Askville: Now you see it …

Vise 1 has clearly done a lot of graffiti in his day, and his name is emblazoned on various surfaces in major cities across the country. Exactly where he won’t say, but since he especially likes to write on trains, he’ll tell you that his art can be seen “everywhere” as it travels the rails.

Nor will Vise 1 reveal his real name or the city he grew up in, much less what he looks like. So rather than posing like most ASKville interview subjects, he preferred to keep the focus on his work—in this case, his signature “tag” and a drawing that he says is meant to communicate an antiwar message.

Not surprising, perhaps, considering that graffiti is illegal. And doing an interview with a reporter could be considered, as they say, “sketchy.” But that’s not the whole story: In the graffiti world, the art lies just as much in staying under the radar as it does in cutting a smooth line with a can of spray paint. For Vise 1, invisibility is necessarily a way of life.

Mountain Xpress: How did you get into graffiti?
Vise 1: I got into graffiti growing up in an urban city up north, and skateboarding, and being all over the streets and seeing it everywhere. I was always into art, and I thought maybe I could do that—and maybe I could do it better.

I’m not so well-versed in graffiti lingo. Can you explain a few terms?
There’s the basic tag, which is your signature. Then you have your “throw-up” or “bubble letters,” which are bigger letters filled in and outlined. Those are the ones that are more like stamps. You just keep doing them. The goal of those is to do it everywhere. After that, you have your “straight letters”—which are straight letters with a 3-D outline, filled in. And then you have your “piece.” It’s your artistic endeavor. How artistic can you be with just a word? Your “burner” is your masterpiece. Usually you have to work up to it. Just like anything else, you can’t do masterworks when you haven’t learned the basics. You only do so many masterworks in your life.

How did you develop your technique?
Hard practice and a lot of painting. You learn from experience, so it takes a lot of practice. There’s a difference between a graffiti artist and a graffiti bomber. The graffiti bomber [“bombing” means writing a tag everywhere] is out to destroy. The graffiti artist is trying to move people. But they usually started out as a bomber to learn. Graffiti is an art form, but the goal of it is to destroy. How much can you destroy? You beat the system and get away with it. That’s graffiti. It’s for graffiti artists to see how much they can do and how much better they can do it every time. It’s an addiction.

What types of surfaces do you like to paint?
Trains are definitely the best. Brick walls, smooth cement, any found object—that about covers it.

Why trains?
Because they go across the country; they’re constantly moving. It gets your message to more people faster. It’s like advertising.

So what’s your message?
I would have to say that, can’t deny it, the war has to stop. That’s a focus in a lot of graffiti art right now: The war must come to an end. They’re trying to get the message out to an American public that only sees ads all day.

What lengths have you gone to in order to get a piece up on a surface somewhere?
There was one time where I hopped a fence, ran through a bunch of kudzu roots, lost my shoe in kudzu, then climbed 50 feet in the air on an old, rickety, rusted-out water tower and completed my mission. I walked all the way home with one shoe; never found the other one. Also hiking through snow up to my knees to a train site, and painting it and hiking back—all in 0-degree temperatures. That was great lengths.

Have you ever had any close calls?
I’ve definitely had close calls. People have showed up, and I’ve had to run. We’ve been caught by police, but we didn’t get arrested. (When I first started, there were other artists I was working with.)

There’s been a major push to clean up graffiti locally. To cite an extreme example, one Asheville City Council member has even characterized graffiti as “urban terrorism.” What’s your take on that?
They’ve really clamped down on it. When I first started, people in San Francisco could get caught and simply get a ticket. Now, you go to jail. Graffiti is a crime. As for graffiti as terrorism: That’s a good name for it from a Council member. It makes sense that they would say that. But no matter how many people they catch, they can’t stop it. It’s a human right to write things.

As for the people on the Graffiti Task Force, they should … go around photographing it, if that’s their job. At least it’s a cool job.

If you were a business owner and someone came and tagged your business, how would you react?
I would start thinking of painting over it as soon as possible.

I’ve heard a lot of discussion as to whether or not graffiti should be considered art. Would you say there are critics in the graffiti world just as there are critics in the traditional art world?
It’s the newest art form. Graffiti art was born and raised in America. Some graffiti artists even think of it as folk art. I would say that, yes, other graffiti artists are going to look at graffiti the same way an art collector would look at a Picasso. They’re going to judge it; they’re going to see what they were doing wrong, and they’ll fuel other artists to do it better.

Graffiti is on a breakthrough. It’s beginning to be accepted in art galleries, and it’s starting to be accepted as an art form. The stuff that even some teenagers are doing today is mind-blowing. But graffiti is always going to be illegal in America on the streets—unless America has some crazy breakthrough.

A lot of people are trapped in that world: the rat race. The American dollar that everyone wants. Graffiti is about breaking people out of that. It suddenly just appears out of nowhere. You didn’t see the artist do it. And yet, there it is.


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