Written by : Brett Sokol
Call it the Willie Sutton theory of street art. When asked why he robbed dozens of banks, career criminal Sutton matter-of-factly replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Similarly, when asked why he chose the Wynwood neighborhood for the 2007 debut outing of Primary Flight, an eye-popping array of street murals created by a who’s who of both local and national graffiti artists, Darin “Books IIII” Bischof answers, “Because that’s where the walls were.”
Now the founder of the sprawling Design District-based Primary Projects gallery, the Plantation-raised 32-year-old has always thought big. While he was long acquainted with South Florida’s graffiti scene, Bischof had in mind for Primary Flight’s launch something far more ambitious than a single midnight tagging raid. And Wynwood offered a swath of large warehouses with sympathetic landlords—whose redecorations would be legal and just in time for Art Basel’s annual spotlight. This “outdoor museum” would be “living, breathing, constantly changing, not frozen in time,” he adds, subject to remodeling by not only the weather but the ever-evolving street art scene itself.
“It started with my mom’s van, seven ladders, and 300 cans of spray paint,” recalls Bischof. “That’s what set the whole district into motion with just the tiniest amount of money and having a nose to the grindstone. That’s what gave birth to tourism in that district and people being comfortable enough to ride their bikes around there.” While Wynwood was already an internationally known art burg by 2007, filled with dozens of galleries and private museums, it was the eruption of colorful street art that proved instrumental in drawing mass crowds. As that audience swelled in size, so did Primary Flight, pulling in more than a hundred different street artists for subsequent editions in 2008 and 2009, tackling upwards of 30 walls each time. Bischof also took on partners Chris Oh, 31 and raised in Pembroke Pines, and Michael “Typoe” Gran, 29 and from Kendall. Both were kindred veterans of the local graffiti circuit.
Primary Flight was soon followed by a host of better-financed efforts, including the late developer Tony Goldman’s Wynwood Walls— which came complete with spotlights and security guards to prevent onlookers from adding any editorial comments. The end result may be too much of a good thing: Several of the area’s pioneering galleries are currently hunting for less trafficked—and decidedly less expensive—homes. To those refugee ranks you can also add the Primary crew, reborn in late 2010 as the Primary Projects gallery. “We wanted to have control over just one thing that was ours,” says Bischof.
So far, the move indoors is auspicious. A week after the conclusion of this past Art Basel fair, the gallery’s back office finds Bischof and Oh busy with paperwork. En route is the Los Angeles-based gallery artist Kenton Parker, who just finished installing his Las Lucky’s Taco Shop in the office of Wynwood Realtor David Lombardi. Originally housed on the eighth floor of the members-only Soho Beach House during Basel as a working taco stand, the $65,000 sale of Parker’s handiwork is precisely the type of sly—and lucrative— fusion of high and low culture that Primary Projects is focusing on.
Accordingly, don’t enter the gallery expecting to see canvases filled with the kind of vintage bubble script which inspired Norman Mailer to marvel back in 1974 of that era’s subway graffiti: “What a quintessential marriage of cool and style to write your name in giant separate living letters, large as animals, lithe as snakes, mysterious as Arabic and Chinese curls of the alphabet.”
“What you’re doing in the streets isn’t supposed to translate into a gallery setting,” says Oh, who recently left Primary Projects as a business partner under amicable terms. “It has to be transformed into a different type of contemporary art.” Call it a lesson learned from the ’80s art vogue for graffiti: Only a few downtown street artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring successfully transitioned into uptown gallery contexts. Most of that period’s graffiti legends found their work a poor fit for “white cube”-style exhibitions.
On that note, Primary Projects’ stable of artists shares a common attitude much more than a common aesthetic: post-graffiti, of an age where family considerations begin impinging on thoughts of scaling foreboding buildings, yet still determined to create art with its raw edges intact. John Vale’s intricately constructed dioramas feature the same otherworldly peek into hidden milieus as Alex Sweet’s painstakingly wood-burned portraits. And Christina Pettersson’s often-fantastical, always-dazzling drawings? Does she, too, share a late-night history of secretly scouting fresh walls?
“Just because she doesn’t do murals in the streets doesn’t mean she doesn’t embody the same attitude,” counters Oh, pointing to Pettersson’s “Bricks” series—drawings of bricks she claims to have chiseled from the homes of her favorite writers, from William Faulkner to Jack Kerouac. “Breaking and entering for your art…,” Oh muses, raising an appreciative eyebrow and trailing off admiringly.
Bischof jumps in: “People have been writing their name on walls forever, from prehistoric times to World War II and ‘Kilroy Was Here.’ Obviously, it’s an adrenaline rush. But we’re interested in working with artists who want to keep that same energy from the streets but do something different.” Bischof pauses and then continues wryly, “If only Kilroy had gallery representation.”