The Artful Bomber
Standard packing list for a midnight run on a deserted train yard:
Sandwich bag full of custom paint-can nozzles
Flash camera, for documentation
Sixteen cans of Krylon paint
On a moonless Thursday night, somewhere just north of Dallas, two young men jump out of a black truck, their backpacks filled with supplies, and scurry over a stretch of rocky terrain toward a string of dark rail cars. They glance over their shoulders, scanning the dim horizon beyond the train yard. All clear. The steel-sided freight cars, waiting silently for an engine to roll them out the next morning, seem huge at close range. The two quiet invaders climb through the rusty iron connectors to the side of the cars away from the road, then step backward across the empty tracks to survey the potential canvas in front of them.
"Do you see a flat?" one whispers.
"Yeah. Over here. It's perfect."
They drop their packs on the gravel and get to work, one on one end of the tall, gray Champion Industries car, one on the other. Over the next hour or so, they work quietly, the only sound the sharp hiss of emptying aerosol cans. Occasionally, a question: "Man, where did you get these caps? This one's amazing," or, "Oh, shit. Did you remember the camera?"
The younger man is scrawling in giant, hyper-stylized block letters "VERT." It's his graffiti name, his tag, and even in the darkness, the complex shading and subtle color gradations make an impressive, bulbous, three-dimensional image. The word looks like it's moving, tugged along the tracks, shattering under imaginary weight. He pauses every 15 minutes to duck the fumes, check for intruders, and stand away from his creation for a better view.
The other man never pauses; he works off a drawing he grips in his free hand. The graceful, curving letters unfolding across his stretch of car read "TOY." The "O" forms the grimacing cartoon face of a space alien. The artist forgoes bright color for exacting black-and-white detail: the antenna of the alien, the swoosh of the letter tails, the undulating atmosphere surrounding the image. Sometime later, both men's paintings are finished "pieces," short for masterpieces. Vert adds a quick "IC-A2M" and some other tags to his side of the boxcar; the Toy man sprays the word "UNIT" to the right of his mural, then adds "Dallas, Tejas."
Up the track, other Champion cars (their even surfaces and pale colors make them ideal) have been hit--bombed, as they say--by graffiti artists who punctuate each piece with their origins: Portland, San Francisco, Houston. The tags--Zane, Jedi--are familiar to Vert and Toy: "Houston has great train yards," Vert says matter-of-factly, before shuffling up the tracks to look at the West Coast offerings. Under the Portland banner painted last winter is a postscript: It's freakin' cold!
The two men, satisfied with their own work, comment on the letter styles of the foreign pieces, take nearly a roll of photographs of their own and others' paintings, and pack up.
The kids know, via the Internet, where these trains go. That's often how they pick them, for the highest visibility: The more people--especially other cities' graffiti artists--who see their pieces, the better. It's a highly developed, highly cryptic type of network communication (even the artists sometimes have trouble reading other artists' letters) and it's the current favorite form of "writing," or graffiti art. How else could a writer get his personal letter style all the way out to the West Coast? Certainly, that's worth losing a night's sleep, worth risking a night in the slammer.
On the way back to their truck, Vert and Toy spy two men in the parking lot nearby, smoking cigarettes and talking quietly. The older artist nods toward them. "How's it goin'?" he calls politely. The two strangers squint and nod back. Our artists climb into the truck and make a break for it. All in a night's work.
A standard art opening in Dallas: The older train bomber stands in a polished, curated art space on McKinney Avenue. He seems at home: black sweater, yellow Adidas slip-ons, and blond hair hanging in his eyes. He sips mineral water. Before him, well-dressed, wine-swilling art fans mingle with the handful of showcased artists. Mounted on the wall behind him is a painting that looks remarkably like the aerosol creations he scrawls across rail cars. Not the same image, yet it shares the graffiti's sweeping strokes, heavy shadows, and reduced shapes and angles. He answers questions about it, his voice barely above a murmur, but the accompanying price sheet spells it out:
Title: Ill Elements; oil on wood. $4,000
Artist: Greg Contestabile.
On the street, and in the train yard, he's called Ozone, a.k.a. G, a.k.a. Toy Unit, a.k.a. founding member of the Infinity Crew.
