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Beyond the Streets: Cannabis Isn’t the Only Counter Culture en Vogue

“This show is all about the evolution of the art form of graffiti and street art.”

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Beyond the Streets: Cannabis Isn’t the Only Counter Culture en Vogue
Style Wars Car by NOC 617 with door open, Man reading newspaper, 96th street station, New York, NY 1981; Photo by Martha Cooper

One of the first things that drew me into ‘counter culture’ at a young age was the sense of rebellion it evoked. Part of the ‘cool factor’ of smoking weed was that I wasn’t allowed to do it, and that I’d get in trouble if I got caught… it made me feel like an outlaw. I didn’t realize until years later that part of the reason I was writing my name on everything was because it was evoking similar feelings. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but the same feeling of rebellion that lead me to graffiti years earlier was the catalyst for arguably the longest lasting relationship of my life— my relationship with Mary Jane. 

We often don’t think of these two cultures as being particularly intertwined past the questionable legality—likely because graffiti typically involves a lot of running, and weed makes you, well, slow down. But still, the similarities are plentiful. I won’t dig into the minutia, but here’s the 101: both practices began as less-than-legal forms of expression, developed cult-like followings, exploded into major industries, and eventually moved into the cultural zeitgeist. Now, at a time where CBD is available at gas stations around the country, Street Art is maturing at a similar pace—moving from slaps and tags into coveted (and impossible to obtain) art pieces commanding top dollar. 

Last summer I bought three tickets to a show in Los Angeles that I saw on one of my favorite designers Instagrams. It was called Beyond the Streets. None of my friends had heard of it, but it looked interesting, so I managed to entice two of them to go through promises of a hazy trip over, and by buying their tickets. What we experienced was unlike any of the countless other shows I’ve seen since I moved to California – it was raw, it was creative, and it was FUN. From the split cop car, to the original Keith Haring, to the six-foot LA Hands, this show had something for everyone. Needless to say, when I found out they were opening a new show in New York, I had to check it out.

The show, which runs until the end of August, takes place across two floors of a glass-encased building on the edge of Williamsburg. Nestled along the Hudson river in arguably the most gentrified part of Brooklyn, the show juxtaposes the outlaw mentality that fueled street artists for generations against the vogue-like regard their content is held in today. Not only does it beautifully marry two seemingly unrelated frames of being, but the show really embraces it’s New York setting, recruiting the likes of east coast legends like Taki 183, CORNBREAD and SAMO to not only feature work in the exhibit, but to include Easter egg tags around the venue as well. (Try to find all of SAMO’s—they’re worth it, I promise.)

It’s worth mentioning that the show is MASSIVE. Accounting for roughly one full city block, BTS: NYC is packed with loads of new additions for this exhibition, as well as several fan favorites from LA revamped for round two. New elements include a Beastie Boys retrospective, complete with their original beat machines, logo designs, lyric sheets, and even a hilarious note from one of the hotels they stayed in asking them to stop throwing things from their window, a 30-year anniversary gallery celebrating some of Shepard Fairey’s biggest accomplishments, a slew of the ever-popular totems from Faile, and a beautiful collaborative piece tag-teamed by Takashi Murakami, MADSAKI and TENGAone. My personal favorites include the expanded and redesigned Barminski room, the Parla slabs, Risk’s shark, and the rusty can cart, but there wasn’t a single piece in the show that didn’t deserve it’s own spotlight.

After getting to roam the show for a few hours I caught up with Roger Gastman, graffiti historian and lead curator for Beyond the Streets, to chat about how far the culture has come.

High Times: What made you create Beyond the Streets? The irony of taking what used to be illegal and displaying it in beautiful galleries is not lost on me.

Roger Gastman: This show is all about the evolution of the art form of graffiti and street art. We brought together artists who helped shape and expand the landscape: graffiti and street artists operating at the highest levels with dynamic studio practices, as well as major artists inspired by graffiti and street art. Our aim is to celebrate the heights to which the world’s most recognizable modern art movement has risen.

HT: We’ve noticed that cannabis is undergoing a sort of identity crisis as it shifts from the outlaw / rebel culture into something more commonly accepted. Do you see that happening in street art? 

RG: The mural culture has exploded. And while it is awesome to see the display of public art it is often branded as street art. Legal murals done by artists are not street art just because they are outside. There needs to be more education on the movement, its history and its terms. But overall there will always be the next wave of kids who want to go out and write on things and don’t care about the rules.

HT: Do you see these cultures as being intertwined?

RG: Both have an outlaw, just-do-it nature to them that I don’t think will ever go away, no matter how mainstream they become.

HT: How do you feel about the corporatization of street art? Do you think it’s important that this stuff remains underground?

RG: While it has risen to incredible heights, it amazes me how much more can be done to educate audiences on the people and moments that make up this culture. This show is an attempt to highlight this impact, of mark making and rule breaking, and its impact on and intersections with pop culture. Vandalism as contemporary art—in our own way, without the confines or politics of an institution.

We hope this show continues to legitimize this art form, and shines a light on the people who have dedicated and risked their lives for their passion.

HT: What’s the most exciting / innovative thing you’ve seen come from the culture lately? Anything you never would’ve thought possible years ago?

RG: The world of graffiti and street art is MASSIVE. They are entire cultures with many subcultures that have spun off of them. I can’t keep up with how much keeps coming up. I find the most joy in continuing to dig up the history, something that as these cultures continue to explode will become more important.

HT: Is that the same thing that excited you about street art in the beginning?

RG: I’ve spent my life surrounded by graffiti and street art. You could say that I’m obsessed with understanding the culture, its origins, its evolutions, and the way it’s infiltrated culture at large… It’s incredible to me how far this culture has come, how large its impact is, and how diverse the creativity is.

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