Man on the Street
by Kyle Chayka
In the late 1970s, while wandering the streets of downtown Manhattan, it was possible to find precious images of hovering hummingbirds, anatomically correct but in colors ranging from tropical to autumnal, painted directly onto banged-up walls.
These tiny figures— were the work of Dan Witz, an artist who has been an integral part of street art’s history over the last three decades. Since his initial spate of hummingbird graffiti, Witz has made realistic depictions of fingers creeping out of heating vents, stickers of solitary rowboats to dumpsters, and trome l’ oeil composite paintings of candles on New York City lampposts in memorial of 9/11.
Photographs of his works are collected in the new monograph “Dan Witz: In Plain View— 30 Years of Artworks Illegal and Otherwise, published by Gingko Press, with a forward by David Lopes and an interview by Marc and Sara Schiller of the Wooster Collective.
What sets Witz apart from other street artists is his Northern Renaissance approach to technique. “What I am is a realistic painter,” he says at his Brooklyn studio, “and a realistic painter would use anything available to make it look as realistic as possible.”. For him, this means using digital media and photography in combination with acrylic and oil paints.
At 54 with full-sleeve tattoos and a dark pompadour, Witz is something of a grownup punk rocker— mature yet rebellious as ever. In his studio, he still has numerous printouts of the iconic hooded figure that he pasted on outdoor surfaces throughout New York in the 1990s. And there’s an unfinished painting on canvas a crush of concertgoers dancing in chaotic unison, part of his “Mosh Pit” series.
On one wall of the studio hangs a new series of hummingbirds painted on craggy chunks of plaster and wood. Witz goes back to the birds ever so often, just to see what they mean to him at different points in his career. But he will still likely move on to a different motif soon enough. “Every year I think about what I did last year and I try to obsolete it, make it look bad,” he says. “I would wither and die if I had to do the same thing every day.”