Ah, the complexities of a dual life.
Same guy's artwork, splayed across two very different surfaces in two vastly different settings. On the train-yard side, Contestabile works in less than prime conditions--bad weather, no light, not to mention the train may roll away in the middle of a bombing--and ducks the authorities. On the art-scene front, he's schmoozed, celebrated, and paid handsomely for his effort. Not surprisingly, he favors the latter, but he can't quite shake the addictive joyride of the former.
The California-born artist has been making graffiti almost as long as he's been making art. While his more spontaneous and illegal outpourings have slowed to a trickle, at 36, Contestabile has reached a crossroads. He's tasted success through his art, and wants more of that life's stability and recognition. Ozone doesn't pay the bills. Contestabile does. But Ozone keeps Contestabile's imagination (not to mention his dead run) limber, keeps his vision fresh, keeps him in touch with the urban scene that launched him. Despite his increasingly lucrative commissions from the business and private sectors, he can't give up the occasional Krylon bombing. He tried before, but the impulse yanked him back.
"It's such a rush," Contestabile says of graffiti. "It's those moments when I'm just flowing, just creating. When I'm doing a piece, my inner critic doesn't even show up until I'm done." He's sitting at a drafting table in his Haskell loft, a split-level industrial space he and his art supplies have shared for years. Relaxed, smiling, Contestabile looks more than a little cherubic, a sly saint-in-the-making. Michelangelo surely would have liked to get his hands around those carved-out cheekbones and pale, unearthly eyes. He talks so quietly, you often have to lean in to hear him; his real pulse indicator is in his eyes. Usually at half-mast, they pop open wide and glint brightly when he's talking about a subject he loves--invariably either oil painting or graffiti.
"Back in the day, we used sucker caps--the caps that come with the cans," he says in mock old-timer tones, referring to the standard-issue Krylon nozzles. "Now we have all different kinds: New York fats, ultrathins, German fat caps. I've built a whole style on New York outline caps. Such tight, crisp lines." With this, he's glowing like a kid on Christmas morning.
Contestabile graduated from MacArthur High School in Irving in 1980, a few years after his family moved to the Dallas suburb from North Carolina. His primary passion was soccer, a sport he'd played since childhood. He also had been drawing since elementary school, but by his late teens, art classes were relegated to second priority. "After graduation, I spent two years taking basics at North Lake, then moved to Denton to go to North Texas State [now UNT]," he recalls. "I played soccer there too, but in order to reconcile art and career, I got into ad art. It was hell, man."
The advertising art program was notoriously difficult, circumscribed, and time-consuming. Nonetheless, Contestabile was a member of Fineline, an accelerated organization for the more gifted ad art students. "I dropped out not long before I would've graduated," he says regretfully. "I was just so tired of being in school. It seems like I'd spent my whole life there." Deflated, his parents disappointed, and no diploma in hand, he packed up and joined his friends in Dallas.
But Contestabile was still interested in art, if anything because he was finally free from the bonds of university curriculum. This was the mid-'80s, and Dallas was enjoying its first youth-culture growth spurt in decades--clubs and galleries were popping up, rock bands were forming left and right. "But there weren't really any alternative spaces for art, besides 500X, and I was looking for a way to show my work," Contestabile says. On a whim, the 26-year-old stenciled a design on an Exposition Park wall--it was a green, foot-high, one-eyed frog, a character named Flip, from a '30s-era MGM cartoon. One frog led to another, and another, then a Screwy Squirrel followed, then another. People started looking for the symbols downtown, asking around about their maker. Contestabile decided to expand his efforts.
Contestabile certainly wasn't the first graffiti artist in Dallas, but he was one of the first to snag some wider attention for his efforts. In the late '80s and early '90s, he worked neck-and-neck with David Holly, a.k.a. Mosquito--the pair were the first to aerosol together, and sometimes competitively, blanketing a burgeoning Deep Ellum with their punchy, gritty imagery. The once pristine walls around Club Clearview, Theater Gallery, and the Art Bar became the favorite canvases for the pair, sometimes legally, sometimes not--one-eyed animals, joint-smoking pimps, gun-toting astronauts--these images put the first real color in Deep Ellum's character.
