The 100 Leading Figures in Urban Art
Published by Gestalten
Edited by: Patrick Nguyen, and Stuart Mackenzie
Dan Witz was Born in Chicago and Moved to New York City’s East Village in the late seventies, during the heyday of punk rock and graffiti scenes. He has been making unauthorised art on the street ever since.
1. You arrived in New York City to study at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in the late 70s. There’s a real nostalgia at the moment for that period, often by people who weren’t even born then. What were your experiences of the city like at that time?
When I arrived in New York City in 1978, the place was a mess. I arrived right after the black out: trash was everywhere, the city was bankrupt. The very first day I walked to school I saw burnt out buildings, burnt out cars, crazy people screaming on corners…I loved it. Downtown was like the wild west: the law was not around. In lots of ways it was great—the freedom—but it was also kind of stressful, watching your back all the time.
Graffiti and punk rock were peaking when I got here. For me, coming from the dull, safe, midwest, this was mind blowing—it was just utterly amazing. Suddenly I was thrown up against art and music that not only was tremendously exciting but could actually hurt you if you got too close. And the fuck-off anti-elitist attitude of the punks was a revelation—that whole bite the hand that feeds you thing has always appealed to me.
Everything I saw in galleries was minimal and reductive and super cold. It was very disappointing. I’d go to the Whitney or be bored in art theory class and my mind would wander out the window and I’d always find the city to be more interesting. So I got involved with the downtown music scene, which at the time was post-punk noise music. For the most part we weren’t musicians or even really musical, the idea was to make art that was real and, in most cases, you could dance to.
2. What led you to start putting work on the street? Were you inspired by other artists doing outdoor work, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jenny Holzer and if so, what in particular provided this inspiration?
The primary thing that got me doing street art was the graffiti bombed subway trains. It was just so brazenly beautiful. Seeing that completely cracked me open; every time one would roll into the station it was like a jolt from another world…an urgent message from underground.
At the time I was aware of Charles Simonds’ little people dwellings on the lower east side (an underknown piece) and Gordon Matta Clark’s abandoned building interventions but not much other non-permissional street art.
There was a crazy old woman who scratched ‘Pray” on every metal surface in Manhattan—I mean EVERY phone booth, mail box, window frame from the east river to the Hudson. I actually witnessed her doing it late one night. She had a big black scarf on her head and was dressed like a mendicant nun. Very scary. I called out to my friend and we approached her, and she—I swear I’m not making this up—she bared her big yellow teeth and hissed and barked at us. After I got over the fright I decided this was a visitation, the mythic embodiment of the kind of art I wanted to make—something terrifying, the kind of art that hisses and might just bite you.
Since I was in bands I was aware (and did my part) in the xerox punk band poster movement, which was incredibly creative and definitely influenced me, but I’d have to say the main ingredients that combined to get me going was a strange brew of the graffiteed trains, my passionate love for the Clash and the Ramones, and being completely disillusioned with how boring and irrelevant the art world was.
Jenny Holzer’s aphorism posters I knew (but never really understood, I’m embarrassed to say). Basqiat and Haring and those guys came along a few years after I started. I became aware of John Fekner and Brian Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres and others after I’d already done the hummingbirds. I’m not sure of the time line on them but this was before the internet so I didn’t have immediate access to everything that was going on.
3. How did you come up with the idea of painting hummingbirds on the street, the project which became known as ‘The Birds of Manhattan’? Given you were into the art punk scene back then, hummingbirds wouldn’t seem to be obvious choice of subject matter. (I’m in my mid 40s Dan, so grew up as a young Punk in England. Aside from Brits such as the Clash, American bands such as the Ramones & Dead Kennedy’s provided an incredible soundtrack for my teenage years – anyway, back to the interview)
I grew up idolizing anyone who rebelled, Dylan, Iggy Pop, Burroughs, Bukowski, and the standard paradigm shifters in 20th century art: DuChamp, Pollock, Warhol…the idea being that the world is always going to be a fucked up place and its up to each generation’s artists to jump-shift attitudes—to do something about it. Doing non-permissional, anonymous street art in 1979, painting hummingbirds was my own jumping off point.
I came of age believing that all meaningful art was a reaction, a challenge to the status quo. Clearly, in 1978 (or 2008), art that can’t be sold, or owned, or contribute in any way to the corporate art machine undermines the hegemony of that machine.
Back then I thought of my tiny anonymous hummingbirds as my anti-tag—my reaction to all the huge screaming graffiti murals. Not that I was against the graffiti, I just had to be me, contrarian me, and that was my contribution. And, as I said before, most contemporary art of the time was heavily conceptual and theory based. To me this was excruciatingy boring. I rejected it by producing what I considered to be its polar opposite: something that was free and that (I hoped) little kids would like.
