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Concrete Alchemists Transform Blank Gray Walls into Works of Art

Ellen Gilbert

A group of 15 visual artists from all around the country recently got together and began painting walls. Calling themselves “Concrete Alchemy,” they are visiting five major urban centers in a tour that combines outdoor painting, gallery shows, and public panel discussions. On Saturday they came to Princeton.

While plans to do a live mural painting at 100 Nassau Street fell through when they were unable to obtain permission to go ahead with the work, several of them appeared that evening in a panel discussion at the Arts Council’s ConTemporary Arts Center.

“They make the ordinary extraordinary,” said Peter Krsko, organizer of Concrete Alchemy and co-founder of the New Brunswick-based art collective Albus Cavus, as he explained the group’s name. “They take blank concrete walls and turn them into beautiful organic landscapes. They possess the unique secrets of alchemists who transform one element into another. Under their touch, sterile concrete explodes, and a fresh, new organic nature sprouts through the cracks. As it develops into a dynamic and colorful forest, it presents us — the inhabitants — with new, pure life.”

Vyal, an east Los Angeles artist, described “graffiti” as “the act of doing something without permission” — though others invariably want to do it too. His earliest experiences were, he said, with gang graffiti. “In L.A. we get shot at; the police don’t accept the stuff.” He described the importance of having a tag, an often illegible identifier that you quickly throw onto a surface, claiming that turf as your own.

Vyal sees graffiti as a “global movement,” and offered an amusing description of the strict work ethic of street artists in Berlin (“the mural capital of the world”), where they are treated like “folk artists” with little or no opposition to their work. Noting that he would go without new shoes for a long time in order to pay for paint, Vyal’s devotion to his craft seemed characteristic of the other artists who spoke of the great pleasures of working with each other, being seen by the public without having to appear in galleries, and getting to work out-of-doors. “I just liked the way it looked and the people I met,” said Demer, a Newark-based artist.

Mr. Krsko described his pleasure and amazement when everyone on his list of invitees accepted, agreeing to take two weeks off from their own work to participate, and, in some cases, to travel across the country to do so. Concrete Alchemy artists include Cern, Brooklyn,; Chor Boogie, San Francisco; Col, NYC; Crol, San Diego, Calif.; Demer, Newark,; Eric Kennedy, Philadelphia; Kasso, Trenton; Mike Ciccotello, Highland Park; Mr. Maxx Moses, San Diego; Plan, Philadelphia; Rain, Trenton; Veng, NYC; Vyal, Los Angeles,; and Werc, Los Angeles. “These artists, who are major driving force in the contemporary urban arts, were carefully selected,” said Mr. Krsko. “Their work dictates the direction of future developments in mural art, graffiti and street art.”

Photographer Ricardo Barros of Morrisville has been documenting each stop on the group’s tour, which began in New York on May 16 when they painted a 15’ x 50’ wall at Pearl Street in the DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) section of Brooklyn. The artists will be in Washington, D.C. on May 21 and 22. The tour officially ends in National Harbor, Maryland on May 23, with a gallery exhibit opening at Art Whino, where audience the will have chance to view the artists’ recently finished canvases, and a slideshow of photographs from the previous days of the tour.

Mr. Barros remarked on the diversity of artists who are “graffiti writers.” He described Concrete Alchemy as “a cauldron of creativity,” with many of the artists meeting for the first time, generating “on-the-spot synergy” and feeding off of each other’s work. “It’s never permanent,” noted Demer, adding that “it can last an hour, a day, or a year.” However long it lasts, said Vyal, we “do every wall as if it was our last wall.” Synergy may have limits, though; Vyal reported that sometimes they get mad and “work on top of each other’s work.”

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who began as street artists but made it big, are definitely not among the Concrete Alchemists’ heroes. “A couple of chalk drawings in the subway” does not a graffiti artist make, according to Vyal. “They did it just to get into galleries,” he observed.

Far from being the solitary outlaws the public often connects with graffiti artists,The Concrete Alchemists and many of their colleagues are often active participants in their respective communities. The “B-Boy BBQ,” for example, is an annual block party and hip hop celebration at the Hawthorne Cultural Center in Philadelphia organized by Mr. Moses. Educational programs often draw children into the process, and several of the artists described how the collaborative nature of their projects tends to bring communities together, often lowering the crime rate in the poorer areas where they tend to work. Albus Cavus was recently responsible for creating Raritan River Art Walk, a mile-long mural outdoor gallery. Mr. Krsko reported that the area has been cleaned up and more joggers and families have begun to use the walk.

Interviews with the artists and examples of their work can be found on the tour’s website www.albuscav.us/concretealchemy.

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