The second week of February 2015 brought me to the beautiful city of New Orleans for the Mardi Gras Carnival. I checked into a hotel in the heart of the French Quarter and hit the streets with my camera. NOLA is a fine-looking city; the brightly colored, terraced town-houses are adorned with ornate iron-work. Revelers and guests lean lazily on iron banisters above the seething crowds of Bourbon St, tossing purple, gold, and green strings of beads. These charming iron and plaster facades are set against the decidedly modern backdrop of downtown beyond Canal St; skyscrapers that line the Mississippi River lighting up the sultry sky above the carnival. The streets of downtown are inlaid with trolley tracks that provide an easily accessible network of urban public transit—red and yellow trolley-cars that mingle with the busy street traffic. Everywhere there is a permeating smell of Cajun cooking, a rich mixture of beer, bay seasoning, and gumbo spices floats through the air.
The public arts scene in New Orleans is primarily focused on performance art. What the city lacks in public visual arts and murals, it makes up for with music, parade, and dance. I spent an evening at a bar called “The Spotted Cat” taking in a set by “The Shotgun Jazz Band”, who played to brass and clarinet-centric jazz style of Louisiana. A couple nights later I made it to The Civic Theatre to see New Orleans natives “Cowboy Mouth” play their distinctive blend of theatrical punk and Cajun-creole music, which included a punk-rock rendition of “Iko Iko”. The house-bands and marching bands of the city were talented to a fault, turning out versions of “Oh When the Saints Come Marching In” and “House of the Rising Sun” that seemed to be issuing from every street corner during Mardi Gras.
As the holiday weekend approached, I was able to pull myself away from the party for long enough to track down old friend and New Orleans parading queen Katrina Brees. Katrina heads up the legendary Krewe of Kolossos: “An inspiring mobile spectacle transforming trash into a whimsical world of colorful Carnival.” Katrina took me for a tour of her studios at the Bywater Art Lofts where she fabricates custom bike-floats and Mardi Gras costumes from refuse and discarded items. Her creations are stunning: ride-able seahorses, caterpillars, and bulls made from three-wheeled bicycles; sequined and bejeweled costumes for her dancing troupe “The Bearded Oysters”. Katrina invited me to march in the next days’ Mardi Gras Parade which was an experience like no other; I have never seen such wild revelers, or streets paved with beads and crushed beer cans. The parade route was five miles long and packed by thousands of screaming revelers; our troupe was flanked by “The Flying Elvi’s”—a group of motor-scooter riding Elvis impersonators. Drinking on the street is legal in NOLA; by the end of the night my shoes were soaked in brew and I was happy to retire to my hotel and take a long shower.
As far as the Graffiti/Mural arts scene of NOLA is concerned, I saw precious few examples of full-blown murals in my travels around the city; they included a several-stories tall painting of a clarinet on the Hyatt, and a Cajun pianist playing amidst a swamp on the side of Gallery Twenty-one Fourteen. Simply put, it seems that all of the arts in this city, even the visual arts, lend themselves to its musical heritage. The graffiti scene doesn’t include very many full-blown colorful pieces or “burners”; rather it’s a very handstyle (tag) and throw-up (bubble-letter)-oriented place. The city is very walkable and accessible by public trolley, so the doorways and alleyways of the city are covered with quickly-executed spray-can and paint-marker handstyles. The most prolific of the local writers seem to be Achoo, Realm, Old Crow, and the VRS crew; all of whom focus on covering large swaths of the city with consistent tagging. The most developed and attractive pieces of graffiti in the city roll through on the freight trains that cut through the French Quarter along the Mississippi River carrying pieces by Rust, Saint, Used, and Baltimore legend Jase. I did not get a chance to paint in NOLA while I was there, but there’s always next time. Now I’m headed along the Gulf-coast into Florida, toward Tampa Bay and points south.
I’ve spent the first week of this February 2015 in the neighborhood of Little 5 Points. Atlanta, GA. It’s a large, automobile-centric city with a vivid public arts scene. Apart from the famous Atlanta “Living Walls” project which brought muralists of note from across the country to adorn the city’s underpasses and retaining walls, there is an abundance of mural work on the facades and the sides of private businesses. On my first night here, I went out to a pub in the East Village with “visionary artist” Carl Janes who has worked with Living Walls as well as pursuing private large-scale installations. His notable commercial projects include the colorful facades of the entire “Mellow Mushroom” Pizza Franchise. He labors on his pieces and designs at his studio “The Secret Spot” in the East Village. Carl works in mixed-media, incorporating elements of sculpture (like a statue of Ronald McDonald) and everyday objects (like globes) into his pieces. He also works on traditional canvas, using a collage technique in newsprint, currency, and acrylic. Carl took me around the Village and gave me a tour of the murals there; work by Never, Interezni Kazki, Skie, Merlot, and Rude; all very impressive pieces.
I had been aware of Never’s work before because of his recent residency in Brooklyn, where he paints his iconically distraught owls, however I didn’t know that he’s actually an Atlanta native. He has pieces in spots across the city, including Little 5 and the Atlanta Beltline. Later on in the evening Carl and I stopped into a Heavy-Metal show at a venue called “The Graveyard”, before closing out the night at “The Flatiron Grille”. Before I headed home, I asked Carl about a good spot to paint in the city; he mentioned the famous “Krog St. Tunnel”, a section of Krog St. that runs beneath a CSX Freight Yard that has been turned over to graffiti writers and street artists by the powers that be. He also told me a story about the spot: recently a Masquerade Ball was planned to take place inside the tunnel, traffic would be diverted and revelers would sip adult beverages and have their pictures taken amidst the backdrop of real, hardcore graffiti art; of course, admission would be charged. Word of this party spread to the graffiti writers of Atlanta, who took exception to the fact that they were not offered a portion of the proceeds. So, they all got together, found a whole lot of grey bucket-paint, and buffed-out (painted over) the entire tunnel. Needless to say, the party’s promoters were caught off guard, and found themselves in the position of having to search frantically for new talent to paint the blank walls; they needed to hire “graffiti scabs” if you will. Apparently, they were able to entice some less-experienced writers with the offer of free paint, and the party came off in royal fashion minus the royalties. A couple days after meeting Carl, I stopped through Krog St. and left a silver and blue dead-letter piece for the city to remember me by.
The next day I took a long walk through Little 5 and documented all of the wonderful mural work that’s here. There are a diversity of styles, everything from black+grey, traditional portraiture, pop-art, traditional Japanese illustration to abstract, comic-book illustration, and wildstyle graffiti. Little 5 has pieces by Peter Ferrari, CamsOne, Tare, ClogTwo, RisingRedLotus, Greg Mike, and R. Land. Little 5 is packed tight with tattoo shops, cafes, bars, and salons. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Central Square in Cambridge by this charming little neighborhood. Later on I paid a visit to Master Builder, Designer, and TV personality Bryan Fuller at his Hot Rod Shop in the North end of town. He showed me the wealth of pieces that he has commissioned from local muralist and graffiti veteran Totem. The artwork blends seamlessly with the interior of the shop; murals depicting skulls in fly-away helmets and goggles adorn the sliding doorways and giant steel lockers of the shop with smoldering reds and orange tones. The exterior of the building displays a ’50 X ’20 mural of a character in goggles, a double-can respirator, a helmet, and leather; looking like the dark visage of a post-apocalyptic Hot Rod warrior. Totem has several other prominent pieces in the city; he’s my favorite of the Atlanta school so far.