ABOVE: Mural on the Kentucky Kombucha building
Block by Block
On the first Friday of March, the notoriously indifferent Germantown train track caps off my workweek with a flourish of bad timing. I shift my car into park at the Mary Street crossing as the early evening train begins its long rattle past. Through flickering glimpses between boxcars and visible above the train stands the back wall of the Kentucky Kombucha building, canvassed top to bottom with a two-story mural. It reads “MFK CREW” in alternating blue, pink, and yellow on a galaxy background. Well-designed and executed, it’s an aesthetically positive addition to the corner, though one might wonder at the text. The approximately 12-foot-tall letters dwarf those on any billboard in Louisville, though it advertises something the general public is much less likely to recognize.
The mural was painted in observance of the 2BUCK Invitational, an annual graffiti jam that took place last year in September, drawing artists and graffiti writers from all over the region and beyond. Hosted in memory of international graffiti legend 2BUCK, the Invitational provides its participants a weekend of unfettered creative freedom and sanctioned wall space, this time centralized around the Tim Faulkner Gallery and surrounding properties. The MFK mural is the largest of the 2020 event’s affiliated works, which number somewhere in the ballpark of 70 or more depending on whether you account for the “unofficial” murals completed in the area on that particular weekend. Nearly all of the murals are declarations of the artists’ respective aliases or the initials of their crew. Governed by stylistic rules often too obscure for the uninitiated viewer, one might dismiss the text contained in each piece as an exhibition of clout. From the perspective of the neighborhood, however, the Invitational’s presence offered a celebration of community, and the lasting experience of public art. Full appreciation of these murals lies only in challenging the negative associations with the art form.
Four hours after my encounter with the train, I lean on the counter of a dark bar on Market Street, listening to a graffiti writer speak about ego death.
“I don’t get it—but it happens all the time—some cat will catch onto a new thing and it’ll be hot for a second but then they’ll get so defensive about it. Not let anybody in. And pretty soon it’ll lose whatever value it could’ve had.” He’s referring to a recent incident of local prominent graffiti writers who reportedly dismissed newcomers looking to collaborate and learn from their crew. “What good is being on the cutting edge if you don’t share it? That shit just dies with you and doesn’t push anything further.” He shakes his head. “Silly.”
A long standing figure in Louisville’s graffiti scene, T. looks the part; but knowing him dispels pretty much every angle of what you’d expect of ‘career vandal.’ More than anything, he has a bigger heart for community than anyone I’ve met. He speaks levelly and emphatically, unreserved about his opinions but with a tone betraying a deeply ingrained sensitivity to confidentiality. His words don’t carry beyond our corner of the bar, echoed only by his friend and fellow graffiti writer, sitting to our right and nodding along in agreement. Both were close friends of 2BUCK and help coordinate the Invitational in his name every year. Six years since his death, they still carry the mantle of some of his crews, regularly painting new pieces in his name.
Connected by style, region, or interpersonal relationship, a crew’s main objective is to make art together, operating with a sense of deep loyalty; a network of intense dependability. So long as you can maintain it, writers might be in more than one crew—2BUCK repped FST and TTK, among others. Of course, rivalry and territory are still an active factor in the scene. Most crews, which often have legacies spanning generations, have certain spots where they maintain an exclusive presence. Disrespecting another crew’s yard is poor etiquette. Poor etiquette gives a writer a bad reputation, and a bad reputation leads to trouble. However, confronting an offending writer is usually dealt with on the individual level, and doesn’t require anything more egregious than someone getting their ass kicked. Extending the conflict to involve entire crews, in T.’s opinion, is typically rooted in unnecessary drama.
“If you’re jeopardizing our ability to paint in our own yard, then yeah, you should expect some kind of consequences. But here, it’s usually just one kid fucking around, and I mean, if it’s justified, there’s no reason everyone else in different crews shouldn’t get along.” Tagging, bombing, piecing, etc. is largely fair game in the rest of the city regardless of group affiliation, but he’s observed an increase in general standoffishness following a recent incident: a writer got caught with poor etiquette, and the crews involved adopted a non-collaborative attitude. “They’ve got some dope painters and [a member of T.’s crew] wanted to do a piece with them, but they went through some defensive bullshit before they came around. Like damn, you’re gonna let some goofy shit stop us from working together? There’s so much good wall space, let’s share it!”