"I was only interested in doing characters, though," Contestabile says. "Most writers were into tagging, and letter styles, but I didn't wanna do that. I thought that was an eyesore. It wasn't about my name. It was based on a different set of principles. It was about making good pieces, good public art, comic relief, even. I couldn't just go bomb a site without planning. If you're gonna do something public, you better be prepared to do it well."
Not surprising from a guy who prefers classical music to hip-hop, Perrier to beer. Despite a lifestyle that operates in a leisurely gear, Contestabile keeps his schedule filled with professional jobs and gets up early in the morning even on his days off. It's a low-key yet productive existence, and possibly what drives him to seek the occasional shake-up of a bombing adventure.
He's never been arrested. In the past, because Contestabile usually hit a site in broad daylight, and because the works were so obviously planned, the cops rarely harassed him. "I'd just pretend I had permission. I'd have my gear all spread out, and I'd be relaxed, and they'd believe me. Sometimes I'd start a piece, then the cops would come around, and I'd lie, then I'd go ask the building owner if it was OK, and usually get actual permission. So if the cops came back the next day, by that time it was legal."
Not that his early days were snag-free. "Since I didn't sign my name, Mosquito was getting a lot of my props [graffiti-speak for credit]. And since I was getting offered paying jobs through people seeing my pieces, I knew I needed some kind of tag." For a while he used "G." Ozone came later.
Back then, Contestabile made his rent by tending bar at such haunts as the Inwood Lounge and State Bar, but the press was onto him, and local papers published write-ups about his and Mosquito's finished wall pieces. Downtown musicians asked the two to design band paraphernalia. In those first couple of years, G and Mosquito were joined by Trippy Thompson and a few others--as a crew they were known as Style King Posse, or SKP. ("Such a fucking silly name," Contestabile says with a sigh.) A few more years passed; Mosquito started designing showrooms, T-shirts, and jewelry for New York fashion designer Todd Oldham and playing in local rock bands; Thompson moved to Manhattan and joined the band Jackass. The other members of the original crew fell out of sight.
"I had been painting canvases with acrylics all along, doing the cartoon-character thing," Contestabile says, "but around then I started oil painting, and doing portraits. It was instant gratification." By the early '90s, he was phasing out hit-and-run graffiti to cultivate his gainful work: commissioned aerosol murals and oil-on-canvas pieces. He created murals for Plano's Eisenbergs Skate Park ("I told them they needed my touch to make the place right," he says with a laugh. "They did."), for high-tech companies at the Infomart, for the walls at the DMA during the Dallas Video Festivals. Private patrons contacted him to paint their portraits in his evolving, singular style, and paid him generously to do so. "A few thousand, sometimes," he says quietly, without a trace of smugness. By 1995, he had picked up part-time installation work at Fair Park's Science Place, and was finally able to quit his bartender gig. Things were happening for him.
But he missed the rush of the graffiti scene. "That was about the time the younger artists, the ones who ended up forming Infinity Crew, pushed me to get back into it," he says. "So I did."
Time tunnel: The term "graffiti" comes from graffio, Italian for "scratch." We could go back to ancient Egypt to trace the more truant forms of wall defacement, but the modern variety didn't invade studio-speak until after World War II, when Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly publicly admired graffiti's aesthetics. Norman Mailer made it romantic--"the anarchic manifestation of social freedom"--though none of these men was likely referring to American graffiti; there wasn't much of it at the time. Still, the art-world debate over graffiti's importance ensued. Urban folk art, or mere vandalism?
The bastard offspring of agitprop and mural art, the slippery older cousin of hip-hop, and the most visible artery of street culture, graffiti as we know it originated in the early '70s in New York City, with the widening availability of spray paint. Its hubs were Brooklyn and the Bronx, its purveyors street-wise teenagers with little interest in highbrow art. Their self-referential tags popped up overnight on subway cars, alley walls, and schoolyard blacktops. Shortly after, the more artful and ambitious started expanding their visual styles, introducing characters and catch-phrases, backgrounds and horizons.
