Before reading our interview with NYC-based filmmaker Jared Levy, you HAVE to watch the Extended Trailer of his film entitled, Graffiti Fine Art. As mentioned in part 1, we fully support genre-smashing, and as such, Jared’s film is a testament to a question, not an answer. Check it out, and enjoy our interview with Jared!
EL: First off, we loved the film! The question posed throughout about the way people define and differentiate graffiti from fine art is a great one. How did the idea for the film, and the main question come to be?
JL: Glad you guys enjoyed the film! Always great hearing responses from different types of people with different viewpoints. It’s nice to know you enjoyed the film and the main question. That main question came out of a brainstorming session with some of the curators of the exhibition. In a way, they understood that the name of the exhibition was confusing and problematic, not only in the semantic game it played but also in a Portuguese translation conundrum. There is no proper direct translation for “Fine Art” in Portuguese. Therefore some of the Brazilian artists were perplexed on a different level due to a complete lack of understanding towards the term. It furthered this interesting in-depth discussion about the meaning of words and their importance or lack thereof in terms of defining art forms.
EL: Sounds like a good time for sure! And, as a NYC’er specifically, you speak about being enveloped in graffiti and street art most of your life. After traveling to Brazil, what differences and similarities did you find betwen the scene in NYC and what’s going on in cities like Sao Paulo?
JL: I grew up with graffiti all around me but never put too much thought into it. It wasn’t of extreme interest to me and it certainly wasn’t something I wanted to spend years documenting professionally. What stood out to me about São Paulo wasn’t only the abundance but also the quality. By no means is this a knock on the NYC graff scene, in reality, both the quality and quantity of art in São Paulo is due to the ambivalent nature of the society down there toward the art form. In a city dealing with many issues, spending time and resources on people painting walls is not a high priority. Also, São Paulo calligraphy known as pixação is viewed much more harshly by the public as it is considered vandalism due to its lack of artistic aesthetic. With this duality in place, colorful graffiti or street art is viewed as a better alternate to pixação and is generally welcomed. With this lax approach to enforcing laws against painting walls, it has opened up the art form to artists who might not ordinarily be involved in the graffiti scene. This creates a unique graffiti/street art culture where a lot of the daily practitioners are equally comfortable in a high-end gallery space as they are in a back alley with a spray can.
EL: That’s a great point of contrast, the ways in which social indicators factor into how we process and value art in the public space. As such, how did your feelings about the definitions used to coalesce or divide artistic mediums change during the process of making the film?
JL: My feelings toward these semantic divisions only hardened over the course of making the documentary. From the onset, I thought these semantics were more or less “silly”. As my understanding of this war of words grew, this view was only reinforced. In essence, the semantics are put in place to divide “street” from “gallery” but like most facets of life, broad stroke generalizations don’t facilitate a true understanding of the differences. In fact, the basis of this part of the documentary narrative was included for those who don’t live and work in this world. When asking the artists the interview question “what is graffiti?” many rolled their eyes and wanted to call me a hack for even asking such an open-ended “pointless” question. I needed to remind them that it is only pointless for those who deal with these semantics on a daily basis. In reality, I agreed that it was a “hack” question for someone claiming they know the deal, but for a large section of the audience, they needed to be clued into the nonsense before they could recognize it as such for themselves.
EL: What have people’s reactions been thus far? In what proportion do people think you’re being heretical (from either the fine art of graffiti side)? We obviously feel you’re doing a service by highlighting how bullshit creative dick measuring is… (ie Fine Art think it’s heavy, while graff rebels against that white wall attitude, etc.)
JL: People have been quite positive thus far. To be fair, the only audience I haven’t had much interaction with has been the “fine art” gallery audience. Thinking about it now, I am very interested in what the high roller crowd would have to say on the doc. I find that on a personal face to face level, many wealthy art owners adore street art but may not purchase any depending on how much they care about public perception. As for everyone else, the response has been humbling and overwhelming at times. People have gotten emotional over how the doc does not take the cliché approach of framing the artists as coming from hard backgrounds and focusing on the poverty aspect of the craft. It simply talks about them as artists and their art. There is something overtly respectful in that and it gave them a sense of pride. For me, I never intended on doing that purposefuly, it just made sense to take that approach. This has been a lesson in how the audience can take things from your work that you never even recognized, at least on a conscious level.
EL: What was something you learned during the making of the film that had nothing to do with graffiti? I assume two years living in Brazil would bring a whole range of topics, realities, issues to light…
JL: It’s hard to describe how much I learned during the making of the film. It would definitely make for a long book. Overall, if I tried to sum it up, the experience highlighted how similar in certain ways, and different in others, various places of the world can be. Of course at the end of the day, everyone on the planet wants shelter, food and love. But what I have come to realize is how we truly define these things and how we come to achieve success in these endeavors varies greatly from city to city, country to country and continent to continent. It has been a crash course in world culture and international relations. I have certainly eaten my fair share of humble pie in 2 years. In another light, I also learned a great deal about America and New York City now that I have such a unique comparative perspective.
