Book signings are not one of our favourite things. Queue for half an hour – bored – considering what you’ll say to the author; panic, say something platitudinous, receive a banal reply, gratefully accept a misspelled dedication in an illegible hand; go home and gloat to unimpressed flat mates.
On Thursday, this lethargic PR-as-event format gets a novel respray. Freedom Press, Whitechapel, plays host to Hugo Martinez, compiler of Graffiti NYC. You won’t have to go through the tired protocol above. First, NYC graffiti writers, JA, GIZ, and RATE will be showcasing their talents while you wait. Second, you won’t get mundane small talk from Martinez. He has a spellbinding way of conversing. And you’ll have something more exciting to show your friends – the first hundred people will receive a free spay can daubed with graff legal rights. No guarantees about legible handwriting, though. These are graffiti artists, after all.
So who is this Martinez fellow? Well, the best description we can think of is an impresario of graffiti, based in New York. He is a tireless promoter of the artform and has worked with 'writers' since the 1970s. But when pressed on whether he personally sprays walls, he is quick to bristle. "You wouldn't ask an art dealer whether they paint pictures, so why do people always ask me whether I write graffiti?" Fair point.
We start by asking him what he’s trying to do with this book – what’s the message. “It’s about being as unapologetic as possible," he says. "When we see a name on a building we erase it from our minds. We hate to see some working class arsehole's idea of art. It disturbs us...But that's wrong. Art should be disturbing. We want to showcase NYC as the Mecca for graff. Other cities, such as Rio and Mexico City are important, but NYC is where it all started."
"And what about London?", we timidly enquire, thinking of all the wry streetart we've proudly featured on Londonist over the years. "The movement in London is very new. And there’s nothing particularly interesting there yet. In fact, nowhere in Europe is important for graffiti. But there is potential. The kids in London went for punk when no one else was going for it. They know the real from phoney. But then they're also less angry in London than in New York. Less angry and therefore less bright. Which is probably why the graff culture [in London] is so sterile."
"Banksy?", we naively suggest, and immediately regret it. "Serious graff writers would find him ‘corny’. It’s all too clever…no passion. That’s not art. And people who do like corny stuff usually don’t know anything about art."
But...but...we feel our lips quivering...surely people such as Banksy offer a way in for us middle class types, who know nothing about graffiti. It opens our eyes, gets us thinking…yeah, some of this isn’t just the defacing of property. But Martinez is dismissive. “Look, if you need a gateway to appreciate quality, you’re never going to 'get' it. You're wrapped up in middle-class ideas of what art is - looking at pretty pictures in a gallery."
"So what is art, then?", we ask. As with all Martinez' comments, we get a succinct essay for an answer, which riffs across many themes. "All of the grand cities 50 years ago were a monument to private property. The architecture, the galleries, the music...it was all by the rich, to be appreciated by the rich. Working class people never had anything to do with it. But that's changed. Everything important comes from the 'lower strata'. Working classes have changed things, from Liverpool to Detroit. It's about having heart, and obsession – middle-class kids rarely have these things. And that's why, in London, you just don't get the same graff culture as NYC - it's all middle-class kids with corny messages."
We go on to discuss the criminality of graffiti, which Martinez thinks is an engine for the culture. If you remove the criminality, you don't get the real graffiti. As prolific writer RATE puts it in the book:
Anything that legitimizes graffiti probably cancels out the part that makes it actually graffiti. Because graffiti is illegal, and if it’s a legal venue, then it ceases to be graffiti.
But Martinez admits there are limits. He describes the two youngsters recently killed while decorating London train lines as ‘idiots’, and suggests graffiti is at its best when covering emblems of middle-class culture.
We finish by asking him if he has any other great passions in life. “Babes. And…babes,” he chuckles. “But music is also important to me. Salsa…or any music that tries to create an environment of everyone having transcended reality.”
So he’s probably not into Lily Allen, then.
Londonist highly recommends that you meet Hugo Martinez at anarchist bookshop Freedom Press, this Thursday (tomorrow) from 7-10 pm.
Image taken from 'Graffiti NYC', out now from Prestel Publishing.