An initial few art exhibitions took place in early-era SoHo, and through the late '70s, a stylistic consistency set in: fat, curving block letters, three-dimensional shading, arrows and whooshing elements evoking movement. No New York subway car was safe from the Technicolor onslaught. The art world couldn't afford to ignore such a vigorous underdog movement, and by the early to mid-'80s, a few new art-scene darlings were pulled from graffiti's underground by voracious art-world fetishists: Crash, Zephyr, Fab Five Freddy, and two favorites--Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Of course, neither of them came from the actual, insular graffiti contingent. Haring was white, gay, and formally trained, and his stacked man-and-animal style had almost no root in standard subway writing (though he painted the subways); Basquiat used the tag "Samo," painted primitive figures and striking cautionary phrases on various Manhattan walls, and never invaded the trains. Both elevated the medium in the eyes of culture hounds, both made a load of cash for their painted-to-sell efforts, and both of them died young (AIDS and heroin, respectively), sealing graffiti's fringe-life validity for all posterity.
Over the last decade, graffiti as a form has spread and morphed, then spread and morphed some more. You can find it icing walls in any American city, the figure-driven art disappearing under the more popular letter-style pieces and marker tags of gangs and gang wannabes. These days, most people associate graffiti with territorial gang markings, but an evolved subculture of graffiti art, made by non-gang artists, swells below and around street culture. International publications such as 12 Oz. Prophet, While You Were Sleeping, and Aerosol Kingdom grace more generous newsstands, complete with slang-heavy text ("...someone gets bitchslapped for biting this month's fill technique, beefs erupt between writers and crews over who kinged the line last summer..."), and page after page of photographed pieces. Crude, local black-and-white fanzines circulate through individual cities (a Dallas title: On Your Ass). National mural events in places such as St. Louis and Austin attract crews from all over the United States, who descend on the cities' longer, unmarked walls to show off their personal techniques and meet other artists. The crew ethic and hit-and-run MO give graffiti a sport-like urgency, the ever-present air of competition punching holes in the more sedate and autonomous traditions of making art. Meanwhile, the critical argument about lowbrow art's place in the established art scene rages on; tattoos, hot-rod art, comics, and animation all vie for the attention of reluctant critics, the same ones who dismissed street graffiti--the epitome of lowbrow--even before the paint dried. (Writes Time's Robert Hughes: "...the short-lived graffiti movement, which started in the early 1970s...peaked, fell out of view, began all over again in the 1980s, peaked again, and finally receded...")
"It was a big art-scene novelty about 10 years ago," says David Quadrini, director of Dallas' Angstrom Gallery. "But on the street, it can be really cool. I've seen stuff on walls that's cooler than most of what I see in galleries. An incredibly baroque or rococo interlacing of a word, and it's sometimes really beautiful. Pure tagging is irritating, too much about 'I am the greatest, I am the greatest', but as an art form graffiti is really pure, made by a different kind of artist for a different kind of audience."
Still, the art establishment hasn't really given the nod to graffiti since the late '80s, about the same time Contestabile stenciled his first frog on a Dallas wall.
He may not have guessed that 10 years later he'd be bombing trains the same month his work appeared in no less than three legitimate Dallas art spaces.
This fall alone, Contestabile exhibited works at the Bath House Cultural Center, at new Expo-Park gallery Sock Monkey, and at the art-exhibiting, film-edit suite called CharlieUniformTango. Some of the works were in his looser, aerosol style, some were more formal oil portraits. Victoria Montelongo, the curator of the Bath House and Charlie shows, was thrilled to hear about the coinciding Sock Monkey exhibit. "Greg calls himself an aerosol artist," the freelance curator says, "and his murals, his public stuff, is my favorite of his work. I think he's extremely talented and doesn't get enough exposure. His ability to translate what he's thinking about is so immediate; it goes straight from his head to his hand to the work surface--that's his strength."
And what about the transfer of graffiti from street to gallery? "I think graffiti is a really valid movement, a valid form, wherever it's shown. To me it represents a conversation with the youth in our culture. Now, sometimes graffiti artists write in places they shouldn't, but for the most part, as public art, it's just amazing to look at."
And sure enough, one day in the midst of his fall showings, Contestabile sauntered down a street in his neighborhood with a backpack full of spray paint and graffitied a wall near the hangout of some homeless people. Still driven by figural imagery, he painted a picture of a scowling bum grasping a jug of wine. "I think of a piece and then find the appropriate place for it, usually," he says. "To give it context. Every piece has its place."