EL: Of the graffiti artists you interviewed, who were a few that particularly resonated with you? Any specific ideas, quotes, or positions on an issue that anyone had that is burned into your memory?
JL: I think overall the biggest impact was a generalized realization about how brilliant they all are. There is this misplaced notion that graffiti artists are hardened individuals who don’t put much thought into what they’re doing. I would argue nothing is further from the truth. I remember vividly the first time I interviewed Binho and he spoke about how graffiti acts as a flower growing from the cracks of a dirty concrete filled street, giving light and emotion to an otherwise bleak urban existence. It took me a minute to pick my jaw up from the floor. Behind all of these guys lies a vast wealth of knowledge and self awareness about what they do and how they do it. There is a long list of moments like these and I could go on and on about each and every contributing artist in the doc. Just to highlight one more comment that has stuck with me; during the interview Zezão commented on how he was an “urbanoid.” There was something so simple and poignant about the term that it has stuck with me. I find myself using it in daily conversation. I particularly like how it crosses linguistic boundaries between Portuguese and English.
EL: You obviously felt attracted to the scene in Brazil, are there any other pockets of graff worldwide that have peeked your interest in a similar way? And what was it about Brazil specifically that made you sure you wanted to focus on it specifically?
JL: Thinking about worldwide graff, it seems that the scene in Berlin and Germany overall is quite strong. The most blog traffic I have gotten has come from Germany. They have a keen interest in the global scene and also support their own in an extremely loyal fashion. I have heard stories about the squat houses filled with paint from top to bottom in various pockets of Berlin. There are definitely other places with strong scenes as well, but for me, Berlin has stuck out. As for why I came to Brazil, it all started with a 2 week trip for Carnaval with a friend. Let me mention that I am lucky enough to be pretty well traveled having lived in London and have traveled to roughly 25 countries. No where else have I had such a difficult time leaving. I remember truly contemplating the idea of “fuck it” and not flying home. Of course I didn’t do that but upon returning to NYC, I lost my job due to the economic crash in ’08 and immediately decided to move to Brazil to work on my portfolio. True to my word, 4 months later I landed in São Paulo and stayed for 2 years. At the time of the move I had no idea what I would film, how I would survive or how to even speak Portuguese. A mix of stubbornness and youthful arrogance got me through.
EL: Were there any technical aspects to film making that you had to resolve as part of this project that you hadn’t encountered before?
JL: The list of technical hoops I had to jump through is a mile long. Overall I would say that it was a wonderful learning experience. Any time I had a problem, the internet with gear/tech forums and personal filmmaking friends got me through the difficult moments. By the end of the edit, the project file took 45 minutes to open and would crash all the time. On top of all the technical things I learned, the most important takeaway has been to have patience. Lots of it.
EL: Often times my own thought-experiments take me to what I call “temporary conclusions,” because of the way the answers to my first question open up a whole new question, both leaving me fulfilled and empty all over again for a new discovery. Although the question about differentiating fine art and graffiti is front and center throughout the film, were there any new questions that arose from the answers you received?
JL: It was difficult to stay on task as the project evolved. There were so many directions it could have been taken. I will say though that I am grateful the doc was centered on the museum event. Due to this, it was easier to avoid opening pandoras box about graffiti and art. Certainly at times that would have been easy to do but luckily staying on point with the exhibition kept things focused. By far, the implications of pixação (Brazilian vandal calligraphy) and its yin-yang role with graff in São Paulo was a story that kept wanting to be told. However I kept coming back to the decision that that is an entirely different doc for another time.
EL: Have you thought about your next film? Same vein or total departure?
JL: I want to take a break from another big doc production for a hot minute. Right now in New York, I am more focused on collaborating with other filmmakers I respect and wish to learn from. I know I can (and will) continue to work with the street art community but I am hoping that I can delve into an entirely new topic. As with graffiti, I’m hoping that my next big project unveils itself to me in the same organic fashion. For now, I am freelancing on production shoots ranging from music videos to national television broadcasts. I hope to keep growing my American film/photo contact list and let things evolve at a natural pace. I’m also applying for a masters in individualized study where I want to mix doc/film/journalism with urban anthropology/sociology… I am very interested in human interaction and peeling away the exterior layers of our actions to explore the core reasoning for the decisions we make both on a personal level and culturally as a society. Regardless of my next topic, this will always be the root idea that I will use to hone in on the details.
EL: Name one film IPMM readers should check out.
JL: One movie your readers should watch is The Motorcycle Diaries. It is the story of Che Guevera before he became the revolutionary icon. It is beautifully shot and shows off South America’s stunning geography. On a deeper level, it touches upon what it means to travel and make connections to people and ideas that can alter your life. It’s something I relate to and hope that your readers will get the opportunity to experience as well.