J.M. Rizzi and his 8-year-old daughter love to look at graffiti together. In the car they will slow down just to take a look at something or watch it go by on a train. But as much as she enjoys the art, his daughter is sure that her dad would never do graffiti because it is illegal. Rizzi agrees, of course. But he doesn’t mention being a Brooklyn graffiti artist as a teen.
In the graffiti scene, the attitude is display your own work if the galleries won’t. But along with that came issues, like trying to determine the best time to work if you do not want to be spotted by a cop or a member of a rival graffiti crew.
“It started basically to create our own dialogue,” Rizzi says. “And then it blew up into a bigger thing, which we now call street art.” He maintains that becoming a graffiti artist was a way of displaying work he believed in, when galleries wouldn’t.
But he doesn’t mean to generalize about graffiti artists: “There’s different types of reasons why people want to go put their name up. Some people like beefing with other crews and the excitement and adrenaline that brings.” Graffiti is also an element of hip-hop and, like most artists, the energy of music is a huge influence on Rizzi’s work.
Coming of age in the East Coast underground of the mid-’90s, you either knew the spots or you didn’t. “It’s not like today,” Rizzi says. “You can Google something and find everything.” He admits that spraying graffiti has an adrenaline rush that some people get addicted to. But in his case, graffiti art was simply part of a progression through art forms that started with drawing as a child.
Going out at a young age, getting trashed, meeting girls, going to places he shouldn’t be that were perhaps dangerous — it was an exciting way to spend a night. “The first time you put one up and then you see it,” Rizzi says. “You want to do it again.” But it was also a dangerous road to go down. Beefs with rival crews, or perhaps a specific writer, were very serious.
The unknown lifespan of graffiti art was also frustrating. Another writer covers your work, someone whites it out, or the building is destroyed. This was prior to cellphones. All Rizzi has to show for some of his art is a Polaroid or a photo developed at Walgreen's from film yanked out of a disposable camera. He remembers missing the police by just a few seconds after completing a piece that was up for less than a day.
But he also remembers abstract expressionist artists in their '70s loving graffiti. By the time Rizzi finished high school he began to formally study art, occasionally recognizing forms and expressions he already knew. After relocating to Dallas, he collaborated with some graffiti artists, including the Sour Grapes crew.
But as Rizzi continued to explore new forms, he became less interested in continuing exclusively as a graffiti artist. “Graffiti writers write graffiti for each other,” he says. “It’s a culture that’s contained within itself.” Like the Sour Grapes crew, he eventually started to take particularly juicy parts of graffiti tags, magnify them, and display the work in art galleries. Now ready to try his luck with bronze sculptures based on his drawings for an upcoming show at Erin Cluley Gallery, Rizzi just completed his biggest mural yet.
He developed his creative process as a graffiti artist and that still resonates today. He still makes his own markers. But instead of quickly writing his name in one line, he now might find himself using the technique to draw faces. “A graffiti head would get it,” he says. “But it also transcends that for other people.”
Rizzi also doesn’t see a difference between exhibiting his art with graffiti or inside a gallery in one particularly fundamental way: “You’re doing it because you want to be part of a dialogue.” Either way it’s participating in a visual dialogue, but the gallery scene is much larger. It’s a bigger discussion.
Rizzi still draws a lot of inspiration from his roots, as his second commissioned mural for Josey Records suggests. It’s 150 feet wide and 12 feet tall. For the first time ever, he actually used a long stick to sketch the mural. Trying to replicate a sketch on paper for a work of this size seemed like a lost cause and he didn’t want to lose momentum using ladders and scaffolds. Rizzi had never tried this approach before and couldn’t remember any graffiti artists using it in the past.
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He was able to sketch the massive mural in about an hour and the gestures he made with a stick resemble brushstrokes more than Rizzi’s previous works. Many of the lines are several feet long and change in height so much they would have been difficult to create with a ladder. After painting for weeks, Rizzi just completed the mural. It'a still wet. The contours have patterns and color schemes with the qualities of a melody.
The work suggests motion, like music tracks flowing across a screen. Colors bounce across the surface, interplaying on different tracks like musical instruments complementing each other. The theme of music is not overt; the mural mimics the movement. But Rizzi couldn't resist tossing a music symbol somewhere into the mix.
He sometimes misses creating art solely for himself, as if on a mission. “There was that lone wolf type of thing,” Rizzi says. “It was just me with creative energy. I’m going to put it up. People aren’t going to know who I am but they are going to know who I am.” But he takes some consolation in no longer having to risk his life for his art.