‘A 20th century phenomenon’: Artist presents film about graffiti, tattoos

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Kansas State students, faculty and staff were given an inside glimpse at Los Angeles graffiti and tattoo culture from the 1980s to the present at a screening of the film “Dark Progressivism” on Thursday.

Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre, the director of the film, presented “Dark Progressivism” in Thompson Hall as an event in correlation with the Beach Museum of Art’s exhibition “Ubiquitous,” which is on display from Aug. 15 to Dec. 23.

The feature-length documentary was released in 2015 and focuses on the influence of street gangs on graffiti and tattoo arts, artists that worked in the medium who are now world-renowned and the social conditions experienced during a specific era of Los Angeles, according to the film’s website.

D’Ebre said in Los Angeles, the idea of street art and murals is a fleeting concept.

“A mural might be painted temporarily and it was never meant to be a perennial artwork that people could visit at any given time,” d’Ebre said. “Los Angeles, more than other cities in the United States, represents very forward, fast-paced thinking.”

There are some attempts at preservation of graffiti and tattoos, though, d’Ebre said.

“The Department of Cultural Affairs and city council has passed policies where they invite muralists to come paint murals and so forth, but it’s very site-specific and it depends on the owner of the building,” d’Ebre said. “The owner would have the ultimate authority over some sort of cultural preservation.”

D’Ebre said he and Enrico Isamu Ōyama, the artist behind the Beach Museum’s “Ubiquitous” exhibit, were discussing murals that were done in the 1930s. These murals were considered to be antagonistic to Americans in a capitalist society and were whitewashed two or three days after the artist completed them. Today, the city council of Los Angeles is trying to preserve and restore these murals that were done in the 1930s.

However, D’Ebre said the social interplay between street art and political movements depicted in the film doesn’t really exist anymore.

“It was more of what I consider a 20th century phenomenon,” d’Ebre said. “At the transition to the new millennium, [from] 2000 to 2005, it wasn’t worth it to be in a street gang and commit a crime. The time you would do in jail, 50 years or life in prison, it just wasn’t worth it.”

Vanessa Stelter, junior in biology, said she thought the film represented how graffiti has been influenced in Los Angeles very well.

“Most artists [in the film] were from minority groups and they felt a connection to the graffiti seen on the streets,” Stelter said. “However, I would have liked to see a little bit more about how gang graffiti has changed over time and what kinds of techniques they used.”

In reference to photographs of graffiti and street art from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as photos of gang-related violence shown in the film, d’Ebre said you will never know what research material you can acquire unless you ask around.

“I got a lot of B-roll photographs from law enforcement and just asking artists if they had any photographs of artwork from the ’30s or ’40s,” d’Ebre said. “It wasn’t commonplace to take pictures of that graffiti because it wasn’t considered art back in those days.”

Aileen Wang, curator of the Beach Museum, said she enjoyed the music in the film and how the music itself was timed to certain scenes.

D’Ebre said the majority of the film’s music was original music that was composed by his colleagues and himself.

“We recorded a lot of music between 1996 and 1999, and when we were looking for music for this documentary, I realized I had a lot of material from my own arsenal that had never been published or used in any other environment,” d’Ebre said. “We decided to give it a shot and it worked really well with the context of the movie.”

D’Ebre said modern street art usually involves an owner of a building hiring a street artist to draw a mural with the intent of growing a larger customer base.

“If you have a building where you have a lot of Instagram followers, and somebody takes a picture at this location, they’re more than likely to be patrons at this location and spread that around and tell their friends about it,” d’Ebre said. “Other people will see [that picture] and the word of mouth through Instagram is going to influence other people to patron these locations.”

D’Ebre said a big problem today is that there are not a lot of art programs that are focusing on any type of artwork that is considered “guttural” because traditional education systems don’t see the value in it.

However, d’Ebre said the concept of “guttural” art at the university level is very complex, with a large debate surrounding it.

“How do you deal with critical theory in relation to this type of art form, and how do you talk about it intellectually and amongst a community and population?” d’Ebre said. “There have been a lot of complaints. Numerous artists, the majority of them that are in the documentary, complain about people using the term ‘street art’ and applying it to them. And then there are kids who didn’t grow up in the same communities and then they take a class on graffiti or street art at their university and all of a sudden they’re a big street artist around the world. I don’t know how to deal with that. I’m not sure how to negotiate that conversation.”

D’Ebre said the current definitions of graffiti and street art are in a very gray area, and his film attempts to address that.

“I coined the term ‘dark progressivism’ — I defined it,” d’Ebre said. “I did the film in relation to that. … It’s a duty to ourselves as scholars, as academics to do our due diligence and to research [street art] in a way that has been unprecedented. We need to peel back those layers and understand it a little more.”

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