The value of urban art


July 12th, 2011

Omaha, NE – On a sweltering afternoon in downtown Omaha, Lavie Raven worked with a group of teens outside the Together Inc. building, getting them ready to test their spray painting technique on a makeshift wall.

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Lavie Raven (front left) leads a group of teens in a quick exercise of jumping jacks and hand claps to get the blood flowing before a graffiti workshop downtown. (Photo courtesy Kent Bellows Studio)

After jumping jacks to get the blood flowing, and hand claps to warm up the fingers, Raven guided the teens to hold their spray cans with a firm grip, spraying lines of white paint evenly across the wall, and to keep their masks on, protecting themselves from the paint fumes.

The kids are each enrolled in a graffiti art program through the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. The Studio, along with the Union for Contemporary Art, invited Raven to workshop with the teens, and to speak at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art Tuesday night at 7pm on the value of urban art in the community.

Raven is the Minister of Education at an after-school program in Chicago: the University of Hip Hop, which he said was started by a group of teens, who wanted to create a place where they could explore the four tenets of hip hop: rap music, dj’ing, break dancing, and graffiti.

Teens and mentors, enrolled in the Kent Bellows Studio graffiti program, work on a graffiti wall as part of a spray painting workshop. (Photo courtesy Kent Bellows Studio)

“Hip hop is an urban art form that is born out of marginalized communities that have been financially disenfranchised,” Raven said, “often times because of race, class, and a misunderstanding of what those communities represent, compelling young people to create.” It’s a voice and expression from young people who are drawn like magnets to hip hop’s creativity, speed, and the inherent blend of multiple art forms, he said.

Raven explained graffiti as an art form born out of a need for recognition, and a refusal to be ignored. “I’m here, I exist. I’m here, I’m going to put my name here, so you know I’m not just another brick in the cog of this urban ghetto that you’ve left us to basically fester in.”

Jayme Wyble, 16, has been enrolled in the Kent Bellows program since last summer. “I like so many things about graffiti,” Wyble said. “I grew up in kind of like a shifty part of Omaha where graffiti was kind of like a big thing.”

“It’s such a graceful, you have to know your movements, you have to know what you’re doing,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful art form, I’m just obsessed with it.”

Lavie Raven (left) stands next to Jayme Wyble and a group of teens and mentors, showing off their finished graffiti project. (Photo courtesy Kent Bellows Studio)

But graffiti is controversial, and, most times, illegal. It’s often associated with gangs, and marking territory with a scrawled name on a wall. But graffiti writers trying to create art, what might become an intricate and complex mural, also begin with a scrawled name on a wall, as they practice their spray painting techniques.

That’s how Wyble started, she said. But now, there are opportunities for legally-sanctioned graffiti, like Raven’s workshop. There’s no need to do anything illegal, she said. But, she added, the truth is that if those legal outlets were not there, she’d still be out on the streets.

“Graffiti is … how I express myself, it’s almost how I speak sometimes,” she said. “So if I’m not getting that out, it’s like I’m basically killing a part of me. I’m not trying to say that it’s a positive thing to do illegal, but if there weren’t an opportunity, I’d honestly probably still be doing it on the streets.”

A plain illustration of the divide between the two sides of graffiti: as the Kent Bellows program grows each year, graffiti on the streets is upgraded to a felony crime. That’s happened in Omaha, and many other cities, including Chicago. Raven called it a waste of young, talented resources who could be beautifying their communities.

“How the heck are you going to include graffiti writing, writing on the surface of something illegally, a nano-millimeter of damage on the surface of something, as the same thing as burglary, larceny, rape, murder, assault and battery? Come on, man. It doesn’t even fit in the category of those things.”

“So why then did you do it that way?” he asked, “We had to control it; we had to get these kids to stop doing it; we had to instill fear in them.” After a beat, “Man, that just brings it back around to the problem in the first place.”

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