This territorialism and, at times, downright cliquishness he’s describing in the underground art scene bears a strong resemblance to observations made about Louisville’s professional artworld. Rarely do you see collaboration between separate art institutions, or jointly operated projects, outside of coincidentally sponsoring the same third-party event. While they may mingle socially, each establishment tends towards insular operations. One of the most striking parallels is the phenomenon of how much the physical territory between neighborhoods aligns with division between organizations. A few community outreach programs take the initiative to address specific areas (for instance, The Speed Art Museum’s involvement in the Russell neighborhood in fulfillment of the NEA Our Town Grant), but the majority of activity seems to happen in the immediate area surrounding any particular organization.
One of the major problems inherent to this phenomenon is the way it perpetuates structural inequity in Louisville. A quick comparison between the city map of redlining zones and the locations of major art institutions provides a clear visual of how this further deprives underinvested neighborhoods of the educational and cultural benefits provided by the presence of civic institutions, like art museums. Areas serviced by arts organizations are reported to have higher collective efficacy. From these statistics, reinforced by public feedback, it’s apparent that opportunities are habitually given to the white, well off, and well connected.
Inside the bar, it’s our turn in the bartender’s meandering rotation so we order a second round. T. is in the process of getting his B.F.A., and rails against the exclusionary attitude he witnesses in both of his artistic spheres.
“I hate the word ‘networking,’ but that’s what it is, the key to everything around here. I mean it is everywhere, but Louisville is too small for so much…” he pauses, thinking of the word.
“Gatekeeping?” I offer.
“Yeah. In Louisville everyone knows everyone, but unless you already have the right connections, you don’t get any traction. A cat can walk in a gallery a hundred times, but unless you have a proper introduction, do some name-dropping, they look right past you.” Many of his friends also have a studio practice outside of graffiti, but unlike T., they don’t have as much success making connections with professionals in Louisville’s art institutions. “I’m lucky, I meet people through school. My professors have introduced me to a lot of gallery owners and curators and all that—and they’re all great people, super sweet. But I’m aware of the system at play here. If I didn’t have the university to officially ‘cosign’ for me, they probably wouldn’t fuck with it.”
“For the most part, I don’t think it’s personal and I don’t think it’s on purpose,” T. acknowledges. “It’s just the status quo we’re used to. But that’s why it’s important we talk about it and challenge that.”
Many of Louisville’s art institutions have responded to increased calls for accessibility by initiating programs specifically with the intention of widening their services to include underserved demographics; but how much does this extend to providing opportunities to new artists, focusing on their work, and not just increasing the institution’s consumer base?
We step outside the front entrance of the bar for a cigarette. A passerby asks to use his lighter, and while he chats with them I reflect our conversation in the direction of my professional work. The concept of “quality control” comes up often as justification for implicit bias towards preferring to work with artists already established in the scene. T. wishes the passerby a good night and returns to stand with me, and I ask his thoughts on avoiding this paradigm.
“That’s the big concern for [graffiti] crews. You can’t bring in just anybody, that’d be stupid.” He laughs. “We’re out here doing dangerous shit, you gotta be hella fucking careful who you’re running around with.”
“So then how do you go about joining a crew?”
He shrugs, unsure of how much to accommodate such an outsider question, but then points with his cigarette at the building across the street. “You see the ledge up there? The little drop down from the one roof to the other? The ledge under the top floor windows. Early on, when I started painting with 2BUCK but wasn’t in with everybody yet, he had this idea to do a piece on that spot and he took me up there.” He glances at me and grins. “From the street it doesn’t look like too big of a gap, right? But it’s actually a couple of feet, so you have to jump from the roof to the ledge. And when we got up there, he was like, ‘you gotta go first,’ like to test it out. Cause nobody had gotten up there before so we didn’t know for sure it was going to hold our weight, and I was the new kid, so I had to go first. I was like, ‘fuck, dude,’ but he was serious. So I did it—and my feet landed on the ledge fine but when I hit it, the whole thing dropped like half a foot. I almost had a heart attack.”
