Ignore the Experts
Dan Witz is one of the true pioneers and figureheads of street art. Inspired by subway graffiti, his love of the punk aesthetic and the irrelevance of the established art world, he began painting in the 1970s. Since then, Witz has repeatedly managed to surprise, challenge and provoke New Yorkers with his skillfully executed works.
What inspired you to pursue art on the streets?
I moved from Chicago to NYC in the late 1970’s to go to art school (Cooper Union) and be an artist. The idea was I’d study art, immerse myself in the culture, distill it all into some bold culmination, show my paintings in uptown galleries and get a tenured job teaching in some art college. But the art of that time was boring and exclusionary and I didn’t relate to it at all. And success as an artist turned out to be more about competition and making connections than the art itself. Very disillusioning. What did excite me was the nascent downtown noise-punk scene, the burgeoning hip hop culture—and especially the graffiti bombed subway trains. Wild Style tagging was just so brazenly cool and such a relief from all the boring art pieties we were supposed to care about. Every time one of those trains would roll into the station it was like someone had opened the door on a much better party than the one I was at.
The street art I was aware of at the time was Charles Simonds’ little people dwellings on the lower east side (an underknown piece), Jenny Holzer posters, and Gordon Matta Clark’s abandoned building interventions—but not much else. 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 combination of the graffiteed trains, my love for the Clash and the Ramones, and being completely disillusioned with how irrelevant the art world was.
Tell us about your art.
The overriding motivation has always been to get out of the studio and make work that’s free—in all the definitions of the word.
As a painter I’ve always been a realist: I’m a student of old master techniques of simulating reality. For my street pieces I combine that craft with visual sampling and digital imaging techniques. Usually I’ll paint over a photo-shopped image, using my representational skills to make it look more realistic, more three dimensional.
As for media I use whatever’s necessary. Oil, acrylic, markers, crayons, ball point pen, glitter…I really like the airbrush. I suspect it of having magic powers. These days I make modules in the studio—weatherproof, easily transportable pieces that I glue up on site.
In New York City, with the rise in real estate prices and
the consequent lowering of tolerance for street art, my installation
strategies have had to evolve. I used to spend hours on one piece,
standing there painting with tiny brushes.
With the police cracking down and graffiti becoming a felony in the 1990s, I
had to get off location faster. I started using stickers or modules that I made at home, integrating them into the wall with an airbrush. Ironically this adaptation has caused my output to be of a much higher volume and more pervasive than if I’d been left alone to just paint on a wall.
These days, the time I spend at risk on site could be less than 60 seconds. I work from my motorcycle, out of a portable studio in the saddlebags. Before anyone can figure out what’s happened, I’m usually already gone.
What area are your favorite to put your art up in?
Usually the perfect spot is a combination of factors: first, where the most people might see it, second, where it won’t get immediately removed, and third, a location where the installation risk is acceptable. Location is sometimes the conceptual trigger for an idea like with the Hoodys (1994) and the Ugly New Buildings (2008). Some things transplant well though. A few years ago I did the Do Not Enter Series in NYC then brought it to London and Copenhagen. My current projects, In Plain View and Dark Doings are adaptable to almost anywhere. Every piece I do though has its origins in New York City.
What advice would you give a beginner?
I will say that I’m totally amazed at how many people are doing it these days, but being asked for my expert opinion makes me uncomfortable. It’s suspiciously close to acknowledging that I’ve become part of the establishment that I started out rebelling against. So…my advice is to ignore the experts. Rebel. The thing I’m interested in—and I (secretly) think anyone starting out in art these days should be interested in—is what’s coming next. Since street art is so in fashion these days, inevitably it’s got to go out of fashion. I’m wondering what the backlash is going to be, which way the aesthetic pendulum is going to swing. I’m intensely curious to know what kind of future art is coming that’s as challenging and paradigm shifting as street art is right now.
Dan Witz’s first street art was a series of hummingbirds painted on New York City in 1979. A few years later, Witz’s first book, The Birds of Manhattan (Skinny Books, 1981) collected some of these hummingbirds in a slim volume with 20 plates. At the time, Witz was absorbing the bold language of graffiti and punk rock, so he took to the battered streets of downtown, painting his bejeweled birds hovering on walls, doorways and boarded up windows. According to Witz, his tiny, unabashedly beautiful hummingbirds were about as “anti-hip” as an artist could be in an era dominated by cold minimal art in the museums and wild style graffiti tagging in the subways.
Witz maintains an ambitious studio practice, but balances himself with street art projects ranging from subtle conceptual pranks to highly finished trompe l’oeil illusions. By his own admission, he’s singularly obsessed with his next big thing, his next project, and has little interest in promoting past work or nourishing his ‘brand’ or career. Witz’s street art projects can be seen as a continuum but progress steadily with little repetition. Themes may be developed and used repeatedly, but memes are short lived—abandoned before they become a burden.
However, Dan Witz is invested in making art that’s accessible, so it’s telling that of all his imagery, it’s the hummingbirds that keep coming back. Everybody can relate to them in a personal way. These tiny frescoes are an intimate oasis of beauty and quietude in the midst of an abrasive urbanity. The birds need no reason to exist, no explanation; they are a love letter to New York, a gift to all those who walk the city’s streets with their eyes open.