Atlanta artists go off the wall with hip-hop design

Recent book DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop puts hip-hop's visual legacy in perspective

Atlanta painter and tattoo artist Miya Bailey reaches for a photo album on the floor of his Castleberry Hill studio and opens it to a random page. The album's full of photographs that Bailey shot in the early '90s of graffiti pieces layered so dense on wall after wall, they form a continuous texture, an endless tapestry. There's prototypically East Coast wild style writing with its sharp angles and indecipherable lettering, but also 3-D bubble letters and exaggerated, cartoon characters all in searing neon colors.

"That's the Civic Yard," he says, casually shuffling through other sketchpads, books, and drawings heaped on the floor. "Everybody used to go down there, man. Everybody. It was a tourist attraction."

The Civic Yard at Peachtree and Pine streets once served as Atlanta's legally sanctioned space for graffiti artists to show off their skills and practice their craft. Not only was the spot ground zero for Atlanta's graffiti culture, it was also arguably the center of hip-hop's visual identity south of the Mason-Dixon Line. According to Bailey, the Civic Yard was always abuzz. "Twenty-four hours a day, you would see somebody down there," he says. Graf writers could spend hours on a work only to come back a few days later and find it completely covered over by another piece – bigger, stronger, brighter.

As hip-hop first began to bloom in the late '70s in New York's outer boroughs, its earliest champions understood it was more than music. Hip-hop was also breakdancing, DJing, grafitti. It was a creative culture that existed on the margins of the mainstream, often making due with the materials available at hand: spraypaint, chalk, cardboard and cement walls.

By the early '90s, Atlanta had developed a distinct regional style, not only in graffiti, but in design and fashion as well. Bailey remembers the Atlanta of those days as an explosion of hip-hop color and culture.

"Atlanta was like a chalkboard," says Bailey, an Asheville, N.C., native and owner of City of Ink, one of the nation's premier black-owned tattoo parlors. "You could write all over it. It still could be formed. You know how New Orleans has a New Orleans culture? Atlanta used to have Atlanta culture, like, Atlanta people. That's why I fell in love with Atlanta, 'cause I was like, 'Man, they got gold teeth. They're wearing polos. They got their shorts up over they knees!' It was a different culture. The way they danced, the way they talked. Everything was totally different."

Today, the Civic Yard is just another parking lot, erased as a result of Atlanta's 2003 anti-graffiti ordinance. But the aesthetic born of hip-hop and nursed on the city's streets continues to be a major force among Atlanta's artists and designers.

HIP-HOP'S VISUAL LEGACY – and a bit part about Atlanta's place in it – is chronicled in a recent book, DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop, by former Def Jam designer Cey Adams and former Def Jam director of publicity Bill Adler. It covers some 30 years of hip-hop's imprint on global culture, high and low.

"Too many folks from outside of the culture who come to hip-hop's visual culture, their investigations stop in 1982," Adler says. "They don't understand all the various forms that hip-hop's visual arts have taken since it came off of the subways and came off of the walls. That's really the thrust of the book."

DEFinition bridges the gap between then and now, covering everything from Kehinde Wiley's oil paintings of Big Daddy Kane and other rap superstars, to the sparkly aerosol aesthetic of the Mountain Dew logo, to the showy-chic couture of Kimora Lee Simmons' Baby Phat fashions. It's a voracious and wide-ranging visual survey that makes the case that hip-hop's musical heritage is only part of the story.

For Adams, it's personal. As a young man in Brooklyn in the '80s, Adams got into graffiti. He eventually crossed paths with uptown graffiti scenesters Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, two artists who made the crossover into Andy Warhol's downtown art scene. Meanwhile, Adams parlayed his street art into a career as a graphic designer at Def Jam Recordings, ultimately creating the visual identities of artists such as Foxy Brown, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.

"Hip-hop used to be about the four elements and everybody understood that," says Adams. "And now all of a sudden when you say the word 'hip-hop,' people think music. I'm here to say, 'No, no, no: Hip-hop is more than just music.' Hip-hop is art; hip-hop is dance; hip-hop is DJing and MCing."

Atlanta figures as a minor player in DEFinition, despite the city's reputation as the "hip-hop capital of the world." DEFinition's story is largely of New York, with the occasional glance toward Los Angeles. Still, a few Atlantans appear throughout. Artist Fahamu Pecou's work is highlighted in the book's treatment of hip-hop and fine art. His 2007 painting "Fresh As I'm Is" depicts the artist flipping the bird, cigar in mouth, painted as though on the cover of Trace magazine. The work is rendered in the artist's characteristic drips, scrapes and scrawls with obscure phrases littered across its surface.

"When I saw his paintings, it made me smile because it reminded me of Jean-Michel's work for a new millennium," says Adams. "Pecou found a way to incorporate – and I hate using this word, but it is so appropriate when you're talking about him – that hip-hop swagger in his paintings. He likens himself to a Jay-Z or a Puffy but as seen through the eyes of the art world."