I squeal and he laughs at me. “So yeah, you have to prove yourself a little bit. And obviously the ledge held up and we did our piece. But the thing is, I was on some toy shit back then—I mean, I sucked—and obviously he was a lot better painter than me.” He shrugs and flicks his cigarette into the street. “But that’s how everybody starts out, you know? So 2BUCK took me along with him anyway, and eventually I figured it out.”
With a smile, he holds the bar door open and answers my question. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you feel leery about working with someone because they’re ‘uninitiated,’ maybe take that to mean your responsibility is to initiate them.”
Before his passing, 2BUCK and T. shared a vision to form a crew that pushed for this more radical sense of inclusivity. Subverting the limiting precedents they’d come across elsewhere in the graffiti community—pre-requisite experience, conformity to heteronormativity and hypermasculinity, the division of genders in general—they painted alongside like-minded writers under the moniker KFC. They recognized the consequences of division in their community and worked to bring a sense of unity, an ideal to which 2BUCK’s legacy is testament. T. and the other KFC writers continue this work, for their friend’s sake, for themselves, and for future generations.
The next day, I drive down Kentucky St. past Tim Faulkner and what remains of the 2BUCK Invitational. While the MFK mural is still running, most of the work created during the event has been painted over—despite property owners’ support. The city has taken action against the artists and businesses alike, threatening fines unless the murals are removed. In September last year (conspicuously following the increase in the public’s spontaneous visual expression of the grief over the killing of Breonna Taylor), Louisville Metro Council passed an ordinance increasing the aggression of their policies regarding graffiti. Section 131.14 of the Louisville Metro Code requires a property owner or “responsible party” to abate graffiti within 7 calendar days after receiving notice or citation, with failure to do so resulting in fines on top of the cost of abatement. Further, the Metro Government and Police Department are thereafter “expressly authorized” by the code to enter the property to repaint the offending walls themselves, the bill for which (including interest, starting 90 days of issuance) must be paid for by the property owner. Neither Metro Government or Police can be held liable for damage or decline in value of the property involved in these actions.
Several of the properties which hosted Invitational artists were cited for their murals, allegedly in violation of the code, and subsequently forced to buff their walls at their own expense. However, “Graffiti” is defined in the Code [Section 131.10] as “[Inscriptions] on a wall or other surface, so as to be seen by the public, placed there by a person other than the lawful owner or occupant of the property, without consent or acceptance of said owner or occupant.” Obviously the artists participating in the Invitational did so with consent. The very next sentence in the code continues, “The definition of graffiti for the purposes of this chapter is not intended to discourage legal and authorized artistic expressions including street art, but instead, is meant to address vandalism in the form of graffiti.” This begs the question: why would the authorized artistic expressions created for the Invitational, with permission by property owners and occupants, be considered in violation of Metro Code?
The answer to that question is even more elusive when you take into consideration how the city sponsored the murals at Louisville’s David Armstrong Extreme Park, painted by three anonymous members of Often Seen Rarely Spoken (OSRS), whom then-Councilwoman Barbra Sexton Smith thanked for their “unique graffiti style.”
Regardless of the justification, this block feels the loss. It’s the unity and camaraderie represented by the 2BUCK Invitational that seemed to hold the most value—core staff of Logan Street Market had praised the way the spirit of the event effortlessly created an atmosphere of community they had envisioned for years, and the #2buckInvitational hashtag on social media keeps record of both passerby’s excitement at the time of the event and their laments over the art now lost. Whether or not the general public understands the signifiers of the works’ language, the Invitational was a successful translation of the collective joy and power of community when it creates together. For many, the buffed bricks communicate a suppression of that outpouring, but for some, there is now again the challenge and opportunity presented by a blank wall.
Chelsea Harris is an artist and writer whose work explores concepts of home and the experience of loss. Working primarily in oil painting and creative nonfiction, she elevates the image of figures in her life whose memory might otherwise be marred by stigma or misunderstanding. Harris currently holds the position of Studio Programs Coordinator at The Speed Art Museum.
Mural at Dave Armstrong Extreme Park