NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
There is no such thing as art being too aggressive, or too depressing, or too dark. Art is just visual, realistic, contemporary observation, after all, based on everyday facts. We are currently experiencing modern conflicts that cannot be ignored, while issues such as social injustice and global warming are seen as platforms or tools for political gain instead of as failures that need an immediate attention. Art has always served as tool of documentation of a particular age or time. It has the power to make people think, even if only for seconds.
Art can be a constant, powerful graphic reminder that warfare and poverty continue to exist, that the lack of fairness in a government exists, that basic human rights are being denied and there is nobody to defend those affected.
In Philly there are many artists who do work which reflects on our contemporary distresses. I am drawn to the aggressiveness and the messages in the work of YOMI, DOOMED FUTURE, and Joe Boruchow, which is based on our everyday reality. There are also, of course, many people who are not themselves artists but contribute, and support and guide political messages. For example Robert Perry (owner of Tattooed mom) and Conrad Benner. This support from “outside” is now, as always, vital to artists’ work.
I created the “DENIED” project as a symbolic emblem that represents contemporary peril and global unrest, using symbolic elements and imagery to unify my messages. In some of my newest work I respond directly to our political environment. My work as DENIED responds to gun laws, immigration, global warming, and the prevalent lack of access to clean water and human rights.
YOMI’s work is poignant and powerful, usually informed by experiences in communist in Bulgaria and the contemporary political climate. We talk about the politics of street art, and how he expects his own work to be received.
Amanda Victoria Wagner: As someone who creates political street art, do you think there is something inherently political about street art?
YOMI: Early graffiti, even since the Roman Empire, has showed us that street art is a vehicle for protest. In that sense, yes it is.
Recently there has been a lot of buzz about street art in Philadelphia with the Streets Department curating a bunch of pop-up shows, one of which was mentioned in the New York Times. There are a lot of talented artists who live here and who have come from Philly and they are coming into the spotlight. It helps that Philly’s reception to street art is pretty good. That’s not the case everywhere.
AVW: Taking that into consideration, in our current political environment, is street art an effective vehicle for political commentary?
Y: I believe it is. As a tool of protest, street art gives a voice to those who are afraid to use their own voices. It gives voice to the vulnerable and people who are frightened to speak up because of the repercussions of speaking up.
Today you see people incorporating contemporary issues into their work instead of broad ideals. There are several examples in my work; I’ve done work for Standing Rock and for DAPL. I made work for the women’s march. The idea that these messages can be a physical instrument of change is really interesting. In this way street art becomes art to help people feel empowered.
AVW: What are you doing now?
Y: I recently launched a series of executive orders, which is a mockery and reaction to the Trump presidency. The pieces aren’t lasting very long, though. Once, as I was putting them up, I saw someone taking it down right behind me. The piece speaks volumes and people are reacting. I’m also doing a lot of work around environmental issues.
AVW: Is there something about your personal experience that speaks to your interest in political art?
Y: Coming from an ex-communist state, and being under communism for 16 years, political art sinks into you. I grew up around constant propaganda. Growing up in that kind of environment, there is a point when you start to open your eyes and you become repulsed by the regimes and oppressors. You get sick of being told what to do.
Chernobyl is a big influence of mine and sparked a lot of my feelings around political art. Up to present day, it is still considered one of the largest man-made disasters in history. Even in recent history we have been learning more about its impact. Being a kid in Bulgaria when it happened, we didn’t find out about the accident until months later. Prior to finding out, were experiencing weather anomalies. I was seeing these deep yellow clouds in a clear sky. Rain would follow and form into deep yellow puddles. It was 2-3 months later that the government radio mentioned the accident, saying it was being taken care of. They never mentioned how much damage was done. So many people have died of radiation and nearby environments are still uninhabitable.
I think that experience led me to create more environmentally-focused work, even though I was a kid back then and I had no voice. Street art was an incredibly dangerous thing to do in my country. At the time there were a lot of intellectuals killed or put in prison for their opinions.
AVW: Growing up in a communist regime, why do you think it’s so important to advocate for your rights in the US, a country that has never seen or experienced anything like you have and whose people often carry a bit of naivety when it comes geopolitics?
Y: What happened to my country can happen anywhere and at any time. I think it’s already happening here. I think there’s been a suffocating of democracy here since the election and I think we are seeing the rise of an autocracy. You see people trying to bypass congress, rewriting and ignoring laws to get what they want. You’re seeing the beginning of a dictatorship. The US is sitting on decades of mismanagement, lies, and abuse of power. What we are experiencing now is a corrosion of the political system and public trust.
It’s a part of the artist’s responsibility to bring political awareness to the people. Art has always had a strong voice, especially political art, and that’s also what makes art so dangerous. It’s a serious tool. Philly artists can step up to the plate a bit more. We have to be louder and sharper without any apology.
Caleb Rochester has the unique and sought after skill of creating work that is totally uninfluenced by others. This might be because, to my knowledge, Caleb doesn’t care about the “art world.” Trends and movements don’t interest him. His pieces are the kinds of mini masterworks that seem to only be achieved by those who have an inherent gift and no formal training. He has also lived in Philadelphia for decades and has seen a lot more than most of us.
-Adam Peditto, curator
As a native of this city, I have seen the evolution of the mural industry in Philadelphia from its humble beginnings thirty years ago into a large, well-funded, and fairly famous machine today.
The original incarnation of the Mural Arts Program was the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), which still exists today. Mayor Wilson Goode started the program in 1984. It had a low budget and a novel concept. In an effort to eradicate graffiti from the city, kids who were arrested for defacing property were forced to paint murals instead.
These kids were supervised by artists fresh out of school. The typical mural crew might be six “graffiti writers” and one “real” artist with a bunch of brushes and buckets of paint. The crew would set up scaffolding in front of a blank wall, whip up a design on the spot and start painting. Sometimes the neighbors would put in their two cents in the beginning and sometimes not. The kids often could not draw, and frequently knew nothing about art. Some of the murals that they painted were very strange. Some of them were stupid and some of them were hilarious.
Most of the weirdest ones are long gone. They have been painted over by the now organized Mural Arts Program, or built over with new buildings, or destroyed along with the buildings they were painted on.
One day in the 90’s I stumbled on one of the “survivors” in South Philly. I think it was somewhere around 20th and Tasker, but I’m not sure. I’ve actually gone looking for it a few times since, but I could never find it.
The elements in the painting seemed like they could have been chosen at random, yet also seemed to be telling a story of some kind. Let’s see if I can put this the right way: the painting was more than one thing. It was a badly-executed painting telling a poorly articulated story, but it had a mystery to it, like ancient hieroglyphics from a forgotten civilization.
When you take it out of the context of that forgotten civilization, the story does not make sense. The place and time where this mural came from is gone.
I have never forgotten that mural. I only saw it once, and I’ve never seen a photo of it. The stained glass window is a TRIBUTE. I drafted it out of memory.