Singapore’s street art scene may have come a long way but we’re still lightyears behind cities like San Francisco where entire art movements such as the Mission School came about. The Mission School originated from San Francisco’s Mission district and its urban meets bohemian culture inspired artists to define a new artistic expression using not just spray paint but also non-traditional materials like correction fluid, scrapboard, and random discarded objects.
One of the most high-profile graffiti artists of his generation, Barry McGee is often credited for bringing street art from the alleyways to the art galleries, thereby raising it as a bona fide art form that may be bought, sold, and even traded among collectors. After being put up at galleries and events like the Venice Biennale, the value of McGee’s work soared, and much of his original street art around San Francisco got scavenged or stolen, ostensibly to be traded on the art scene.
McGee’s work has even made it to Singapore, but not in the form of street art since graffiti is mostly banned in our country—as we all know, and as all Americans seem to know too well. Because his work spans a wide spectrum of collaborations and media, McGee worked very recently with Uniqlo to create a special edition line of t-shirts for its UT collection. The SPRZ NY Barry McGee collection spreads the artist’s wry humour and his bold use of geometric shapes, along with clusters of framed drawings and paintings.
At the Cartier Social Lab in San Francisco, McGee discussed his home city’s role as an incubator of street art in a session entitled SF: An Audacious City. Indeed, he may have ‘graduated’ from the streets to galleries, but McGee still finds time to contribute to the local street art scene. He tells Esquire Singapore more about what defines him as an artist.
ESQ: Graffiti by nature has no rules, structures, or templates. So what would be considered new or ground-breaking in terms of concept and ideas in your scene?
Barry McGee: Well, I’m a little older, I’m 50 now. I still like to look back at the older generation from the 70s and reference what they were doing. It was kind of a free time, the 70s, for them. So I like that period a lot. A little bit of that free period with our contemporary situations now, I find a way to put that altogether somehow.
ESQ: So you try to reinterpret something that existed in the past…
Barry McGee: Something a little bit freer, less restrictive, not as many rules. Graffiti even got to a point [today] where there are a lot of rules. It got a little bit… well you know the basic scene got really tight and like, there was a time when it was much looser and freer. So it’s just like any art movement with its different periods. San Francisco is an expressionist city. It’s very expressive, with free forms. It’s this looseness in San Francisco which I like very much.
ESQ: What have you been doing lately and how do you choose where you take your work?
Barry McGee: I like to work outdoors, a little bit here and there… certain locations where it’s really easy, like some things along the freeway where you can paint. Most of my other work is in the studio, sometimes I show in galleries. I have a show coming up in Santa Barbara, at the Museum of Contemporary Art there, so yeah I’m working on that.
ESQ: So graffiti is about bringing a message to an audience…
Barry McGee: Yes, it’s built into it. It’s like that. When you do it, it’s already built into the work.
ESQ: What are some messages that surround your work?
Barry McGee: I don’t know how it’s perceived but I always want it to be a little political, and about things that aren’t right with our country. I like it abrasive. I like abrasive, going against the system a little.
ESQ: That’s kinda what graffiti is about, isn’t it?
Barry McGee: Yes, that’s quite built into it, but I like to add a little bit more, such as things that I see as wrong in society. Our American society, not Singapore. Singapore probably has its own problems… Do they still cane graffiti artists over there? I’m sorry you don’t have to put this in… I love that story though. (Clears throat, laughs nervously)
ESQ: (Laughs) That’s right though. We don’t have much in the way of true graffiti in Singapore.
Barry McGee: There’s no reason for that. Doesn’t seem like a society that really even needs it. There are places that don’t need it.
ESQ: Would you still come to Singapore?
Barry McGeeE: I haven’t been but I want to though. It’s a long-time dream of mine. I’ll get there eventually for sure.
ESQ: Well but there’s not a complete absence of it. There are places where graffiti is allowed.
Barry McGee: Oh really? Yeah, I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s probably good… yeah it’s a good thing. It’s a halfway point I suppose. That’s fair.
ESQ: Why is freedom of expression so important now, maybe more so than ever before, even in the US?
Barry McGee: Because we’re losing it here in America. It’s being clamped down. Well not clamped down but there’s been a bit of a squeeze. The current administration is just like… it’s not a good time in America. It feels restrictive. Not here in San Fran, but as a nation as a whole. It’s a mess. We’re in a big mess right now. Everybody knows that.
ESQ: How did you get into street art?
Barry McGee: It was around 1983/84. I had some friends that were spray painting, got into graffiti. There was this book that came out on spray-can art and some of my friends were onto it, so I said yeah I’m going to try that. It was a long time ago. I don’t really do it a lot anymore but if the opportunity is right, I’ll do it.
ESQ: What would be the right opportunity?
Barry McGee: It has to do with the timing… Like, as soon as our president got elected here, that was the time. (Chuckles) There were a few other times, but that was the time. But it’s really anonymous so you wouldn’t know who it was done by.
ESQ: Is that important for you? Staying anonymous?
Barry McGee: Yes, for me I like to be anonymous. I don’t want to be recognised for anything.
ESQ: Do you care when you create a piece of graffiti if people understand what you’re trying to say?
Barry McGee: Oh no, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. It’s up to the individual to interpret. It’s doing it that’s most satisfying. It fulfils something on the inside. After I’m done it has a life of its own, know what I mean. The artwork has a life of its own.
ESQ: No… How do you mean?
Barry McGee: Say I paint something and put it out somewhere, or do something on a wall somewhere. When I’m done, I’m already forgotten. It has a life of its own after that.
ESQ: So you don’t care if someone else comes and paints over it, or the city comes and whitewashes over it?
Barry McGee: Oh no, that’s part of it. Yeah it gets painted over, the city comes and whitewashes over it, that’s part of it. Ideally, you want it to stay but it doesn’t work that way. But there’s some freedom in that too, when it gets painted over and it’s gone. I like that also. Because it’s temporary. Like a fleeting moment. If you see it, you see it. I like that especially in this day and age when everybody is saving everything, documenting everything… I like to do something that’s temporary. I’m not really on social media platforms. I’m really old fashioned. I like things the old fashioned way.
ESQ: What does the idea of making bold connections mean to you and your art?
Barry McGee: For me, I’m really into being quiet, not being bold. I like to be really sneaky. I like the art to be bold but not the person. Every now and then I can be bold. Maybe climbing a building is bold for me or something… I like go unnoticed, it’s my favourite way to be.
ESQ: What about your art? How does the idea of making bold connections relate to your art?
Barry McGee: I hope it inspires. I hope it inspires a little bit, maybe inspire people to go out and do something, communicate in an old fashioned way, like directly, not on the internet or anything, but something real, something physical.
ESQ: How does fearlessness make you a better graffiti artist?
Barry McGee: Just a better artist. It’s better to be without fear when making art. Just any art, I think it’s good. Fears are really interesting thing. I think it’s good for some things and other things it’s a little bit tricky.
ESQ: Do you think there’s such thing as being too fearless?
Barry McGee: For sure. I think our president is too fearless. He needs a little restrain. Needs some boundaries. But in art, I think the community is big enough, there’s different types of fearlessness, and egos. I think it goes with the ego a little bit, how big someone’s ego is. Sometimes the smallest, tiniest little thing can be moving also. To me. The smallest, tiny little piece of art work can be more moving than a huge big bold expressionist.
ESQ: What’s the best way to see your work?
Barry McGee: Ideally, it’s to run into it by accident. You can’t control it but if there was an ideal way for someone to see my work, it’s to just run into it.