A couple of years back, he may not have bothered painting the bum at all--he thanks his youthful crew, his "kids," for his push back toward graffiti. "I dunno. They found me," he says. "They were familiar with my work, my history, and they talked me into getting back to it." This handful of hip-hop enthusiasts, most just out of area high schools, were getting started as graff artists and needed a mentor. As "Ozone," Contestabile was recruited for the precarious role--scout leader to a troop of fast-talking, cynical kids; all together, they call themselves the Infinity Crew, or IC.
"It was sheer serendipity," says Vert, the youthful train-yard bomber, of Contestabile's involvement in IC. Vert is 19 and Teks, another IC regular, is 21. Shy but friendly, both scarf down enchiladas at a downtown cafe, pausing only to answer direct questions. "Dallas is a new city for graffiti, really, but Ozone had been doing it a long time," Vert says. "We knew his stuff, had seen it around, and asked him to join up."
Vert, a smooth-skinned kid who looks as if he'd be more at home in a classroom at St. Mark's prep school than bombing a midnight train, slips in and out of hip-hop slang; Teks wears a basketball tank top and Buddy Holly horn rims. Both took art classes throughout high school, and both crowned graffiti their favorite form of visual expression. "He's taught us some stuff, given us insight about history, about the old school," Teks adds, and when the two are asked, point-blank, if Ozone is that good, they both look puzzled and nod, as though the answer is a given. "Well, yeah. He's really good."
For the past two years, Contestabile has happily offered the group--including Vert, Teks, Abis, Flynt, and more--historical context and loose guidance; the kids in return inject Contestabile's life and art with new techniques and spontaneity. Occasionally, one of the kids gets arrested for writing. Vert and Teks have both been through the first-offender program. Menace spent three months in jail. Still, as Teks suggests, the Dallas graff scene is a small one, tame in comparison to the hyper-developed Los Angeles and New York orders, giving IC a serious big-fish-in-small-pond influence over newer local crews.
As the true veteran, Contestabile doses his role in IC with a paternal tinge. "I've fed them, looked after them," he says. "I bought them all masks for the fumes; I always bring plenty of snacks and water out on jobs. I hire them to help me with paying gigs too." Oddly, as Contestabile's well-paid art-making separates him, at least symbolically, from the new order of delinquent graff artists, the Ozone part of Contestabile is exploring graffiti traditions like never before--possibly a naturally occurring counter-balance. "I'm starting to develop letter-styles," he concedes, and pulls out a carefully rendered drawing of the word TOY. "I'm just getting into doing trains, painting box cars. That's a newer thing. It's scary, but man, it's fun. I'm gonna use the name 'Toy Unit' for the trains. 'Toy' means really bad technique, or a really crappy piece." He laughs. It's his joke on himself--the perfectionist artist shellacking his identity with irony. Well, if he insists on writing his name, instead of bombing with figures...Still, that 'o' in toy isn't really a letter. It's a cartoon alien. Old habits die hard.
And since Contestabile's romance with art really started in school with art-history survey classes and Rapidograph pens--not aerosol paint and brick walls--it's no stretch that he's concerned with more conventional notions of art. He often betrays his formal training. He's taped a graph of modern art history to his refrigerator; he can discuss Juan Gris, Basquiat, and Picasso without pause; and his portraits are more than a little informed by traditional cubism and the work of Tamara De Lempicka, the 1920s- and '30s-era Parisian society painter. Likewise, his atmospheric, concave backgrounds recall Grant Wood's early-20th-century landscapes. In all, Contestabile's images seem spotlighted from within, often reduced to hefty curves and angles, and his painted faces are always rhythmically sculptural. His ongoing move from youthful street writer to well-heeled painter recalls those earlier stories of graffiti gone highbrow, street art gone legit--not unlike Haring and Basquiat, who never really shifted their original visions once the critical art world took notice. "Those two were overrated," he says good-naturedly. And what of Haring's friend Kenny Scharf, whose success paralleled the doomed artist? "He's amazing. Definitely one of my bigger influences." Scharf, an aerosol pop artist, was consumed by the imagery on muscle cars and product packaging, and appropriated such for his own busy paintings. He stumbled into fame and fortune, New York-style, in the mid-'80s--and actually held it. He was, however, never a graffiti artist.
