Time Out New York – 2011

The New Street Art Class

February 22, 2011

Full Interview

Who he is: Having worked on the street since 1978, Witz’s style has evolved with police enforcement. “I used to paint tiny hummingbirds that took two hours to do, but the zero-tolerance graffiti policies of the ’90s forced me to adapt,” he says. “Now I paint them on plastic and install the pieces on-site in under 10 seconds. These new techniques have actually helped me do way more street art than if Giuliani had left well enough alone.” Look behind grates on highway interchanges and buildings for Witz’s creepy, trompe l’oeil “WTF” paintings, which resemble human parts lurking in the darkness. The artist always has a new project in the pipeline: “The Williamsburg and Bushwick area is like a giant self-replenishing collage,” he says. “I can’t resist.”

Where his work has been: 1. “Suicide Girl”: Find it at a secret location on the Van Wyck Expressway. Says Witz, “Keep an eye out for it on the way to JFK.”2. “West Side Highway, NYC”: It’s located on the eponymous highway, but as for the exact location, Witz is mum—you’ll have to hunt it down.

How would you describe your style? Does it focus on certain themes?
I’m a realist painter by training and inclination. Lately, on the street I’ve been working with highly integrated installations—figures behind illusionistic grates that most passersby won’t even realize is art. I call the series, “WHAT THE %$#@? (WTF)”. This approach began with the 2008 project, “Ugly New Buildings”, where I tagged the rash of cheapo new condo buildings out here in Brooklyn with faux grates and vents that have creepy disenfranchised characters lurking behind them.
Style is suggested somewhat by theme (content), but more importantly by my installation strategy—by my need to avoid getting caught and arrested. For my first street project, in 1979, I painted tiny realistic hummingbirds. Each one took about 2 hours to paint. I used acrylic and tiny brushes, scumbling layers of paint until the birds glowed like real hummingbirds. In the 80’s and 90’s I made complicated multi-image sticker installations, each with it’s own intricate airbrush shadow on the wall; but, starting in the late nineties, with the zero police tolerance brought on by gentrification, I absolutely could not be seen in the act so my style was forced to adapt. The pieces I do now are made in the studio and installed on site—usually in under 10 seconds., This need for speed has forced me to develop new techniques and—and I love the irony here—these technical innovations have afforded me the means to do much more street art than if Guiliani had left us well enough alone.

What do you think distinguishes you from other street artists?
Probably that I’ve been doing it since 1979.

What made you get into street art?
Standard Youthful Rebellion. As an art student the idea was, if the world was a fucked up place that desperately needed changing, and contemporary art had failed us in this respect, then it became young artists’ responsibility to subvert current art practices (museums, galleries). Taking my cue from punk rock and graffiti I abandoned conventional art making and began working on the streets.
These days, I still regard street art as an agent for change. Not necessarily my work, but just by adding to the pool, to the awareness that all this free, not-for-sale art exists, I think we’re subverting the spell of consumer capitalism a tiny bit, tipping people towards realizing that there’s satisfaction to be gotten other places than television or the retail counter.

What materials do you mainly work with?
It’s a mix. My goal these days is to make it seem as if a real person (or whatever) is lurking there behind a real grate. To this end I start with digital media then paint over it using all the techniques of illusionistic painting I know. All my pieces are on plastic and completely weatherproof and if unmolested could last outdoors for years. Most of the WHAT THE %$#@? (WTF) pieces I did on highway interchanges in New York last summer are still up and seem to have survived this harsh winter completely intact.

Do you tend to work in any particular NYC neighborhood? Why?
I’m fortunate that I get to travel and do my street art all over the world. But every year I do installations locally in the Greenpoint/Willliamsburg/Bushwick area. To some extent I’m trying out new ideas, but it’s also a social impulse, a community interaction. Over the past few years this part of Brooklyn has become a giant self replenishing collage. I just can’t resist…

Have any work around that’s permanent (or hasn’t been removed for a long time)? Where?
Yes. Lots. I can’t tell you where it is exactly though. I’ve referenced a couple of things above. Sorry, that’s about all I can say: things tend to get stolen.

Any upcoming projects in the next few months to keep an eye out for?
Definitely. Unless the police are reading this. Then, no.

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