By PAUL GRONDAHL Staff writer
Published 12:01 a.m., Friday, May 20, 2011ALBANY -- The revolution will come from the aerosol tip of a spray paint can, shaken vigorously.
To hear edgy urban artist Samson Contompasis describe the street art extravaganza he's cooking up, the three-day happening in September will put the capital city on the map of cutting-edge contemporary art in a manner as transformational as Jackson Pollock's drips or Andy Warhol's soup cans.
"We're going to bring the next Picasso, the next Mondrian to transform Albany in a positive and beautiful way on a massive scale," Contompasis said. He waved his hands and paced the floor, flanked by a colossal and colorful aerosol mural by the street artist ENZ at his Marketplace Gallery inside an industrial building in the city's South End.
"This is all about lifting up Albany and making this city better than it is by creating art and bringing attention and energy to areas where there's only decay and blight right now," he said.
Yet the specter of the illegal activity of tagging and unintentionally inviting the defacing of public spaces by outsiders makes city officials nervous and has caused them to put up hurdles that must be cleared before they fully back the project.
"We don't want to see a magnet for graffiti, but we also recognize the economic and social benefit, so there's a double-edge to it," said Doug Melnick, the city's director of planning. He's asking organizers to apply for a building permit, to adhere to historic district regulations, to work with neighborhood groups, to offer a content review and to check in at each stage of the planning in advance of the Sept. 16-18 event.
Typically, street artists need only to secure permission from private property owners to paint a mural on a building wall, but there are more regulations and a permit requirement when it comes to exterior painting in historic districts that cover much of an old city like Albany.
Such burdensome bureaucracy is anathema to the spontaneity and outlaw nature of street artists, who typically sign their creations only with a gritty slang pseudonym -- such as artists ROA, Fumero, ENZ, Radical! and others scheduled to participate in the Albany event.
"It's a sad state of affairs when great, creative ideas get mired in a lot of meaningless paperwork," Contompasis said.
The plan for Living Walls: Albany/The City Speaks is to bring to town more than two dozen street artists, both local and international, who will toil for days with spray paint and brush on the rough canvases of exterior brick, concrete and clapboard to create mind-bending, graffiti-inspired murals across large walls of buildings in blighted neighborhoods.
Based on similar events in Atlanta and Los Angeles, thousands of tattooed and pierced young bohemians and a hip, artsy crowd are likely to travel to Albany to immerse themselves in the defiantly underground art movement that has exploded in recent years and grown beyond its hip-hop, skater and punk influences.
"Samson is a very ambitious person and a visionary," said Brooklyn artist Steve Harrington, a co-founder of Brooklyn Street Art and creator of books and exhibits of street art. "The idea that he's going to mount this kind of show in Albany is an amazing adventure."
Harrington and Brooklyn Street Art co-founder Jaime Rojo, also an artist, agreed to serve as advisers to Contompasis. Not even Brooklyn, the so-called hipster capital of America, has managed to pull off a street art festival on the level of what's in the works for Albany, they said.
The street artists are the featured attraction of an ambitious program of planned concerts, lectures and performances and a panoply of youthful idealism promoting an urban living renaissance that will seep across neighborhoods from downtown to uptown.
Law enforcement has concerns.
"Graffiti is a problem in many urban and suburban areas, including Albany," said Deputy Police Chief Stephen Reilly. "There are those who consider graffiti an art form, but the destruction or damage of other people's property under the guise of 'art' is still unlawful activity that cannot be tolerated."
The New York Times reported a spike in illegal graffiti and a crackdown by police just blocks away from a hugely popular show, "Art in the Streets," that opened last month at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. Authorities cited a new wave of tagging on buildings, lampposts and mailboxes in downtown L.A. in the past two months. Yet the show is drawing unprecedented crowds of young people -- a highly coveted demographic that museums and cultural institutions facing declining attendance and financial woes have been struggling to attract.
"There is going to be collateral damage with graffiti no matter what," Contompasis said. "That's what young people do. It's their sign of rebellion."
The number of graffiti complaints citywide dropped 43 percent so far this year compared to 2010, said Nick D'Antonio, commissioner of the city's Department of General Services. It remains enough of a stubborn problem that the city employs two DGS employees full-time who remove graffiti using a van stocked with cleaning products, chemical removers and paint. Police are dispatched for surveillance on common graffiti sites during periods of increased tagging, although statistics on graffiti arrests were not available, Reilly said.
While Contompasis is busy trying to find funding, sponsors and building walls, the event is raising afresh a long-running debate about what constitutes art and how much should subversive artistic expression be encouraged if it skirts the edge of criminality.
"These kids are weaned on MTV and nourished by the Internet," Harrington said. "This generation considers it part of their birthright to put their stuff up. They think there are no limits."
Reach Paul Grondahl at 454-5623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
For more information about the event and how to get involved, go to http://www.livingwallsalbany.com.
Read more: http://www.timesunion.com/default/article/Hue-and-cry-over-street-art-happening-1387876.php#ixzz1MwmDlPEk