For over a decade Katherine ‘Luna Park’ Lorimer has been photographing the ever-changing graffiti and Street Art scene of New York City, capturing thousands of urban art works that have long since disappeared. Over the years she has built a reputation for her meticulous identification of artists, as well as her well-composed photographs — that not only preserve this ephemeral art, but the context in which it originally appears on the street.
Luna Park began documenting during what many still consider the “golden age of street art”, which saw the rise of incredibly talented artists—such as Shepard Fairey, FAILE, Swoon, Bast, and Lady Aiko—who we’re not only masters at using public space for artistic dialogue, but have become celebrated artists whose work is not only in galleries, but in museums around the world.
In celebration of of Luna’s first book—(UN)SANCTIONED: The Art On New York Streets—we took a tour of various places she has documented over the past 11 years, and compared the images captured in her book. Due to rapid development and hyper-gentrification, many of these location are totally unrecognizable. We also spent a long time talking about the evolution of urban art, the effects of social media, what motivates her to document, and the future of art on the street.
Dusty Rebel: Your book begins with a photo of Poster Boy’s 2014 billboard takeover, which is manipulated to read, “WTF is street art anyway?” Why has Street Art become so hard to define?
Katherine ‘Luna Park’ Lorimer: I struggle with this question a lot. My standard answer is: You know graffiti when you see it – everything else is street art. The lack of an easy definition of street art, I think, is both a strength and a weakness. I like to think that creativity knows no boundaries and I’m constantly amazed by the new and inventive approaches artists take in bringing their work to the street. Beyond the standard repertoire of stenciling and wheatpasting, you’ve got people installing all manner of sculptural work and others exploring the intersection of art and technology. But because there’s been such an explosion in the amount of street art – not all of it necessarily good – and there not being a cohesive definition, it’s become easier to dismiss as a fad. As I see it, the majority of contemporary street art is in fact trend-driven and derivative – this cycle peaked several years ago already. But thankfully there are talented and passionate artists who continue to create outside the mainstream.
Dusty Rebel: Over the past decade, we’ve seen a huge shift in public acceptance of urban art, especially with the explosion of muralism. What’s your take on it’s current state and where is it going?
Luna Park: The renewed interest in muralism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that more municipalities are accepting muralism as a form of not just engaging with communities, but also educating the public. The type of muralism, for example, that takes on issues of social justice continues in a long tradition of using public space to express messages of peace or solidarity. On the other hand, there’s been a rise in more decorative muralism, which isn’t bad in and of itself. Yet this type of muralism lends itself to being turned into a tool in the developer’s bag of gentrification tricks. I also have to question the true motivation of mural festival organizers that invite artists to contribute large-scale works to so-called urban renewal projects without paying said artists. With a glut of mural festivals popping up all over the planet, I suppose it’s inevitable that some are less reputable than others.
Dusty Rebel: Every year social media—particularly Instagram—seems to play a larger role in the Street Art universe. What are the ramifications of social media on Street Art, graffiti, and murals?
Luna Park: Social media has become pervasive in all walks of life, not just in the street art universe. For those of us active on social media, this has meant a continuous uptick in the already overwhelming stream of new images to consume. Instagram in particular has been designed for a short attention span – there one second, gone the next – and is most definitely not my preferred vehicle for experiencing art. Of course it requires substantially more effort, but I make a point of trying to experience as much art as I can in person. But clearly the bulk of what I see is online. Social media has certainly made participation in the street art universe more democratic – with no gatekeepers, anyone with a smartphone can jump in. I suppose for fans who like to know exactly where and what they’re going to see in advance, having everything on a map is a plus. I personally prefer and enjoy the serendipity of randomly discovering art in the wild. That having been said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also make use of social media to help track down pieces of particular interest to me.
Dusty Rebel: The steady bombardment of images makes it hard to discern an artist’s real output. I’ve noticed over the years that your focus has become more on graffiti and large-scale vandalism. And in your book you write, “I feel in love with street art in its adolescence, but I’m not enamored with the contentious adult it has become. Street art used to stand for DIY, independent creative culture, yet has allowed itself to become the mouthpiece of corporate sponsors.” Is there a correlation?
Luna Park: Absolutely, as my excitement for street art started to wane, my interest in graffiti began to take off. For one, I was fascinated to learn more about graffiti history, particularly in New York. As someone who grew up having had the value of a strong work ethic drilled into me, there’s something deeply admirable about the commitment writers make to their craft. I’m an idealist (and a definitely a dreamer too), so I quickly found myself infected by romantic notions of graffiti representing youthful rebellion, freedom of expression, mentorship and camaraderie, and the passing down of a written legacy. A fluid and expertly executed tag excites me in a way no wheatpaste ever has or ever will. With it’s true meaning indecipherable but to a select few, the tag is imbued with a raw power that cannot be coopted. Don’t tell me you can’t feel the difference.
Dusty Rebel: Whose work most excites you today, and why?
Luna Park: I’m a big fan of unsanctioned sculptural installations – partly because it boggles my mind that so many people walk past without noticing them. One of the biggest pluses of art on the streets – as opposed to art in museums – is that you can touch it. And 3D work is so tactile, I find it very hard to resist. One of my favorite pieces of street art in NYC this year is a pair of robots RaeBK made out of junk and installed in a bricked-up door to an abandoned theater. Not only are the robots in a proper case behind plexiglass, but they’re also lit up at night by solar-powered LED lights! This took some serious planning to pull off. And while the plexi was eventually tagged over, I’m happy it’s recently been restored. I’m also excited to see the veteran street artist JJ Veronis put up new bolt-up work. Revs is a perennial favorite, whose more recent welded pieces have grown in intricacy. Mr. Toll’s clay sculptures fill me with joy, particularly his budgies – there’s one I pass regularly and I swear I can almost hear it chirping.
Dusty Rebel:As someone who has spent so many years documenting art in the street, what advice would you give to someone who wants to start putting it out there? What would you like to see more of?
Luna Park: My advice for aspiring street artists is pretty simple: look before you leap. Get to know the area in which you plan to work, study surfaces long enough and subtle nuances will become apparent. Be respectful of what came before you. Be creative and make your own spots. Question your motivations and don’t be discouraged too easily, this is a game with a long tail.
I’d like to see more political street art, that is, street art that actually has something to say. Now more than ever, artists and non-artists alike must take to the streets and make our collective voices heard.
Katherine ‘Luna Park’ Lorimer’s (UN)SANCTIONED: The Art On New York Streets is available for order on Amazon. For other outlets, especially internationally, there’s a more complete list here.