When graffiti artists Mint & Serf were commissioned to paint a mural in New York City recently, they decided to forgo the clean, composed look that has become a common staple of commissioned graffiti murals. Instead, they created layer upon layer of bubbly tags and scrawl — the sort of messy, impromptu composition you're more liable to find in some unpatrolled alley than on a storefront in New York's boutique-addled Lower East Side.
The idea was that over the course of the summer, the artists and their friends would add fresh tags, so that the wall would evolve in an organic fashion. If some random graffiti artist came and added a sloppy tag of their own, that was fine too.
"Yes, the more the better!" exclaims Mikhail Sokovikov, the Mint half of the duo. "And the messier the better."
The mural, however, did not last.
"Not even a week," says Jason Wall, otherwise known as Serf. "I think we painted it, like, on a Wednesday. It was buffed by Monday."
Mint & Serf's graffiti mural it turns out, was "too graffiti" — as they describe it — too messy, too unruly, too not in keeping with the tidy, commercially friendly graffiti-ish look that hip neighborhoods use to attract young brunchers and window shoppers.
"It makes my shop look like a junkyard," one store owner complained to the website Animal (which has a good story about the mural, with excellent pix).
"People say they want graffiti," says Wall, "but it has to be P.C."
The ugliness of graffiti is something the pair has been exploring in more permanent ways too: a series of paintings that captures the sloppy feel of illegal graffiti. They've rounded these up in a new book — "Support, Therapy and Instability" — that displays the work and its process. The artists are currently in Southern California for the book's West Coast debut, to be held at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles this evening.
Mint & Serf grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood and have been doing graffiti together for more than a decade. They began their painting series in 2011, when they laid their hands on a series of canvases and adhered these to the walls of their studio. They then let their friends have at it with markers and spray paint. On top of these, they then collaged bits of paper, bubble wrap, a pair of girl's sunglasses, and other assorted detritus.
"Whenever things got too pretty," says Sokovikov, "we would strip it down and start over."
The whole thing gets at the tension inherent in the form. Graffiti is illicit, an aggressive claiming of space. Can it remain graffiti when it is nicely cleaned up for a commissioned mural in some tony arts district? Prettify it too much and it starts to feel like a logo, which explains why so many commissioned murals can feel so dull and why so many corporations have embraced it as a great tool for marketing. (Check us out, we have splatters and drips! We are soooo edgy!)
Certainly, Mint & Serf are not above this conflict. They've done corporate work and drawn on Birkin bags. And certainly, there's something dissonant about hearing the artists celebrate the form's gritty aspect — down to the fistfights — while sipping ice coffee on the roof deck at the Ace Hotel. (Artists gotta make a living...)
But they do raise an interesting question with their work, about the nature of graffiti.
"There's been too much attention to perfection and design," says Sokovikov. "The beauty of graffiti is the aggressiveness. It's about the gesture, it's about the movement."
Wall (who, incidentally, lived for short spells in Southern California as a youth), concurs. "For us, it's about creating an environment that channels the street. Really, it doesn't have to be pretty. We prefer it that way."