Enter the inevitable question: Does the movement, after all, translate in the taming, clinically removed from its subway-and-alley breeding ground and mounted on gallery walls and in the homes of collectors? "The most interesting thing about real graffiti, the graffiti art on walls, is its sense of terrorism--a sort of benign terrorism," Quadrini says. "It's about dominating a space visually--laying claim on someone else's property, even if temporarily. But when you apply that method, that style, to canvas, you're creating permanent relic of that same urge, forcing it into the grand tradition of paint on canvas. Now it's completely isolated from that temporary quality. What's fascinating about this, about putting it in the home of a rich buyer, is that the art becomes a sort of white elephant, a reference to the act of visual posturing, and now potentially even more of an act of terrorism on people in the establishment. It targets them in the first place, only now it's invaded their home. They can't ignore it; they have to take care of it. It creates an interesting paradox."
Yet graffiti carries its clout in its transience, its illicitness, its thrill-ride context, and as an exclusive signature of urban youth culture. How can a curator or gallery owner invite the form into tony dealer digs and not expect the artwork to lose its impact and meaning? More importantly, how can a graffiti artist expect to transfer the adrenaline jolt of bombing a midnight train to spending a private afternoon with a stretched canvas? It's no wonder the gallery world's fascination for graffiti faded so quickly; the viewers weren't looking at the real thing, but a domesticated version of it. It's like seeing a lion locked up in a golden cage versus seeing the same predator in action on the savanna.
But Contestabile splits his artistic motivation in two. On the one side, he's an alley bomber who keeps one foot in street culture and continues his less-than-legal adventures because it's such a rush. On the other, he views his oil canvases as an honest bid for art-scene visibility. While he maintains that both types of his artwork are personal, stemming from emotional experiences, his conversation, if not his artwork, draws more attention to his concern with technique. At the Sock Monkey show, the inside walls were covered in his canvases, the outside courtyard walls with his aerosol murals, and the most striking thing about all the works wasn't visceral impact, but the skill involved in creating them. "Greg's work is really skillful; he's a great craftsman," Quadrini says. "And he's a very sensitive, creative person. I think he's making as good a version of graffiti art on canvas as anybody else. It's a lot of fun. And I like his cubist work--it's very stylish; it shows off his craftsmanship."
No doubt the guy can paint. Train car, plaster wall, or canvas, his gift for line, color, and balance underscores the surface every time, whether you like the image or not (cartoon dog smoking a big fatty aside). All of Contestabile's foundations seem aimed and ready for a marked career spurt.
"This next year is a 'see what happens' year. I'm trying to get into illustrating" (he's advertising his work in some of the profession's black books). "And I'm just flowing right now; I feel strong, like I can do no wrong." With his technical prowess, it's no surprise that he's leaning back toward his ad art origins to boost him toward the next level of commercial success. And though he can't set a date, he makes noises about moving away from Dallas. "This city has outserved its purpose for me, and there's so much world out there, so many cool places I haven't even seen." Listening to him, you glimpse his growing restlessness, his need to officially establish himself, as a professional, as an artist, as an adult--and better late than never. He talks of eating healthier, of hypoglycemia, of savings accounts and his fresh stabs at sculpting. He talks of finally seeking a solid gallery representative, something he's put off all along. "I wasn't ready before. I'm ready for that now."
On the way back from the rail yard that Thursday night, Contestabile--er, Toy Unit--tells Vert about a job offer. Earlier that day, the production manager of Walker, Texas Ranger called and asked Contestabile if he could paint some urban landscapes on a downtown interior wall for an upcoming episode. "They want it to be the offices of the bad guys. Images of mass destruction," he laughs.
"Oh, man, like, barbed wire and burnt-out buildings and stuff?" Vert asks.
"Yeah, and mushroom clouds," Contestabile adds.
How much are they offering? "Eighteen hundred."
How many days will it take to paint it? "One."
Not bad for a vandal.
The Dallas skyline grows bigger on the ride south along Central Expressway, the highway empty of cars at this hour. "Hey, are you hungry?" Contestabile asks his young friend. "I brought some apples. They're in the back if you want one." The dual life continues.
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