Even as a kid, long before I could put a name to Kenny Scharf's psychedelic blobs or fully comprehend the politics behind a Banksy, street art appealed to me more than anything on the wall of a museum ever did. While some people flock to New York City to visit its famed art institutions, I was much more fascinated by the wheatpastes and murals I’d glimpse while passing through the city’s crowded streets. Ask some New Yorkers, and they might dismiss these outdoor works as acts of vandalism. To many others like myself, however, street art stands out for its defiance, apparent frankness, and accessibility, all of which photographer Yoav Litvin has managed to capture in his new book Outdoor Gallery, published by Gingko Press.
In this 240-page compendium, Litvin interviews 46 of New York’s most prolific street artists, presented alongside several photos of their work. It's his homage to an art form that has captivated him for some time now. Years ago, an illness left the writer physically incapable of any form of exercise other than walking, according to The Atlantic. That’s when Litvin began exploring the city’s various neighborhoods, photographing the art he encountered, and becoming more enthused about the “trove of treasure” around him with each step.
“As I tread, and my fascination grew, I learned a visual language spoken by a thriving community of artists,” he writes in the introduction of his book. His appreciation for these artists immediately apparent: “Driven by sparks of creativity … a sense of purpose, an urge for rebellion and/or fame, these artists invest money, time, effort, and energy in art that will ultimately belong to not a single New York City inhabitant, but to all people.”
Featured artists include Adam Dare, Fumero, GILF!, Bishop203, Icy and Sot, Cope2, and Gaia, just to name a few. Chances are, you’ve seen Dare’s broken-hearted bunnies or Fumero’s colorful portraits plastered on a building somewhere, but you may not be familiar with the artists’ stories or creative process. Outdoor Gallery presents readers with a closer look at the talents behind New York's colorful streetscape.
Although Litvin asks each featured artist to discuss the same topics (how they feel about their practice, personal art in general, NYC, the future, etc.), the profiles never feel repetitive. While some artists simply share fond memories of making art in New York, many of their accounts are thought-provoking, undisguised, and passionate.
One artist who comes immediately to mind is Mr. Never Satisfied, who we’ve featured before. You may know him from his huge, crying owls, often found in Brooklyn's Bushwick and Williamsburg neighborhoods. When asked about street art, Never does not hesitate to point out the commercialization of the medium. “I personally am sick of the phrase ‘street art.’ I feel it’s become some kind of pop culture term these days," he says. "There are a lot of artists who use that phrase as a marketing tool when in actuality, they have spent little to no time wandering up train tracks, climbing over fences, painting in weird places amidst crack heads and being shat on by the general public."
Art is the most effective way for me to communicate. Otherwise, I feel there is so little being discussed.
At the same time, Litvin’s book also frames street art as a means to spark conversation and challenge the norms of art, public space, and society. While artists like Never make art to express themselves, others like GILF! do so to comment on larger issues.
“Art is the most effective way for me to communicate. Otherwise, I feel there is so little being discussed. People are infused with entertainment on a 24-hour drip, which they translate to habitual behavior . . . gotta go guerilla,” GILF! explains. It's precisely this defiant nature that drew Litvin to street art in the first place.
“It is an incredible, non-violent way to raise issues in the public sphere and promote positive change,” he told The Atlantic. “As a political person, I am drawn to the rebellious and confrontational nature of much of it.”
In a way, New York's street art may be the best representation of the city's people: ubiquitous, honest, and unafraid of confrontation. Despite whatever grievances some may have about street art (its subversive nature and shaky legal status), it's hard to deny street art's impact on the city as you flip through Litvin's book. Whether you're a newbie to the neighborhood or longtime visitor to New York, Outdoor Gallery is the best keepsake to take away with you.
Outdoor Gallery is available from Gingko Press here.