Christian Cortes is a contributing artist to 5 Pointz who has known Meres since the early 90’s. His former tag name was WAQS, a play on the word “wax” because of his “shape-shifting” abilities. Christian said, “You could take wax and make a record, candle, or sculpture. I realized that’s the way I am. I could work in the commercial field, with fine arts, specific graphic work, or something abstract.” Christian believes one of Meres’s most defining characteristics is his sense of humor. “He doesn’t take himself seriously at all. He never has. That’s why he makes those Joker characters,” Christian said.
It is draining. It is exhausting. But, it’s such a part of him and he is willing to fight for it on a daily basis. It's in his blood.
Although there were no Joker pieces up during my visits to 5 Pointz, I saw photographs. Meres’s current pride and joy is a production of Fire Marshall Bill in all his maniacal glory. Fire Marshall Bill is a humorous character from In Living Color whose safety advisories are against imaginative scenarios such as outbreaks of mentally ill elves. The production is especially interesting because it is interactive. He happily unveiled it for my viewing. The crowds of tourists gathered around, hoping to take pictures in what looked like a real-life volcanic scene. Meres urged some of the shy girls to pose in better-fitting fashion (“Pretend you are going to push her in the lava! Act scared!”) He gently positioned a toddler in the exact place where the three-dimensional effect of the piece would be most potent. The only thing Meres loves more than his art is the appreciation for it.
I noticed in my conversations with Meres and other contributing artists that they refer to themselves as writers, more so than graffiti artists. “Graffiti is a negative term. It was a term that was given to writers that means scrawling. Graffiti artists called themselves writers because they wrote, they wrote their name. It wasn’t until the media created a negative term to label us…” Meres said. The correct term is aerosol art, although Meres’s laissez-faire character doesn’t incline him to prefer either term to the other.
So, what’s your writing process?
Meres pulled out a box of chocolate-creamed Oreos from his center console. Between the muffles of his chewing, he said, “A lot of the times, when I paint, my mood will be reflected in the piece I create. Sometimes I’ll be in a bad mood and I paint, and it makes me feel better.”
I’m almost surprised that Meres is able to maintain an intimate relationship with his craft despite the constant demands of 5 Pointz. Christian Cortes, the man to credit the more demonic 5 Pointz pieces with, has a mental image of Meres “running around, making sure everyone is doing alright and trying to paint with one hand while holding a phone in the other.” It’s rare that Meres’s phone isn’t demanding his attention. In the midst of our time together, between the requests of visitors and artists, Meres’s phone rang nonstop – one time from a documentarian who missed a scheduled meeting (“Yo, what happened man? You got kidnapped by aliens?!)
Marie, the volunteer who moved to New York because of her affinity with its ugliness and “urban magic”, believes that 5 Pointz is Meres’s greatest joy. “That’s why he’s able to do it and is able not get discouraged. It’s because the reward is so much bigger than the task for him. It is draining. It is exhausting. But, it’s such a part of him and he is willing to fight for it on a daily basis, “ she said. “That is quintessential to him. It’s in his blood.”
New York City Councilman, Peter F. Vallone Jr., has been coined ‘Graffiti Public Enemy No. 1’. He passed legislation that makes selling graffiti supplies to minors illegal. “I’ve always been ambivalent about graffiti, at best. If it’s legal, in that case it’s art. On the other hand, it rewards vandals who have made their name ruining other people’s property,” he said. “I’ve seen some pieces that I would consider art. I’ve seen some that are still just disgusting tags. Art is in the eye of the beholder.”
So, what makes graffiti art?
“Let’s just say, you know it when you see it,” he replied.
Commenting on graffiti’s negative connotation, Meres said, “It is what it is. I don’t get that. I understand there’s some people that write illegally on someone’s property. They don’t like that. For the most part, people come here and love the place.”
If the economy was right and it was something he wanted to do right now, it would be gone. It’s just a matter of time.
The negative stigma is one that has stuck in the art world. Meres explained, “These artists that are successful in the art world don’t want to be labeled as graffiti artists because sometimes there’s a negative stigma attached.”
Famous street artist, Michael De Feo, disagrees with the negativity that surrounds street art. He believes that street art and graffiti are whimsical in their essence. “By the sheer nature of having something in a place that wasn’t there before—and your walking on your way to work or school and bump into something—you’re just like ‘Wow’,” he said. In 2007, Meres asked Michael to paint at 5 Pointz. They have a mutual respect for each other’s work. “I know he likes what I do. That made me feel really good because I value what he does with that building very much,” De Feo said.
Graffiti in the 90’s was largely possessive. According to Christian Cortes, “It was like, I own this block. You own that block.” If someone disregarded the territory lines, things could get violent. 5 Pointz’s mission is to create an open space where artists from all walks of life could contribute and create more complex pieces of craftsmanship. A nonnegative, nonviolent place like 5 Pointz contributes to the evolvement of graffiti’s acceptance as an art form. “That never existed,” Christian continued. “You have people slowly developing a new way of seeing graffiti culture – not seeing it as some dirty, disposable type of art.” Meres is the peacemaker and promoter of the environment where that happens.
Meres is confident that graffiti with eventually gain acceptance in the art realm. “It’s just a matter of when. You wait for some higher up to say ‘Oh, I validate this art’,” Meres said in an overly proper, mocking voice and stiffened posture. “Then it’s in every museum. Every art form takes a while to be accepted.”
With the future demolition of 5 Pointz becoming more imminent, I asked Meres why Jerry Wolkoff has changed his mind in donating the space to graffiti. “There’s no change of heart. He’s just not at the stage where he could develop it yet. If the economy was right and it was something he wanted to do right now, it would be gone. It’s just a matter of time,” Meres answered.
If 5 Pointz were to be demolished, graffiti art would be forced underground again. Buildings and private property would be painted illegally and the community would likely spend more money paying for cleanups instead of just having a space solely dedicated to it. Meres, for one, will not stop his craft. Luis “Zimad” Lamboy, a contributing artist to 5 Pointz who has been painting for 32 years, said Meres, “has a dream and he won’t let anyone stop him from pursuing what he wants.”
When I asked Meres what’s next for him if 5 Pointz closes, he answered, “I will continue doing [graffiti] regardless. Whether I’m doing it here or illegally. The show must go on.”
Zimad was right.