To kick off graffiti art exhibition El Mac: Aerosol Exalted, the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center is throwing JAM FAC, a street arts festival celebrating urban art culture. Scheduled events include live music, breakdancing and graffiti demos.
While graffiti isn't something the museum has ventured into before, it makes a lot of sense given the institution's history of showing groundbreaking work, says FAC curator Joy Armstrong.
"It's not that big of a departure for us to have shows that make people rethink their ideas about art and push boundaries," she says, noting the exhibit and the JAM FAC event are designed to "expand expectations for the FAC and what we have to offer to the community. We want to reach a lot of people that have preconceived notions about what art is and what we typically do here."
"I want to do more than get outside the box," Armstrong adds. "I want to blow up the box."
With his highly stylized work, El Mac has done, and continues to do, just that.
For an art form often associated with illegally spray-painted, oversize letters, El Mac's graffiti is in a class all its own. His portraits of everyday people hint at extraordinary stories. His subjects range from anonymous farm workers to models in Milan.
The mural "Animo Sin Fronteras" in El Paso, Texas, depicts Melchor Flores, a man attempting to find answers about his son, who went missing while in police custody. His 10-story mural in Mexico City, "Maria de la Reforma," features social activist Maria Guardado, a victim of government torture in El Salvador during the 1980s.
Mac, born Miles MacGregor, says he was trying to bring awareness to struggles for justice.
"[Social commentary] is an element of my work," he says. "But it's not the only goal. It's not like every piece is intended to save the world. But you know, one piece at a time. Every piece in its own little way ... I do have some sense of social responsibility."
Mac, 34, has been commissioned for murals all over the world. Citing artists like Johannes Vermeer and Gustav Klimt as inspiration, Mac says he has always been drawn to painting faces and figures. His unconventional ripples creatively blur the line between graffiti and fine art.
The technique involves spraying paint with a nozzle called a fat cap, a common tool for graffiti artists, which emits paint as a hollow circle that results in a double line. That line varies depending on the speed or the angle of the can and the artist's proximity to the wall or canvas, says Mac.
"It's almost like calligraphy," he adds. "A lot of tagging, vandalism, bombing is done using that tool, because it's fun. It's one of the most dynamic ways you can apply pigment to a surface. The possibilities are endless. I love it and a lot of people do, but I hadn't really seen anybody translate it to realistic representational painting before."
He developed the style over time, at first almost by accident. Painting at night (when he couldn't see very well) or when he was in a rush, he noticed he was leaving ripples behind. By studying photos of his work, he realized his "mistakes" were actually adding character and movement.
"So then it was like, oh, what if I did a little more of that on purpose and then what if I did a whole giant face or figure where it was all these lines that used to be mistakes, and now I'm actually intending to leave them there and it looks cool and creates this ripple effect," Mac says.
His happy accident has garnered him international acclaim and helped to reposition graffiti as a serious art form.
Twenty years ago, Mac says, graffiti was mostly associated with gang culture and violence, especially on the West Coast. Consequently, there wasn't a lot of support for graffiti or its artists.
Today with the Internet, social media and the explosion of street art, the movement has been transformed.
"It's huge, it's global and it's so mainstream, and there's a lot of money involved and so much public support," Mac says. "So it is weird to see this movement change from so far in one direction to a completely different direction."
Mac's work has undoubtedly helped bring graffiti into the mainstream, but he has mixed feelings about its emergence. For example, before it was embraced, back when Mac was a teenager, spray paint was limited to just one or two shades of each color. That leveled the painting field, he says: Part of the artistry involved improvising, mixing colors and inventing ways to work around those limited choices.
"Now it's all handed to you," he says. "I don't even think people realize how easy it is. There's literally hundreds of colors out there, every shade of the rainbow. It's just laid out there for people."
Locations for creating art have become easier as well.
"I was so desperate to paint, I was painting on trains and drainage tunnels that nobody would ever see except for other writers," he says. "Now there's so many options, there's walls everywhere. At least in L.A. [which] is a mecca for public art."
So while some of the mainstream appeal may make it seem as though graffiti has lost its edge, Mac is thankful for the opportunities afforded by its rising popularity.
"It is an amazing time, because I don't think there's ever been an art movement on this kind of scale," he says. "It really is inclusive of anybody with access to paint."