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An Interview with Jim Avignon: “Street Art Can Be Life-Threatening”

Copyright: Goethe-Institut Mexico/Steffen Leidel
Painter Jim Avignon with street artists in Guatemala: “One gust of wind and your picture is ruined” (Photo: Goethe-Institut Mexico/Steffen Leidel)

1 August 2012

Jim Avignon travelled throughout Central America and the Caribbean for six weeks and painted the walls with local street artists. He spoke with us about fans, colours and illegal art.

Mr Avignon, is street art always political?

Today, many so-called street artists only paint on the streets to sell better in the galleries. Banksy is perhaps an exception as someone who works explicitly politically. On the other hand one could argue, when I paint on the streets instead of in a gallery it’s already a political statement.

Early this year you were in Central America and the Caribbean with the support of the Goethe-Institut. Which is more important to the artists there – market value or making a creative statement?

In Central America, street art was long used as a political megaphone. But, the younger generation, for example in Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, are not interested in old class struggle stances. Today, the entire world is in the midst of change, worldwide communication is at the forefront. And as a graphic designer you want to prove that you’re just as good as someone in London or Berlin or New York.

Who were the artists you worked with?

From country to country we reached very different groups with our call for applications. Our goal was to bring together both graffiti and street artists, graphic designers who had never worked on walls before, cartoonists, typographers and conceptual artists.

Photo Gallery: Street Art on Tour

Why?

Everywhere in the world there is stereotyped thinking in the scenes and we wanted to generate a dialogue. Ultimately all of the participants are doing nothing more than putting their subjects on the wall in their own way, most of them illegally and without pay. And in Central America sometimes at the risk of their lives. Our visit to Honduras was cancelled on short notice because shortly beforehand street artists had been shot by a kind of secret police force.

Did you have any aesthetic eye-opening experiences?

The artists in Nicaragua had a very unusual way of using all of the colours of the palette equally; lots of green tones, also lots of pink, magenta, light blue. I’ve never seen anything like it before anywhere in the world.

How would you define street art?

It’s a phenomenon that became apparent to me personally only ten or twelve years ago: all of the sudden there was not just graffiti appearing on the streets, but also paste-ups were pasted everywhere on subway pillars and building façades.

What is a paste-up?

A paste-up is a subject that is enlarged with a black and white photocopier on normal paper, sometimes on over one hundred sheets of A4 paper. The images often play originally with the surroundings. It can be a drawn character or a photo – in the enlargement you just see huge pixels – or typography or a montage. It’s pasted on the wall with wallpaper glue. Unless a gust of wind kicks up, then the picture is ruined and you have to start all over again.

Have you taught yourself this new art form?

I didn’t want to jump on a bandwagon that I didn’t contribute anything to. It wasn’t until I moved to New York seven years ago that I noticed I was classified in the street art scene, and I was correspondingly invited to paint on walls there.

That means if we walk through Berlin we won’t see any of your work?

On the street? Nothing at all. But in New York I really painted a few walls. And now that I’ve been back in Berlin for a while, I’m sure to see some wall soon that I would like to paint something on one night.

How did the populations in the different countries react to your work?

This art is genuinely for the street, which means it can delight anyone who has the right sense of humour. But when ten people stand at the walls in broad daylight and paint that’s something else than when two guys quick dash their brushes on an entryway at night in semi-darkness. The people wanted to take photos with us; they even brought us gifts…

Gifts?

Yes, I received scarves, meals and CDs with self-made music. We usually had prominent walls in the city centre and painting went quickly. It’s fun to watch. In Costa Rica and Guatemala two-hundred people would walk by every day.

Were there any negative reactions?

Yes, the first day, the director of the art academy in Jamaica told us in a roundabout way that she saw a neo-imperialist approach in our project. She tried to prevent her students from participating, which was really unfair since many of them were curious about us.

But the media were enthusiastic everywhere?

In Costa Rica we were given the wall on the car park of parliament for the project. Every time a limousine arrived to bring a politician to parliament, the cast-iron entry gate was pushed in front of the wall. One artist painted a smoking monkey there that looked like it was sitting in prison every time the gate opened. We found that amusing. The next evening a television crew came by and – what we weren’t aware of – we learned a new law had just been passed in Costa Rica prohibiting smoking on public squares. The wall became a nationwide scandal.

Were there serious consequences?

The people laughed about it and thousands came to have themselves photographed in front of it. We were forbidden to paint for one day, however, on the grounds that the wall was landmarked. We were lucky: after the ambassador got involved and telephoned with the cultural minister for an hour the ban was lifted and we were permitted to finish our painting. Now a law has been proposed requiring that all street painters be registered. I’m afraid our smoking monkey has something to do with this.

Sabine Willig held the interview.

The images by Jim Avignon, self-proclaimed “world’s fastest painter,” made a mark on the Love Parade in Berlin in the early 1990s. Today, he lives with his partner and daughter in New York. He developed the street art tour de mi barrio a tu barrio / Urban Heartbeat through Central America and the Caribbean in cooperation with the Nicaraguan curator and sociologist Alicia Zamora and the DJ Holger Beier who lives in Sao Paulo for the Goethe-Institut Mexico. Documentation of the tour can be seen at the Berlin art gallery Neurotitan until 18 August and the corresponding catalogue, which was published by Verlag Gudberg.
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