day stress of going to work and dealing with whatever life problems to the side and focus on only one thing. In a sense, walking and shooting is a form of self-medication, but a very addictive one. It's something that makes me very happy. I caught the golden era of street art in the mid to late 2000s, before everything started getting knocked down and fancy condos went up, and before street art got dragged into the mainstream.
What role has social media played for you as a photographer?
Flickr was really the basic education for me because I didn't know anything in the beginning. You would go into the "NYC street art" or "Brooklyn graffiti" groups and discover this is SKUF , or, that is Faile. There was a group of people already that made up the core of the Flickr paparazzi. Coming from a library science background really informed how I went about interacting on Flickr—the kind of people I set out to follow, people who I felt were authoritative in their knowledge of the scene, good photographers. At a certain point, I made it my goal that the archive that I was slowly starting to built would one day be an authoritative resource, at least for this particular time period, from 2005 onwards. It was important to me that if I was going to post something, it would be the best photograph possible, all of the artists would be properly identified and tagged, and that there would be some sort of relevance.
Doing as good a job as possible—which is not to say that other people weren't—for me, that was really my reason for being. People will follow you if you define the niche that you want to be active in, you follow the right people, and you make sure that you come correct and post relevant, good content on a regular basis. You want to know what stencils looked like in Brooklyn in 2008? There's a selection of them there.
In your book you condense ten years worth of photography into less than 200 pages. How did you decide what and who would make the cut?
I went through my entire archive without any preconceived notion of who should be in the book, did a first pass, and ended up with 3,000 photos. One of the main questions that I continually found myself asking was, great photo of an artist's not-best work, or not-so-great photo of the artist's best work? Ultimately, in this case, great photo trumps everything else. Then I narrowed down a list of maybe 150-200 people who I thought needed to be represented in the book. I also tried to strike a balance between having things from the illegal end of the spectrum, with graffiti tags, handstyles, throws and pieces, over into illegal street art and weird installations, ad takeovers, and muralism.
How has street art in New York changed since you started documenting it?
When I started documenting street art in 2005, there were already established players, people like Swoon, Faile, Shepard Fairey, and people that had already been active since the 90s. People coming from a graffiti background. They were active on the streets because they had a passion to do it. By the time Banksy put out Exit Through the Gift Shop, street art really blew up in the mainstream. There are more people who are active now, but maybe because they see it as a springboard into some sort of gallery or art career.
You used to have galleries that catered to a street art and graffiti audience, and they've been largely forced out of the market because of rising real estate prices. There were galleries that catered to different price points [such as Factory Fresh and Ad Hoc in Bushwick]. It's important that there are galleries at different levels, because it nurtures artists throughout their career. People that are now showing at more blue chip galleries, if they've done it right, have come up and built their career gradually.
An image of some lackluster street art by Mr. Brainwash
How do you feel about street art in NYC these days?
I see next to no good street art anymore—"good" meaning something where I feel like it's not being sold to me, "good" meaning not the same thing spammed over whatever few street art spots are left. I see very little original art that's done with good placement in mind that actually dares to say something. Someone thinks they've hit upon this brilliant idea, and you know what, it's been done to death. Same thing with pop-cultural Disney mash-up stuff. Come on! Come up with an original idea!
Has street art hit its inherent limits?
The right person with the right idea could still make waves. Maybe that's just not happening in New York because the economic situation makes it difficult for not just artists, but for any of us to live a creative lifestyle. I hear from people: Try South America, or eastern Europe, or Berlin, you'll find more interesting work! Places where the cost of living is such that people can dedicate themselves to coming up with interesting new ideas.
You write in the book's introduction that graffiti is "less susceptible to being co-opted" by commercialization. What can street artists learn from graffiti writers?
There's a very strong work ethic in graffiti. The idea of putting in work and finding new spots, being aware of your environment, not just sticking your thing on the first, best wall and thinking graffiti is a background, being sensitive to its immense history. A lot of people roll in and say, Hey, I'm a street artist! and do a couple of wheatpastes, but have no clue about the depth of the history of what came before. Street art is just an entirely different beast than graffiti.
Graffiti, and to a lesser extent street art, tend to be dominated by male artists. Do you think that you bring a different perspective to the culture as a female photographer?
People told me that because I was a girl, I had no business doing this and that I didn't know what I was talking about, and that spurred me on more. I felt like I had to go extra hard to gain any respect. I don't take it personally, it is what it is.
Is street art more welcoming to women?
It has been more welcoming to me personally. That was my way into the scene, through street art, and some people immediately wrote me off as a street art photographer. My interests definitely lie closer to graffiti now than initially.
How has your approach to documenting street art changed over the last ten years?
A couple of years ago I made the decision, largely because my partner Peter was sick and I had to use my time wisely, that I was going to cut back on shooting and really focus on the things that interested me. It was very liberating. I more or less stopped blogging, because you get into this content-creation hamster wheel of going out shooting, having to edit, having to post, having to promote, and repeat.
That experience of just going out and shooting what I like and being open to discovery is something I really only experience outside of New York now. When I travel, I don't know what's going to be around the corner and I haven't seen everything on Instagram before. That's certainly been one of the greatest benefits of getting into photographing street art and graffiti—it's taken me to places in New York (and beyond) that I would have never ever in a million years ended up. If you're going through life with that filter on, you see cities in a very different way.
Do street art and gentrification go hand in hand?
Savvy property owners and real estate developers have latched onto the fact that having a nice mural on your building or a mural district can do wonders to property values. The question of selling out in the graffiti world is very delicate—the idea of staying true to an art form that is very much rooted in an illegal activity, but making a living based on the skills that you have accumulated over a lifetime of doing it. Artists like Steve Powers [a.k.a. ESPO] and Greg Lamarche [a.k.a. SP ONE] have stayed true to their roots, yet have successful gallery and commercial careers without compromising any of their ideals. "Getting over" [an idea popularized for graffiti writers in Steve Powers's book The Art of Getting Over] can mean you just painted the entire side of a parking garage in Brooklyn and you sell out all your print releases and the right brands want to work with you and you're savvy enough to strike a good balance as to not be called a sellout. It's not easy, but it is possible.
What would you like someone without familiarity of street art and graffiti to take away from the book?
First and foremost, that there is an incredible breadth of work being done on the streets. To me it's the biggest free entertainment. You don't have to pay $25 to go into the Whitney or the MoMA, you can just walk around and see any number of different styles and mediums all out in the open. This work very much makes New York the place I want to live. The city's vibrant streetscape has been threatened by the hyper-gentrification of the last five or ten years. There's this wholesale homogenization of the streetscape, where we have these cookie-cutter glass buildings going up that have no soul, that have nothing on the exterior—these blocks, they're dead to me. In a sense this is looking back on a New York that is largely gone, but pockets of it are still there. It also exists in other places, and, if anything, I would really hope that the book would sensitize people to open their eyes and see their cities in a different light, and maybe not go, What is that horrible scrawl on the wall? but rather appreciate it for what it is.
See more photos from the book below.
Ray Mock is the founder of Carnage NYC and has been documenting graffiti in New York and around the world for ten years, publishing more than two dozen limited edition zines and books. Follow him on Instagram.