Everybody has cribbed and complained for years about graffiti but it hasn’t gone away,’ says Vivek Premachandran when we meet in the steel, glass and grey of DIFC’s art quarter. ‘It’s accepted as an art form, almost by default, but it’s still not acknowledged. It’s one of the biggest forms in the world that’s just not taken into consideration.’
Vivek, also known as Ubik, is one of the city’s loudest exponents of underground art. In fact, he’s one of the very, very few. Dubai, for all its flourishing art fairs and start-up galleries, is still lacking when it comes to anything grimy, spontaneous or that sniffs of urban decay.
Vivek runs Cliché, a fold-up single sheet ‘portable gallery’ magazine dedicated to exposing international and local graffiti and underground talent to Dubai, which is on temporary hiatus at the moment. He also picked up the prize for the Diesel Art Wall at the Bastakiya Art Fair last month. But we wanted Vivek’s opinion on the completely out-of-nowhere selection of graffiti artists currently on show at Cuadro Fine Art Gallery.
Futura 2000, Stash and Phil Frost are, we’re told, among the Godfathers of graffiti. Vivek is jubilant: ‘All of these guys started off in graffiti and then they moved on. Take Phil Frost, you can see how he started out working with walls – this use of layers has come from painting directly on to walls.’
It’s strange to walk into the visual, violent cacophony of letters that is the room dedicated to Stash and realise they are all on canvas. Some appear like sections cut straight from a back alley wall, blazing with neon, saturated typography runs off the canvas onto the gallery wall, another virtual layer in the work.
Vivek explains that this preoccupation with layers is vital to getting these artists. He returns to the absence of a graffiti culture in Dubai to explain. People want it, he says, but they only want the best, the good stuff. ‘You can’t get the best in graffiti straight away – you have to go through a transition. The visual landscape of New York is what it is because there’s also bad graffiti on the walls. If there was just good graffiti then it wouldn’t make sense. You need the bad graffiti to add layers and visual decay.’
Phil Frost’s tribalism is constructed on layer after layer. Behind Stash’s overt letterings are a seething weave of words that fade, residue-like, into the distance. This layering affects each of the works with an aura of depth and time. They honed their skills by fighting for attention on a wall – but not just on the street but also from other artists. They need to make something so distinctive that their work will remain. Or, as Vivek seems to suggest, your art becomes just another brick in the general visual decay.
The tribal pieces by Phil Frost are quite incredible. The infamously antisocial self-taught artist uses strips taken from comic books as his base and builds upwards – streaming colours with the richness of wood that rise across the canvas to form tiki-like masks. Deftly hand painted white tribal shapes form the most prominent layer and you can imagine that, when Frost was still painting walls, he would frame the visual residue of previous wall writers with these masks.
Stash’s pieces are more typically graffiti. They are caustic, hum with an ’80s sensibility and, as Vivek explains, capture much of graffiti’s central beginnings. ‘Letterings often have specific meanings in graffiti, they might incorporate numerals, different typefaces – it’s all about typography. And it’s one of the most beautiful forms of typography out there.’
As we descend into the bowels of Cuadro, Vivek can barely contain his excitement as a video of Futura 2000 projects across our face and onto the wall. ‘This guy brought abstraction to graffiti art,’ he says excitedly and begins pointing wildly at the artist’s canvases. ‘These atom shapes are his trademark and you know Unkle, he created their brand with his The Good, The Bad And The Ugly series.’
While we appreciate what Frost and (partly) Stash are up to, Futura 2000 is really the strongest here. His works are visually deft, have a more blasted and directive approach than the rest of the artists in this three-way show. An elegant bit of spraywork gives the effect of a delicately crumpled piece of paper, while another, ‘Pollarissima Borealis’ (pictured), has a chaotic and devastating spontaneity to it. All these works constantly resist shape. Nowhere more evident than in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly pieces. They verge on something tangible, a figure or a face, only to flex and jitter into pure abstraction.
Vivek has no confusion about why little underground art is seen in Dubai. ‘The galleries stick to a formula that sells,’ he says. ‘And a lot of people don’t know about underground art. These guys are big, this is a historic show.’ But he remains cautious: ‘I’m very happy that this is here, but in another way I hope Dubai doesn’t just start importing its underground art. I hope it doesn’t forget the underground artists that are here right now.’
Cuadro Fine Art Gallery (04 425 0400). Until May