Beauty as sedition.
4. I understand that you’ve never been arrested? If so, how’s this possible when you’ve been doing street art for 30 years? Good luck or well planned precautions?
I think we make our own luck. Every time I plan a project, I start with what I want to do and how I’m going to do it—which means a lot of planning about how I’m going to do it without getting arrested. But that said, I’ve gotten caught many times. In the past the reason I was never actually booked seemed to be about the type of art I was doing—hummingbirds or tiny unobtrusive stickers on already defaced surfaces. The cops would make a judgement call and let me go. Lately though, in NYC with Big Real Estate owning the public commons, everyone caught doing the smallest street art gets busted. So I’ve developed installation techniques that leave me exposed in the act for less than 10 seconds. Ironically, it’s been this need to keep adapting my work that has kept it changing and growing—and remaining interesting to me. Without it I think I would have gotten bored doing street art years ago and quit.
Risk is definitely a major part of this kind of art—not only on the creative end but in the experience that the viewer takes away with them. It’s what’s missing when I see my street art in galleries.
5. Wooster Collective has mentioned that the street art which first got them so interested in the genre was the series of World Trade Centre trompe l’oeil shrines you completed in 2002. Tell us about those.
In 2002, the summer after the 9/11 attacks I did a series of trompe l’oeil votive shrines installed on light poles, the locations all emanating from ground zero. It was probably my most demanding piece, the most labor intensive and technically complicated thing I’ve ever done, but it went off without a hitch. Even though I was installing down at Ground Zero, there was no trouble with the police or any interference from anyone. I really felt protected like there was some kind of grace involved.
6. What impact, if any, has the internet had on your artwork or the way in which you work? No doubt it’s affected the exposure you receive.
It’s been very satisfying. No obscure garret suffering for this artist. With the internet, it’s an almost daily bounceback. It can be a bit overwhelming at times but I can’t complain. I like seeing what others are up to but honestly, when it comes to contemporary art, I keep a pretty tight filter on what I’m exposed to. I’ve learned to be suspicious of myself when I get great ideas after cruising the internet or going to art shows.
7. With street art being rather fashionable at the moment, and even socially acceptable within some circles, is working on the street still an act of rebellion, particularly with reference to the USA?
I’m not a spokesperson for street art. And as far as I can tell I’m not very fashionable. I will say that for me at least, putting anonymous art on the street is still an act of rebellion. Even here in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, street art central, I still manage to find ways of keeping it fresh for myself. This last year’s project was a reaction to all the ugly new condo buildings being plopped down in my once quiet working class Brooklyn neighborhood. Even though the piece was an act-locally situation, with the internet, the thinking globally part gets taken up immediately.
8. The hummingbirds you did back in 1979 would take about a couple of hours to paint. Are you still painting directly on the street?
Mostly not. It’s too risky. Sometimes I’ll add a bit of airbrush shadow directly on the wall but mostly I make things at home and glue them on the wall.
Street art is highly strategic, it can be a very intense performance—very ninja like, which is why I think it’s so attractive to certain artists. Danger raises the stakes so the pay-off is higher.
*9. Looking back at the times when you’ve produced work for the streets as opposed to gallery work, which has generally given you the most pleasure and why is this? *
I use one aspect of my work to balance the other. Street art’s definitely more fun but I have a deep abiding ambition to one day be conversant with my favorite old masters, to speak on equal terms with them. Which, right now, means oil paint on canvas. I used to paint in the studio during the winter and do street art in the warmer weather. Each season I’d work until the weather shifted and I was exhausted and needed a break. Every October I’d get sick of suiting up to go out on the street not knowing if I was going to make it home or be spending the weekend in jail. From that viewpoint, painting would seem so unstressful, so sedate and gentlemanly. By the end of winter though I’d be so stir crazy (and frustrated with how stressful making paintings is), that I’d do anything to get out of the studio. Lately though I’ve been keeping both activities going all year long. My studio’s a mess but, stress reduction wise, it seems to be working out for me better.
10. There’s a recurring theme of light in much of your studio work, whether it’s candles, lamps, buildings lit at night, or portraits of people with faces reflecting the glow of their mobile telephone screens. Where does this fascination with light come from?
From the experience of painting the World Trade Center shrines I’d become interested in different old master techniques used to paint light. It was amazing to me how they could not just simulate light in paintings, but actually create it. Their canvasses glow, some even seem to produce light. In older western religious painting, this light made manifest is usually a metaphor for spiritual revelation. I want to use this, but to supplant the piety with my own 21st century anxiety.