One of New York City’s most prolific street artists, 82 year old Robert Janz enjoys a long and diverse international career. The ephemeral nature of street art fits perfectly with the theme of transience in much of Janz’s work—including shadow sculptures, chairs arranged in patterns, and “water paintings,” left to evaporate around the city. The water paintings series eventually evolved into his current street paintings, which are integrated into advertising or pre-existing street art in decay.
Over the past three years, these paint-based drawings have appeared almost daily around Lower Manhattan. The work is in a constant state of change; from his ever-evolving hieroglyphic-like creatures—intentionally reminiscent of prehistoric cave drawings—to block-long mountainscapes, and “Post No Bills” stencils manipulated into poetry.
Unlike most New York street artists and graffiti writers, Janz works openly in broad daylight. With brush in hand, Janz transforms advertising posters into art while crowds rush by. Those who notice seem confused, but he’s rarely interrupted. (Once, while watching him paint, I overheard a small child ask her father, “Is he supposed to do that?”)
Though most of the time he creates without incident, Janz has talked about one run-in with the police:
[W]alking back through Chinatown I stopped and added couple of my wild animals to a mess of graffiti on an old door. Suddenly surrounded by police cars, they had me sit on ground while they loomed over asking endless questions. ‘You came over from Tribeca to vandalize in Chinatown? We are booking you for defacing private property.’ I said the graffiti is on the door and illegal because it vandalizes private property. But my drawing is not on the door, it is on the graffiti, and graffiti is public property, and I am the public. We were not getting anywhere. Sitting there I noticed rain water in the gutter. I said, ‘the graffiti is spray paint, and will not come off. I use poster paint, it will wash off.’ The biggest cop said, ‘If you can wash it off we won’t book you.’ I took paper I found in the gutter and went up to my drawing. I had no real idea what would happen, never having tested the paint. The drawing looked very permanent. The first stroke swiped it all away. They were astonished. I was too. The crime had disappeared.
There is currently a documentary in production, JANZ Artist in Time, produced and directed by Joanna Kiernan. The film will capture the evolution of Janz’ ephemeral work, as well as over a year of the artist’s life. Janz has just released a poetry book, Post No Bills Poems, which features Janz’ street poems, as seen through the lenses of seven photographers, since they first appeared in 2011. (I’m very happy to be one of the contributing photographers.) Post No Bills Poems can be ordered via firstname.lastname@example.org.