December 11, 2013

Princeton Photographer Ricardo Barros Explores the Culture of Graffiti Writers

GHANDI IN THE ALLEY: The likes of this 2008 mural by the graffiti writer known as "Kasso" are the subject of an exhibition of photogrpahs by Ricardo Barros on view at Trenton's Gallery 219. (Courtesy of Ricardo Barros)

GHANDI IN THE ALLEY: The likes of this 2008 mural by the graffiti writer known as “Kasso” are the subject of an exhibition of photogrpahs by Ricardo Barros on view at Trenton’s Gallery 219. (Courtesy of Ricardo Barros)

A new exhibition of 36 photographs by Princeton photographer Richard Barros opens with a gallery reception this Friday, December 13, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Gallery 219, in Trenton.

The exhibition, “ART HAMMER: Shaping Society Through Writing Culture,” after Berthold Brecht’s remark “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” is the culmination of a seven year project in which Mr. Barros followed a crew of graffiti writers up and down the Mid-Atlantic States, recording his impressions in stories and pictures.

“Most often I was not permitted to photograph the writers’ faces, but that was okay because I wasn’t trying to make portraits,” said Mr. Barros. “My overarching goal was to make photographs revealing the nature of [graffiti] writing culture from the inside looking out.”

The project began shortly after Mr. Barros had finished another of similar length that resulted in his book Facing Sculpture: A Portfolio of Portraits, Sculpture and Related Ideas. The photographer was looking around for something completely different and came to graffiti with fresh eyes.

Famed graffiti photographer Jon Naar had a hand, albeit coincidentally, in Mr. Barros’s choice of subject. It was while attending one of Mr. Naar’s artists salons that he met Trenton graffiti writers Leon Rainbow and Will “Kasso” Condry. “Leon was the first to open my eyes. I thought I knew about art, but in speaking with Leon I realized I knew nothing about graffiti. There are rules about where and when graffiti writers can write; they may write anonymously but they intensely crave fame, and they routinely destroy their own work.”

Captivated by their colorful murals and vibrant letter forms, Mr. Barros sought to gain access to their society but found the community too secretive. “In many cases, even the writers themselves know one another only by their pseudonyms,” he said. But he persisted and, in 1996, began his journey.

“Their work is amazing,” he said, “but the stories that go along with them are more amazing still.” Adjacent to Gallery 219 is a garden that took shape on an abandoned lot soon after Kasso had finished a mural of the famed pacifist Mahatma Ghandi. Across the street, visitors can take in “Windows of Soul,” for which Kasso and his SAGE Coalition beautified boarded up windows with a particularly literal take on street art.

Kasso is the director of Gallery 219, and his work is included in many of the Barros photographs. “Kasso was very clear that he wanted to work through graffiti to address a larger agenda. I was with him, in Trenton, as he put up one wall after another, many without permission, all conveying an uplifting message,” said Mr. Barros, who was born in Brazil in 1953 and came with his family to the United State at age 7. He’s lived in Princeton since 1990. A self-taught photographer since he received his first camera at around 12, he now teaches workshops for the Princeton Photography Club.

His photographs thus capture much more than graffiti writers and their work, they offer a glimpse of the writers’ society, an insider perspective on writing culture.

The photographer encourages exhibition visitors not only to view the photographs but to interact with the “graffiti writers” they will meet there. “Kasso may not be in all of the pictures but he is intimately familiar with virtually every one. So ask him and enjoy his stories,” he urged.

Eye Opening Experience

Getting to know the world of graffiti writers was an eye-opening experience that changed not only Mr. Barros’s perspective on his own work but on life too. “Graffiti writers will put up a piece of work with no expectation that it will last. In contrast a key concept in fine art photography is “archival,” but an undue emphasis on longevity can be destructive to producing work that is creative and insightful,” he said.

“When I began, I knew virtually nothing about graffiti writers; my biases were rather malevolent. I imagined them to be loners, malcontents, and destructive. What I discovered was very different. I found a close-knit community with strong relationships. The structure of social interaction and the rules of the community were different from what I was used to. Instead of simple majority rule, decisions are consensus-driven. If anyone wants to join a crew, there has to be unanimous consensus. At the start of a project, a crew will confer as to subject, style, and color palette. They work in a very dynamic way, looking over their shoulders at what is being done and perhaps modifying their part of the work in the light of another crew member.”

“I had thought that most graffiti writers were minorities from urban centers and while some fit that stereotype there are many who don’t: suburban white kids and young girls; graffiti crosses race, gender, and economic divides. One guy was completing his PhD dissertation at an Ivy League school, one was a second grade teacher, another was a corrections officer. All shared a commitment to what they were doing. And they all had something to say.” Some make a living by painting commissioned murals but most have “day” jobs as graphic designers, tattooists, teachers, and car mechanics.

He discovered, too, that the accepted term is not “graffiti artist” but “graffiti writer” or simply “writer.” As he explained: graffiti writers choose to remain outsiders, both to mainstream culture and to the art world. “The art establishment invited graffiti writers to bask in the light of appreciation by referring to them as ‘graffiti artists.’ But the word “graffiti” is foreign to their culture; its meaning is unclear; and the most prominent graffiti artists anointed by the art establishment such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat are not part of this culture.”

Although he declined to select a favorite from among his photographs, he singled out one of Cornel West taken on assignment from Princeton University. Knowing that the writer Luv had painted the Princeton University professor as part of a large mural by Kasso, Mr. Barros photographed Mr. West in front of his likeness and brought the professor into contact with the writer who had portrayed him out of respect for his work and what he represents.

The images are framed and for sale (to see them online, visit: http://ricardobar While prints by Mr. Barros normally go for around $1,000, because of the nature of this show and in the spirit of the writing community, Mr. Barros feels that it isn’t appropriate to charge his usual prices. Images in the exhibition will be priced at $300 and the money will be shared between the photographer and the gallery.

Mr. Barros’s work is in 11 museum collections. For more, visit:

“ART HAMMER: Shaping Society Through Writing Culture” is at Gallery 219, 219 East Hanover Street, Trenton, N.J. 08608, through January 10, 2014. Hours are flexible; confirm at (609) 222-9334. The opening reception is preceded by a guided tour and conversation with the graffiti writers, at 4:30 p.m.; an exhibition previewed from 5 to 6 p.m.; music begins at 6 p.m.