Graphic designer D.L. Warfield's work for Atlanta superstars Goodie Mob, OutKast and others puts the artist in the context of a wider arena of design for musicians and sports events. Warfield manipulates the symbols of urban cool – men in shades, bubble lettering, bling – to signify the kind of street savvy identified with hip-hop culture.

In the book's chapter on advertising, Atlanta commercial artist and event producer Dwayne "Dubelyoo" Wright discretely turns up as the illustrator of an ad for a Scion-sponsored MC contest. The image depicts MCs working mics, hands waving, fists pumping.

ATLANTA CONTINUES TO produce art and design born of the hip-hop idiom Adams and others helped to establish. Perhaps the clearest expression of this force at work is Art, Beats + Lyrics, a massive one-night festival of art, dance and music that could only have been dreamed up in Atlanta's hybrid culture of urban grit and commercialism.

The show began in 2004 but made its biggest impression on Atlanta's art scene with the second edition in 2005 at the High Museum. The event sold out in just two hours and still enjoys a reputation as the museum's most boisterous and densely packed event. Many art world denizens still talk about Art, Beats + Lyrics at the High to this day. Dubelyoo co-organizes the show with founder Jabari Graham.

The (more or less) annual event has managed to draw a number of Atlanta art world staples, including photographer John Crooms and painters John Tindel, Michi Meko and Maurice Evans. The show provides booth space for artists' displays and draws artists from Miami, St. Louis, New York and elsewhere as well. A touring festival, AB+L held an event in Houston in February and opens in Washington, D.C., at the end of March.

AB+L feels more like a party than a mainstream art fair. With its legion of DJs, dance floor spaces, and VIP areas, it's clearly a place to be seen as much as it is to see. That's strategic. "For many people, this is their first time being at an art show," Dubelyoo says. "If it's going to be a first time, you might as well make it really cool."

Curator Brian Hebert is looking for a similar effect in shows he's curated for the Southwest Arts Center. His upcoming exhibit, Bridging the Gap taps into hip-hop's mix of art forms. Bridging the Gap brings together 10 Atlanta-based visual artists with 10 MCs from Atlanta and Flint, Mich. Unlike AB+L, however, the show has a pronounced social service theme: Flint was chosen because of the economic hard times the city's experienced for decades; and hip-hop was selected as the vehicle for change.

While Hebert insists on the grassroots, community-oriented nature of his exhibitions, AB+L gets much of its cachet, as well as its funding, from its affiliation with a major corporation: Jack Daniel's. The array of work on display at AB+L walks a curved line, stitching together the fine art of Michi Meko, the commercial work of Dubelyoo and the street practice of graffiti artist Never

This market agnosticism, the willingness to go high and go low, is one of hip-hop's legacies that animates the local scene. The gallery wall, the magazine page, and the parking lot are all equal in the eyes of hip-hop image-making.

"The reason graffiti was done on the street was cats had no access to anything else," Hebert says. "If you don't have any art programs in the schools, you don't have any access to art materials or how to use them, you use whatever you can. Does it make it more valid if it's on the street? No way. Art is art."

TODAY, AS DEFINITION makes clear, hip-hop visual culture continues to enjoy the paradoxical role as signifier of both grimy, urban authenticity and floss-and-gloss, over-the-top glam. Commercialism is gene-spliced into hip-hop's DNA. The culture's love affair with status symbols and conspicuous consumption stretches back nearly to its beginnings in the basements of Brooklyn. "Unlike punk rock," Adler writes in his introduction to the book, "hip-hop was not animated by anger, nor was it anti-fashion." At its root, hip-hop was the underground's friendlier, more market-driven element.

Hip-hop's marketability helped the aesthetic spread to the mainstream, where it's left us with a louder, brighter – some would say more garish – culture in general. "Everything from the way a refrigerator to a car is marketed has changed because of this culture," says Allan Baldwin, the Paideia School teacher bringing Adams and Adler to Atlanta. For four years he taught a course in hip-hop history to ninth, 10th and 11th graders – until political reactions at the school made the course untenable.

"About four months ago, my girlfriend and I were walking through the mall looking at a Chanel bag," recalls Baldwin. "And I'm like, 'Look at that. That is hip-hop.' Here's this sort of stuffy French company making a bag that doesn't look a thing like the stuff that would hang off my mother's shoulder when I was a kid. It's flashier. It's bolder. It's in your face."

But there's a sense among Baldwin, Adams and others that as commercially successful as hip-hop design is, some of its earliest expressions, such as the Civic Yard, may be forgotten by a younger generation.

Back in Bailey's Castleberry Hill loft, the artist shares the sense of a fading history. He recalls that CD covers also once played a central role in hip-hop as the way fans connected to musicians and to the culture in general. "Now in the music industry they just lean toward rap. They forget all about the graffiti writers, the album covers. All the stuff that made hip-hop visual."

There's nothing in his hands, but Bailey's making flipping motions, as though holding a book: "OutKast came out with a comic book. Organized Konfusion? NWA? I can remember vividly album covers." He gets a faraway look, remembering again the culture of a decade ago, now already just a memory. "When OutKast dropped an album, it was like a holiday in Atlanta. It was dope."

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